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Whenever I read an online discussion about building devices to remove carbon from the air, somebody will always pop up to comment, “That technology already exists – they’re called trees!” and then high-five themselves for being clever.

They never stick around for the telling response: “That approach has a fatal flaw – it’s called money!”

Investors can be persuaded to spend big bucks on cool new devices that take carbon from the air and turn it into something like bricks because that is quantifiable. It’s much harder to get them to spend on growing trees, let alone not mowing them down in the first place.

Such biogenic carbon removal, to give it the fancy term, faces problems from uncertain science to sloppy record-keeping to outright fraud, and even when done well, doesn’t create the monetary rate of return of traditional investments. (The environmental rate of return is a different matter, but institutional investors don’t care.) These issues make it difficult to create a system that will pay landowners to manage their forests in ways that increase carbon storage rather than ways that only increase payments from development or standard logging.

Enter the Exemplary Forestry Investment Fund, a Maine-based initiative of several environmental groups.

“We need to convince private equity that a return of about 4% to do a really good thing for climate in the northern forest of New England is what you want to do,” said Robert Perschel, executive director at the New England Forestry Foundation (NEFF), one of the fund’s partners. “That’s now our challenge: to prove we have a viable working tool that local communities love, capable of delivering a reasonable rate of return.”

The fund, which includes the Maine Mountain Collaborate and an environmental-focused financial firm called Quantified Ventures, has started by taking a standard route: Buying forest land that was being eyed for development. They have purchased 3,000 acres next to Moosehead Lake, Maine’s answer to Lake Winnipesaukee, and will be managing it under a system NEFF calls Exemplary Forestry.

This system isn’t exactly modest in its goals – “carbon storage, long-term forest health, wildlife habitat, and sustainable timber value and production in partnership with local communities” – but after all, forest land has the potential to do all of those things even when we use big machines to cut down and remove some of the trees.

“The forestry we have been practicing is the kind of forestry where carbon stocks were accumulating … while we continued to harvest. We have data that can show how it works,” said Perschel. One of the goals of the fund is “to codify practices we’ve been using” so investors will be confident enough to support future projects. The fund’s goal is to manage 10,000 acres in Maine and perhaps New Hampshire.

At this point, I’d like to anticipate what some of you are thinking: Why manage the forest? Just leave it alone – that’s the best way to make it thrive!

Alas, it’s too late to leave forests alone. We’re already messing with them via climate change, altered soil pH, invasive species (seen any ash trees lately?), air pollution and other factors. We have no choice but to try and manage our forests intelligently since we’re accidentally managing them in destructive ways.

Perschel put it like this: “If you throw seeds in a field and go away for two months, what you’re going to get is some plants. If you tend it, garden it, weed it, water it, then you get a crop.” Whether the crop is more timber for housing, healthier trees to store carbon, places for wildlife, support for water supplies or all of those things depends on how you approach it.

Which brings us back to money.

The purchase of what’s known as the Scammon Ridge Headwaters was made possible by the sale of a conservation easement to the Forest Society of Maine and Friends of Wilson Ponds Area. That’s a common sort of arrangement for buying parcels but isn’t easily scaleable, as investors like to say. The goal of this purchase is to establish a program that will attract money from private investors and government sources that realize we need to use every tool to reduce the impact of climate change.

“Long-term, we think we can prove our point that this delivers important climate mitigation outcomes and we’ll get more funding,” said Perschel. “We hope this is a tool that we can use around New England. … We’ve got the background done already, don’t have to spend time on that. We’d like to see it adopted in other regions, maybe around the world.”

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