Energy & Environment

Glebe Mountain may soon be Vermont’s latest carbon credit project

Jim Shallow, director of strategic conservation initiatives at the Nature Conservancy, explains the process of enrolling Glebe Mountain into the carbon market as Eve Frankel, communications director, looks on. Photo by Emma Cotton/VTDigger

In the hills of Windham, a short bushwhack from an overgrown logging road decorated with ferns and moose scat, technicians have been walking the forest, trying to determine how much carbon its trees could soak from the air. 

Glebe Mountain, seated between 1,400 and 2,600 feet in elevation and surrounded by more forest, is an ideal place for wildlife to roam. It could become more important as the climate warms, sending cold-seeking animals like moose to the upper and northward reaches of Vermont’s landscape. 

“It is the center, the core, of a really important forest block,” said Heather Furman, director of the Vermont Nature Conservancy, as she stood in the parking lot of Windham Town Hall on Thursday. Soon she ascended into the trees with a group of Conservancy staff. 

“That forest block is part of this larger, forested landscape that we think is really important for wildlife,” she said, “and for species to move in the face of climate change.”

That’s why the Conservancy decided to purchase the 3,500-acre parcel, which was previously owned by New Jersey resident Ron McGraw. Over 25 years, he cobbled together 26 parcels to create one single unit, which he used as a hunting reserve. Appraised at around $5 million, McGraw agreed to sell for $3.5 million in 2019. 

The carbon market, which has existed for about a decade, allows companies, colleges and even countries to buy and sell credits with the ultimate goal of reducing carbon in the atmosphere.

When an organization like the Nature Conservancy can prove that their work is reducing measurable amounts of atmospheric carbon, a harmful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change, they are awarded credits through the American Carbon Registry, which become available for purchase. A single credit represents one metric ton of carbon that has been extracted from the atmosphere, and is worth anywhere from $2 to $15. 

“What we’re looking to do is add more carbon into the forest, over what could have happened if another buyer had acquired this property,” said Jim Shallow, the Conservancy’s director of strategic conservation initiatives.

That difference in management, the “delta” between the forest’s previous management and the Conservancy’s efforts to groom the forest for optimum carbon extraction — “that's the carbon that we will be measuring,” Shallow said. “And then in the marketplace, we'll be selling those credits.”

Stio, a sustainable outdoor clothing brand based in Jackson, Wyoming, bought 5,000 credits from the Nature Conservancy’s first project, Burnt Mountain, a 5,500-acre parcel in the Northeast Kingdom. 

The Cold Hollow carbon project, located in the Northeast Kingdom, was the country’s first carbon co-op model to enter the market, according to Vermont Business Magazine. 

Claire Hillmeyer, a project manager with Steigerwaldt, inspects a core sample from a tree on Glebe Mountain. Photo by Emma Cotton/VTDigger

It’s early days for the Glebe Mountain project, and Conservancy staff are still determining whether the project is viable. The Conservancy hired a third-party contractor, Steigerwaldt, which is currently working to assess how much carbon the organization could sequester if they manage the forest specifically for this purpose. 

Shallow says they’re about a year away from entering the project into the American Carbon Registry, the official body that dictates how projects in the market are managed and what can be considered a credit. 

Verifying credits

The carbon market is growing, and it exists both at the local level, like this project at Glebe Mountain, and at the global level. Article 6 of the Paris Climate Accord, for example, would allow countries that have emitted more emissions to purchase credits from other countries that have emitted fewer. 

That’s sparked debate about the veracity of credits — how, some ask, is it possible to ensure that real work is taking place to reduce emissions?

“There’s so much misunderstanding out there about whether or not these carbon credits are bonafide,” Furman said, adding that the Conservancy is working to increase transparency around the crediting process, and thereby increase faith that it can be a vehicle for positive change.

On Thursday, Claire Hillmeyer, a project manager with Steigerwaldt, navigated the Nature Conservancy team to a GPS point on a grid that breaks the forest down into 27-acre sections. After hammering a monument into the ground to mark a point, she took measurements of trees that fell within an exact 30.4 feet radius from it. 

Larger trees, with more expansive canopies, generally take in more carbon than smaller trees and shrubs, though plants that are growing quickly can soak up carbon at a faster rate. The exact amount of carbon absorbed by each tree varies based on its size, species, and lots of other small factors, like its location and elevation. 

According to the 2021 Vermont Forest Carbon Inventory, an acre of Vermont’s forests stored an average of 389 metric tons of CO2e, or carbon dioxide equivalent, in 2018. An acre of forests sequestered an average additional 1.3 metric tons of CO2e. 

Heather Furman, director of the Vermont Nature Conservancy, in the forest on Glebe Mountain on Thursday. Photo by Emma Cotton/VTDigger

The data Hillmeyer collects are representative samples of the forest, and over the summer, she’ll work with a team of other technicians to replicate the data collection in areas of the same size within each 27-acre section. 

Her collections will help determine how much carbon the forest is already sequestering, and how much Nature Conservancy could sequester in the forest with the right management.

“They’ll say, ‘This is what we think is available,’” Shallow said. “They will give that to the (American Carbon Registry), and before ACR will say ‘yes’ to that, we will bring in a third party auditor. They check all of our homework, and they will check all of Claire's homework.”

That third-party will make sure, for example, that Hillmeyer didn’t accidentally include a tree that falls outside the 30.4-foot marker, thereby erroneously increasing the estimated amount of carbon the forest could potentially sequester. Hillmeyer said she’s seen auditors argue over a one-thousandth of an inch. 

“If the credits aren’t real and verifiable, people are going to start questioning their validity, and then the whole concept starts to fall apart,” Shallow said. 

Possibilities for landowners

Conservancy staff are continuing to look for projects that would allow the state to expand its carbon market. They’re thinking about hosting informational sessions, and hope individual landowners might consider enrolling their own properties into the carbon market instead of, for example, subdividing or selling timber. 

On June 30, a group of conservation agencies, including the Nature Conservancy, sent a recommendation letter to the Vermont Climate Council, which is charged through the Global Warming Solutions Act with drastically reducing emissions in the state by 2050. One of those recommendations included support for other carbon credit projects around the state. 

There’s a cost associated with the projects, however, because forests and management plans have to be audited by third party agencies. Because 80% of Vermont’s forests are privately owned, land is fragmented, and projects like these may only be worthwhile if multiple landowners come together, joining connected forests. 

“We need to be working on developing these new tools to help landowners access carbon markets, and through that, get more revenue, so that they can keep their land as forests, rather than selling it off to a buyer,” said Phil Huffman, director of government relations at the Conservancy. 

Eve Frankel, communications director with the Conservancy, said real estate fluctuations from the last year make the issue of forest conservation timely.

“As there are increased development pressures — we’ve seen the in-migration in the past year, especially — and with land prices going up, there’s a special urgency around being able to protect these places,” she said. 

The project is addressing climate change doubly, Conservancy staff say. Reducing carbon is a preventative measure that, on a major scale, helps to reverse climate change, and conserving the land helps species adapt to changes that are coming soon or already taking place. 

“This is an opportunity,” Shallow said. “It’s an opportunity to have our forests do the job that they just do naturally, which is — they sit here, as we speak, and they suck carbon out of the air. It’s magical … it’s just doing that, and we’re benefitting.”

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member who covers the environment, climate change, energy and agriculture. Previously, she covered Rutland and Bennington counties for VTDigger, wrote for the Addison Independent and served as assistant editor of Vermont Sports and VT Ski + Ride magazines. Emma studied marine science and journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Email: [email protected]

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