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, in July 2021. On Wednesday, two environmental organizations launched a program that supports landowners in Vermont and parts of eastern New York who own at least 30 acres of forest and are looking to focus their land management on carbon sequestration. File photo by Emma Cotton/VTDigger

Across the state, 3 out of every 5 acres of forest are owned by Vermonters, but until recently, few programs have existed that encourage individual landowners to take a climate-focused approach to land management.

On Wednesday, the American Forest Foundation and The Nature Conservancy jointly launched The Forest Family Carbon Program, which will compensate eligible landowners in Vermont and parts of eastern New York who own at least 30 acres of forest and are looking to prioritize carbon sequestration. 

“What we’re trying to do is incentivize landowners to carry out management that will enhance the stocking of carbon on their properties,” said Jim Shallow, director of strategic conservation initiatives at The Nature Conservancy in Vermont. 

As part of a 20-year contract, landowners can earn $300 per acre if they enroll in a segment of the plan, called the “Grow Older Forests,” in which trees are left largely untouched. For example, someone who enrolls 40 acres would earn a total of $12,000 —  $600 per year over 20 years. 

A separate category, called “Enhance Your Woodland,” exists for landowners who decide to harvest some trees, but do so in a manner that promotes carbon sequestration. That plan provides $200 per acre over the course of 20 years. 

Interest in participation, so far, has exceeded Shallow’s expectations. Around 50 landowners have reached out about enrolling in the program, he said. The organizations had set a goal to enroll 6,000 acres by the end of the year, and they already have 10,000 acres pending. 

Shallow said the project uses a new baseline approach to measure the amount of sequestration taking place on the enrolled lands, comparing the carbon stock on those properties with similar parcels outside of the program. The delta between the two is what earns carbon credits, which the American Forest Foundation will sell on the market. 

The program also provides landowners technical assistance and customized forest management plans so landowners can learn how to grow their forests to maximize carbon.

Tim Stout, a landowner in Shrewsbury who enrolled his land in the program during its pilot phase, has been spreading the word about the project. 

“If each one of us, as landowners, no matter how small our land is, looks at how we can manage our forests around sequestration and storage, we can have a significant impact,” he said. 

Stout said he’s implemented many of his carbon-focused practices on his own nickel, and while the annual compensation he’d receive from the program isn’t a whopping sum, anything helps. 

In the last several years some Vermont-based organizations, including The Nature Conservancy, have preserved large parcels across the state for the specific purpose of sequestering carbon and building resilience to climate change. But due to the mechanics of the funding system for carbon sequestration, climate-focused management has been more difficult for individual Vermonters who own relatively small areas of land. 

For many, the preservation is possible because of the carbon credit market, where landowners earn carbon credits through land management techniques designed to help trees and plants sequester as much carbon from the atmosphere as possible. 

Those credits, typically measured and approved by third-party surveyors, can be sold on a credit market, often to companies looking to “go green.” While the veracity and ethics of carbon credits have been debated, in Vermont, the market has offered financial support to keep some forest blocks untouched. 

That market, however, is often unavailable to individual landowners. As of 2019, less than 1% of the land in forest carbon projects were located on properties of less than 1,000 acres. Hiring a surveyor for the third-party review is expensive, and the process can be complex. 

Most landowners “run into roadblocks, like the high cost of management and finding the right technical assistance, that prevent them from taking active steps to improve their forest,” Richard Campbell, national director of landowner engagement for the Family Forest Carbon Program, said in a statement. 

“The Family Forest Carbon Program is designed to democratize access to a critical revenue stream that can help them achieve their personal conservation goals and make a meaningful impact for our planet,” he said.

Soon, landowners in the state who want to manage their land for biodiversity and climate resilience may have more options when looking for financial support. Most of the privately held forested land in Vermont is enrolled in Current Use, a program in which landowners are taxed based on the value of their undeveloped land, rather than on its marketplace value. 

Until now, Current Use only applied to working lands — those that are actively used for farming or silviculture. But in the most recent legislative session, lawmakers created a new category within Current Use called “reserved forestland.” When the category launches in July of 2023, eligibility will be strict, but it may expand in the coming years. 

Shallow said the creators of the Forest Family Carbon Program worked with Vermont’s Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation to make sure it’s compatible with Current Use. 

“We’re very pleased that the governor and the legislature signed into law the new forest reserve category, because we think that’s going to be an avenue forward for enrolling properties that fit that criteria under Current Use, that they could also enroll in this (Grow Older Forests) component,” Shallow said. “And in fact, we’ll probably be encouraging people to explore that option before they enroll” in that category.

Still, he said, each parcel of land, and its existing management plan, will need to be evaluated individually to determine whether it’s eligible for the program. 

Shallow said he’s seen more Vermonters transition to conservation and climate-specific land management. 

“There’s a bedrock of strong environmental ethic here for our lands,” he said. “That said, more and more Vermonters, rightly so, are concerned about climate change, and are concerned about the biodiversity crisis that we are also facing and want to do their part. So I see that shift happening.”

VTDigger's environment reporter.