Global Climate Action Can Receive Boost Through U.S. State-Owned Lands

Political momentum among countries is galvanizing for forest action. In the United States, the Biden administration is signaling support for increasing conservation and restoration on federal lands. This reflects a broader trend among governments around the world to bolster support for natural climate solutions.

In the United Kingdom, for example, the government has committed to increasing tree planting rates across the country to 30,000 hectares (74,1000 acres) per year. Or in Pakistan, the government has launched the “Ten Billion Tree Tsunami” initiative to help restore ailing ecosystems and improve natural capital. And at the recent U.N. climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, a number of high-profile pledges and commitments were made for protecting and restoring forests.

However, to date, one category of landowners has largely been absent from this growing momentum for natural climate solutions: U.S. state-owned lands. Across the country, states own roughly 70.5 million acres of timberland. State forest lands represent a huge untapped resource for climate action, with the potential to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by more than a billion tons over the coming decade.

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America’s forests are an essential solution to climate change, currently sequestering about 15% of the country’s carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion. Together with other conservation, restoration and improved land management strategies — known collectively as natural climate solutions — they have the ability to remove nearly twice as much of the nation’s current carbon emissions.

U.S. landowners are rapidly joining efforts to bolster their forests’ contribution to climate action by developing carbon projects that reduce emissions and sequester additional carbon by improving forest management practices and restoring forests. Carbon markets have already issued in excess of 200 million tons of carbon credits to U.S. forestland owners, valued at more than $2.5 billion.

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By improving the way state-owned timberlands are managed, it is possible to increase the carbon stocks stored in the forests now and in the future. By measuring and quantifying these additional climate benefits, state and local agencies can develop carbon projects and generate significant new sources of revenue from the sale of carbon credits.

According to one estimate, the total area of state lands eligible for carbon projects could total as much as approximately 47 million acres, with county and local lands totaling approximately 9 million acres. The largest actively managed state forests are generally clustered in the Lake States, the Northwest and the Northeast. As each acre of sustainably managed forest is estimated to deliver 15 to 35 tons of CO2 emissions reductions and removals over the next decade, this could equate to as much as 1.9 billion tons of carbon mitigated from the atmosphere.

This, of course, is a theoretical number that represents the maximum possible contribution, but does not necessarily reflect political realities on the ground. However, given the rapidly expanding demand for high-integrity carbon credits from companies that are plotting their path to net-zero emissions, there are positive indications that bringing these projects into the carbon market will become increasingly attractive to state agencies.

Progress on this front is already being made and Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources is paving the way. Late last year, it began implementing the first state agency-led carbon project on commercially managed state forest land anywhere in the U.S. The project is in Michigan’s Pigeon River Country State Forest, known as the “Big Wild,” which is the largest uninterrupted block of wilderness in Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.

Established more than 100 years ago, Pigeon River Country State Forest is a perfect example of how the state needs to balance competing economic, recreational and conservation priorities. For example, oil and gas was discovered there in the 1970s, and income from timber sales has also brought in significant revenues.

About 2.6 million of Michigan’s 4 million acres of state-owned forest are managed for timber, including areas in Pigeon River Country. The new carbon project will reduce the financial pressure to harvest large volumes of timber, or undertake oil and gas extraction, and is expected to net over $10 million in revenue over the next 10 years. Preservation of the forest will also allow for continued recreation, boost the local economy, conserve water resources, and provide continuing educational opportunities.

This project will likely serve as a model for other states and other public lands to follow — particularly around the Great Lakes, where states control vast tracts of forest. In fact, Michigan DNR polled other states and about 25 are already looking into developing similar projects. As we search for ways to unlock the global promise of natural climate solutions, it’s certainly clear that U.S. states can play a much larger role, and benefit in return.

Mary Grady is executive director of the American Carbon Registry.

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