Paint Rock, Alabama – Feast your eyes upon the beauty and biodiversity of the Sharp-Bingham Mountain Preserve in northeast Alabama.
Waterfalls cascade over limestone ledges. Sixty caves offer miles of subterranean adventure. Secondand third-generation hardwoods -- hickories, elms, maples, and even elusive American smoke trees -- line the rolling hillsides. Species threatened and endangered, including Tennessee cave salamanders, Indiana bats, pale lilliput mussels, and palezone shiners, range from Appalachian mountaintop to Paint Rock riverbed.
But it’s what you don’t see that may prove most valuable.
The trees, bushes, grasses, and soils suck colorless carbon dioxide out of the air and reduce the climateharming greenhouse gas emissions that threaten the planet’s existence. America’s forests and grasslands serve as “carbon sinks” storing the equivalent of more than 10 percent of the nation’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. Without the trees, the world would warm much more quickly. And heatwaves, natural disasters, famines, and deaths would occur with much more frequency.
The Nature Conservancy, the nonprofit that owns Sharp-Bingham, is developing a far-reaching financial plan to monetize the carbon stored within the 3,900-acre forest. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Service), a conservation partner with TNC throughout the Paint Rock River valley, was an early convert to the economic benefits of so-called carbon sequestration. The Service is also seeking land in the valley to create a newwhere carbon-capture possibilities would figure prominently. Sharp-Bingham could, one day, be part of the refuge.
A Paint Rock refuge would bolster Service conservation priorities, including the America the Beautiful initiative. By 2030, the U.S. is scheduled to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to half of what they were in 2005. It also proposes the conservation of 30 percent of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030.
Securing large tracts of the Paint Rock valley would also help the Service's Southeast region fulfill its vision to “connect lands and waters to sustain fish, wildlife and plants.” Over the last quarter century, the Service and various federal, state and nonprofit partners have undertaken 50 water quality projects – streambank restorations, fish-barrier removals, mussel reintroductions -- across the Paint Rock watershed. It has dispensed millions of dollars to state and nonprofit partners to conserve and restore lands that protect threatened and endangered species while creating corridors for animals to move through. And the clean water, recreational opportunities, and carbon benefits – all considered ecosystem services – benefit the public in myriad ways.
“Capturing carbon, in all natural systems including forests, is one of the key ways the Service can contribute to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere,” said Kurt Johnson, a nationalscientist with Fish and Wildlife in Washington, D.C. “And there’s a wide range of benefits that flow from managing forests for conservation, including providing habitat for wildlife.”
"Clobbered by climate change”
By now the list of impending climate horrors should be alarmingly familiar. Record levels of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere. The 10 warmest years ever recorded, all since 2005. The possibility of another three-degree temperature increase by century’s end. Ever-rising sea levels. Hotter oceans killing coral and fueling storms. A million species facing extinction. The United Nations recently reported that “people and the planet are getting clobbered by climate change.”
Forests can help mitigate damage wrought by CO2 emissions. About 12 percent of the country remains in a natural state with much of the land forested and serving as repositories for carbon dioxide. Trees continuously cycle carbon via photosynthesis, respiration, decomposition, harvests, plantings, fires, and pest outbreaks. As trees grow, they suck carbon from the atmosphere and store it in their biomass. When they die, carbon is released into the air. In 2019, forests sequestered 775 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Yet “nature’s sequestration capacity is shrinking,” says a recent report by the Center for American Progress and Conservation Science Partners. The country is losing the equivalent of one football field of forests, grasslands, and wetlands every 30 seconds. That translates into 140 million metric tons of greenhouses gases each year. Add the double whammy of increasingly severe forest fires – more carbon into the atmosphere, less sequestered in trees – and the think tanks warn that “if nothing is done, America will lose a tremendous tool in the fight against the climate crisis.”
The South knows only too well the importance of forests which cover roughly two-thirds of the land. The U.S. Forest Service predicts a tenth of these trees could be lost to sprawl or agriculture over the next two decades. Paint Rock-styled carbon sequestration, therefore, is critical.
Credits and markets
Thomas Reddick ditches the pickup and follows the dry creek bed to the limestone cavern. Cool air flows from the cave’s mouth. Reddick scrambles atop the rock outcropping to take in the wooded beauty of the Sharp-Bingham preserve. White oaks and yellow poplars. Shortleaf pines and river birches. Sycamores and beeches. They’d all been logged off a time or two since the 1800s. But now they’re back, tall and strong.
“At this stage, the forest is very healthy,” said Reddick, director of forest management for TNC in Alabama, during a recent stroll. “There is a very high density of carbon here.”
Trees, grasses and plants suck up carbon dioxide in the atmosphere via photosynthesis. Roughly half of the dry weight of a tree is carbon. As trees grow they sequester evermore carbon. In fact, an acre of mature forest can capture more than a metric ton of carbon every year.
Keeping forests intact is good, too, for the pocketbook – if you can afford to hold off on harvesting your trees. TNC and other nonprofits serve as go-betweens for the landowner and the so-called carbon market where carbon credits are bought and sold. Reddick, back on firm ground, explains how this works:
An independent certification guy measures all decent-sized trees in your forest in tenth-of-an-acre plots. He checks for species, height, width, and health to come up with a present-day carbon value and a future-growth carbon value.
“Oaks and hickories, pound for pound, have more carbon because they’re denser,” Reddick said. “They live longer too.”
Each plot is credited with a certain amount of carbon that’s kept from polluting the atmosphere. The credits are then bought and sold to businesses wanting to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide they pump into the atmosphere. Say, for example, an airline pumps millions of tons of carbon into the skies each year, yet they want to be “carbon neutral.” In addition to reducing their emissions, they buy up credits to “offset” their overall carbon footprint.
The going rate for a successful carbon project: several hundred dollars per acre, initially, and $10-15 per ton of CO2 in annual payments, TNC says. Projects typically last 40 years. Reddick expects the Sharp-Bingham tract to generate enough money over 20 years to cover current, and future, land acquisition costs. Alabama automakers, banks, insurance companies, and major league baseball teams have expressed interest in the Sharp-Bingham credits, he said. And some credits have already been sold. In all, U.S. carbon markets have raised more than $2.5 billion the last decade.
A “working forest” easement is slapped on the land to ensure it remains conservation-friendly for the environment as well as the plants and animals that inhabit the forest. Some timber harvesting is allowed, as is hunting and fishing. Mining and development are out, but the property can still be sold (with the easement in force). TNC gets a slice of the carbon payments to cover management fees and future land acquisitions.
“The program protects the forest, the watershed, and the creeks before they reach the wetlands below and the endangered species like mussels and shiners in the Paint Rock River,” Reddick said. “The Fish and Wildlife Service does restoration work in the bottomlands while we’re up here protecting the source.”
“Right thing to do”
The Service – the Southeast region, in particular -- was a federal pioneer in carbon sequestration. Back in the early 1990s, the Service joined with energy companies in the lower Mississippi River valley to re-forest denuded agricultural lands. The companies received the carbon rights for roughly 80,000 acres. The Service ended up with miles of bottomland hardwoods, storing carbon and providing prime wildlife habitat for migratory birds. Nearly 245,000 oak, pecan and cypress trees were planted at Grand Cote and Lake Ophelia wildlife refuges. The newly restored forests afford vital habitat for threatened Louisiana black bears.
Refuges in Alaska store more carbon than any other Service region, according to a 2021 study of the National Wildlife Refuge System published in PLoS One. Yet the heavily vegetated refuges in the Southeast are more productive, on a net carbon basis, than any other region. They include peat-dominant refuges in eastern North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia. At the Great Dismal Swamp refuge in Virginia (in the northeastern region), for example, restored peat wetlands sequester 200,000 tons of carbon a year – enough to offset the annual emissions of 42,000 vehicles.
Peat, like forests, though, burns. Wildfires at Great Dismal, Pocosin Lakes and Okefenokee refuges the last few decades have released millions of metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere.
The PloS One study concluded that nearly 17 gigatons of carbon are sequestered on the nation’s wildlife refuges.
Fish and Wildlife last year released a climate change action plan “to address complex conservation challenges at landscape scales.” It’s Kurt Johnson’s job to turn the plan into carbon-dioxide-reduction reality for the benefit of fish, wildlife, plants, and mankind.
“Ultimately, the goal is to have climate change considered in everything the Service does,” said Johnson, a wildlife biologist. “We’re in this for the long haul. It’s the right thing to do.”