The recently signed budget reconciliation law provides the Forest Service with $450 million to decrease greenhouse gas emissions by aiding private landowners with the costs of addressing climate change.
The funding includes $250 million for grants to reduce the upfront costs of entering private carbon and environmental markets for forest owners of 2,500 or fewer acres and underserved forest owners, which includes military veterans, beginning forest owners and minority landowners. A separate $150 million in competitive grants would go to forest owners classified as underserved to use for climate mitigation or forest resiliency, and another $50 million in competitive grants would go to states and other entities to pay for forestry practices based on the best science available.
The total $450 million in competitive grant money is a small share of the $5 billion the legislation appropriates for the Forest Service.
But small forest owners say it could make a difference.
Small forest owners told the Senate Agriculture Committee last year that they often can't afford the technical assistance or other costs associated with getting into environmental markets where they could generate more income by sequestering carbon in soil and trees to produce credits that are sold to businesses that use them to offset greenhouse gas emissions.
"When family landowners are left out of these opportunities, it means rural and climate-impacted communities are left out of these important opportunities to take local climate action, to support forests and forest health, and local economies," said Kedren Dillard, an fourth-generation African-American forest owner in Virginia. Dillard said land owners of color also have additional challenges in securing financing because of inequities in lending institutions.
About 423 million acres, or half the nation's forest lands, are in private hands with the majority of the properties owned by families or individuals, according to the Forest Service.
Danny Cullenward, policy director for CarbonPlan, sees an opportunity for the Forest Service and its parent, the Agriculture Department, to aid landowners and set standards that result in additional reductions of carbon and other greenhouse gasses. CarbonPlan is a nonprofit organization that analyses climate solutions.
Cullenward and other critics of many carbon markets say they too often trade credits that are not tied to actually increasing the volume of emissions sequestered in trees and soil.
The $250 million in grants for upfront costs includes $150 million for underserved forest landowners and $100 million in competitive grants for forest owners with fewer than 2,500 acres to participate "in emerging private markets for climate mitigation or forest resilience."
The legislation leaves it to the Forest Service to determine how to proceed.
Cullenward said there is a need "to design incentive programs that are capturing new changes and not simply paying for business as usual. I think it requires acknowledging that the bar has not been set at a particularly solid place in the existing market standards."
Cullenward said the Forest Service should avoid what he sees as a common flaw in private carbon markets. "You're paying people for what they were going to do anyway and you get no benefit when you pay them," he said.
Lesley Jantarasami, managing director of the Bipartisan Policy Center's energy program, said there is room for improvement in oversight of voluntary carbon markets and a need for greater consistency in their protocols for establishing credits.
Jantarasami said the total $450 million for reducing and stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions on private lands represents "a long-term investment in the land and not a one-off project. Our natural resources are a critical part of how we reach our climate targets."
The Biden administration's goal for 2030 is to reduce heat-trapping emissions by 50 to 52 percent from the levels that existed in 2005.
Jantarasami said the grant program for mitigating climate change's effects on trees, soil and watersheds would ensure property owners "aren't contributing to a loss of carbon and that they are increasing carbon sequestration in the land."
She said the grant programs will give smaller forest owners access to capital and expertise to develop "a long-term stewardship and management plan for this plot and really game out how to do the work to make sure that this forest is still here in 100 years."
Those long-term plans for keeping land in forests will benefit the families and help the U.S. achieve its national climate goals, she said.
Jantarasami said it is difficult to gauge how wide an impact the grant funds will have.
"A lot of it will depend on how the agency implements it at the end of the day. The money that we're talking about is really seeding a change in the long-term management ability especially for the smaller land owners," she said. "I do think we're going to see a lot of new attention being paid to how we manage and use and support private forest lands for the climate benefits that they do produce."
In addition to the $450 million in grants to address climate change, the legislation would provide another $100 million in grants to develop new wood products, build new facilities and pay for removing trees and other vegetation that wildfires can feed on. Forest owners say they need an expanding mix of marketable products to cover the costs of removing trees and understory growth.