Selling Durham’s Urban Forest

In 2007, Durham, North Carolina, where I live set a goal to reduce or offset 90,000 metric tons of the greenhouse gases produced communitywide (city and county, businesses, residents and visitors) by 2030.  Just 17 more years to go.

Hopefully, part of the plan is to place its neglected urban forest canopy on the auction block.  A few months ago, Shell Energy North America announced plans to offset 500,000 metric tones of its carbon emissions by buying into forest regeneration in Michigan.

One of the companies selling the offset is The Forestland Group (TFG), a company headquartered in nearby Chapel Hill, North Carolina.  TFG manages the largest portfolio of hardwood forests in the U.S. but the 3.5 million acres it manages in 24 states are diversified by species, geographic region and age including two areas in North Carolina.

A study conducted by the Institute for Environmental Solutions as part of The Tree Project, concluded that tiny Golden, Colorado (pop. 19,186) could net $20 per metric ton per year by managing its urban forest.  Colorado was the first in the nation to have communities band together to support urban forestry by mitigating climate change.

Colorado’s urban tree canopy is only 13%, compared to 43% in North Carolina and 51% in Durham County, home to the state’s fourth largest city by the same name.  Maybe scarcity helped Colorado cities and towns catch on more quickly.

There is obviously great potential for revenue from Durham’s urban forest, as well as a means to meet its sustainability goal.

However, Durham will need to do three key things in a major paradigm shift in order for this to happen:

  1. Take a holistic approach to urban forestry that includes residential and commercial property.
  2. Begin to view its green infrastructure not only as a renewable resource but as an investment in not only quality of life but public health, crime reduction, water and air purification, as well as economic development.
  3. Overcome years of cutting urban forests short by investing in catch-up, much as it just did with street resurfacing.

As California has already nicely laid out, selling urban forests as carbon credit is not like the song goes “playing the guitar on the M.T.V.” or “money for nothing.”   It requires a detailed management plan.

About five years ago the Congressional Research Service, the public policy research arm of the United States Congress, computed that afforestation of crop or posture land would have the potential to sequester between 2.2 and 9.5 metric tons of greenhouse gases per acre per year.

Reforestation, including efforts to assist natural regeneration, would sequester between 1.1 and 7.7 metric tons per year.  Durham’s forest yields would be on the upper side of those estimates.

Durham also has many areas where afforestation and reforestation can take place including tree “deserts” and areas along the rivers and streams and basins that recharge its water supply.

Like New York City, San Diego and many other cities, it could plant trees in its watersheds where they extend into more rural counties and count this as carbon offset as well.

Tree planting could also be used to mitigate downstream runoff that affects Raleigh’s water supply, which comes from a lake built primarily in Durham during the 1970s – borrowing a page from a tree planting project initiated by Congress and President Reagan.

During the mid to late 1980s, the Conservation Research Program was used to incentivize private property owners to put sensitive lands back into forestland, stream buffers, wildlife habitat, wetlands and ground cover.

At Dow Chemical’s Seadrift Plant, engineers planted 110 acres of trees to do the job of a proposed water treatment plant at 3% of the cost.  Iowa-based Ecolotree has learned that a thousand willow trees on an acre of land can treat ten gallons of toxic water per minute.

Care and deployment of Durham’s urban forest as a form of environmental capital and green infrastructure would include not only tree planting but thinning out brush so both over story and under story trees and vegetation can reach optimal effectiveness.

I hope those responsible for meeting Durham sustainability targets are already aggressively pursuing this.



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