Agencies team up for carbon sequestration, riparian restoration and more

May 9, 2003 (With Sidebar)

For the Capital Press

BEND, Ore. -- Over the next few years, owners of some 1,500 to 1,900 acres in the Deschutes Basin will declare war on global warming. In the process, they will restore streamside trees and win added incentives to be part of federal farm conservation programs.

The project is a joint effort of The Climate Trust, Deschutes Resources Conservancy and Wy'East Resource Conservation & Development, with other individuals and groups playing key roles. The Climate Trust and DRC each will contribute $780,000 to the project, while Wy'East will leverage U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation programs to recruit the landowners who will support the project. Plantings will be monitored for the next half-century by the Environmental Resources Trust, a non-profit group based in Washington, D.C.

Trees -- the key to the project's on-the-ground success -- are from Mt. Jefferson Farms, custom-propagated for the four compass points of the 10,700-square-mile Deschutes drainage. Plantings of pines, mountain alder, willow and cottonwood began this spring.

Most of the land included in the project will be within a quarter-mile of streams; much of the first phases of the project will be within 200 feet of creek banks. Landowners in USDA conservation programs will receive $280 per acre for participating, while those not in such programs will have the full planting costs covered by the project.

A process called "carbon sequestration" is behind the project. Oregon House Bill 3283, landmark legislation passed in 1997, requires that companies planning to build fossil-fueled power plants in the state first offset the carbon dioxide they will pump into the atmosphere by paying money to The Climate Trust, which in turn creates projects to consume the carbon portion of the greenhouse gas. In essence, HB 3283 is the state government's encouragement of the global Kyoto Accords, which have been rejected by the United States government. The Climate Trust was formed as a result of the Oregon legislation.

The science behind the Deschutes project is the stuff of junior high biology: Anything that burns fossil fuels (including power plants, cars and gas furnaces) puts carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That carbon dioxide (CO2) is inhaled by grass, shrubs and trees, which sequester carbon (C) to create woody material and exhale oxygen (O2) back into the atmosphere. Thus, growing trees -- which are approximately half carbon and half water -- help prevent the atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide that most scientists blame for global warming.

While the science is basic, the extent to which many organizations with many different goals are coordinating their efforts is somewhat more complex. For Rob Miller, the Salem-based nurseryman who is providing the trees for the project, propagation involves selecting plant materials native to various elevations and sites within the project region. He chooses based on a plant's ability to absorb carbon dioxide and other factors.

"It takes a good project team of individuals from both sides of the state with various skills and expertise to make these plant decisions," said Miller. "This partnering may be the perfect example of implementing the concept of 'One Oregon' economic development."

Miller's experience in restoring native vegetation to federal land contributes significantly to the expected success of the project.

"We've had a successful, long-term relationship with the U.S. Forest Service and others in providing site-specific plant materials," Miller said. "Plants have been selected from the areas where they're to be planted, reproduced, then returned to the area where they're to be planted back. A significant amount of follow-up combined with new production and growing technology has made this systems approach work very well."

DRC, which was formed to conserve and restore the basin's ecosystem and water quality, actually makes a point of helping juggle multiple interests within the basin. It coordinates the work of tribal, federal, state and local governments, as well as private interests -- all of which serve on its 19-member board.

Since its formation in 1996, DRC has undertaken 22 restoration projects as part of what it calls a "market-driven paradigm for ecosystem restoration" -- relying not on government grants and mandates so much as encouraging cooperation among landowners, businesses, agencies and environmental interests. So, the notion of supporting the juggling act required to coordinate energy and climate issues with ecological projects came naturally.

Gail Achterman, executive director of DRC, credits the size and diversity of its 19-member board with making the carbon sequestration/riparian restoration project possible. Zach Willey, a member of the board from Bend, is an international expert on carbon sequestration whose connections sparked the project, while John Shelk, owner of Ochoco Lumber, has provided the initial planting site.

"What the DRC is really committed to doing is bringing together all the parties .... and acting as a catalyst to promote watershed restoration," Achterman said. She said that many private landowners are interested in restoring streamside areas, but often don't know to whom they can turn.

This year's plantings amount to less than one-sixth of the target for the next three to four years, and some early landowner prospects haven't panned out. Organizers expect that will change as word of the project gets around. Aylward said early phases of the project will focus on wherever they can find interested property owners. "What we've had to do is be fairly opportunistic," Aylward said. "Ideally we'll find landowners that have a large stream frontage."

"Part of the opportunity (early on) is to see how this works," Aylward said. "Once that's planted and the water quality contributions are clear, then we'll be more focused."

Folks interested in participating in the carbon sequestration program may contact Scott McCalou at (541) 382-0020 or Betsy Littlefield at (541) 923-4358, ext. 135.

Carbon/restoration project depends on measurement

For the Capital Press

PRINEVILLE, Ore. -- From the banks of Foley Creek, sequestering carbon is a swarm of people planting trees in the snow and rain while a bearded man darkly cloaked in foul-weather gear strings tape measures and looks closely at sticks, stumps, shrubs and trees.

It's not something you see every day along the slopes of the Ochoco Mountains. In fact, the man with the tape measure says it's not something you're likely to see anywhere else.

"You guys have a project that's unique in the world," says Gordon Smith, the Seattle-based director of the EcoLands program for Environmental Resources Trust Inc. ERT is a non-profit organization from Washington, D.C., that will monitor the effects of 256 acres of plantings here and, over the next few years, another 1,500-some acres throughout the rest of the Deschutes River Basin in central Oregon.

Smith's measurements are to ensure that the Deschutes Riparian Restoration Project over the next half-century will pull a minimum of 233,000 metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere and into the trees being planted.

Plants naturally breathe in carbon dioxide (CO2), take the carbon (C) for their growth needs, and exhale oxygen (O2) back into the atmosphere. By measuring how much woody material (trees are roughly half carbon and half water) already exists on the site, he'll have a baseline to compare with new growth.

Growing trees to offset emissions from fossil-fueled activities in itself isn't unique. Combining such a project with restoration of native plants is -- and the deceptive simplicity of planting and measuring is supported by years of picking out trees from the region and selecting plantings based on whether they're native to the specific part of the basin they're planted in, how fast they'll grow and how long they'll last.

Betsy Littlefield of Wy'East Resource Conservation & Development, who is recruiting landowners for the project, says that Rob Miller, the Salem nurseryman providing the stock, put significant unpaid effort into that selection before funding came through. The payoff is a project that is ready to quickly move forward.

The Foley Creek plantings, which will cover about seven miles of stream banks, are on land purchased in 1992 by Ochoco Lumber. Over the past century, the land has been logged several times and was struck in recent decades by both the tussock moth and spruce budworm. Few large trees remain for commercial harvest. More recently, Ochoco has leased grazing rights to the land in order to gain some return while now-spindly, closely spaced pines grow and are gradually thinned out to decrease fire danger and allow larger trees to develop. Those practices will continue on most of the land, though areas close to the stream will be fenced until the newly planted trees grow up. Trees planted closest to the stream are non-commercial varieties including mountain alder, cottonwood and willow, while ponderosa pines are included in plantings on the drier slopes away from the creek.

Foley and nearby Martin Creek are tributaries of Trout Creek, a key steelhead breeding ground in the region.

Part of Smith's job is to determine how many trees would have grown if not for the project, and compare that with how much will now be growing.

"The trajectory on these lands for the last 150 years has been a net decrease in carbon," Smith said. "Would these trees have grown anyway? You have to make an educated guess -- it's like any economic analysis."