Last year, Pierce Conservation District became the first of its kind in the nation to create a carbon credit program. As one of 45 conservation districts in Washington State and approximately 3,000 nationwide, this is a big win in the fight against climate change for the state.
The idea to create a carbon credit program began a few years ago when Ryan Mello, executive director of Pierce Conservation District at the time, and a current member of the Pierce County Council, read a blog post about City Forest Credits, a national nonprofit carbon registry. Founded in 2015, City Forest Credits provides a financing pathway for businesses to purchase verified urban forest carbon credits—which represent tree planting or preservation projects that contribute to local climate action while also enriching their communities. City Forest Credits works with nonprofits, municipalities, and conservation districts that want to start carbon programs across the country.
Pierce Conservation District was excited to learn about how carbon credits could provide a new revenue source for planting and caring for trees, but the district needed funding to design a pilot project and assess feasibility of creating a county-wide program. A grant from Boeing in 2019 jumpstarted the development of the Pierce Conservation District program.
Understanding carbon credits, carbon advisors, and buyers
What exactly is a carbon credit? How do you quantify carbon? You can’t see it, hold it, how do you know how heavy it is? And exactly where do trees come into all this?
Though it may be difficult to grasp, know that the globally agreed upon measurement of one carbon credit is equal to one metric ton of carbon dioxide.
“The average American family generally produces 24 tons of carbon a year,” explains Mello. “There are a lot of assumptions in that number, but just so that we can wrap our brains around it—24 tons. (It) just helps you think about how this all relates to peoples’ lives and each individual’s impact.”
As for how trees are involved, Liz Johnston, director of City Forest Credits, says, “Trees are like a sponge. They absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in their trunks, branches, and leaves. So, by planting trees, you’re taking carbon dioxide out of the air and putting it into a tree.”
Trees are planted everyday across the country, but planting them for carbon crediting has to follow rigorous protocols in order to meet voluntary carbon market standards.
“Before, it was all anecdotal,” says Mello, “but now we have it really specified. That’s a result of using the protocols from City Forest Credits. We can now talk about the impact of our projects to Puget Sound Partnership, the Department of Ecology, the community, funders, and decision-makers in a much more sophisticated way than we ever could before.” In short, the protocols allow for the positive impact of trees on such things as air and water quality to be shown in dollars and cents.
“We call them ‘carbon plus’ credits because these tree projects represent more than just carbon,” says Johnston. “The location of projects in cities near people and buildings allows us to measure those ecosystem functions as resource units and avoided costs. City trees represent $18.3 billion in benefits every year to clean the air, purify water, and reduce energy needs for heating and cooling buildings. They also contribute to the health and wellbeing of people, wildlife habitat, and so much more.”
As a result, businesses of all sizes can then purchase carbon credits to “offset” the amount of carbon dioxide produced as they go about their daily business. They can also contribute to various local climate projects that include planting trees, which creates opportunities for more carbon absorption and the resulting credits.
Carbon advisors are third party, for-profit firms that develop carbon projects or purchase carbon credits from existing projects that are then sold to companies seeking to offset their carbon impact. So instead of purchasing carbon credits directly from entities such as Pierce Conservation District or King County—which is a complicated process for these entities requiring additional staff and funds—businesses and individuals can go directly to a carbon advisor who facilitates the process.
What about those who complain that carbon programs simply allow corporations to continue bad habits?
Allan Warren, former communications and development director for Pierce Conservation District, acknowledges those voices.
“One criticism of carbon offset programs over the years has been that it enables polluters,” he says. “Like, if I can just offset my pollution, then I don’t need to stop that detrimental action. However, what the Climate Commitment Act will now do is put a cap on the pollution component and then reduce that cap year after year.”
Signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee in May of this year, the Climate Commitment Act became the first climate legislation in the country that paves the way to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
“City trees represent $18.3 billion in benefits every year to clean the air, purify water, and reduce energy needs for heating and cooling buildings. They also contribute to the health and wellbeing of people, wildlife habitat, and so much more.”
— Liz Johnston
Mello says that the Climate Commitment Act also takes any revenues that are generated from the program to invest in solutions such as reforestation projects (which is what Pierce Conservation District is doing), as well as various investment solutions, incorporating electric vehicles, using cleaner transportation fuels, and other options.
Major corporations have heard about what Pierce Conservation District has been doing, and according to Mello, because the Climate Commitment Act passed the legislature, it’s created a pathway and reason for them to invest in green projects.
Corporations have funded carbon projects in countries such as Brazil where they could purchase offsets from large, rural forest projects. However, Mello says that as the carbon credit business has evolved, corporations are looking to do something closer to home where their employees and customers live.
It all comes down to funding
It was thanks to funding from the Boeing grant that Pierce Conservation District was able to launch its carbon credit program in 2020 with two pilot sites—a 1.5-acre restoration site along Clarks Creek in partnership with the city of Puyallup, and a 7.5-acre restoration site at the South Prairie Creek Preserve property.
Mello shares that both are important waterways. Clarks Creek sits in the middle of the city center and is part of a recreational corridor connecting different parks. The pilot project will enhance users’ experiences and improve water quality for salmon.
South Prairie Creek, a major tributary of the Carbon River, is some of the most productive spawning grounds for endangered Chinook salmon in the Puyallup watershed and is part of a much larger ongoing restoration project, a 100-acre-plus restoration initiative currently underway under the auspices of the Pierce Conservation District.
Adhering to City Forest Credits protocols, these two sites will sequester 4,588 tons of carbon over a 25-year period that will produce credits that can then be sold to fund both sites’ long-term maintenance.
In a video posted by Pierce Conservation District, Warren says that when the trees have fully matured at the two sites, they will provide more than $153,000 in annual ecosystem benefits for the communities.
According to Johnston, the Boeing funding allowed for Pierce Conservation District and City Forest Credits staff to go through the complicated details of the protocol requirements; complete a feasibility analysis of what lands could be enrolled in the program, as well as a financial analysis in terms of estimated carbon credits the district will receive over 25 years.
“Conservation districts are a natural leader to integrate carbon programs into their work,” she says. “Part of our strategy at City Forest Credits is to be able to show how everyone from cities to conservation districts to land trusts can benefit from incorporating carbon crediting into their business model to increase funding for tree maintenance and stewardship. Projects are being led by all those entity types across the country. And this (partnership) was a great way to start the discussion with conservation districts.”
Mello says that initially finding the land to plant trees and planting them was the easy part, but with a small staff of about 32 employees, the concern was taking on the responsibility of such a long-term commitment to maintain the plantings while meeting the requirements of the carbon protocols.
“The capacity issues were not as significant as we thought they would be,” adds Warren. “It’s something we can bookend with our normal operations. Go get a restoration project done; everybody wants to fund that. But having to maintain that for the next 25 years is not something there’s a lot of support for—but it’s absolutely essential.”
Ongoing maintenance of these areas include removing invasive weeds and predation from wildlife such as elk and beavers. In case of a forest fire, trees would need to be replanted. Drought is also a concern since the first three to four years are especially critical. Human activity such as dumping creates problems as well.
“That was the beauty of the pilot project,” Warren says. “It really let us work through each of these different components. So we can answer the question at the end of the year: ‘Is this something we can manage long term and want to commit to beyond just this pilot?’ The answer was, resoundingly, yes.”
The work doesn’t end here.
“When you’re talking about something as big as climate change, there’s no silver bullet for it,” states Warren. “It’s an everything-and-then-some approach that’s needed to really offset the human impact and keep temperatures from rising above the goal of 1.5-degrees Celsius.”
Now with the pilot project and its 25-year agenda under his belt, Warren looks toward the future and how others can get involved. Many more trees need to be planted if, as Mello mentioned earlier, the average American family produces approximately 24 tons of carbon a year.
“In the CD (conservation district) world, Pierce CD is one of the largest in the state,” shares Warren. “But in terms of the impact versus King County or a region as big as Puget Sound, if it only remains a Pierce Conservation District-City Forest Credits program, the impact isn’t profound.
“But if we can help others across the region develop similar programs, suddenly, you do have a meaningful impact for those urban communities and for the carbon offset goals that we have. So I think that’s the next challenge—how do we replicate this program in a way across the Puget Sound region so that it actually has a deep impact?”
Being that City Forest Credits has worked with other entities doing larger projects, one of Warren’s questions going into the pilot project was if similar small-scale projects were feasible. With 45 conservation districts in Washington State and nearly 3,000 nationwide, if it was efficient and doable for Pierce Conservation District, then other districts may be able to follow suit.
Join the effort
How can we join the effort and begin to make a difference?
Get involved. Learn about policies like the Climate Commitment Act and support incentive programs and regulations that promote greenhouse gas reductions.
We can take it upon ourselves to plant a tree and encourage our neighbors to plant one too. Stop by your local botanical garden, arboretum, or mom-and-pop garden store and learn what tree species is native to your area and pick up one—maybe two. Perhaps even take a gardening class and learn which trees or plants add nutrients to the soil that encourage a stronger root system.
You can also join volunteer opportunities provided by your local conservation district to get involved with restoration projects. According to Mello, they always need many hands to prepare sites, plant trees, and keep the sites healthy. Visit Pierce Conservation District’s volunteer opportunities page for a list of dates.
“What I like most about this is when you’re talking about climate change, when you’re talking about Puget Sound recovery, they are big problems. They’re going to take all of us,” shares Warren, reflecting on the situation. “And what’s beautiful about this program is it allows people to—because the projects are in their own backyard—it quantifies the value to their communities, of why we’re planting these trees and what comes out of that.
“It allows people to see themselves in the solution and is another opportunity for us to bring more people into this work. And it is going to take all of us.”