Federal program aims to keep Washington County forests standing tall for years to come by paying landowners not to cut them down

NEWS-TIMES PHOTOS: CHASE ALLGOOD - Bridget Likely of the Student Conservation Association demonstrates the application and hardware used for cataloging forest lands. Small, private forestland owners can now make money simply by letting their trees grow.

A recently announced environmental project could promote the health of 21,000 acres of Pacific Northwest trees while combating greenhouse gases and making landowners money.

Studies have shown that trees in healthy, well-managed stands collect more carbon from the air and store larger amounts over time than scraggly trees from overgrown, unkempt forestland. That’s why forest owners in western Washington County and across Northwest Oregon are chomping at the bit to take advantage of a new project with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Oregon Department of Forestry and the Pinchot Institute.

The program is aimed at helping land owners manage their forests to soak up as much carbon as possible and reduce the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

Ordinarily, it would be difficult to convince a landowner to leave their trees standing and aging past the usual 35-year harvest standard, forgoing the income from cutting and selling them for lumber.

But that’s where carbon credits come in.

Ben Hayes, who grew up spending a lot of time on his family’s farmland west of Hillsboro, works for the Pinchot Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit dedicated to conservation programs across the nation. The group conducts carbon assessments of local forests.

Carbon assessments have historically been very expensive. The Pinchot Institute offers landowners free assessments of a forest’s carbon storage potential, and helps land owners earn additional income through carbon credits. In addition, the NRCS offers incentives to help woodland owners prepare plans to manage their forests, thin trees to help with the forest’s health and plant native shrubs, which they did for North Plains landowners John and Cathy Dummer.

The Dummers, who serve as the co-presidents of the Washington County Small Woodland Owners Association, are participating in the project and recently thinned 39 acres of their forestland in North Plain, cutting down some trees in order to make the overall forest healthier.

“We want to make sure the trees we have are healthy,” John said. “If we have too many trees, they’re taking up more resources and competing too much with one another. By thinning the forest, we allow more sunlight and water for the existing trees. They’re going to be healthier in the long-run.”

Healthier forests are able to store more carbon. The Dummer’s are considering taking a carbon inventory to weigh their options for potential carbon crediting.

Cash for carbon

Richard and Anne Hanschu own 500 acres of forestland with their grown children in Manning, Gales Creek and Forest Grove, which they acquired from Anne Hanschu’s parents.

The family has always managed their forests for the long term, he said.

“We don’t look at it as something we’ll harvest in our lifetime.” he said. “Forests take one generation to plant, the next generation to manage and the next generation to harvest.”

That’s why they were excited to explore the new program, which offers the best of both worlds: cash while their forests continue to grow and develop.

While the Hanschus do make some money on small management-type harvests such as thinning, they put most of that money back into land maintenance, he said.

While the Hanschus haven’t heard back yet about how much carbon their trees will store, they’re hoping their hundreds of acres will bring in a little money. Julia Levigion of the Student Conservation Association measures a tree manually as part of the process of cataloging forest lands.

While the range of carbon stored in trees can vary widely, Hayes said, forests usually store about two tons of carbon per acre per year. One ton equals one credit, which can bring in $8 to $12.

For the Hanschus’ 500 acres, that could mean $8,000 to $12,000 a year, just for keeping their trees in the ground.

Free management plans

New technology makes carbon assessments cheaper than they once were so conservation organizations can offer more of them free of charge. Trees store the most carbon between 32 and 80 years old, but most trees grown for lumber are cut at 35 years old, shaving off years of their carbon-storing potential.

That’s why forestry professionals such as Kevin Nelson, an Oregon Department of Forestry employee based in Forest Grove, are helping private landowners create long-term plans. Nelson’s plans center on creating old-growth habitat by reducing tree density and allowing trees left over to grow bigger with less competition. This also creates a more varied forest with plants thriving at each level, creating higher species diversity; healthier, disease-resistant trees; and decreased danger of forest fires.

It’s a more natural system than cutting trees relatively young for timber, Nelson said. “But the return isn’t as fast.”

Along with the consultations, foresters with ODF can also assist landowners with technical advice and recommendations as they implement their plans, and the Pinchot Institute for Conservation can offer landowners a free assessment of their forest’s carbon storage potential and opportunities to generate additional income through carbon credits — which could be done regardless of whether they have a forest management plan.

“We don’t exactly know what this program will look like for us, yet, but I think it will be good long-term,” Hanschu said. “This program might affect our children more than us.”

Project details

The project, “Unlocking Carbon Markets for Non-Industrial Private Forestland Owners in the Pacific Northwest,” is a U.S. Department of Agriculture Regional Conservation Partnership Program project. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) and the Pinchot Institute are partnering to offer forestland owners financial incentives for developing management plans with forestry professionals and to help offset costs of thinning, pest treatments, native shrub planting and other conservation practices.

NRCS funding is still available, so interested woodland owners can contact Dean Moberg, NRCS Resource Conservationist at 503-648-3174, Ext. 114 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

By Stephanie Haugen
Reporter, Forest Grove News-Times
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