Environmental groups oppose timber company's right to clear-cut parcels

By TIM HEARDEN

Capital Press

A landmark carbon-offset deal involving Sierra Pacific Industries signals a new potential source of income for a timber industry that's been devastated by a housing slump and environmental battles.

The nation's second-largest lumber producer recently reached a deal with state air regulators to plant trees on four plots totaling 60,000 acres in Northern California.

The project will result in the sequestration of 1.5 million tons of carbon dioxide, equivalent to taking 300,000 cars off the road for a year, according to state estimates.

However, perhaps the most significant part of the deal for timberland owners is that SPI will be able to market the carbon credits to industries throughout the United States in need of offsets for their projects.

"It's a nice complement to our existing business," said Mark Pawlicki, Sierra Pacific's director of government affairs. "By growing more forest at a rapid rate, we're going to be able to sell the additional growth in the form of carbon offsets."

Pawlicki said the company doesn't know how much additional money it will bring in because "we don't know what the market will bear."

The deal comes as SPI and other companies are preparing for new state cap-and-trade rules that will take effect in California in 2012. The agreement, announced Sept. 30, came a week after the state's Air Resources Board adopted a set of accounting rules for determining the climate benefits of forest carbon sequestration projects.

The new protocol removes a requirement for conservation easements for carbon offsets and opens up the voluntary offsets market for private landowners, public lands and out-of-state projects, according to a state news release.

Michelle Passero, a senior climate policy adviser for the Nature Conservancy who helped craft the new guidelines, said the protocols are designed to "encourage landowners to implement practices that exceed business as usual."

SPI will have to keep the forests growing at above a "baseline" and must refrain from developing the land for the next 100 years, Pawlicki said. In return, the company is allowed to continue its timber harvests with few new restrictions.

"This is a new economy and should be a new source of revenue for all forest landowners and should help California meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals," Passero said. "It's absolutely groundbreaking, and California is in the lead on this."

However, while the state's new rules allow SPI and other timber companies to adopt a green hue with conservation projects, it likely won't put an end to all their conflicts with environmental groups.

Sierra Club California, for one, is irked that Sierra Pacific will still be allowed to clear-cut sections of up to 40 acres on its private lands.

"We're very concerned because we think ... you're really subsidizing the most aggressive timber harvest practices with these funds," said Michael Endicott, a resource sustainability advocate for the organization.

But Eron Bloomgarden, president of environmental markets for Equator LLC, which will market the carbon credits for Sierra Pacific, calls the deal a "milestone" for forest landowners as well as for the carbon credit industry.

"The interesting thing about this transaction is that it demonstrate how working forests can serve in the fight against climate change," he said. "You can harvest and manage sustainably while increasing carbon stocks and sequestering greenhouse gases."

Staff writer Tim Hearden is based in Shasta Lake. E-mail: thearden@capitalpress.com .

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