By Carol Benfell
The Press Democrat
December 6, 2004

Local timber companies could be paid to preserve redwood trees under a new state program that gives polluting industries credit if they conserve forests.

Under the program, a company that is required to reduce carbon dioxide emissions could buy a forest preservation right from a timber owner instead of installing cleanup devices at the factory.

The exchange will mean cleaner air and will make it profitable for timber companies to preserve redwood forests, said Laurie Wayburn, president of Pacific Forest Trust, a Santa Rosa nonprofit organization that helped develop the program.

"Redwoods grow faster, larger and longer than any other tree worldwide," Wayburn said. "As a forest type, they can store more carbon dioxide than any other forest type on a per acre basis."

There is interest in reducing carbon dioxide emissions because scientists say these and other greenhouse gases are contributing to global warming.

If the carbon dioxide exchange catches on, as a similar exchange for sulphur dioxide has, it could change the way forests are managed, said John Nickerson, a manager at Mendocino Redwood Co. in Calpella.

Logging would always be part of the plan because timber is needed for construction and because dying trees put carbon dioxide back in the air, he said.

But timber owners would have an economic incentive to leave wider buffer zones of trees along streams and to increase their stands of redwoods and Douglas firs. Older trees store more carbon dioxide so it also would be more profitable to let trees grow longer, Nickerson said.

Mendocino Redwood Co., which owns 232,000 acres in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, helped develop the program.

"It's exciting," Nickerson said. "It's great for forest landowners to have things like this as an incentive to good forest management."

A state law allowing the trees-for-carbon dioxide exchange has been on the books for two years. But the law couldn't be implemented until a way was found to measure what buyers were getting - the amount of carbon dioxide trees absorb.

The protocols, developed by a work group of state agencies, conservation groups and timber companies, were approved in October by the state Department of Forestry.

North Coast timber owners can now inventory their trees according to the protocols, develop projects that discuss how the trees will be managed, and send them to the state-approved California Climate Action Registry for verification and documentation, Wayburn said.

Once the registry accepts the timber owner's project, it can be listed on the Chicago Climate Exchange, a trading market similar to a stock exchange where carbon dioxide credits are bought and sold.

Wayburn said at least a dozen North Coast timber companies have expressed interest in listing their forests for carbon dioxide credits, but it will be at least six months before the first offer is ready.

"I don't know of anybody who doesn't have an interest," she said.

The carbon dioxide exchange market is in its infancy, and there are hurdles yet to be overcome.

But trades in a similar market in sulphur dioxide have soared in the past six years. Corporate polluters traded $2 billion in credits for 122 million tons of emissions in 2001, according to Forbes magazine.

Carbon dioxide swaps for timber stands have been going on in the United States and other countries for several years, mostly arranged through private trades.

The World Bank estimates pollution rights to 65 million tons of carbon dioxide were exchanged globally in 2002.