LAPWAI, Idaho — On the Nez Perce reservation here, land that was cleared in the 19th century for farming is being converted back to forest, in part to sell the trees’ ability to sequester carbon.
“These forests are a carbon crop,” Brian Kummett, a forester for the Nez Perce tribal forestry division, said as he surveyed a vast field studded with recently planted ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and larch saplings. “We can sell the rights from the time the forest is planted to the time it’s harvested, 80 or 120 years down the road.”
The market for carbon credits promises to be a boon for some land-rich but cash-poor tribes. Selling carbon sequestration credits early in the growth of a forest lets the tribe realize some money more quickly, rather than waiting for decades for the harvest.
Carbon is a constituent of heat-trapping gases like carbon dioxide. Trees can pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store the carbon in their tissue. Companies may be able to offset the carbon dioxide they send into the atmosphere by paying for projects that pull carbon out of the atmosphere.
The Nez Perce are participating in an Indian tribe “carbon portfolio” being created by the National Carbon Offset Coalition in Butte, Mont., an organization supported largely by the Energy Department.
“They have a long-term management, large acreage and trained staff,” said Ted Dodge, executive director of the coalition.
Bob Gruenig, senior policy analyst for the National Tribal Environmental Council in Albuquerque, said the tribes “see climate change as a really big issue.”
“They are seeing changes in the land, changes in plants and changes in the migration of wildlife,” he said.
New forests are just part of the carbon credits that are being sold on reservations and at other places. In the last few weeks, the Chicago Carbon Exchange has approved selling carbon sequestration credits on rangeland and no-till agricultural fields.
An acre of pine forest captures and holds one to two metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, which it uses for photosynthesis. Untilled cropland holds a third of a ton of carbon per acre, and rangeland holds up to a fifth of a ton. The sequestered carbon dioxide is measured by soil tests before and after the planting.
The market for carbon sequestration in the United States is voluntary. As a result, the demand has been low compared with Europe, where emissions are now restricted by law. The market also lacks uniform standards, prompting some environmental campaigners to question its credibility. Tribal carbon sales have had mixed results since the first such sale in the 1990s, when the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington sold rights to its land for 25 cents a metric ton.
The Nez Perce had a major deal fall through a few years ago. It would have paid the tribe $1.50 a ton for 200,000 tons over 50 years and would have been worth nearly $500,000. Experts estimate that a project of that size would offset carbon equivalent to a year’s emission from 500,000 cars.
Other tribes have found reason to grow carbon crops. In Washington and Oregon, new coal-fired power plants are required to offset their emissions. So the Lummi in northwestern Washington bought 1,700 acres that had been logged, reforested the land and sold sequestration rights to a power company.
Officials say studies showing that recent warming is almost certainly caused by accumulating greenhouse gases are increasing support for “cap and trade” rules that limit the carbon dioxide a site can emit. If a factory produces less than the cap, it can sell the surplus rights to emit carbon to other companies. If a plant exceeds the limit, it has to buy the right to emit more gases from another company or find other methods to sequester carbon equal to what it is releasing.