The Biden administration has set its climate change policy agenda, with a broad call to engage rural America. But one approach lacking a laser focus is on incentivizing rural forest owners to use their land for capturing and storing carbon.

America’s forests and forest products already capture and store more than 750 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually, the equivalent of nearly 15 percent of annual U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. With the right policies that enable voluntary action, the nation’s forests can do even more, with some estimates saying the U.S. could double this important contribution to climate mitigation.

“With the right tools and partnerships, American agriculture and forestry can lead the world in solutions that will increase climate resilience, sequester carbon, enhance agricultural productivity, and maintain critical environmental benefits,” the U.S. Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, said in a new progress report on using forests and agriculture to mitigate the impact of climate change.

Tom Martin (Photo submitted)

One of those “right tools” must be action by the government to jumpstart carbon markets for small forest owners. 

Families and individuals own the largest portion of forests – 36% –  across the U.S. Research from the American Forest Foundation (AFF) and the U.S. Forest Service has found that these owners want to improve forest health, but the vast majority are not employing best practices due to the high costs associated with forest management.

Helping small forest owners access carbon markets would allow them to generate income from their land that can then be poured back into the trees for increased conservation and carbon capture. And generating income from carbon markets would provide a much-needed financial boost for forest owners, as many lack resources to sufficiently maintain their forests. One in three family forest owners has an annual income of less than $50,000.

At the same time, corporate demand for credible carbon projects is rapidly expanding. Mark Carney, chief of the private sector Taskforce for Scaling Carbon Markets, has pointed out that voluntary carbon markets will need to scale 15-fold to meet growing demand fueled by net-zero pledges made by companies. In addition to direct reduction actions by companies, the demand and the dollars associated with carbon credits could be channeled to those who would benefit from it the most – family and individual forest owners.

Yet existing carbon projects are currently inaccessible to most small forest owners, due to the high cost to enroll.

Private sector carbon programs designed specifically for family forest owners are beginning to surface. TheFamily Forest Carbon Program, created by AFF and The Nature Conservancy, is one example. It pays landowners to implement climate-smart forestry practices that increase carbon sequestration and storage. But such unique and non-traditional programs for small forest owners need support to scale.

This is where the Biden administration can help in a big way. Rather than funding these programs directly, the government can provide loan and bond guarantees to investors to lower risk, such that is already done in tradition agriculture programs. This in turn would catalyze more projects geared towards family forest owners, without incurring costs to the government. This will ultimately help the administration achieve its climate goals and provide much needed economic stimulus to rural communities.

In addition, the government could play other key roles – such as serving as a buyer of last resort carbon credits sold in the voluntary market from family forests, thus providing confidence for both landowners and investors. The effort should be coupled with the government providing technical assistance for forest owners with a focus on ensuring support for historically underserved owners, such as African American forest owners.

While the administration recognizes the role that forest owners play in climate change, it needs to focus on action and opportunities. Allowing owners of small forests access to growing carbon markets is an easy step that can be implemented in short order, with the right government policies. It can advance the administration’s vital climate agenda while bolstering thousands of small and rural  Americans.

Martin is president and CEO of the American Forest Foundation, a national conservation organization that works to empower family forest owners to make a positive impact on their land.