The Biden administration said on Tuesday it will spend $150 million to help owners of small parcels of forestland partner with companies willing to pay them for carbon offsets and other environmental credits.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced the grant programme at a conference of black landowners in coastal Georgia, saying programmes that allow private companies to offset their own emissions by paying to protect trees have disproportionately benefited owners of large acreage.
“In order for those small, privately held forest owners to be able to do what they need and want to do requires a bit of technical help,” Vilsack told about 150 conference attendees in a church ballroom in Brunswick.
“And sometimes that technical help is not easy to find. And it’s certainly not easy to afford.”
The grant money comes from the sweeping climate law passed by Congress just over a year ago and targets underserved landowners, including military veterans and new farmers, as well as families owning 2500 acres (1011 hectares) or less.
The goal is to protect more tracts of US forest to help fight climate change.
The past decade has seen a rapidly expanding market in which companies pay landowners to grow or conserve trees, which absorb carbon from the atmosphere, to counterbalance their own carbon emissions.
For owners of smaller family tracts, selling carbon offsets or other credits would give them an alternative income to harvesting their timber or selling their property to a developer.
Companies were pouring billions of dollars into environmental credits, but small landowners faced daunting barriers to eligibility, American Forest Foundation president and chief executive Rita Hite said.
To participate, owners need to take an inventory of their forested property, have a land management plan and run models to calculate the land’s carbon value.
“Previously, if you didn’t have 5000 acres or more, you weren’t participating in these markets,” Hite said.
“Not only are there technical hurdles, but also financing hurdles.”
The American Forest Foundation and the Nature Conservancy launched a joint programme four years ago that covers many of the costs for family landowners to sell carbon offsets for their land.
Those groups and other non-profits will be eligible to apply for grants of up to US$25 million to provide direct help to landowners under the Biden administration’s programme.
So will state forestry agencies, university agricultural extension services and others.
The money could pay professionals to help owners develop land management plans or to connect them with project managers who serve as middlemen between owners and companies seeking environmental credits.
The grants were welcomed by John Littles, a leader of the Sustainable Forestry and African American Land Retention Network, which hosted the Georgia conference.
The group represents 1600 black landowners across eight southern states - Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
“Most of the time, we’re left out - more specifically, people of colour,” Littles said.
“We’re not afforded the opportunity to help design the programmes, so the programmes are mainly now designed for large landholdings and large acreage.”
Littles said his network planned to apply for a grant under the new programme. But he was not sure how much demand there would be from landowners.
He said that would largely depend on whether owners of smaller acreages could get enough money from conservation credits.