Can Forests Help Balance Urban Growth? CAGIS Researcher Investigates Market-based Tool to Reduce Forest Loss

Charlotte (NC), USA – January 5, 2017 – Woodland owners in urbanizing areas across the United States are often under pressure to sell their forested lands for development. In North Carolina, a state known for both its scenic tourism and vibrant economy, losses of forest to development could alter the attractive mix city and rural lands that make the state a desirable destination to live and work.  However, few financial incentives exist in the State to retain forests and balance booming real estate markets, leaving many areas at risk for losing their “green” over the next 20 years says Dr. Douglas Shoemaker, Director of Research at UNC Charlotte Center for Applied GIScience.

“But urban woodland owners may have a secret weapon. Forests collect and store carbon from the atmosphere, an ecosystem service that can slow global warming. Because of this, the carbon that is taken out of the atmosphere is valued for reductions in future costs associated with climate change. Carbon stored by trees is one of the key forms of carbon that may be bought and sold in so-called ‘cap-and-trade’ policies designed to curtail emissions.”

Shoemaker and his colleagues at Utah State and NC State University were interested to see if forest owners in rapidly urbanizing regions would be tempted to keep their properties if they could get paid for carbon being sequestered by the trees on their property.

“We developed a survey that asked forest owners if they would be willing to enroll in a program where they were compensated for managing their forests in a way that maximized carbon sequestration. We then compared the results of this survey with the market value of their properties. Our results showed that the value of carbon today, which is less than $10 per ton, is simply too low to compete with the large financial returns that landowners can receive from selling their property to developers. The cost of carbon would have to be closer to $100 per ton for equivalent returns.”

Shoemaker goes on to note that his team’s findings aren’t all doom-and-gloom. “We did find that some forest owners were more willing than others to participate in a program where they’d be compensated for the carbon sequestered by trees on their properties. Individuals with higher education levels and those with smaller incomes were more likely to indicate an intent to enroll in these types of programs." These individuals are likely to be the early-adopters of payments for carbon sequestration policies if and when they become more viable, says Shoemaker.

The research completed by Dr. Shoemaker and his colleagues was published today in the journal Forest Science.