What’s behind those chain saw billboards

  • One of Forest Carbon Works’ billboards near the rotary in Greenfield stresses that forest management is a key part of conservation. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer
Published: 11/29/2021 8:10:46 PM
Modified: 11/29/2021 8:10:14 PM

You’re probably not alone if you’ve driven on I-91 and were perplexed by a billboard depicting a chain saw with a promise to conserve forests.

The billboards, adorned with phrases like “true conservation requires a blade” and populating I-91 and other areas around the Pioneer Valley, were put up by Forest Carbon Works, a Minnesota company that works with small landowners to break into the carbon market.

“Our mission is to provide access to the forest carbon market for small landowners,” Toby Schneider, Forest Carbon Works’ chief operating officer, said by phone Monday. “Typically, in the past, a landowner would have to have 5,000 to 6,000 acres for it to be financially viable.”

The carbon market offers credits for companies reducing or offsetting the use of fossil fuels. Forest Carbon Works operates within the California Air Resources Board’s carbon market, which allows landowners to earn carbon credits by growing or maintaining forests that reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide. Large production companies may then purchase these credits from forest landowners — or middlemen like Forest Carbon Works — to help them reach their emissions goals, thus investing in growing forests that actively sequester carbon.

“One of the misnomers is that forest carbon and carbon markets and carbon sequestering is really something that tree huggers do,” Schneider said. “Healthy management of a forest … is important for landowners and our environment.”

Schneider said actions like cutting down diseased trees or gathering firewood can help benefit a forest, and that’s the idea behind a chain saw that saves trees.

“We wanted to have a proactive and paradoxical campaign,” Schneider said. “We like to say that sacrificing some of the trees is good for the forest.”

While Forest Carbon Works is focused on New England as a whole, Schneider said the company chose the billboard locations on the I-91 corridor for a couple of reasons.

“Some states in New England don’t allow billboards,” Schneider said (referencing Vermont and Maine’s ban on billboards). “We were able to identify some areas ... where there’s a lot of forest owners.”

Forest Carbon Works’ New England regional forester Sarah Ford said the company is just breaking into Franklin and Hampshire counties.

“In Franklin and Hampshire counties combined, we’ve had a total of 4,000 acres under 11 different ownerships in our pipeline,” Ford said.

In a follow-up email, Schneider said the company has four “qualified opportunities” in the two counties covering 2,000 acres. He explained a qualified opportunity means Forest Carbon Works and the landowners have agreed to move forward in the business process and a forest inventory will be taken on each parcel of land.

For business and privacy reasons, Forest Carbon Works did not disclose the specific entities it is working with in the region. Schneider added that the four qualified opportunities represent more than 45 different entities and people because much of the forestland here is co-owned by families, land trusts or businesses.

“These qualified opportunities mean that we will perform forest inventories on over 60 parcels and accounts for nearly 2,000 acres,” Schneider wrote.

Ford said the forests of New England have some unique conditions that other areas the company covers — such as the Pacific Northwest and Appalachia — don’t.

“The New England forestry landscape is a bit different from the remainder of the country,” Ford said. “The average parcel size is pretty small in New England — about 50 acres.”

Ford said higher tax rates and an aging population in New England make it difficult to retain land, which is often purchased by commercial developers. She said carbon credits create an economic incentive for these forest landowners to hold onto their land, rather than selling it to a company that is going to clear it out.

“We call it a piece of the puzzle to incentivizing long-term conservation,” Ford said. “Forest cover is declining everywhere.”

Ford and Schneider both said Forest Carbon Works is the only organization to offer carbon market access to small landowners in Massachusetts, but that could change as the carbon market is constantly changing.

“As far as being available to small landowners, we are the first company that has been able to make our program available at the small scale … There are carbon projects at larger sizes that do exist in Massachusetts,” Ford said. “The carbon landscape is evolving and growing rapidly.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.

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