For those not yet embracing the tree-hugger lifestyle, this tidbit might tip the scales. Not only do our resident conifers bring shade, shelter and beauty to Western Washington, they also remove and store a tremendous amount of carbon from the air.

Now, through King County’s Forest Carbon Program, this carbon can now be purchased by local companies to offset their emissions and protect local forests.

How the Forest Carbon Program works:

  • King County purchases local forest lands (both urban and rural) to prevent them from being developed or timber harvested.
  • The lands are measured and voluntarily audited by third party organizations. The county is issued carbon credits upon verification.
  • Local companies purchase the carbon credits to offset the emissions they produce.
  • King County uses the revenue from credits sold to maintain forest lands and purchase more for the carbon program.
Graphic courtesy of King County. Click to enlarge.

Simple enough, right?

Well, not if you’re Forest Carbon Program Manager Kathleen Farley Wolf, who was tasked with getting the rural sector of the project up and running. Farley Wolf said forest carbon programs, especially on the urban side, can have high start-up costs because of the fieldwork required to calculate exactly how much carbon a given forest can hold.

“It’s more or less counting and measuring trees in random plots to calculate carbon on those sites,” Farley Wolf said. “We are fortunate to have some remote LiDAR data that we use to get a picture across the county.”

A crucial part of the program is having its data audited and verified by a third party. Farley Wolf said having that third-party verification is what makes the carbon offsets real, verifiable and permanent.

Who’s on board so far?

The program made its first credits available in 2019, and they didn’t last long. Pending verification, Microsoft has committed to purchasing all the credits from the rural program in its first year. The rural program hopes to make available 100,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents in its first five years.

On the urban side, Kirkland-based Fishermen’s Finest purchased verified credits from the Soaring Eagle preservation project in Sammamish. The company’s CFO, Mike Guy, said it was extremely important to Fishermen’s Finest to purchase credits from local projects, even if it meant paying a premium.

“What makes the Pacific Northwest truly special is the ability to leave your office on the 48th floor of a downtown skyscraper and 15 minutes later be walking through serene urban forests like Camp Long, St. Edwards and Soaring Eagle Park,” Guy said. “In an area that is developing at such a rapid pace we believe it’s critical to preserve the open spaces that keep us connected to nature.”

In addition to 3,025 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, Soaring Eagle Park is home to the headwaters of Patterson Creek and at least 13 species of animal species. The purchase is part of Fishermen’s Finest’s overall commitment to promote sustainability in the fishing industry.

A model program

The Forest Carbon Program is the first local forest carbon program in the nation, and part of King County’s Land Conservation Initiative, which seeks to protect 65,000 acres of natural area over the next 30 years. With its commitment to forest conservation and abundance of large conifers, King County was an ideal place to design this program.

“Pacific Northwest forests in general are very good at storing carbon because they have extremely long-lived trees that store and take up carbon over a long period of time,” Farley Wolf said. “Our climate allows trees to grow almost year-round – only stopping in the summer because of water deficit. The combination of conditions allows them to grow and soak up carbon year-round even at 100 years old.”

While forest carbon programs also exist in California, they operate largely on a cap-and-trade basis opposed to a voluntary basis like King County’s. Farley Wolf said she hopes this program will serve as a model and that she’s already received a call from a local government in Colorado asking for advice in setting up their own forest carbon project.

Farley Wolf’s next goal is to scale down the program even further and create a mechanism to reward private landowners for keeping their lands forested instead of timber harvested or developed. Farley Wolf said the logistics of such a program will be complicated, but she’s encouraged by the level of interest and the progress of the current carbon forests program.

“It’s exciting because there’s been a big barrier in front of making urban and private lands available for carbon credits, and it looks like it’s starting to come down,” Farley Wolf said.

Feature photo provided by King County.