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The California Effect (Nature Conservancy Magazine)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

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In early May, the dogwood trees in the Clinch Valley of far southwestern Virginia are in full bloom, looking like puffballs of white confetti bursting amid the tree canopy. Situated on the western side of the Appalachian Mountains, the Clinch is a special place, home to more than 100 species of trees with evocative names like sourwood, bitternut hickory and shagbark hickory that were coined back in the pioneer days when the place was Daniel Boone’s stomping grounds.

Greg Meade, a Nature Conservancy forester, is driving his pickup from the valley’s bottomland cattle pasture up into the steep hillside woodlands. “The complexity of our forests is unmatched in the lower 48,” Meade says. He can start his day in a yellow pine forest and be tromping through a fern-filled, moss-covered spruce rainforest by lunchtime.

Meade’s job isn’t so much about deciding which trees to cut but which ones to leave standing. Big ones, mostly.

He is promoting a reversal of the way that privately owned forests in Appalachia have been managed for the past century. Landowners once saw their forests as emergency piggy banks that they could tap into in times of need, bringing in loggers to chop down the most valuable hardwoods, such as black cherry and oaks, with no thought given to which trees would repopulate. This shortsighted approach led these forests to lose the diversity that sustains their economic and ecological value. Having forests with trees of different ages helps facilitate regrowth, while maintaining a mix of species can protect these forests from diseases.

The Clinch Valley Conservation Forestry Program launched in 2002 and now protects 22,000 acres, thanks largely to California’s new carbon market. The Clinch Valley program established partnerships between TNC and private landowners to better manage these working forests and ensure they remain intact rather than being developed. With the last free-flowing tributaries to the Tennessee River, the Clinch Valley boasts the nation’s highest concentrations of endangered fish and freshwater mussels, which depend on the clean water that healthy forests provide by reducing erosion.

As it happened, at the same time on the other side of the country, California’s government was confronting the state’s substantial role in contributing to climate change. If California were a separate country, it would have ranked as the world’s 12th-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, falling between Spain and Poland. In 2006, implementing new state law, California created a cap-and-trade system designed to first freeze and then reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of  power producers, transportation and manufacturers in the state.

That system has had profound effects on climate emissions and conservation in California. “When I started working on this,” says Louis Blumberg, the head of TNC’s California climate program, “California was the eighth-largest economy in the world and the 12th-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Today California is the sixth-largest economy and the 19th-largest emitter.” And California’s program is also having a dramatic impact throughout the U.S. and Canada.

The cap-and-trade program opened up a new chapter in Virginia’s Clinch Valley. The forests that Meade manages act as a sponge for carbon dioxide. With each growing season, the trees lock away climate-warming gas in their swelling trunks. Under California’s cap-and-trade program, California polluters could offset a portion of their emissions by paying forestry projects like Meade’s to keep their forests intact.

“California recognizes that nature is a powerful tool to address climate change,” says Blumberg. “Their cap-and-trade program is catalyzing forest conservation programs across the United States.” California’s successful comprehensive program makes it one of the leading government entities to tackle climate change in a serious way.

The program is supporting scores of forest conservation projects from Virginia to Alaska, including several led by TNC. It is also demonstrating that, even as President Donald Trump withdraws the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, American states, cities and businesses can not only take action on climate change on their own, they can do so in ways that generate economic benefits and grow economies.

Read the rest in the Winter issue of Nature Conservancy magazine