This article first appeared in the June 2021 issue of the Forestry Source: Vol. 26 - No 6.

Carbon neutrality pledges are all the rage. Corporations are setting aggressive goals, and a rapidly growing offset sector is rising up to meet their demand. The role of small landowners will play in these markets has been a story to watch. Shut out of traditional offset programs, small landowners now have multiple options for using their land to produce carbon credits. This means new sources of revenue, as well as new data and information needs. Should they harvest or defer? How can they know a program is creating real, additional carbon offsets? In this edition of Biometrics Bits, we’ll look at three big challenges forest biometricians face in serving an increasingly important set of forest inventory consumers.

Stand and property level estimates they can trust

All of us who work with inventory data on a regular basis know when a result is “good”. I’m guessing I speak for a lot of readers when I say that, for me, it’s through a combination of statistical tests and gut checking against past experience (e.g., is this volume estimate around what I’d expect for a mature mixed hardwood stand?). Many of the landowners looking to engage in these programs aren’t going to have that background. So, how can we present forest inventory results in a way that creates trust?

I think the key is better statistical communication. We can perform whatever tests we want, but if we can’t present results in a way that people can connect with and feel confident about, it’s unlikely they’ll pay attention. Visual information is really valuable for building this kind of trust. While most landowners aren’t foresters, in my experience they all know their land. If we can say, “here’s a map of where we predicted oak on your property” and demonstrate that it aligns with what they can see on the ground, that’s going to be a lot more meaningful than a confidence interval.

Of course these anecdotal observations can’t replace robust statistical testing- we need both! But, we shouldn’t dismiss the role maps and stories can play in helping to contextualize statistical results. The landowner doesn’t need decades of experience in forestry to know the result is “good” if we do the legwork for them. So, my advice to any biometrician working with small landowners is to sharpen up your map making skills. Figuring out how to equip consulting foresters with these sorts of tools is also important. While this discussion is primarily focused on biometrics, on-the-ground foresters are the ones building relationships and communicating with landowners. Biometrics in the 2020s goes beyond fitting growth and yield models, and we have continually seen that the field has expanded to include communication and contextualization of our work.  

Standardized “exchange rates”

This one is more inside baseball than directly serving inventory information to landowners, but I think it’s equally important. At SilviaTerra we’re running NCAPX, and are producing reports which outline the number of harvest deferral carbon credits a landowner is eligible to receive across the US. Establishing how these credits, which are directly related to merchantable timber, will be ‘exchanged’ with myriad regional volume estimation procedures has been a significant challenge. Of course, we’re just one program. A landowner looking to use their land to create real, additional carbon credits has multiple options, each using different methods for calculating carbon and volume. Tracking and understanding all of these moving parts is a challenge, even for an expert.

The research community can play a big role here. Efforts to develop data and models for volume and biomass estimation, such as the LegacyTreeData project, contribute nationally consistent frameworks for linking estimates. I also think software such as rFIA, which implements FIA’s procedures in a reproducible fashion, plays an important role. More interest from forest economists on alternative revenue sources such as offset markets will undoubtedly lead to better guidance on how regional market trends and conventions can be linked with such systems. On the private side, we have a lot of experience in designing merchandising schemes for projects across different regions and at different scales. Establishing an open source repository of this information can also encourage greater consistency across projects.

We know that stumpage price reports are regularly compiled and released by extension foresters, DNR foresters, and private companies around the US. These reports become even more important to landowners as they might try to understand the value of their forest as timber products as they weigh decisions about harvest deferrals and short- and longer-term commitments. These resources are invaluable for researchers and landowners, and finding ways to collaborate across state lines to build out these reports is more timely than ever.

Data for informed decision making

Of course, for many landowners their forests are their future. They may be looking at it as part of a retirement plan or college fund, or may simply want to preserve it for future generations. So, while giving them solid information on the present is great, helping them understand what they can expect and how to plan is even better. What are the costs versus benefits for deferring harvest to enroll in an offset market? What length commitment will work with their goals? How will it impact their ability to manage for quality turkey habitat? These are all questions any consulting forester or other expert can expect to hear.

Fortunately, it’s getting easier for landowners to find the right guidance. Mississippi State University extension recently published cut or wait decision-making guidance for landowners, which is directly related to offset markets. It would be great to see more data products, particularly growth projections, that would support landowners in using these sorts of guidelines. Growth models like the Forest Vegetation Simulator (FVS) have a lot of promise here, but require better tooling to be useful for CFs and others working directly with small landowners to develop management plans. I think investment in applications that can link these models to more user friendly, web-based interfaces would be a worthwhile (and profitable?) venture.

Of course, these are just a few suggestions. The point is that these sorts of landowners are becoming real consumers of forest inventory data, and both public and private investment in tooling and approaches for addressing this need is going to become pretty important for our field. If you have other thoughts; from the perspective of a landowner, forester, or biometrician; I’d love to hear about them: brian@ncx.com.