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Other Views: A new approach

It's a brave new idea — and it's one that could offer a measure of help to the private owners of small tracts of forest land.

Western Oregon is filled with these small tracts, timber lots that date back to the earliest days of Oregon homesteaders. These are family forests that have been inherited by people who use the land for all intents and purposes as their savings accounts or possibly their retirement plans.

The problem is that, increasingly, these private owners have been forced to sell their land to timber companies or other developers, a one-time payout that these owners, not infrequently, use for medical bills.

Now, landowners may be able to take advantage of another option: Instead of getting money so someone could chop down their trees, they might get paid to leave them up. It's part of an initiative to preserve the land so that the trees can help absorb greenhouse gases.

The initiative, called Forest Health-Human Health, is the brainchild of the mid-valley's Catherine Mater, working with the Pinchot Institute. Mater and other researchers have spent years talking to the owners of these smaller forest parcels, and one theme emerged in those discussions with striking regularity: The landowners were worried about the prospect that medical bills would force them to give up their land.

If the initiative takes off, landowners could get money for keeping their land — and allowing their trees to stand as so-called "carbon sinks," which suck carbon dioxide out of the air and into their root systems.

The carbon sinks — the trees — provide one half of a voluntary carbon market. On the other end are companies that pollute or use a lot of power — for example, the health care industry. Those companies seek to offset their carbon emissions by buying the carbon-absorbing capacity of forested land.

Landowners would collect money based on the 20-year carbon-absorbing capacity of their trees. For some landowners, it could amount to a $5,000 initial payment and up to $1,000 each year.

That kind of money could offer a measure of protection against health care costs. And it could allow landowners to hang onto their property, keeping family forests in the family.

The idea of linking these carbon credits to family forests is making headway elsewhere. The Pinchot Institute researchers are being somewhat cautious about rolling out the idea here, in part because carbon-credit scams have been sadly common, in some cases even involving nonexistent forests offshore.

But here in western Oregon, this initiative involves real forests — and real people who have fretted about how to keep those lands in their families. This Forest Health-Human Health initiative could offer a powerful tool to preserve those lands.