VERNONIA — A cemetery may seem an unusual place to test the world’s first ground-based laser scanning forest carbon valuation system, but then again, a project that links carbon credits with health care is not the norm either.

Piloted in Columbia County, the Forest Health-Human Health Initiative is engaging Northwest forest owners in the nation’s first program to exchange carbon stored in forests for health-care services. A forest landowner itself, the city of Vernonia owns more than 100 acres of forest land, some of which is located adjacent to the Vernonia Memorial Cemetery where a public demonstration of this technology is planned Friday. In collaboration with the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, forest scientists from Oregon State University are testing a new ground-based light detection and ranging (LIDAR) technology on the city’s municipal forest lands.

Similar to the radar guns used by law enforcement to catch speeders, LIDAR bounces a narrow beam of light off objects at thousands of pulses per-second to map the physical features of forests with high resolution. Typically mounted on low-altitude aircraft, aerial LIDAR is already used by large industrial forest landowners, but this option remains too costly for family forest landowners. “Similar to how personal computers have evolved, a new generation of ground-based LIDAR technologies has emerged with potential to be a smaller, nimbler and less costly option than their predecessors,” said Oregon State University forestry professor Michael Wing.

“This ground-based LIDAR approach is being tested as a way to measure biomass and carbon volumes in a single read, which may have implications for all sorts of forest management objectives including forest carbon projects,” said Wing. Supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, a Washington, D.C.-based forest conservation nonprofit, Wing’s research team is determining the applicability of this new technology in markets for carbon storage and biomass energy.

Carbon value is created in such markets when landowners agree to increase the carbon stocks in their forest above the amount they would have stored without initiating the project. This is typically achieved by managing in a way that will promote robust growth, shifting the timing of harvests, or extending the length of rotations. While such activities can be modeled to project changes in forest growth, landowners ultimately benefit from having a more accurate inventory of their forest’s total carbon, and a lower cost protocol for monitoring that carbon from year to year.

If the early trials are successful, this ground-based LIDAR technology could be applied in the forests around Vernonia, where landowners are eager to explore opportunities in biomass energy and carbon storage. Local natural resource professionals may eventually operate such LIDAR scanning units throughout Columbia County to quickly and accurately attain a measure of timber and carbon stocks, encouraging more landowners to benefit from carbon markets.

Private forest landowners are seeking new markets. Pinchot Institute research reveals that landowners are often forced to sacrifice long-term visions of a sustainable multigenerational forest to pay unexpected health care expenses with short-term revenue from timber harvests or the outright sale of their land.

“We’ve seen this trend nationwide,” said Pinchot Institute Senior Fellow Catherine Mater.

“Forest carbon projects have been around for a while, but landowners with large parcels have really been the only ones able to take advantage to date. The LIDAR technology can help change this, but technology will only get us part of the way. We believe investors will be willing to pay more for carbon credits that are linked to quantifiable social benefits coming in the form of direct payments to health care accounts for landowners and rural communities.”

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