Following a recent visit to the Mississippi Valley Reforestation project, Mark LaCroix from Natural Capital Partners shares his experience.

A View from the Mississippi Alluvial Valley

A couple of months ago, Mark LaCroix, Executive Vice President Americas, joined a client in the aerospace and defense industry, on a visit to the Mississippi Valley Reforestation project. As a long-time supporter of the project, the purpose of the visit was to give the client’s environmental sustainability team a first-hand view of how the project works and the benefits it delivers.

Mark, what were you most looking forward to on the visit?

This project is very important in Natural Capital Partners’ overall portfolio, particularly for our North American clients, so it was great to have the opportunity to visit. I was really interested in meeting with the foresters: those responsible for managing the tree planting on behalf of the landowners who enrol in the project. I had the opportunity to see the project in various different stages i.e. trees of different ages, and gain an understanding of exactly how the land is managed.

What was the most surprising thing you learned during your visit?

The project is taking place on land that really should never have been converted for agriculture due to poor soil quality, flood risk, and dependency on government subsidies. What was interesting is that much of the deforestation has happened within the last 50 years or so as a result of the notion in the 60s and 70s that the ‘USA could feed the world’, and the associated incentives to clear land for food production.

Witnessing the scale of the project, and therefore the amount of thought and planning that goes into making the forest work was astonishing. If the land was left alone, nature would produce the same result over 150 – 200 years: pioneering species would be followed by hardwoods, which would eventually take over. This project gives nature a hand by vastly accelerating the process through interplanting. Planted alongside hardwoods, softwoods provide shelter for the hardwoods until roughly year seven, at which point a multi-year thinning process begins, building both a revenue source for the landowners and increased space and light to allow the hardwoods to grow optimally as established trees.

Additionality is a key requirement for any carbon finance project. Could you tell us a little bit about how the project is meeting this requirement?

Additionality in this project is very straightforward - the project just wouldn’t be economically viable without calculating the carbon that the trees store and selling that as carbon credits for companies to offset emissions. The revenue generated through the sale of carbon credits is shared with the landowners, providing economic justification for converting the land away from agricultural use. The carbon credit income isn’t a nice to have; it is just as critical to the success of the project as the softwoods that are harvested for timber value.

What was your personal highlight from the visit?

My time spent with the foresters was definitely my highlight. I gained a lot of knowledge around how a strong forest that will remain for hundreds of years is created - there is a lot more to it than you might think! For example, how do you ensure each tree has enough space to grow? How do you maximise the ability of the trees to store carbon and the value of the timber?

Everyone knows that the Mississippi drains half of the United States, but only when you are there can you appreciate its sheer scale. We drove 15-20 miles on top of a levee which is positioned about a mile from the riverbank on both sides of the river.  The river was flooded up to the levee, submerging the forest in its path. It is just an incredible force of nature. The foresters know which species to plant in each area, and know which are tolerant to “getting their feet wet”.

Last year you visited two forestry projects in Africa. How did this visit compare?

While the projects both have the same end goal of using trees to store carbon, we’re comparing developed versus developing world, so the drivers and socioeconomic conditions behind the projects are very different. In Africa, the projects are trying to limit deforestation, so the focus is on developing the infrastructure to help preserve existing forests in very important eco regions. The nature of REDD+ projects, such as the ones I visited, require whole communities to be engaged in the process. Likewise, the projects benefit the whole community, as well as the environment. In Mississippi, the project is using the market to create alternative economic incentives for landowners to reforest previously forested land. As opposed to the REDD+ community-based focus, the engagement happens on an individual basis, and the economic benefits are directed to individual landowners rather than communities.

How do clients support the Mississippi project as part of a portfolio of projects?

Virtually all North American companies use portfolios of different projects to meet their carbon reduction targets; very few will attach themselves to a single project, unless they are purchasing a relatively small number of carbon credits. Equally, clients are interested in taking an international view, acknowledging that climate is a global issue and that the vast majority of carbon finance projects are based in developing countries to support low carbon sustainable development. When it comes to thinking about action on climate change, the role of trees is easy to understand, so most of our portfolios include a forestry project.