Wildfire and Climate Change: How the Natural Capital Exchange is Working to Help Landowners
Dr. Nan Pond
Dr. Nan Pond
28 September, 2021 min read

Wildfires have raged across the western US for yet another year.  The National Interagency Fire Center reports that more than 5.7 million acres have burned across the United States during the 2021 fire season, coming on the heels of a 2020 fire season where over 10 million acres burned. When forests burn, the carbon sequestered in growing trees and downed woody material is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. This year we’ve also seen records broken for the release of CO2 from wildfires in Oregon and California.  

Many small forest landowners, especially in the US West, manage their forests for objectives that include timber production, wildlife habitat, or recreation. Forest Economic Advisors recently reported that close to half of the timberland burned in Oregon in 2020 was on private land – a huge blow to the landowners who manage these acres, whether those are family forest owners or larger landowners.  NCX is proud to offer landowners another way to realize the value of their forests, through the deferral of harvests. However, we’re also keenly aware of the need to balance carbon storage and mitigation of wildfire risk.  

NCX incentivizes landowners to defer harvests – which could seem to run counter to the management necessary to mitigate wildfire risks, such as thinning. However, under the current structure of our marketplace, the likelihood of harvest is estimated acre by acre for enrolled properties. In many areas of the US West, there are relatively few mills, and relatively few markets for small-diameter trees that provide dense fuel for wildfires. Because NCX assigns a higher value to deferring harvests of large-diameter trees where there is a stronger timber market, the tradeoffs between participating in the Natural Capital Exchange carbon market and mitigating wildfire risk don’t present a conflict for most landowners and acres.

From the start of NCX, our mission has been to enable landowners to be paid for all the values their forests provide society. Carbon is just one of the values that forests can be managed for. Wildlife habitat, safeguarding water sources, and mitigating wildfire risk are also all important in our pursuit to create the landscape that society desires. Areas where there are few or no markets for timber have low risk of harvest, and aren’t valuable for enrollment in our NCX carbon marketplace. However, these are also the areas at great risk of wildfire as well as attacks by other forest diseases and insects that thrive in unnaturally dense forests. We look forward to expanding our program to facilitate transactions to reduce wildfire risk, empowering landowners in these areas to manage forests for other natural capital values such as forest health and resilience.  

While the Natural Capital Exchange does not currently address wildfire risk across the western landscape, we look to expand our marketplace offerings to address this concern in the future. This means landowners could look forward to being paid directly for management activities that reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, as we partner with industry experts to expand our program to include wildfire mitigation credits. Mitigating wildfire risk increases the longevity of forests, so trees can grow larger and sequester more carbon year over year. This is a win for forest health, and a win overall for carbon sequestration and storage.

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about the author

Dr. Nan Pond

Dr. Nan Pond

Chief Data Scientist
Nan serves as NCX’s Chief Data Scientist. She is responsible for the integrity and improvement of the estimates underpinning the NCX program, including Basemap and business-as-usual assessments. She received the annual SAF Young Forester Leadership Award in 2020 and has held multiple leadership roles within SAF. She earned a PhD in forest biometrics from Michigan Technological University and a BS in forest ecosystem science from SUNY ESF.
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