LOWVILLE — The new owner of 52,000 acres of forested land on Tug Hill and in the eastern Adirondacks will be taking a different approach to forest management, harvesting more than logs but in a less tangible, high-tech way.
Bluesource Sustainable Forestry Co. — a $500 million joint venture launched in October between Bluesource LLC and investment firm Oak Hill Advisors — purchased about 30,000 acres on Tug Hill in Lewis County for $8.75 million from Corigan TLP LLC and 20,000 acres in Lewis, Herkimer and Oneida counties within the Adirondack Park’s blue line. The combined 20,000 acres were previously managed by The Forestland Group LLC and sold by the Heartland Forestry Fund IV for an undisclosed amount. The four areas are now collectively called the Empire Riverlands Property.
“We’re planning to have an active working forest here but with selective, sustainable forest management,” said Cakey Worthington, director of forestry operations for the company. “For us that means prioritizing continued forest growth for the purposes of forest (carbon) offsetting along with light harvesting, targeting forest health and stand improvement.”
To do this, Bluesource has a data and technology-based model it has honed over the past 10 years. The company uses the model throughout North America on the 3 million acres of forest it manages for various public and private clients in 80 carbon-trapping forest projects.
“Bluesource as a whole has been an industry leader in the carbon space,” Ms. Worthington said. “I think (the company) has done a great job proving it works and it works well — from a carbon offset development standpoint — with many of our clients in the past and now we’re hoping as land owners to prove it on the operational side, too.”
Ms. Worthington said that all forest management companies monitor the accumulated growth of all of the trees in a forest every year and harvest, on average, trees that equal 100% of that growth.
Bluesource will be cutting trees that equal an average of 10% to 20% of a year’s new growth, and the trees it cuts will not be those that trap, or sequester, the most carbon — which are in most cases old growth trees.
Trees take in carbon dioxide in the air around them, “breathing” out the oxygen and storing the carbon in all of its parts from roots to leaves.
That ability makes it possible for the rest of the harvest to come from “letting the forest be a forest” by monitoring how much carbon the living trees capture and turning it into revenue through the sale of “carbon credits.”
“The lion’s share of income for our properties comes from the carbon offset project,” she said, noting that ensuring forests can make money for investors with significantly less logging is crucial to protect the health and longevity of forests and their ability to pull as much carbon from the air as possible to send climate change in a less destructive direction.
But the process takes time to gather information to make sure the amount of carbon being stored by a forest is understood correctly before any carbon credits are sold.
Ms. Worthington said it starts with taking a comprehensive inventory of every tree on every acre to identify the species, measure their size, estimate the age and determine the health of the trees as part of the information used to calculate how much carbon is being stored and, ultimately, which trees will be harvested for timber.
“Boots on the ground” are a key component of the inventory process involving a Bluesource team that will measure and monitor the trees in each inventory. All of the data collected is analyzed through Bluesource’s peer-reviewed process to register the amount of carbon the forest stores and, therefore, the credits that are available for purchase.
Additional data-gathering relating to carbon sequestration or storing is high-tech, including satellite-gathered information like “light detection and ranging,” or lidar, which bounces lasers off the trees and makes 3D representations based on the time it takes the reflected light to get back to the laser source, and “synthetic-aperture radar,” which makes high resolution images using radio waves.
“We don’t want to let anybody have the false impression that we get some fancy satellite images and do some calculations from there. It’s quite intensive and hands-on,” said Bluesource Senior Director of Marketing and Media Relations Jeanethe H. Falvey.
The property will be enrolled in the American Carbon Registry — the first private carbon registry in the world created in 1996 — which involves a number of rules and sets of guidance about how to manage, measure, track and calculate the carbon stores.
A “rigorous third-party verification audit” will also be done on the carbon calculations before credits will be approved by the registry, after which the credits can be sold.
The Bluesource representatives are aware of public perception of companies that want carbon credits — “smokestack companies” billowing massive amounts of carbon dioxide, seeking the credits to rationalize the continued polluting. But that has not been their experience.
“We’re very cautious about ‘greenwashing’ and who we engage with,” Ms. Falvey said. “We want to make sure that everyone is doing this for legitimate outcomes.”
Carbon customers run across myriad sectors, from airlines and tech companies to the gas and oil industry with which Bluesource has also worked to supply technology to reduce methane emissions.
“Their success and our success are intertwined,” Ms. Falvey said. “So if we feel like there’s going to be a risk there, that’s something we go back and discuss. We’re all in this together and if there’s one client that takes it in a negative direction — we recognize how precarious the (carbon market) can seem based on it being complex and difficult to understand — that’s where the skepticism can run rampant. We want to make sure this is wholly transparent and as accountable as possible because integrity is the name of the game.”
The logging aspect of the management will be handled for Bluesource locally by LandVest in Lowville.
While Bluesource’s approach to timber harvest is a departure from the traditional logging practices in the area, Jamie G. Houston, president of the Sustainable Forest Co., said LandVest is engaged and has committed to the new process.
Ms. Worthington, who is LandVest’s direct contact for the project, said she has had a “very positive” experience with Bluesource’s partners.
“The contract is set up so there’s not incentive for them to harvest more trees,” she said. “It’s set up to prioritize the management goals we have so they’re not losing money by not cutting trees, and I think that’s critical.”
Empire Riverlands management will also be monitored by a third-party forest sustainability auditing organization, the Forest Stewardship Council, although that is not required.
Mr. Houston said Bluesource goes beyond basic requirements because it keeps the effort on track but also because the feedback from the audit helps them improve their work.
In addition to a change in perspective on tree harvest, Bluesource also approaches reforestation differently by not replanting their properties to regenerate culled forest. Instead, Bluesource gives forests time to regenerate their own tree population because they “are pretty good at that,” Ms. Worthington said, and usually come back healthier and without invasive species that can be a hazard of replanting.
To that end, areas that were more recently or heavily forested by former owners of the properties will be left to regenerate for some years before any harvesting will take place there again.
What won’t change on the Empire Riverlands parcels are the opportunities for local use of the land. Hunting contracts — which provide an additional revenue stream for property owners — and recreational easements and partnerships that were already in place will still be honored.
“These are large acreages in these communities and we want to be part of the community. That’s something that Bluesource stands for and we’re going to continue to do that,” Mr. Houston said. “We believe in supporting working forest, the locals around the community and everything that goes with that. It’s our belief that these are awesome natural properties that people should go out there and enjoy. That’s our goal and so we’re going to do it the best way that we can that protects everybody and keeps everybody safe. We want people to get out there and enjoy them.”
Ms. Worthington added that there have also been some discussions about the potential for new recreation opportunities for hikers and bikers in some areas.
ATV trails are not likely to be included in new recreation project discussions that will be led by the state.
These north country forest properties are Bluesource’s first self-owned carbon sequestration project and are a small part of Bluesource Sustainable Forestry’s goal of purchasing over 1 million acres of forest to manage sustainably and trap more carbon.
Bluesource LLC was co-founded in 2001 by Bill Townsend, who is now the acting chairman and chief strategy officer according to the company’s website. Ms. Falvey said he started the company out of concern for the growing climate crisis and realization that he had to try to help.