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Reforesting Old Sabine Bottom

A newly created forest will absorb heat-trapping greenhouse gasses.

By Steve Wilson

Several times a year, the Sabine River spills its backwash into Old Sabine Bottom and fills it up like a stoppered sink. The water slithers along the ground of the flat forest, slowly wrapping itself around oak, elm and hackberry trunks as it rises. Most visitors appreciate these trees as serene bathing beauties. To a group of state, energy and environmental interests, they’re something more: storage containers for carbon dioxide.

In April, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, The Conservation Fund, Reliant Energy and Environmental Synergy, Inc. announced the near-completion of a joint project to purchase and reforest 569 acres of pastureland adjoining Old Sabine Bottom. The acquisition raises the acreage of this wildlife management area to 5,736, reclaims habitats for fish and wildlife and provides other environmental benefits, such as better filtration of a watershed that extends to the Gulf of Mexico. But it’s the new forest’s potential to absorb 215,000 tons of heat-trapping greenhouse gases during the next 70 years that attracted Reliant’s interest and made the deal possible.

Acting as a middleman to speed up the process and cut through red tape, The Conservation Fund bought the East Texas piece of ranch land for $600,000 and sold it to TPWD. Houston-based Reliant Energy then paid Synergy $160,000 to plant 162,000 water and willow oaks and native pecan seedlings and TPWD $50 an acre for upkeep. Although an energy corporation, a government agency and an environmental organization working together may sound like some version of a priest-rabbi-minister joke, it’s a model that likely will grow more common as industries embrace carbon sequestration through reforestation (say that three times fast).

Anticipating that the White House’s voluntary program to curb carbon dioxide output eventually will become regulatory law, energy companies such as Reliant have been getting a head start. Taking steps now to reduce pollution not only wins them public relations points, but also builds a reserve of “carbon credits” that they may use one day to offset required upgrades or sell to other companies through the Chicago Climate Exchange.

With many technologies for capturing and storing carbon dioxide still under development, American industries have turned to the simplest form of carbon sequestration: planting trees. Jim Wisniewski, CEO of Environmental Synergy, Inc., estimates that an acre of trees can lock away 400 tons of carbon in 70 years. Considering that it paid less than $1 a ton, Reliant got a good deal. In European countries that have signed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to reduce emissions, these units trade for $6 to $12.

The concept of tree planting to combat the greenhouse effect has even filtered down to the consumer level. With marketing names such as “carbon neutral” and “carbon offsets,” environmental outfits such as Future Forests have established scales by which guilty donors can calculate how many trees they can plant to balance out the pollution emitted by their cars and airplane flights. As the idea gains currency, critics have begun to decry the practice as a quick-fix measure to put off paying for carbon-free technologies. Some environmentalists charge that using trees as carbon vampires could even create incentives to clear old-growth forests that can’t absorb any more carbon and replace them with young and hungry new ones. And certain scientists question the reliability of storing carbon in vessels at the mercy of disease and natural catastrophes.

“Let’s say you have a forest fire,” says Charles Jackson, a climate specialist with the Institute for Geophysics at the University of Texas. “All that carbon basically goes right back. So it takes you 100 years to grow it, and it takes a one-week period to bring that back to zero. Certainly it’s a volatile container.”

Larry Selzer, president of The Conservation Fund, says sturdy bottomland hardwoods in a wet habitat like Old Sabine Bottom will likely resist such problems. However, he acknowledges that the new forest will absorb only a small percentage of the millions of tons of carbon dioxide Reliant’s 117 power plants put in the air. Reforestation, he says, is but one of many options that industries should pursue to curb their pollution.

“Perhaps at some point we will as a country have developed the technologies that will allow us to transition to a carbon-free emission environment, but that’s not in the near term,” he says. “Those technologies may be five, 10, 20 years away. In the meantime, carbon sequestration through reforestation is very valuable, very tangible, and over that time frame, very secure.”

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