Mississippi River To Get Tree Plantings

BATON ROUGE (AP) — In an effort to reach a voluntary greenhouse gas reduction goal, Disney is helping pay for a reforestation project in the lower Mississippi River that will help plant trees on 2,000 acres in the next two years.

         The program is using private funding from Disney along with U.S. Department of Agriculture conservation money to help volunteer landowners plant trees on their property. That money will help pay for about 1,500 acres of the reforestation work. Additional funding is being collected to meet the 2,000-acre goal.

         In turn, the amount of greenhouse gases those trees are expected to absorb will help create carbon credits. The carbon credits will be given back to Disney to meet its greenhouse gas reduction goals, according to a news release from The Nature Conservancy, another partner in the program.

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         "They're doing it as part of their corporate sustainability program," said Jim Bergan, director of freshwater and wetland conservation at The Nature Conservancy.

         Disney officials did not return requests for comment.

         There already have been 600 acres enrolled in the program, and the carbon credits have been verified through the voluntary greenhouse gas program Verified Carbon Standard.

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         "The work in the Mississippi River delta has been putting forests back to where forests were cleared," Bergen said. "We're trying to put the forest back together."

         The Nature Conservancy project is expected to help sequester more than 517,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide during the next 70 years.

         According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency emissions calculator, this is equal to the yearly emissions from 108,842 cars or the carbon dioxide emissions resulting from the yearly energy use for 47,172 homes.

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         The way the program works is a landowner first enrolls in a U.S. Department of Agriculture program for one of a couple different conservation servitudes. The options include the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service wetland reserve program for a 30-year easement or the USDA's Farm Service Agency contract program, generally for a 15-year easement.

         Landowners have the option to go with a permanent easement available through the federal government or have The Nature Conservancy take over the easement. The Nature Conservancy offers $500 more per acre as an incentive, which helps the landowner with more money and also is a benefit to the federal government by freeing up additional money for other conservation projects.

         In addition, The Nature Conservancy pays for all of the restoration costs outside of any hydrology work the landowner might need to do.

         "We can do some really good projects on private land," said Kevin Norton, state conservationist with NRCS. "It's a win for us. It allows us to work with more landowners."

         Norton said the National Resources Conservation Service in Louisiana gets more conservation easement applications every year than it's able to fund. Funding cuts in the 2014 farm bill mean that instead of the 12,000 to 18,000 acres it's able to fund every year, this year the agency is looking at being able to enroll only 10,000 acres in the program. The partnership with The Nature Conservancy could free up enough money to do 500 to 750 more acres, he said.

         The work focuses on property in the backwater swamp areas of the Mississippi River in northeast Louisiana. The first 600 acres enrolled in the program so far are located mainly in Franklin Parish, with some projects in Catahoula, Richland, Ouachita and West Feliciana parishes.

         The permanent easement from The Nature Conservancy allows the landowners to continue to make money off their land from logging if they have a forestry management plan approved by conservancy. In addition, hunting, fishing and leasing the land for outdoor activity is allowed, he said.

         The goal is to take large areas of marginal farmland that was likely cleared of forest at some point in the past.

         "It's just another tool for landowners to consider," he said. The preference is to enroll large parcels of land because it takes just as much time and effort to enroll 50 acres as it does 500, Norton said.

         He added there needs to be some patience on the part of landowners to get through the process with The Nature Conservancy's help.

         While the bugs of the program were still being worked out, the first project in West Feliciana Parish took 21/2 years to complete. However, the closing took only about eight months to accomplish.

         "The new one will take less time," he said, with the ultimate goal of getting the time from enrollment to close down to six months.

         – by AP/ Reporter Amy Wold with The Advocate

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