Carbon Captured by Coastal & Ocean Habitats Can Advance States’ Climate Goals: Experts discuss growing ‘blue carbon’ data and resources, and their potential role in policy

Coastal wetlands support a huge range of life on Earth and provide the major benefit of capturing and storing carbon—so-called “blue carbon.” Conserving and restoring these ecosystems can contribute to broader efforts that combat climate change.

Because states in the U.S. largely set the policies governing their coastlines, they have opportunities to prominently incorporate blue carbon into their climate policies and goals. And because officials increasingly realize the role quality data plays in determining how much blue carbon is contained in their coastal habitats, including salt marshes, forested tidal wetlands, mangroves, and seagrass beds, The Pew Charitable Trusts recently hosted a webinar that brought together experts from two organizations focused on collecting blue carbon data and making it readily available.

The discussion with representatives of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) and the Pacific Northwest Blue Carbon Working Group (PNW Blue Carbon Working Group) detailed information and tools that can help states better understand their blue carbon resources and how officials can enhance and improve their states’ data.

Recognizing the role that blue carbon can play in advancing climate goals, Pew began working on the issue in 2018, engaging with agencies, researchers, and stakeholders in multiple countries and states. Jennifer Browning, director of Pew’s Conserving Marine Life in the U.S. project, told the webinar’s attendees, “As states continue to integrate blue carbon into state climate strategies over the coming year, we see an opportunity to help states come together to address common issues and challenges around developing blue carbon inventories, setting goals, and developing management strategies.” 

Browning specifically noted work underway in three states: Oregon, which is the first state to incorporate blue carbon in a proposed carbon sequestration and storage goal; California, which also is enacting policies to incorporate blue carbon into management of its natural and working lands; and North Carolina, which is accounting for the carbon sequestration and storage ability of its seagrass habitats, the first state to do so.

Browning also announced that this webinar is part of a forum Pew is building for states interested in incorporating coastal blue carbon into their climate mitigation goals and plans. The network plans to share information, create and disseminate scientifically sound materials, and provide experts and state policy officials with opportunities to discuss the latest in blue carbon science and application in the state policy arena.

Research led to states’ “blue carbon report card”

A major focus of the webinar was Pew-funded research conducted by SERC, which curates the Coastal Carbon Atlas, a central digital compilation of global blue carbon data.

“States are really the engine for a lot of the blue carbon science policy that’s developing in the United States, and trying to support state level actions is an important goal,” Pat Megonigal, SERC’s associate director for research, said during the webinar.

Jim Holmquist and Jaxine Wolfe of SERC developed four metrics to assess data in the Coastal Carbon Atlas for coastal states:

  • Data quantity (the number of “cores”—or soil samples—relative to coastal wetlands area in the state).
  • Data quality (how valuable the cores are in assessing blue carbon).
  • Spatial representation (how well dispersed sampling efforts are across the state’s coastal wetlands).
  • Habitat representation (how well habitats sampled match their estimated area in the state).

SERC then developed a “blue carbon report card” that provides a composite score for each state across all four metrics, summarized in the map below. For rankings by individual categories, see the State-Level Blue Carbon Data Report Card in the Coastal Carbon Research Coordination Network Blue Carbon Inventory report.

The highest-scoring states were Massachusetts, Oregon, Louisiana, and Washington, Wolfe, SERC’s research technician, told webinar attendees, with Delaware and California also rating highly. All of those states generally shared three traits: local investment in sufficient, high-quality data; research projects launched in the past five years in response to emerging blue carbon science; and researchers who actively collaborate with the Coastal Carbon Research Coordination Network, a SERC-sponsored consortium of biochemists, ecologists, social scientists, and managers working to expand coastal carbon science.

The research determined that at least five states had room for improvement in their data collection and/or representation: Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia.

“Collaboration between researchers and networks to increase data access is really important,” Wolfe said. This includes collaboration to synthesize existing data, publishing new data to increase access to data, and ensuring data is accessible and well documented, she added.

Lack of data may drive low ratings

The reasons states didn’t fare well on the report card could largely be because relevant data isn’t yet publicly available, Wolfe said. “Don’t be discouraged if your state is not performing the way you’d expect. These findings provide a baseline to enable targeted sampling efforts, and measure future progress.” Blue carbon scientists hope the inventory encourages public data sharing, which will improve results for all states, she added.

Also presenting on the webinar was Chris Janousek, an assistant professor at Oregon State University and a member of the PNW Blue Carbon Working Group, which helped provide data for the SERC analysis. Established in 2014, the group’s work now spans from northern California to British Columbia.

Birds take flight off the marshes of the Nature Conservancy’s 4,122-acre Port Susan Bay Preserve in Washington. Credit Bridget Bresaw/TNC

In a recent study of blue carbon stocks in the Pacific Northwest, the working group found that seagrass meadows held the smallest amount of carbon stocks, marshes offered intermediate levels, and forested tidal wetlands—including conifers such as the Sitka spruce and other trees that tolerate brackish conditions—stored considerable amounts of carbon. Oregon’s forested tidal wetlands—which support fisheries, improve water quality, and protect communities from flooding—store more carbon per acre than almost any ecosystem on Earth, but have declined 95% from historic levels.

“The high carbon stocks they hold provides additional motivation for thinking about their restoration and conservation,” Janousek said. The group has now created a database with data from Mexico to Alaska to help researchers, policymakers, and other stakeholders.

States should share their data

Both SERC and the PNW Blue Carbon Working Group stressed that they can help states understand blue carbon and how conserving and restoring coastal habitats can advance climate goals. They encouraged researchers to contribute to the expanding understanding of blue carbon by sharing their data for integration into SERC’s Coastal Carbon Atlas.

“We work with a lot of people’s data,” said Holmquist, a SERC research associate. “So, if you’re shy about your data being messy or poorly formatted, don’t be shy in front of us.” In addition, SERC is working to develop interactive tools to help users better interpret the atlas’ data.

To learn more, state officials and researchers can contact SERC and the PNW Blue Carbon Working Group.

Pew strongly supports this work because better understanding of coastal habitats’ blue carbon contributions will bolster science-based policies and management, which in turn can advance climate mitigation, adaptation, and biodiversity.

Alex Clayton is a principal associate and Sylvia Troost is a senior manager at the Pew Charitable Trusts. They work on incorporating blue carbon into climate action plans for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Conserving Marine Life in the United States project.

This article was originally published by the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Conserving Marine Life in the United States Project. Read the original article here.

U.S. Nature4Climate recently convened an expert panel to discuss the challenges and opportunities surrounding blue carbon as a climate mitigation strategy, including strategies to protect and restore coastal wetlands. Read a synopsis of that conversation in our Decision-Makers Guide to Natural Climate Solutions Science.

Gisel Garza: Seed Hunter

Like most hunters in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, Gisel Garza rises early and heads out to the forest in search of prey. But instead of deer, feral hogs or wild turkeys, Garza is looking for species like Barbados cherry, Texas ebony and fiddlewood.

Garza is a seed hunter. And even though the survival of the forests and their wildlife depends on her efforts, few people do what she does, and there are not enough seeds in nurseries. That’s a big problem.

Located where Texas’ Gulf Coast meets the border with Mexico, the Rio Grande Valley is characterized by dense, shrubby thornforests known as Tamaulipan thornscrub. These rugged-looking trees harbor a dazzling array of species — more than 1,200 plants, 530 birds and 300 butterflies, in addition to the United States’ only population of ocelots — an endangered species. The forests are threatened by development and climate change — only 10% of them remain.

“Overall, regardless of the level of difficulty when collecting seeds, it’s a very rewarding process, especially when we see the seeds that we collect planted and grown into seedlings that can be used for restoration of our thornforests.”

Gisel Garza, Project Manager for the Rio Grade Valley, American Forests

Seedlings are desperately needed to restore the 85,000 acres of thornforest in the Valley that have been identified as a high priority for reforestation. It would take 85 million seedlings to reforest that many acres, a number that would take 166 years to grow at the current rate of production among nurseries.

At the national level, the seed shortage is even more dire. A 2021 study co-led by American Forests concluded that meeting national reforestation goals of 64 million acres by 2040 would require increasing the number of seedlings produced each year by 1.7 billion — a 2.3-fold increase from current production levels. For that reason, American Forests sees the Rio Grande Valley seed collection work as a pilot project in what will hopefully be a national model for addressing the seedling shortage.

Gisel Garza (left) Habitat Restoration Specialist for American Forests, helping her reforestation crew load several crates of Turk’s Cap and other plants for planting on Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge tracts near the Rio Grande, south Texas.

So Garza spends her days traveling the Valley’s backroads scouting for seeds ripe for harvesting. She’s looking for about 30 types of flowering trees and shrubs, including Wright’s acacia, Texas persimmon, snake eyes and guayacan (soap bush). She travels among the trees on foot or sometimes — to reach those high branches — uses the back of her trusty Ford pickup.

She usually collects on protected federal lands, helping to meet the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s regional seed-collection goals, but more recently has also begun working with private landowners interested in conservation. She has also teamed up with the State of Texas to collect on state-owned lands. Garza takes the seeds she collects to the Fish and Wildlife Service nursery in Alamo, Texas, where she processes them for storage until the next year’s planting season. It’s essential to remove the pulp, or separate the seeds from their pods, and then store them at the right temperature and moisture conditions. If the collection location is too far away from Alamo, she will sometimes process them at home before transporting them to the nursery.

Before any of that work takes place, Garza seeks out potential collection locations with the goal of finding as many different parent plants as possible to increase genetic diversity. Understanding the phenology — or life cycle — of specific plants in relation to how they are influenced by climate variations over time is critical to this work.

“An essential step before collecting seeds is to scout for plants that we could potentially collect from in the future and document their phenology,” she says. “If we know for example that certain species are producing flowers at a certain time, then we can follow up with these plants to see if they produce fruits.”

Garza’s ties to the Rio Grande Valley are deep — she was born and raised here and is passionate about saving it for future generations. She joined American Forests in June after completing her master’s degree in biology at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, where she researched plant pathology, endangered plant conservation and climate change modeling.

Her connection to the area gives her a passion for the work, even though it can be hard due to harsh weather extremes or thorny species like Wright’s acacia: “Overall, regardless of the level of difficulty when collecting seeds, it’s a very rewarding process, especially when we see the seeds that we collect planted and grown into seedlings that can be used for restoration of our thornforests.”

Freshly picked Guayacan fruits await processing. Guayacan, or soapbush, is native to the Rio Grande Valley. Its root bark is often used as soap in Mexico, hence the nickname. Photo credit: Larry Ditto/American Forests

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is a partner in the seed-collection project that includes American Forests and the Fish and Wildlife Service. The university hosts a research training component called “Empowering Future Agricultural Scientists” that gives undergraduates field and lab experience related to food security, the environment and climate change.

Brian Kittler, American Forests’ senior director of forest restoration, sees huge potential in scaling up the Rio Grande Valley seed-collection project. He envisions a “Seed Collection Corps” that will deploy seed hunters in priority locations around the country. One of those is the Western U.S., where record-breaking fires and climate change-induced drought have left states, such as California, Oregon and Washington, with vast landscapes needing reforestation and little-to-no seed available to do this.

California, for example, is facing a potentially catastrophic shortage of seeds and collectors. Only a handful of contractors in California collect pine cones, and a recent spatial analysis from CAL FIRE indicates there aren’t nearly enough cone seeds to reforest recent burn scars. To reforest just 25% of private, non-industrial forests that have recently burned, the state needs to collect over 69,000 bushels of cones. At the current rate of collection, it will take almost 200 years for that amount of seed to be gathered. But, as Kittler says, “They don’t have the people to collect the seed, and cone quality is increasingly variable and infrequent.”

Further north in southcentral Oregon’s Fremont-Winema National Forest, the prolonged drought and ongoing climate change have reduced seed production in forests to near zero. The last large cone collection was 35 years ago, and recent fires have burned more than 643,000 acres, which are unlikely to regenerate naturally.

“If you don’t have the seeds, there’s no restoration efforts, so by having Gisel out there doing the seed collection, we’re meeting that challenge head on.”

Brian Kittler, Senior Director of Forest Restoration, American Forests

“We are losing seed sources,” Kittler says. “The scale of these forest fires means they are burning or nearly burning critical seed sources for entire seed zones.”

The good news is that Kittler and his team are working on a long-term strategy to address this shortage — of both seeds and the people to collect them — with a goal of dramatically increasing the awareness and potential solutions around the issue nationwide. Currently, American Forests has six seed-collection agreements in four states — Texas, Idaho, Montana and California — with plans to develop a much broader strategy. And in Texas, Kittler notes, the organization has also partnered with the Fish and Wildlife Service to seek out and boost supplies of climate-resilient seeds.

With only 10% remaining, the Rio Grande Valley’s thornforests are increasingly threatened by development & climate change. Over the past 22 years, American Forests has planted more than 2 million thornforest trees & other native plants across more than 4,000 acres of former agricultural land. Photo Credit: James Foguth, Digital Development Communications / American Forests

Congress has also addressed the shortage, primarily through the REPLANT Act, a part of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that lifts the cap on the Forest Service’s Reforestation Trust Fund. The infrastructure bill also earmarks $200 million in funding to bolster the National Seed Strategy for Rehabilitation and Restoration managed by federal land agencies. One proposed solution to address a shortage of seed collectors is a revival of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which employed 3 million people during the Great Depression to plant trees, build trails and pursue other outdoor vocations.

Kittler sees seed collection as the foundation of the conservation plan in the Rio Grande Valley and anywhere else that restoration is taking place. “If you don’t have the seeds, there’s no restoration efforts, so by having Gisel out there doing the seed collection, we’re meeting that challenge head on,” he says.

Garza agrees, and points out why, even in the face of daunting challenges, her job is so meaningful: “I’ve grown up seeing forested areas torn down, so it means a lot to be able to help conserve the areas that remain and potentially plant areas that have been lost here in the Valley.”

Lee Poston is a communications advisor who works with mission-driven organizations and writes from University Park, MD.

Click here to learn more about American Forests’ efforts to restore thornforest trees to Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.

For more information about the capacity and workforce challenges impacting efforts to reforest America, read U.S. Nature4Climate’s blog article, “Seeing the Forest for the Seedlings: Challenges and Opportunities in the Effort to Reforest America“.

This article was originally published in the Winter/Spring 2022 issue of American Forests Magazine.

America the Beautiful, in Action: The Nature Conservancy's Recommendations for an Atlas to 2030 Conservation Goals

Photo credit: Morgan Heim

America’s landscapes are unlike anything in the world. The nation’s mountains, rivers, forests, coasts, farms and more are central to our identity and a backbone of our economy, our communities and our very lives.

But the twin crises of climate change and global biodiversity loss present an existential threat to these places and our future. If we do not act, we risk losing more of our natural world forever.

The America the Beautiful initiative launched last year is the United States’ response to this threat. It’s an ambitious but achievable goal to conserve, connect and restore 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030. 

But how do we get there?

For over 70 years, The Nature Conservancy has worked to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends, and many of the same principles and strategies we apply in our work will be critical to meeting this goal as well.

We recently submitted our recommendations to the federal government as it develops an “atlas” to guide and measure the progress toward this goal, including requirements and benchmarks for what counts. In our comments, we said America the Beautiful can only be successful if it is guided by five key principles:

  • Representation and Resilience. This effort must look at the diversity and quality of ecosystems represented, as well as the connectivity between and within ecosystems—not just a simple percentage of conserved lands and waters.
  • Equity and Inclusion. The America the Beautiful goal can only be achieved through strong, transparent and collaborative engagement with all stakeholders. It must also include attention to diversity, equity, inclusion and justice.
  • Durability. To last, conservation actions need support from local stakeholders. It is critical to represent a community’s needs and perspectives.
  • Effective Management. Long-term conservation must include transparent management goals along with specific measures of success and sufficient capacity – including workforce, policies and incentives – to do the work.
  • Assuring Adequate Funding. To successfully implement these conservation, management and restoration efforts restoration efforts must receive funding at a scale that can meet the need.

What counts as conserved lands, waters and ocean?

Conservation Corps of the Forgotten Coast members at St. Joseph Bay State Buffer Preserve, Port St. Joe, FL. Photo credit: Andrew Kornylak

We know public lands and waters will have an essential role, but they alone won’t be enough to reach this goal. It will take working with private and working landowners, Indigenous communities and stakeholders at all levels to determine what kind of places should count as “conserved” and which places are the best options.

To help answer those questions, we recommended several factors the America the Beautiful initiative should consider. For example, although the history of conservation in the United States has been primarily land-based, all realms – land, freshwater and ocean – are interconnected and should be represented equally in this effort. It should also be inclusive of all ecological regions and ecosystem types within each realm.

With climate change leading to habitat fragmentation and driving global biodiversity loss, the initiative should focus on conserving climate-resilient sites and maintaining and expanding connectivity between those sites. This allows animal and plant species to migrate and adapt.

Maximizing natural climate solutions and carbon sequestration is also important, so attention to places with healthy trees and soils as well as marine and coastal habitats that absorb carbon will play a critical role. This should include an assessment of existing carbon stocks, as well as a better understanding of how climate change is impacting these realms.

And while the success of America the Beautiful depends on the resilience, distribution and connectivity between conservation areas, some areas may require restoration and improved management to maximize their ecosystems’ health and function.

Not Easy, But Essential

Conserving 30 percent of lands and waters is an ambitious goal that will take coordinated and often complex approaches. Yet we know from experience that if we guide this effort by science, collaboration and these key principles we can create a lasting future for our lands, waters and ocean.

Additional Resources: American Conservation & Stewardship Atlas Comments (.pdf)

Article re-published courtesy of The Nature Conservancy. Read the original article here.

Learn more about the crucial role that land conservation can play in addressing both the climate and biodiversity crises by visiting U.S. Nature4Climate’s “Conservation IS Climate Action” website.