New Polling Reveals Overwhelming Bi-partisan Support For Natural Climate Solutions

New polling conducted by U.S. Nature4Climate reveals exceptionally strong support among U.S. voters for expanded implementation of Natural Climate Solutions. Indeed, few issues generate this level of bi-partisan support. 

Our poll indicates that voters attach a high-level of importance to implementing specific Natural Climate Solutions strategies. They also overwhelmingly support a number of approaches for providing assistance to farmers and forest landowners who adopt climate-smart management practices on their land, and supporting conservation and restoration activities in forests, grasslands, and coastal wetlands. While Natural Climate Solutions cannot solve climate change alone, and must necessarily be complemented by efforts to reduce fossil fuel emissions, this poll demonstrates that American voters believe nature should play an important role in our efforts to address the climate crisis.

Breaking Down the Numbers: Natural Climate Solutions Supported by 92% of Voters

Poll Question:

“Natural Climate Solutions are actions that reduce emissions and increase carbon storage in forests, farms, grasslands and wetlands. Practices that could be included are actions like…

  • Encouraging farming techniques that retain carbon in the soil, such as planting cover crops;
  • Conserving and replanting forests;
  • Conserving and restoring coastal wetlands; and
  • Reducing the loss of natural areas, planting trees, and providing parks in communities.

Efforts to expand these practices could be supported by laws and public funding approved at the federal, state, and local levels.

Does that sound like something you would support or oppose?”

In our May 2023 national online survey of 1,000 registered voters, conducted by the bipartisan team of FM3 Research and New Bridge Strategies, voters were read a brief description of Natural Climate Solutions (at left), and asked whether they would support or oppose expanding implementation of these practices through laws and public funding at the federal, state, and local level. Overall, an overwhelming 92% majority of voters supported expansion of Natural Climate Solutions, with only 8% opposed. Support was also strong across party: 95% of Democrats, 95% of independents, and 86% of Republicans support expanding Natural Climate Solutions implementation. Moreover, in rural areas, voters supported Natural Climate Solutions expansion by an 89% to 11% margin. Even among the 17% of voters nationwide who do not believe climate change is happening, a large 77% majority support Natural Climate Solutions.

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From Urban Tree Planting to Climate-Smart Farming, a Wide Range of Natural Climate Solutions are Important to Voters

Voters were read a list of potential elements of a proposal to invest in natural climate solutions, and were told that “each of these actions either reduce emissions or store carbon;” most of the specific items also cited additional environmental and economic benefits. As the chart below illustrates, large bi-partisan majorities believe that a wide range of practices – including natural land protection, tree planting, urban forestry, wildfire management, coastal restoration, grassland restoration, and various climate-smart agriculture and forestry practices – are very important actions that can be taken to invest in Natural Climate Solutions. The upshot: Policy and corporate decision-makers have a wide menu of options for implementing Natural Climate Solutions.

Policies to Scale Up Natural Climate Solutions are Popular with Voters

The 2023 Farm Bill presents an opportunity for federal policy makers to support many Natural Climate Solutions practices by providing financial and technical assistance to farmers and forest landowners. As indicated in the chart below, our poll reveals broad, bi-partisan support for a number of proposals for scaling up implementation of Natural Climate Solutions that could be addressed in the Farm Bill. This suggests a wide range of flexibility in charting a path forward for expansion of Natural Climate Solutions, and little political risk in supporting these policy options.

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Conclusion: The Broad Support For Natural Climate Solutions Presents An Opportunity For Bi-Partisan Climate Action

Our research shows that voters believe that many of America’s diverse array of landscapes – from farms, to forests, to cities, grasslands, and coastlands – should be incorporated into these efforts. Voters also grant policy makers a wide degree of flexibility for charting a path forward on Natural Climate Solutions by virtue of their overwhelming support for a wide range of strategies, suggesting substantial room for bi-partisan collaboration and compromise.

In a Divided Congress, Four Opportunities for Cooperation on Nature

December closed one of the most productive U.S. federal legislative sessions for nature ever. By the time the 117th U.S. Congress gaveled out, it had advanced the country’s largest investment in climate action; a massive bipartisan infrastructure package that heavily invests in nature, clean energy, and climate resilience; and a host of bills related to water infrastructure, natural climate solutions, coastal and ocean resilience.

Any one of these advances would have been impressive in itself, but to do them all in just two years shows how far we’ve come in making conservation and climate action central and urgent policy issues in the United States. Some of these victories passed on party-line votes, but the vast majority of measures passed last Congress had strong bipartisan support. 

For The Nature Conservancy (TNC), it has never been about who controls Congress or the White House that defines our policy objectives, but where the science tells us we must act. As the 118th Congress settles in, there are several opportunities to build on the progress of the last Congress and continue bipartisan support for nature.

Farm Bill

© Mark Godfrey/The Nature Conservancy

Arguably the most significant opportunity is the next Farm Bill. The bill has the biggest impact on private land conservation in America, funding programs and practices that invest in U.S. croplands, rangelands, forests, and pasturelands. It is the best opportunity to boost practices that benefit both the health of these landscapes and the producers and communities that depend on them.

Congress typically renews the Farm Bill every five years, often with strong, bipartisan cooperation. The 2018 Farm Bill was the most conservation-focused yet, increasing funding for easements that help farmers conserve their lands, enacting new policies to improve the management of private forest lands, and many other steps. This year, lawmakers will begin their work on the next Farm Bill, which has the potential to drive even more resources toward private land conservation and a host of other priorities, including clean energy, equity, and inclusion.

Recovering America’s Wildlife

© Chris Helzer/TNC

Another opportunity for bipartisan cooperation is a bill that is critical to reversing the country’s dwindling biodiversity. The bipartisan Recovering America’s Wildlife Act (RAWA) nearly made it over the finish line last year, and would be the most consequential bill for U.S. wildlife conservation since the Endangered Species Act. RAWA would invest $1.4 billion a year in state and tribal wildlife agencies’ time-tested efforts to help wildlife species at risk of extinction recover.

For much of the last Congress, the momentum was behind the act, and we still see significant opportunity for Congress to keep that momentum in the new Congress. With a third of U.S. wildlife species at risk of extinction – which in turn endangers our communities at large – Washington has no more time to waste.

Bristol Bay

© Clark James Mishler

It may also be necessary for lawmakers to conserve a place unlike anywhere on Earth. Alaska’s Bristol Bay is a pristine watershed that supports the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery and is home to 31 federally recognized Tribes that have lived and sustained themselves there for generations. It is also threatened by what would be one of the largest open pit mines in the world.

For over two decades, TNC has worked in partnership with individuals and regional organizations in Bristol Bay to analyze the Pebble Mine’s potential impact and working toward greater protections for the lands and waters of the region. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week finalized its decision to prohibit and restrict the use of certain waters in Bristol Bay necessary for developing Pebble Mine, there may be a need for additional protections to ensure the broader watershed can continue to be protected in the years to come. 

Ensuring the Success of Last Session’s Wins

As much as it is essential to advance new policies, it is just as important to preserve those wins for nature already in place. The 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law and last year’s climate bill are two of the most significant steps the United States has ever taken to preserve nature and humanity’s future. Now that they are both law, these investments must be preserved and effectively used to enhance resilience in the face of growing climate impacts and mitigate climate change. Doing so will ensure the best possible outcomes for people and nature.

Science such as our Resilient Lands Mapping Tool and Power of Place-West can help guide that work, and forthcoming policy research from TNC and partners on issues ranging from addressing U.S. wildfire risks to curbing U.S. biodiversity loss can serve as a springboard for further bipartisan cooperation.

The enormous legislative accomplishments of the last two years were not anomalies but just the latest additions to the incredible progress Congress has made in recent years on climate, resilience, clean energy, and conservation.

Many of those past victories were made during times of divided government. We know this Congress can do the same.

Former U. S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is a heart and lung transplant surgeon and global board chair of The Nature Conservancy, one of the most wide-reaching conservation organizations in the world with over 400 scientists across 76 countries. 

At the time of publishing this article, Darci Vetter was the Global Head, Policy and Government Relations for The Nature Conservancy. She led TNC’s work to expand what is possible in conservation through transformational policies that achieve equitable climate and conservation outcomes for people and nature. She is an expert in international trade, agriculture and environmental policy.

This article was originally published by The Nature Conservancy on February 7th, 2023.

Explore Natural Climate Solutions in action across the United States in U.S. Nature4Climate’s Building Ambition Through Action page.

A Path Forward For Climate Action in a Divided Washington

After a hard-fought mid-term election, divided government once again reigns in Washington, DC. In this era of heightened partisanship, the specter of gridlock has re-emerged as Democrats and Republicans stake out divergent positions across a whole host of issues, including climate change. Will these divisions in the Congress constitute a requiem for climate action for the coming two years? Or will the two parties succeed in harmonizing their agendas, developing a new path forward on climate change? 

Broad Bipartisan Support

A wide, brightly lit road to bipartisan climate action beckons if the two parties are ready to put on their boogie shoes and follow the lead of a growing number of Americans. Natural Climate Solutions. A recent poll of 1,000 registered voters commissioned by U.S. Nature4Climate revealed overwhelming support for the expansion of Natural Climate Solutions to address climate change, with 86% supporting expansion and only 14% opposing it. Support was strong across party lines, with 93% of Democrats, 81% of independents, and 81% of Republicans supporting the expansion of practices like conserving and replanting forests, regenerative agriculture practices, and reducing the loss of natural areas. Long story short, there is very little political risk in supporting these climate strategies.

The strong support is remarkable, especially considering our poll didn’t share some of the most compelling reasons to support Natural Climate Solutions. In addition to addressing climate change, these solutions create jobs and provide new sources of income for many farmers and forest landowners. They can lower heating and cooling bills in urban communities. And provide increased habitat for wildlife. And they help improve water quality. And help strengthen resilience in urban communities, rural farmland, and coastal areas to all kinds of extreme weather. Even without hearing some of our greatest hits, voters are flocking to download the album. 

Environmental Interests & Business Interests Align

But wait a minute. Polling often frames economic growth and environmental action as a zero-sum game – where leaders must choose one or the other. Setting aside that this is a false choice – it is possible to do both at the same time – it is noteworthy that organizations representing both environmental and business interests favor the expansion of Natural Climate Solutions. It may not be surprising that The Nature ConservancyEnvironmental Defense Fund, and Natural Resources Defense Council have all embraced Natural Climate Solutions as an important climate change strategy. But so has the business community. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce supported the recently passed Growing Climate Solutions Act, which makes it easier for farmers and forest owners to participate in carbon markets. And Ceres, a network of investors, companies, and non-profits, is working to help corporations integrate Natural Climate Solutions into their climate commitments. 

Natural Climate Solutions are also strongly supported by organizations with a variety of ideological perspectives. The progressive Center for American Progress favors investment in blue carbon climate solutions and coastal restorationreforestation on both public and private lands, and supports increased funding for conservation agriculture programs. On the right, American Conservation Coalition Action, an organization representing the voice of young conservatives who support climate action, has made Natural Climate Solutions one of the main pillars of its policy agenda

Compromise is Possible

It is true that a Natural Climate Solutions bill written by Democrats may prioritize different strategies and funding mechanisms than one written by Republicans. But compromise is possible. And upcoming legislation like the Farm Bill offers an opportunity for both parties to strengthen existing programs, while supporting innovative approaches that put our lands and waters to work in the effort to tackle climate change.  It has happened before and it can happen again. 

Natural Climate Solutions are only part a comprehensive strategy to address climate change. They can complement necessary efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the energy and transportation sectors. A climate change strategy that featured ONLY Natural Climate Solutions wouldn’t work – it’d be kind of like trying to perform a rock concert with only a bass guitar. On the other hand, rock music generally sounds better with a bass in the mix (White Stripes notwithstanding). Likewise, a climate change strategy that includes Natural Climate Solutions is more effective than one that does not. The crowd-pleasing encore to this metaphorical climate change concert is that not only are many of these strategies ready to go now, but they can also help do something about the greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. While Natural Climate Solutions can’t single-handedly solve climate change, they do provide an opportunity to help break through the partisan noise and add a popular new song to our climate action playlist.

Seeking to chart a path forward on climate policy that taps into the power of America’s natural and working lands?

The Decision-Makers Guide to Natural Climate Solutions Science provides an opportunity for experts to discuss and debate the uncertainties in forest, agriculture and coastal wetland science that are limiting our efforts to implement climate-smart strategies. Click below for more.

Building a Robust Reforestation Pipeline: Key Takeaways and Recommendations from Interviews with Nursery Managers in the Northeastern United States 

Trees can improve water quality, bolster soil health, create wildlife habitat, strengthen local economics, and sequester carbon. There are a myriad of strategies by which trees can be integrated into diverse landscapes as a natural climate solution, including agroforestry (e.g. riparian buffers, windbreaks, silvopasture, alley cropping, food forests), reforesting and/or restocking forests, and urban tree planting. In the United States, reforesting and restocking forests, in particular, hold considerable climate mitigation and economic development potential: reforesting and restocking 185.4 million acres of non-federal lands could remove 156 MtCO2e per year by 2030 and support nearly seventy thousand jobs annually (Leslie-Bole 2021). 

Projects that support tree planting by national and corporate actors have had variable success globally, as planting and caring for trees long-term can be an involved and complex social and ecological process that requires critical analysis and thoughtful engagement with numerous stakeholders (Pearce 2022). The need for multifaceted collaboration with diverse stakeholders is particularly true in the U.S. where land suitable for growing trees is often situated within a patchwork of privately and publicly owned land. One pervasive challenge that undermines the potential for ecologically resilient tree planting projects in the U.S. is the nation’s weakened reforestation pipeline–the actors, processes, and materials involved in tree planting, including seeds, nurseries, and planting and post-planting actions.

The main challenges undermining the reforestation pipeline in the U.S. include: 

1. Infrastructure (nurseries and seed storage and processing facilities) 

In recent decades, the number of nurseries in the U.S., including state and federal nurseries, and seed storage and processing facilities has declined

2. Demand for trees exceeds supply

The production of trees of various age classes is lagging in the U.S. This imbalance will likely be exacerbated by the demand for trees from growing interest in restoring and reforesting ecosystems across the country. 

3. Workforce 

Job opportunities in the nursery industry can be physically taxing and are often seasonal, which poses significant challenges for job retention. Furthermore, roles are highly specialized, requiring extensive knowledge of reproductive cycles, growth requirements, phenology, and the plasticity of local flora, as well as the unique skills to collect, germinate, and grow trees. Frequent employee turnover can limit the scale and diversity of nurseries’ production.

Fortunately, recent, historic, investments in tree planting/reforestation in the U.S. have the potential to address these barriers and galvanize a robust reforestation pipeline: the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) allocates $450 million for climate-smart forestry and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) removes the cap on the Reforestation Trust Fund. These investments could support healthy and resilient forests, as well as enhance community well-being, including by creating jobs, improving water quality, building resilience to climate change, and more. It is vital that these recent–as well as any future–investments in the reforestation pipeline acknowledge that each region in the U.S. is experiencing a unique permutation of the above challenges. Place-based research, in collaboration with relevant stakeholders, is vital to understanding the unique context and needs of regions across the U.S. to develop and implement sustainable and equitable tree planting/reforestation efforts. 

To elucidate opportunities to bolster the reforestation pipeline and meet the growing demand for trees by tree planting/reforestation projects, we conducted semi-structured interviews with seven nursery managers in the Northeastern U.S. These interviews yielded key insights on the state of the reforestation pipeline in the region and nursery managers shared their unique perspectives on opportunities to improve this vital supply chain. 

The Northeast differs from other regions of the country as both forests and land suitable for NCS (e.g., floodplains, marginal croplands, pasture, abandoned lots) is dominated by private land ownership. Furthermore, natural regeneration is often the most economically viable and ecologically suitable model for reforestation in the region. In fact, the Northeast has a rich history of land use change where much of currently forested areas were once cleared and have since undergone regeneration and succession (Foster, 1992). Still, trees in and outside of forests in the Northeast are facing many challenges. For example, the implications of climate change are amplifying forest health risks (species range shifts, pests, pathogens, drought, temperature shifts) and the persistence of market pressures incentivizing forest conversion (e.g., housing development and renewable energy installations) are commonplace. As such, reforesting and restoring forests in the Northeast amidst these challenges will likely require more input and active management than the forests that returned to the region in the early twentieth century. 

Despite the challenges facing the reforestation pipeline, there is growing interest in planting trees for climate resilience, carbon sequestration, improving air quality, diversifying markets, and more. Among other strategies, current projects are focused on urban tree planting, riparian restoration, and agroforestry. According to recent models, large-scale reforestation has the greatest climate mitigation potential (35 percent) in the Northeastern U.S. (Fargione et al., 2018). Given that recent studies have illustrated that many landowners in tropical and subtropical forests are more interested in the utility trees offer rather than their climate mitigation potential, there may be a greater demand in the Northeast for trees that can enrich landscapes by offering multiple functions (e.g., trees for food, timber, and aesthetics) (Martin et al., 2022). As such, efforts to accelerate the pace and scale of tree planting/reforestation in the region will need to be advanced in close collaboration with landholders and will require a rich understanding of the challenges facing the region’s forests. 

The goal of the semi-structured interviews we conducted with nursery managers in the Northeastern U.S. was to better understand the breadth of nursery operations, nursery managers’ interests in expanding production to meet anticipated higher production, and growers’ recommendations for pivotal investment opportunities to bolster production while also providing ecological, economic, and social benefits. The individuals we spoke with manage operations that vary in size, age, location, infrastructure, objective(s), and end user(s). Interviewees included the managers of private nurseries, a state-run nursery, and a non-profit conservation nursery. The production of each nursery ranges from small shrubs, containers, and bare root. Furthermore, the size of each operation ranges from one acre and three full-time employees to 150 acres and 75 full-time employees. Lastly, the nursery managers we spoke with sell to diverse end users, including farmers interested in establishing agroforestry systems, homeowners, landscaping operations, and large-scale research, conservation, and restoration projects. 

Key takeaways from interviews with nursery managers in the Northeastern U.S.: 

1. Although nursery managers report a notable increase in demand for their products in recent years, many private nurseries noted that this increased demand has not come from tree planting initiatives. Furthermore, nursery managers were not convinced that large-scale projects would source from local nurseries, most of which are smaller and cannot offer competitive prices as compared to larger operations based in the Southeastern and Western U.S. The skepticism of private nurseries stood in contrast with nurseries with an explicit conservation or agroforestry oriented mission, who had started their production and/or were scaling up in anticipation of increased demand for trees.

2. Most nursery managers we spoke with were more interested in increasing on-site efficiencies (e.g., maximizing the number of trees produced with the least amount of external inputs) than expanding operations due to a limited land base, workforce constraints, and personal capacity. Some nursery managers were interested in expanding production through partnerships with smaller nurseries or with new growers of woody plants.

3. Nursery managers emphasized the importance of genetics, producing locally adapted trees that can survive and thrive in changing climatic conditions, and growing productive species. This sentiment is often echoed by those with experience implementing and monitoring tree planting projects.

As evidenced by these three key takeaways, developing a resilient reforestation pipeline in the U.S. can be achieved by supporting and learning from locally-focused operations and building trusted, long-term relationships with growers in distinct regions. As more detailed funding allocations for tree planting/reforestation and forest resilience are made through IRA and IIJA, as well as in the 2023 Farm Bill, the perspectives of nursery managers and other stakeholders must be considered to grow and fortify the reforestation pipeline that can meet the unique needs of regions across the country. 

Initiatives that seek to improve and increase the volume of seed stock for restoration should prioritize support for existing operations. Many private nurseries have persisted and adapted to changing markets amidst the closure of state-run nurseries. These nurseries already possess the infrastructure and skills necessary to adapt to new markets driven by tree planting/reforestation initiatives. However, uncertainty regarding local actors’ commitment to NCS and the consistency of new markets in the coming years pose significant risks for operations that are considering scaling-up production. To better coordinate production to meet anticipated increases in demand, nursery managers will require information from their end users on the species, varieties, and quantity of trees needed, as well as the projects’ timeline. Additionally, many nurseries will need to modify their existing structure to diversify offerings, such as producing younger, bare-root, trees, which are typically bought for restoration projects (versus the larger container or ball and burlap tree that nurseries typically sell at a high price point to homeowners or landscapers). Nursery managers should be involved early, as well as throughout, tree planting/reforestation initiatives’ planning processes. This sustained engagement will not only enable nursery managers to better coordinate their production with projects’ demands, but also offer opportunities for growers to provide invaluable insights on projects’ scope and implementation. Nursery managers already often provide planning guides and offer consultations, drawing on years of regionally relevant experience. This expertise will be invaluable to the long-term success of tree planting/reforestation projects. 

One strategy that could support existing operations is the establishment of local prioritization into NCS criteria. This approach would require tree planting/reforestation initiatives to source trees locally, which may help authenticate the promise of new markets for nursery managers, thus catalyzing greater investment in local supply chains. In the absence of such mechanisms, large-scale tree planting/reforestation initiatives may source stock from large growers based in the Southeastern or Western U.S. that are able to offer lower prices due to an extended growing season and the availability of relatively inexpensive land. Similar strategies that prioritize the hiring of local labor and sub-contractors for stewardship contracts on federal lands have been employed (e.g., Consistent Program of Stewardship work in El Dorado National Forest) to maximize local economic co-benefits. In addition, intentionally selecting locally adapted species for tree planting/reforestation projects can help bolster the capacity of populations to adapt to anticipated phenological changes and consequent range shifts predicted in climate change, and thus enhance the long-term success of tree planting/reforestation projects.

Strategies that prioritize local investment in concert with increased demand will continue to attract new and motivated growers to the industry. Several nursery managers we spoke with expressed interest in aggregating trees from other growers when they reached production limits to meet consistent inquiries for nursery stock. Therefore, in addition to supporting existing operations, clear pathways for new and interested growers to access quality land, infrastructure, markets, and technical support will increase the resilience of a regionally-specific reforestation pipeline. Strengthening the capacity of the reforestation pipeline should thus involve the creation of opportunities for diverse producers that can absorb demand from multiple entities and efforts to increase NCS. New programs, including components of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), that facilitate access to land and markets for underserved producers, will be particularly pivotal to ensure  that newer and historically underserved growers can participate in the growing market for trees. Such investments must also include access to resources that can help producers strengthen their operations, including in-person workshops, site visits from extension agents or other professionals, and online resources. New and existing growers could collaborate through job trainings, cooperative (co-op) marketing models that aggregate available nursery stock on centralized platforms, and/or by sharing storage facilities (e.g., cold rooms) that can hold trees until they are needed. 

Realizing the climate mitigation potential of tree planting/reforestation projects will depend, in part, on the strength of the reforestation pipeline. Although our findings are not conclusive about the attitudes of all nursery managers and growers across the Northeastern U.S., they do showcase the indispensable role of nurseries to the successful implementation of NCS. To fortify the reforestation pipeline, the federal government, alongside key partners such as universities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), must integrate the perspectives and recommendations of key stakeholders, including nursery managers. Ensuring that future policy decisions are informed by landowner and practitioner perspectives will be especially important in national and international policy discussions, including the 2023 Farm Bill. In the absence of place-based research and the inclusion of local communities’ expertise, the potential contribution of NCS to societal well-being and climate goals will not be realized. 

Many experts in the nursery industry that we spoke with have long been interested in addressing the  pervasive challenges facing the reforestation pipeline, including increasing genetic stock, tracking and communicating technical knowledge, and expanding production through collaborating with other growers to meet the demand for trees. The many skilled individuals working at nurseries and across the reforestation pipeline know what it takes for the industry to grow and the diverse actors (e.g., national and state governments, NGOs, and corporations) seeking to galvanize a more robust reforestation pipeline and accelerate the pace and scale of NCS implementation should take note. 

To learn more about the challenges in the reforestation pipeline, read Reforesting Minnesota: Building Capacity in a Changing Climate, Seeing the Forest for the Seedlings: Challenges and Opportunities in the Effort to Reforest America, and Gisel Garza: Seed Hunter.

The U.S. Nature4Climate Coalition at COP27: Climate Leadership in Action

Unless you are a snorkeler or a scuba diver, it is likely you may have never heard of Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt. Yet for two weeks, this dusty seaside resort town served as the heart of the climate action universe. Government officials and activists from all over the world converged for COP27 – a yearly rite of passage in global efforts to act collectively to prevent a climate catastrophe that is already offering the world a disturbing preview of a challenging future.

As U.S. Nature4Climate’s Program Director, I spent a week at COP27. This was my first COP, and walking into the Convention Center for the first time, I had no idea what to expect. For most of my time at the conference, I was stationed in the Nature Zone Pavilion – a collaborative effort, led by Nature4Climate and sponsored by a diverse array of partners – including The Nature Conservancy, American Forests, Environmental Defense Fund, Conservation International, Pew Charitable Trusts, and World Resources Institute. The pavilion served to highlight the powerful role that nature can play in mitigating climate change.

Buzzing With Energy and Activity

The Nature Zone was located in the farthest corner of the conference center’s farthest building, and walking there was like taking a trip around the world in 10 minutes. The Children and Youth Pavilion was bursting at the seams, not just with people, but with the passion of a generation that knows it will be paying the bill if the world fails to take effective action to address climate change. The well-organized U.S. Center was also a beehive of activity. If you wanted to catch a congressperson or an undersecretary, this was the place to be. Passing by the Coalition for Rainforest Nations pavilion, I happened upon a crowd during one trip across the conference center. As the audience watched with a mixture of bewilderment and curiosity, we were treated to a unique rap performance – focused on carbon credits.

Populating the pavilions was a diverse ecosystem of people speaking dozens of different languages, hailing from all parts of the world. Activists wearing t-shirts and collecting buttons who were just happy to be there. Students from Harvard, Appalachian State, and Washington University – the next generation of climate leaders. Earnest government staffers scouting locations a day in advance so as not to waste a minute of their principal’s time. Harried pavilion personnel frantically dealing with catering snafus and A/V disasters. Also amongst the crowd? More than a dozen U.S. Nature4Climate coalition members and collaborators, highlighting the important role that Natural Climate Solutions can play in mitigating climate change.

A Wide Path Forward for Natural Climate Solutions

U.S. Nature4Climate was proud to hold a launch event featuring American Forests, the Environmental & Energy Study Institute, the Hispanic Access Foundation, the American Conservation Coalition, and the U.S. Climate Alliance, U.S. Nature4Climate, releasing the results of a survey of 1,000 registered U.S. voters demonstrating overwhelming support (86%) for expanding implementation of Natural Climate Solutions, with Democrats (96%), independents (81%), and Republicans (81%) all supportive by wide margins. These results suggest that, even with a divided government in the U.S., there is a wide path forward for additional investment in Natural Climate Solutions.

Major Announcements for nature

The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) contingent was everywhere, with CEO Jennifer Morris and Global Policy Head Darci Vetter leading the charge. I suspect that Vetter had a time-turner in her pocket – popping up on panels across the length and breadth of the Conference Center, seemingly simultaneously. TNC highlighted efforts to promote innovative climate financing, such as “Blue Bonds,” helped amplify the role that agriculture can play in addressing climate change, and highlighted the need for a framework that puts nature at the heart of efforts to address both the climate and biodiversity crises.

American Forests’ Jad Daley made not one, not two, but three major announcements, all featuring large numbers. A $10 million Tree Equity Catalyst Fund will help communities around the U.S. access IRA funding to plant urban trees. A commitment by USAID to conserve, restore, and manage 100 million hectares of forest worldwide. Pledges by US members to conserve, restore, and grow 55 billion trees by 2030.

The Hispanic Access Foundation’s Shanna Edberg launched a new report: 10 Ways Access to Nature Can Bolster Biodiversity, Communities, and Climate, will help policymakers, advocates, and communities identify high-leverage opportunities to invest in efforts that benefit biodiversity, human communities, and while also helping to mitigate climate change.

U.S. Farmers & Ranchers in Action’s (USFRA) Erin Fitzgerald and Marilyn Hershey must have borrowed Darci Vetter’s time-turner, because they were also ubiquitous at COP— discussing sustainable dairy in one pavilion, and promoting the promise of Partnership for Climate-Smart Commodities with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack at another. USFRA had a mission to highlight the role agriculture can play as a climate solution. Their busy schedule suggests their message was in demand.

U.S. Climate action in the spotlight

Leading a delegation of two governors and agency officials from five states, the U.S. Climate Alliance highlighted subnational leadership on climate change.  They showed how innovative climate actions in states like Washington, New Mexico, and California can light the path forward for broader-scale efforts at the federal, and even global, level. These efforts were bolstered by the Pew Charitable Trust, which also highlighted subnational action on implementing blue carbon strategies in the United States.

To help bridge the partisan divide around climate change, the American Conservation Coalition, in collaboration with TNC, Dream.Org, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the Atlantic Council, led the Building Bridges Summit, a series of fireside chats featuring leaders from the non-profit and corporate sectors working to find common ground on climate solutions. I had the chance to attend part of the summit, and was heartened by the collaborative, solutions-oriented spirit of its attendees.

Providing important context about COP27 to policy makers back home, the Environmental & Energy Study Institute’s (EESI) briefing series, “What Congress Needs to Know About COP27” set the table for this year’s negotiations, while taking a deeper-dive into issues like Natural Climate Solutions, and climate change loss and damage. EESI’s Daniel Bresette and Anna McGinn provided daily updates during COP from Egypt, and a post-COP recap briefing examined what happened at COP and why the negotiations matter to U.S. policy makers.

A chaotic and rewarding experience

The World Resources Institute, Ceres, Ocean Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund, Conservation International, and Center for American Progress also had active presences at COP27, participating in dozens of events and providing leadership on both science and policy tools for implementing Natural Climate Solutions and other climate change mitigation strategies.

Attending COP27 was a chaotic experience – so much is happening in so many places at the same time – but it was also a rewarding one. I am proud of our USN4C coalition members who worked exceptionally hard to ensure that Natural Climate Solutions remain at the center of the broader effort to address climate change. While we recognize  these solutions alone cannot solve the climate crisis – and must be undertaken in tandem with efforts to decarbonize the energy and transportation sectors – we also recognize they are win-win strategies with numerous additional benefits for people and the environment. 

COP27 is over, but the work continues to get this message out.

Read the News4Climate Newsletter Special Edition on COP27 for a round-up of our coalition members’ events and announcements at COP27.

Virginia Seagrass Restoration Project Establishes a Model for Similar Action Worldwide

I remember the exact moment when I began my relationship with seagrass: rooted, flowering plants growing completely underwater in a shallow lagoon off the Florida Keys. It was my 21st birthday, and I was far from my Eastern Shore of Maryland home and college, immersed in a Tropical Marine Ecology “winter-mester.” My fins and dive gear were brand new, as was my scuba certification.

I forgot everything I had learned in my scuba training as I pulsed through the most beautiful, submerged ecosystem I had ever seen. It took my breath away—literally. My dive partner had to circle back to check on me. I tried to speak to her with bubbles and gestures: “Have you seen this grass? Have you seen the fish and other animals in this grass? The sandy bottom? Have you ever experienced anything like this?”

“I mean, sure, it is beautiful,” her eyes said to me through her mask. But come on, let’s swim to the coral reef!”  

That experience changed the entire trajectory not only of my professional life, but also my entire life.  

In Virginia, the water in our temperate eelgrass beds is not as clear as in that tropical system. But the seahorses, the fish, the blue crabs, the amazing way the grass holds sediment and captures wave energy—it all still takes my breath away. And the fragility of these meadows. Though able to alter the water clarity with roots and rhizomes holding the sediment in place, they can be harmed by runoff from the land that brings excess nutrients and sediments, blocking light essential for survival.

The story of eelgrass along the East Coast of the U.S.—human impacts, loss and disease taking hold to strangle out this vital underwater “forest”—is one that has been repeated across the globe. Here off Virginia’s Eastern Shore, eelgrass disappeared from our coastal lagoons in the 1930s. Zero. We were down to zero acres, and all the benefits of this grass—habitat, refuge, erosion control, atmospheric carbon capture—disappeared with it. Then, in the late 1990s, scientists found a small patch of eelgrass1. They had been my colleagues back during the first seagrass experiences, when I was a graduate student at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS). 

Eelgrass harvest as part of the seagrass restoration project.

The Nature Conservancy and partners had invested in the conservation of this barrier island coastal system for decades, so maybe the protected water quality here in these shallow lagoons would support eelgrass once more?  

Using a simple seed-dispersal technique, scientists and volunteers from all over the world have contributed to what is now 10,000 acres of thriving eelgrass in the Virginia Coast Reserve (VCR). This local restoration is now informing global science and recovery as well as providing further improvements to local water quality, five times more fish abundance, higher blue crab densities, return of bay scallops and capture and storage of atmospheric carbon in the soil and plant material. In twenty years, these seagrass meadows have captured 5,000 tons of carbon— equivalent to the yearly carbon dioxide emissions of 3,500 cars!

The Virginia coast seagrass restoration project will soon be the first place on the planet to have a validated and verified seagrass blue carbon market project.

Our coastal systems are among the most studied in the world— and home to the University of Virginia’s Long Term Ecological Research program2. And here is where a methodology to quantify the amount of carbon that is being sequestered in seagrass beds was developed. Methodologies for carbon projects provide the procedures for quantifying greenhouse gases in habitats, like restored eelgrass beds. Standard-approved methodologies are used to generate carbon offsets, which can be sold on the voluntary market. 

The restored eelgrass in Virginia’s coastal bays is one of the great large-scale success stories in marine restoration, and now it’s the first place on the planet soon to have a validated and verified seagrass blue carbon market project. We are now in the final stages of the approval process. We have quantified how much atmospheric carbon is being stored in these amazing grass beds and aim to have carbon offset credits issued by the end of 2022—establishing a model for similar seagrass restoration projects worldwide.

Jill Bieri harvests eelgrass by hand as part of the seagrass restoration project.

Since the Commonwealth of Virginia owns the sandy bottom on which this successful restoration has taken place, state legislation was proposed, supported, and passed in 2020 allowing carbon market participation by the Commonwealth. This legislation stipulates that revenue generated would be used for further monitoring and research in these eelgrass beds—a win-win for the state. This brings the project full-circle, as 20 years ago, initial funding for this endeavor was provided by Virginia’s Coastal Zone Management program. Right here, where I live, where I snorkel in restored seagrass beds and work for The Nature Conservancy’s Virginia Coast Reserve, it’s an epicenter for climate mitigation and natural climate solutions. And that’s still breathtaking.

Please visit the Virginia Coast Reserve website to learn more.

1 In the 1990s, scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) found a small patch of eelgrass and figured out how to restore it in this system. They have spearheaded the restoration work ever since.

2 The University of Virginia’s Long Term Ecological Research program developed the methodology that is being used to quantify the amount of carbon that is being sequestered in seagrass beds.

Saving North Carolina’s Peatlands

The Nature Conservancy is restoring the hydrology of peat soils in coastal North Carolina to combat climate change.

The Atlantic coastal plain along the Southeastern United States (SE US) holds powerful potential in its peatlands. These unique wetlands store carbon from waterlogged plant material dating as far back as 10,000 years. But they also capture carbon across their living landscape of forest and shrub communities.

Like many other peatlands across the world, large portions of the network of bogs and swamp forest that once stretched over millions of acres in the SE US have been ditched and drained. Restoring these drained peatlands is proving to be a critical natural climate solution.

“This work is a giant plumbing job of sorts,” says Eric Soderholm, restoration specialist for The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in North Carolina. “Reversing drainage helps return more natural water levels and flow patterns to peatlands. In turn, this transforms them from a source of carbon dioxide emissions back into a carbon sink.”

Peatlands are a type of wetland whose soils contain a high amount of partially decayed organic matter that has accumulated very gradually over thousands of years. They retain an incredible amount of carbon in their ever-growing layer of peat soil. Peatlands cover just 3% of the earth’s surface but store more than twice the carbon as all the world’s forests combined. They span tropical rainforests, permafrost regions and coastal areas.

Approximately 1.2 million acres of peatlands in the Southeastern U.S., and 70% of those found in North Carolina, have been ditched and drained. Drained peatlands emit carbon dioxide. Restored peatlands retain carbon. Think of it this way: 10 acres of natural, undrained peatlands in the Southeast can remove 5.3 passenger vehicles’ emissions in a year. In contrast, 10 acres of drained peatland can add 21.5 passenger vehicles’ emissions. Yet, this comparison does not even consider emissions from peatland wildfires. Due to its rich carbon content, unnaturally dry peatland soils are highly flammable. This makes them vulnerable to more frequent and intense catastrophic wildfires that can burn several feet deep into a peatlands soil and belch huge quantities of carbon dioxide in a single event. 

The Nature Conservancy in North Carolina and its partners have been steadily restoring peatlands including portions of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Great Dismal SwampPocosin Lakes and Alligator River National Wildlife Refuges. The distinctive peatlands found on the coastal plain from Virginia to Georgia represent many wetland communities that are broadly called “pocosin”, an Algonquin word. Plants here are diverse, yet all share an affinity for soggy soil conditions: pond pine, Atlantic white cedar, swamp tupelo, cypress, loblolly bay, inkberry, fetterbush, canebrake, pitcher plants, cranberry, sphagnum moss. If you grab a handful of pocosin peatland soil, half of what you are holding is carbon.

Version 1.0 can be accessed here.

TNC developed this one-of-a-kind carbon methodology with TerraCarbon, a carbon offset project and natural climate solutions advisory firm. The methodology has been put into practice at a 1,241-acre proof-of-concept restoration site within Pocosin Lake National Wildlife Refuge, in partnership with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Much of the peatland that remains drained in the SE US is privately owned.  This tool allows landowners to register new projects with the American Carbon Registry to generate and sell verified carbon credits on the voluntary carbon market based on the emission reductions achieved by a peatland rewetting project. Income from the sale of verified carbon credits can help cover upfront restoration costs required to successfully rewet and monitor drained peatlands.

Eric Soderholm leads TNC’s work to restore peatlands in North Carolina, partnering with state and federal agencies to restore degraded peat soils by installing water control structures and other water management infrastructure throughout each project site.

On his days monitoring TNCs most recent restoration project within Great Dismal, Soderholm treks through the swamp to document water flow and groundwater levels across the project site over time.  “It is fascinating to watch water return to the peatland,” says Eric Soderholm. “Once we know how water moves and fluctuates, Refuge staff can use this information to adjust that water flow to maximize both the habitat and flood resilience enhancements restoration provides.”

When peat soils are rewetted, they are much less flammable and create conditions for more diverse and resilient wetland forest communities to thrive. Since peat soils also have the great potential to sequester carbon when saturated with groundwater, restoring more natural water patterns in peatland is a natural climate solution. Most recent conservative estimates from the Duke University Wetlands Center suggest that if the remaining drained peatlands in the SE US were restored, emission reductions of at least 2.66 million metric tons of carbon dioxide could be achieved every year. 

Once the “plumbing” is right at a peatland restoration site, rewetted conditions allow the re-establishment of peatland specialist native plants such as Atlantic white cedar.  Cedar-dominated forests, which are now a globally threatened community, thrive in peaty, moist soil of swamps and bogs. Peatlands also support a variety of wildlife. Many songbirds, such as the prothonotary warbler, seek refuge there in spring. In the summer, black bear forage and enjoy the extra sun.

People also benefit. Improvements on Refuge lands help slow down and absorb storm water before it reaches a farming community just downslope from restoration sites, potentially reducing damage to crops and property. 

Likewise, restoring peatlands vastly reduces the risks to human health and community safety associated with the numerous catastrophic peat wildfires this region has recently endured. A study following North Carolina’s 41,000-acre Evans Road peatland fire in 2008 determined that emergency room visits for cardiopulmonary complications increased significantly in the counties exposed to its toxic peat smoke. 

Pocosin peatlands naturally sequester nitrogen and mercury which leach from drained sites at much higher rates. Restored sites with water control infrastructure help to reduce the quantity of these contaminants entering our rivers and sounds, both of which can impact aquatic communities and commercial fisheries.

TNC initially focused its partnership efforts to restore peatlands at sites on federal lands across the coastal plain. The organization is now moving south to state lands managed by the North Carolina Wildlife Resource Commission at Angola Bay Game Land. There are still large swathes of peat to be restored from Virginia to Georgia. TNC’s implementation work and partnership with researchers has helped lay the groundwork for that restoration. One of the next most critical steps is to expand restoration progress to the significant acreage of privately-owned drained SE US peatlands.

Interest from carbon project developers to work with private peatland landowners has continued to grow since the release of the ACR carbon offset methodology. Layering carbon finance with both existing and emerging state, federal and other funding sources is beginning to create the incentive needed for landowners to pursue the many benefits peatland restoration projects can yield.

“We’ve worked diligently with our partners to get the plumbing right at many sites in Northeastern North Carolina,” says Eric Soderholm. “This work has helped to demonstrate what can be accomplished elsewhere.” 

Why are peatlands being degraded or destroyed?

European settlers gradually drained peatlands along the coastal plain at first to reach high value timber for human settlement and export and for agricultural conversion. Technological advances in modern excavation equipment fueled a boom in the 20th century to convert peatlands to agriculture, pine plantation and experiment with mining peat as a fuel source. However, significant acreage that was previously drained and logged are no longer in any active productive use yet continue to experience the negative impacts from historic ditch networks. Developmental pressures continues to loom for some of these special natural areas.

Why does peat burn?

Peat is highly flammable when dried. When wildfires occur in degraded, dry areas, they have devastating impacts on the land, as they can continue to smolder for long periods of time. Their emissions can also affect human health.

How can landowners get involved?

Landowners can access the peatland restoration methodology through the American Carbon Registry.

A First-of-Its-Kind Seagrass Inventory Is Helping to Drive Climate Action in North Carolina

For most of my life, I have lived along the North Carolina coast enjoying my time spent in its coastal habitats and admiring its natural beauty. These experiences are an integral part of who I am. After I completed my undergraduate degree, my time spent appreciating the coast motivated me to begin a job as a Fisheries Technician for the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries. As my career has progressed with the division, it has been rewarding that I am helping to protect and restore these coastal resources for present and future generations.

As the Habitat Enhancement Section Chief for the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries, it’s my job to lead my team of highly skilled individuals to manage and coordinate large-scale restoration, management and enhancement programs – such as the North Carolina Coastal Habitat Protection Plan (CHPP) – for the diverse and critical habitats in our nearshore, coastal and estuarine areas that support the state’s commercial and recreational fisheries. The overarching goal of the CHPP is for long-term enhancement of coastal fisheries through habitat protection and enhancement efforts including conserving coastal ecosystems like salt marsh and seagrasses which provides many benefits to the state.

North Carolina has over 220,000 acres of salt marsh and the largest extent of seagrass coverage along the Atlantic coast, measuring approximately 105,000 acres in 2013. Seagrass is a common term used to define high salinity submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), which is habitat characterized by the presence of plants that are rooted into the ground and remain under the surface of the water during all tidal stages. The foundation of North Carolina’s coastal economy is based on the abundance of healthy habitats in its 2.9 million acres of coastal waters. Fishing, outdoor recreation, and tourism all depend on a healthy ecosystem. In addition to providing a critical home for fish, coastal habitats help reduce the impacts of severe storms, improve water quality, support birds and other wildlife, and sustain culture and a North Carolina way of life. Unfortunately, increasing stressors from a variety of land use activities, coupled with climate change, threaten the health and sustainability of the state’s coastal ecosystems. Protecting and restoring these areas so that they can continue to deliver important benefits to people and nature is key. Over the last two years, researchers and managers have been assessing another benefit provided by these coastal habitats – slowing climate change.  

Coastal wetlands, including salt marsh, seagrass, and mangroves, are incredibly efficient at capturing and storing carbon in their leaves, stems, roots, and soils. Blue carbon is a common term used to define carbon captured by the world’s ocean and coastal ecosystems. Coastal wetlands can keep this blue carbon locked away for thousands of years if left undisturbed. However, when these ecosystems are degraded, stores of carbon and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) are released back into the atmosphere, which can accelerate climate change. Given their carbon storage benefits, many U.S. coastal states, including North Carolina, and countries around the world, are interested in protecting and restoring blue carbon habitats as part of their climate response strategies.

A key first step to account for the carbon captured and stored in these habitats is through the development of a GHG inventory. Accounting for coastal habitats in GHG inventories is relatively new – the U.S. EPA began incorporating coastal wetlands into the national GHG Inventory in 2017, and in 2022 started making these data available to states. But – until now – national and state inventories have lacked a key habitat – seagrass beds. North Carolina is poised to address this omission. 

In 2018, Governor Cooper of North Carolina signed Executive Order 80 – North Carolina’s Commitment to Address Climate Change and Transition to a Clean Energy Economy –  which includes a statewide goal to reduce the state’s GHGs to 40% below 2005 levels by 2025. The Natural and Working Lands Action Plan, published in 2020, outlines specific projects in the Natural and Working Lands (NWL) sector – including coastal habitat protection and restoration – that advance North Carolina’s climate goals by enhancing carbon sequestration, building community and ecosystem resilience, and supporting local economies.  

Several subcommittees, including the Coastal Habitats Subcommittee that I chair, contributed to the recommendations of the Natural and Working Lands Action Plan and continue to support its implementation. One of the next steps spawned by the plan is the development of a GHG inventory for the state’s coastal wetlands, including emergent, scrub shrub and seagrass habitats, to help us better understand how much blue carbon is captured and stored in these areas, and what management steps we can take to enhance our blue carbon resources. As the chair of the Coastal Habitats group, I am technically in charge of the inventory development process, but I have two great champions in Paul Cough and Chris Baillie, who are leading this effort with a stellar working group comprised of federal and state agency staff, NGOs, academics, and GHG inventory experts. Once finished, North Carolina will have one of the world’s first blue carbon inventories that includes seagrasses.

A robust blue carbon inventory relies on mapping and activity data to estimate the extent of coastal wetlands and how these habitats are changing over time. These data are then applied to corresponding “emission factors” to estimate GHG emissions and removals (i.e., sequestration) occurring in coastal areas.  Although North Carolina has extensive seagrass mapping, data gaps still exist. To deal with this uncertainty, the working group utilized the expert opinion of world-renowned researchers and practitioners from along the Atlantic coast during two workshops this past spring. We also benefitted greatly from ongoing blue carbon research in our neighboring state of Virginia, whose seagrass ecosystems are very similar in species and distribution as those we have in North Carolina. Other states looking to develop blue carbon inventories can rely on expert opinion when filling in data gaps as well. 

Though our work to develop the first blue carbon inventory for the period 1990-2021 will continue through early 2023, we have an initial set of findings for seagrasses that demonstrate their importance as a blue carbon habitat: in 2013 alone, seagrasses in the state sequestered approximately 66,800 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, comparable to removing more than 14,000 cars from the roads in one year. Unfortunately, the inventory also shows that seagrass habitats are on the decline, with slight decreases in GHG removals taking place over the years.  In addition, emergent and scrub shrub wetlands in the state sequestered almost 326,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2021 alone – the equivalent of taking over 70,000 cars off the road.  Collectively, these coastal wetlands store 48.8 million metric tons of carbon, showing how important it is to maintain the health of these habitats to keep blue carbon locked in the ground and out of the atmosphere. 

The blue carbon GHG inventory will help bolster North Carolina’s efforts to protect and restore coastal habitats, including specific actions called for in the CHPP to improve the health of seagrass.  When finished, the inventory will provide a tool for managers to account for the blue carbon benefits of new CHPP measures to conserve and restore seagrass habitats, such as reducing threats related to poor water quality through improved land management upstream.  

We plan to release an interim update of initial findings, methodologies, and next steps for North Carolina’s Coastal Wetlands GHG Inventory by the end of 2022. In 2023, we will incorporate new seagrass mapping data, which will improve understanding of coastal wetland extent and how these habitats have changed over the inventory period (1990-2021). The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality plans to integrate the blue carbon inventory into the state’s next sector-wide GHG inventory update in January 2024. Once this happens, North Carolina will be the first state in the nation to account for seagrass in its GHG inventory, setting an example for other states to inventory their own seagrass ecosystems.

The process by which the workgroup developed the first GHG inventory for seagrass in the US can provide a model for other states to estimate the carbon value of their seagrass habitats. Throughout development of the inventory, the workgroup operated by the motto “don’t let perfect become the enemy of good.” This means that entry points exist for states to begin developing GHG inventories, even in the absence of perfect data, by incorporating expert input and learning by doing.   

I have been inspired by the time and dedication of all the people involved in this effort to help North Carolina develop its first blue carbon inventory. We have had researchers up and down the coast, from Maine to Florida, share their knowledge and provide advice. We still have a lot of work to do, but I know we’ll continue to make progress to better understand and leverage the blue carbon benefits of our coastal habitats. 

Jacob Boyd is the Habitat and Enhancement Section Chief, North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries

Lightning Point: A Climate-Smart Shoreline Restoration Project with Benefits for People and Nature

In partnership with City of Bayou La Batre, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Mobile County, and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, The Nature Conservancy’s Lightning Point Shoreline Restoration Project aimed to create diverse habitats to support a wide range of fish, shellfish, birds, and other wildlife, while protecting this locally important waterfront area of this iconic town for fishing community culture. For a decade prior to the Lightning Point project, The Nature Conservancy completed a number of small-scale restoration projects, monitoring them beyond the time frame required to understand restoration techniques and outcomes. This knowledge and experience was applied to the Lightning Point project, along with a hefty dose of community engagement to understand and embrace the project.   

Lightning Point in Bayou La Batre, Alabama has been exposed to coastal storms and hurricanes for more than a century. The 14-month design and engineering phase for the Lightning Point Shoreline Restoration Project began with the site being impacted by Category 1 Hurricane Nate in October 2017 losing more than 30 feet of shoreline and emphasizing the need for restoration.

Project designs completed by Moffatt and Nichol included 1 mile of overlapping, segmented breakwaters and jetties, 10,000 linear feet of tidal creeks, and about 40 acres of habitat: 35 acres intertidal marsh habitats and 5 acres of scrub-shrub, plus 1 acre of recycled oyster shell hash from Alabama Coastal Foundation was added as a layer for diamondback terrapin and shorebird habitat. Overall, a heterogeneous habitat mimicking nearby natural coastal marshes and barrier islands was constructed over 8 months beneficially using more than 303,000 cubic yards of dredged material – enough to fill 25,289 dump trucks – from nearby borrow sites including former upland USACE disposal area decommissioned in the 1980s and now owned by the Forever Wild Land Trust. 

Construction by Gulf Equipment Corporation (GEC) began in late fall 2019 and completed in July 2020 just in time for the 2020 hurricane season with 8 significant Gulf of Mexico tropical systems, where 4 systems produced storm surges from 3.3 feet to 7.9 feet, with a maximum of more than 11 feet once the impact of waves is taken into account. The project performed successfully in its first storm season as the new defender of Bayou La Batre with minimal erosion across the new habitats and breakwaters. Now two years post construction, the project has buffered Bayou la Batre from five named storms, protecting the shoreline, working waterfront, and minimizing impacts to the community and businesses.

The culturally and ecologically significant Lightning Point shoreline was restored with a combination of  “gray” and “green” restoration methods. “Gray” articulating concrete mattresses were used along the steep shoreline, helping to stabilize eroding soils. The “green” newly created intertidal marshes and higher scrub-shrub areas welcome various resident and migratory shore and wading birds, fish and shellfish, and other wildlife species. Immediate colonization during project construction by oyster catchers, black skimmers, and nesting least terns is a testament to the ecologically sensitive nature of the design and the environmental benefits for the region. 

To assess the overall ecosystem and economic values of the Lightning Point Restoration Project, we compared the $21 million initial construction investment to the value provided by the newly created tidal marsh and scrub-shrub habitats over the next 25 years. Totaling nearly $67 million, the project produces a triple return on investment, even without accounting for the additional benefits added by enhancing bird habitats and increasing recreational opportunities for visitors. Additionally, the region’s recent exposure to storms and storm surges shows that it can significantly help reduce the impacts of coastal storms on local Gulf communities and sustain their livelihoods.

With a 25-year design life, the breakwaters were constructed using 51,000 tons of the largest allowable rock – with a diameter of 2-3 feet – which helps to control the project cost. Additionally, as sea levels rise, the project can be adapted to the changing conditions by adding a layer of rock to increase the breakwater height, thus sustaining the initial $21 million investment. 

The jetties and breakwaters were designed to capture naturally moving sediments from the east, minimizing the need for frequent channel dredging of the Bayou La Batre channel, and protecting access to the working waterfront. To guide future adaptive management strategies, a long-term site sustainability plan was developed for the project. This plan highlights the need to add thin layers of dredged from nearby areas across the marsh to add much needed sediment to the system, essentially feeding the marsh from the inside out. This adaptation will help offset climate impacts from sea level rise and subsidence that would otherwise drown the natural and restored marshes.  

Beyond the environmental benefits, project team dynamics was key to the project’s ultimate success. The prime contractor (GEC) and most of its subcontractors are local to the Bayou La Batre region. Their care and passion for the final product was evident throughout the entire construction as they worked with the local construction industry to improve the practice of innovative coastal restoration projects and contributed to the local economy of Bayou La Batre. Significant partnerships across the local, state, federal, NGO and private sectors bloomed with the common goal of advancing the practice for resilient designs of future shoreline restoration projects to benefit the local community and current habitats. 

Bayou La Batre’s vibrant, water-dependent community utilizes Lightning Point for fishing, boating, and recreation. The project improved the environmental value of their shoreline areas and provided a renewed draw for eco-tourism and recreational access to the shore. “People go down to Lightning Point all the time, said Mayor Barnes. “Just about any time of the day you ride through there, someone’s either up at the pavilion or down at the fish platform or just sitting there watching the wildlife.” Local entities, including Alabama Power and Partners for Environmental Progress – Mobile, contributed to the community waterfront porch’s improvements by funding trails, pavilions, and benches to be more enjoyable by those living, working and visiting the Bayou La Batre region and beyond. 

Lightning Point Restoration Project is unique with its partnerships, designs, and connections. Numerous organizations, including local governments, academia, local high school, private corporations, and a wide array of non-profits, were engaged throughout the design and construction process. The project provides a nature-based restoration site accessible for these groups to observe nature-based solutions to climate impacts in action.  

The Nature Conservancy engaged with Dauphin Island Sea Lab and Alma Bryant High School to contribute to the project by harvesting on-site seeds from native marsh plants in November 2019 and replanting the propagated plants in 2021. This project supported a master’s student’s research on marine debris components collected from the project site and catalogued to understand the marine debris impact on coastal habitats. It is being used to field test oysters exposed in the lab to predator cues to help strengthen their shells. And utilization of tidal creeks, breakwater edges, and marshes by different life stages of recreationally and commercially important fish using acoustic monitoring is underway. The restoration site serves as a research platform for additive adaptation measures, restoration uses, and long-term management techniques that can be applied to restoration projects throughout the Gulf of Mexico region. 

Lightning Point has served as a backdrop for elected officials and decision-makers to see how nature-based solutions to climate impacts can help protect communities. Local, regional, national, and international visitors have seen how the project has helped protect and boost the local community in Bayou La Batre, and are looking at ways to implement this type of project for their own backyards.  

The Nature Conservancy’s Mary Kate Brown noted the win-win benefit of projects like Lightning Point –  “It’s so important to invest funds in nature-based solutions for small coastal communities across the Gulf of Mexico to help address climate change, while saving billions of dollars in the future and protecting livelihoods for the long-term.” With recent legislation enacted through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, Inflation Reduction Act, and initiatives like the America the Beautiful Challenge, which together include up to $5 billion that can help support coastline restoration, the time is right for implementation of nature-based solutions across a broader landscape. There are multiple opportunities available for investments that use nature to protect and boost communities and businesses, and that if managed effectively can be constructed with an eye to adaptation for climate impacts, like Lightning Point.  

Judy Haner is the Marine Programs Director for The Nature Conservancy in Alabama.