4 Priorities for Managing US Lands in the Face of Climate Change

  • Challenges in Land Management: Policymakers and land managers face the challenge of managing U.S. lands to support various needs like food and timber production, community resilience, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration, amidst unpredictable weather and growing global demands.
  • Role of U.S. Lands in Climate Change Mitigation: U.S. lands can both sequester and emit greenhouse gases. Increasing the land carbon sink while decreasing land-based emissions is essential to meeting climate goals.
  • Potential of U.S. Lands: Investments like the Inflation Reduction Act aim to enhance the resilience and health of U.S. lands. Analysis suggests that ambitious climate-smart forestry and agriculture initiatives could significantly increase the land carbon sink and reduce agricultural emissions.
  • Priorities for Land Managers and Policymakers: Strategies to protect and increase the land carbon sink include limiting land conversion, building ecosystem resilience, planning for economy-wide decarbonization, and promoting green infrastructure. Community involvement, equitable distribution of benefits, and innovative financing mechanisms are crucial for successful land management projects.
© Rory Doyle for TNC

Policymakers and land managers face difficult decisions in an increasingly uncertain climate future. Lands must support food and timber production, help buffer communities from extreme weather, provide space for people to live and recreate, support biodiversity and sequester carbon. Managing land to meet all these needs while confronting unpredictable weather and a growing global demand for food and wood requires thoughtful and proactive action.

The U.S. lands sector, which includes forests, grasslands, wetlands, agricultural lands and agricultural operations, can remove carbon emissions to help curb the impacts of climate change, but it can also be a source of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. Activities like planting trees or conserving natural ecosystems increase what’s known as the land carbon sink, or the ability of land to sequester carbon. On the other hand, running farm equipment, fertilizing soil and plowing under native grasslands, releases greenhouse gases.

To reduce the most harmful impacts from climate change and support the U.S. target of reducing economy-wide net greenhouse gas emissions by 50% to 52% below 2005 levels by 2030, the land carbon sink needs to be increased and protected from future degradation, while lands-based emissions need to be decreased.

The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, together with existing state forest and agricultural policies, are making critical investments in the resilience and health of the U.S. land base. But new analysis from America Is All In — a coalition of U.S. state and local leaders and organizations, including WRI — finds that the benefits from this investment are not yet secured. Effective implementation of climate-smart federal programs combined with increased state ambition and investment is required to protect and increase the land carbon sink.

In 2021, U.S. lands sequestered approximately 750 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) per year, and agriculture emitted approximately 600 MtCO2e per year. Based on one set of models of the U.S. land sector, America Is All In finds that full implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act and other current federal and state policies, amounting to $42 billion of planned investment, would reduce agricultural emissions by about 8% or 48 MtCO2e per year over 2021 levels in 2035 and would increase the land carbon sink by about 1.5% or approximately 10 MtCO2e per year over 2021 levels in 2035. While a 1.5% increase is modest, implementation of current policies could help to reverse a projected decline in the land carbon sink.

With increased policy ambition and investment of approximately $160 billion in climate-smart forestry and agriculture the models find that the land carbon sink would increase by approximately 3%, or 24 MtCO2e per year in 2035. This high-climate ambition scenario would see a 13% reduction in agricultural emissions, or approximately 75 MtCO2e per year by 2035.

While America Is All In finds that these levels of land sector mitigation are enough to help the U.S. realize its climate goals alongside emissions reductions in other sectors, they do not realize the full potential of the land carbon sink. Other studies find much higher potential for reforestation, agricultural emissions reductions and other nature-based climate solutions, but maximizing the land carbon sink involves land use trade-offs. For example, planting trees can effectively sequester carbon, but planting new forests on large expanses of agricultural land could displace critical food production. Careful policymaking at the federal, state and local levels is needed to balance land use for food, fiber, biodiversity, climate mitigation and more.

This map of the United States is divided by regions, showing which regions need the most funding based on the most impactful natural climate solutions for the area.

Protecting and increasing the land carbon sink will require an all-society effort. Federal funding like the Inflation Reduction Act can provide the foundation for action, but effective implementation takes place at the state and local level where the needs of ecosystems and communities are considered, while tradeoffs are weighed.

Despite historic levels of land sector funding in the Inflation Reduction Act, funding for many key projects is still limited and state and local leaders and their private sector and NGO partners need to prioritize actions that mitigate greenhouse gasses and increase resilience.

Here are four ways that policymakers, local leaders and land managers can prioritize strategies that will protect the land carbon sink and balance the many requirements for land use in the face of climate change.

While it is important to increase the land carbon sink, it is equally important to protect the carbon already stored in soils and vegetation. U.S. forests alone already contain about 60 gigatons of carbon, and they sequester an additional 700 MtCO2e each year. However, if forest ecosystems are severely damaged by logging or a natural disturbance, carbon stored in trees and soils is released to the atmosphere, and the ability of that forest to sequester carbon into the future may be diminished. This is also true of grassland and agricultural soils: Once carbon is lost, it takes intensive restoration and management to restore the carbon sink to pre-disturbance levels. This dynamic can be thought of as the “carbon cost” of clearing land for agriculture or development and not taking action to restore carbon stocks.

Map of the United States showing land use in all 50 U.S. states. This map is meant to show where natural climate solutions like climate-smart forestry and cover crops can be applied by state based on how the land is currently used.

The factors that drive land use change vary regionally across the U.S. In areas where agriculture is a dominant industry, such as the Midwest, cropland expansion can drive the conversion of natural forest and grassland. Policies like the Renewable Fuel Standard that incentivize farmers to grow corn and soy for biofuels have contributed to the expansion of cropland into areas that are less productive and pose an outsized threat to habitat and biodiversity. Croplands have expanded by approximately 1 million acres per year between 2008 and 2016, leading to carbon emissions from the ecosystems that were converted.

The loss of cropland to commercial and residential development on some of the U.S.’s most productive soils is another driver of forest and grassland conversion. Urban expansion in many areas of the country displaces efficient agricultural production, requiring conversion to agriculture in other, less productive areas to compensate. The U.S. lost approximately 2,000 acres of prime farmland or ranchland every day between 2001 and 2016, and much of this land was converted to low-density urban development.

Forest loss due to land use change is an equally significant threat to natural carbon stores and ecosystem resilience. WRI’s Global Forest Watch finds that forest loss is most significant in the Northwest and Southeast regions of the U.S., and permanent deforestation is primarily driven by urbanization and commercial deforestation to accommodate demand for forest products. The U.S. lost 1.6 million hectares, or approximately 6,000 square miles of forest in 2022.

Policy approaches to curb land use change include:

  • Implementing urban zoning practices that create more dense and livable cities and protect prime farmland. For example, the state of New York has created a Farmland Protection Program that helps farmers maintain agricultural activity.
  • Making sure that biofuels and biomass policies include the true ‘carbon cost’ of biofuels to avoid incentivizing land use change and associated carbon emissions in the U.S. and abroad.

Even though climate change affects all parts of the U.S., the key to managing ecosystems and lands for climate change is to identify the greatest health risks and then help them become resilient to change. Restoring an ecosystem often increases its carbon sink and resilient ecosystems and agricultural systems will reliably sequester carbon into the future.

Forests in Western and Southwestern U.S. states face an increased risk of extreme wildfire due, in part, to climate change, which can damage forests and reduce carbon sequestration capacity in the future. While wildfire mitigation treatments may decrease forest carbon stocks in the short- to medium-term, these treatments can safeguard forests in the long-term. Forests in the Rocky Mountain region are predicted to be a net source of carbon dioxide through 2070 without significant policy intervention, which underscores the urgent need to manage forests for wildfire resilience. Across the U.S., forests also face destruction by pests and pathogens, exacerbated by climate change, which one report has estimated will cost the U.S. 50 MtCO2e every year.

This photo of an airplane dropping fire retardant to battle flames in California is making the point that we need natural climate solutions like wildfire mitigation treatments (i.e. thinning and prescribed burns) to safeguard forests from catastrophic mega fires in the future.
A plane drops a fire retardant to battle flames in Southern California. U.S. Wildfires like those in California threaten ecosystems and impact their ability to sequester carbon. Photo by Randy Miramontez/Shutterstock.

In agricultural areas, climate-related extreme weather like drought, heat and flooding threatens crop production. Practices that build soil health like cover cropping or reduced tillage can increase crop resilience to flooding and drought. Agroforestry, or the practice of incorporating trees and shrubs into agricultural and ranching systems, can protect fields from erosion, improve water quality, provide wildlife habitat and sequester carbon. It is important that policymakers continue to support farmers in adopting these resilience practices as well as in reducing agricultural emissions by using targeted fertilizer application, improving livestock feed and reducing food loss and waste.

Carbon sinks in coastal areas are also under threat due to climate change. Sea level rise can flood wetlands and prevent them from providing water quality benefits and habitat for young fish. In many places, development in coastal areas prevents wetlands from migrating in response to sea level rise, so wetland ecosystems are permanently lost. Coastal development can also lead to draining or fragmenting wetlands which causes them to release carbon and methane.

Policy approaches to increase ecosystem resilience include:

  • Investing in risk mitigation treatments in areas with high risk of wildfires that improve forest health and resilience and reduce the risk of severe fire. For example, Colorado’s HB HB22-1011 created a grant program for local governments to undertake wildfire mitigation projects and education.
  • Providing forest owners in areas where diseases and pests threaten forest health with financial support to increase the health and carbon sequestration potential. For example, New York created a Forestry Cost Share Grant Program.
  • Establishing grant or cost-share programs to support farmers and ranchers in adopting resilience and emissions-reduction practices as the New Mexico Healthy Soils program has done.
  • Planning to protect wetlands in the face of climate change as Oregon has done in its new Climate Resilience Package (HB 3409).

In addition to sequestering carbon in soils and vegetation, lands will physically support economy-wide decarbonization. Building enough renewable power to meet U.S. climate goals will require 115,000 to 250,000 square miles of land to build wind and solar generation as well as new transmission lines to transport energy. But this doesn’t necessarily mean the land devoted to renewable energy can’t continue providing food and habitat.

Agrivoltaics, or the practice of using land for both solar generation and agriculture can provide shade for livestock and crops and provide farmers with an additional source of revenue. Livestock can also graze between wind turbines on rangelands in windy regions.

Local policymakers and land managers need to balance the protection of key wildlife habitat and farmland with the need for infrastructure build-out to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Without immediate and ambitious action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, climate change will continue to threaten the ability of lands to sequester carbon and provide services to communities.

Policy approaches to support responsible clean infrastructure buildout include:

  • Adopting zoning ordinances or other planning methods to facilitate renewable energy buildout that protects and enhances the most productive agricultural areas and protects key habitats. New Hampshire’s Model Solar Zoning Ordinance offers a framework for leaders to consider community goals and impacts of solar siting to support better decision-making.
  • Bringing together diverse interests to address barriers to large-scale solar projects and to balance the needs of nature, communities, and climate, as a group in California has done.

As U.S. cities and towns experience increasing impacts from extreme weather, wildfire and sea level rise, the role of nature as a buffer has never been more important. Investing in nature as infrastructure to protect communities can mitigate the effects of extreme weather and provide water and air quality benefits. Many green infrastructure projects are also restoration and carbon sequestration projects. For example, restoring wetlands in and around cities can increase their ability to sequester carbon, filter water and protect coastal areas from erosion and storm surges.

Green infrastructure can save cities and utilities money by lowering water treatment costs and preventing weather-related damage, so innovative financing mechanisms are often available for these projects. WRI and Blue Forest’s Forest Resilience Bond helps the U.S. Forest Service, local water utilities and other partners secure private finance for forest resilience projects that could save utilities millions of dollars in the long term.

While green infrastructure can provide important services to communities, these services are not equitably distributed. Urban trees and parks can cool city streets, sequester carbon and improve air quality, but many low-income neighborhoods have far fewer trees than wealthier neighborhoods. Improving tree equity in these neighborhoods is critical to creating livable cities for all residents and support local livelihoods. 

This graphic shows how maintaining healthy forests, a natural climate solution, have many benefits including improving water quality, regulating water supply, and lowering water treatment costs.

Policy approaches to support green infrastructure include:

  • Adopting legislation that leverages private capital to fund restoration and environmental benefits like Maryland has done through its Conservation Finance Act.
  • Creating grant programs to support urban tree planting as Wisconsin has done through its Regular Urban Forestry Grants.
  • Accessing funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which delivered $43.3 billion for state water quality projects, and is distributed through the State Clean Water Revolving Loan Funds. Some states, such as Ohio, have had success leveraging these funds for stream restoration projects that improve water quality.

Land management strategies that support local livelihoods and well-being while delivering climate benefits are more likely to have sustained success in the long term. However, securing positive local outcomes for a project can be challenging because opinions about land management can be deeply tied to cultural, spiritual and economic values. Project funders and policymakers may also have expectations about the outcomes of a project that do not align with local desires or expectations. Research suggests that the following strategies can create successful projects and policies:

  • Policy and project design should go beyond consulting local stakeholders — stakeholders should have continuous input starting from the initial stages of project development, as well as participate in project governance with clear dispute-resolution mechanisms in place. Initiatives should also involve all affected groups in designing and executing a project or policy, especially marginalized groups, to create durable and equitable outcomes.
  • Government agencies should create collaborative resource management approaches to managing state and federal protected lands. This allows tribes or local stakeholders to co-manage land with agencies.
  • Establishing Community Benefit Agreements can help guarantee local employment and other benefits to a community in exchange for their participation in a project.
  • Projects that remove carbon can be incorporated into climate resilience and adaptation planning to ensure that projects are beneficial to communities. Resilience, adaptation and climate mitigation projects should include funding for measuring and monitoring carbon and other benefits to make sure projects have impact over time.

This article was originally published by the World Resources Institute. Access the original article here.

The Benefits of Investing in Natural Climate Solutions

Conservation, restoration, and improved stewardship of forests, wetlands, oceans, and farmlands around the world can provide up to a third of the emissions reductions we need to prevent the worst effects of climate change. These actions are frequently also some of the most cost-effective solutions available – and they’re ready for countries to implement today.

Picture of a herd of buffalo in a grassy area surrounded by a lush forest because forest and grassland conservation is an important natural climate solution.
A herd of buffalo in Yellowstone National Park. Photo courtesy: CAJC/Flickr

Improving ecosystem management and restoring degraded habitats both hold huge promise to help us pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Even if increasing carbon storage is the primary goal, making ecosystems healthier and more functional can also increase other essential ecosystem services. For example, improved forest management practices can reduce erosion and support water cycling processes, which can in turn reduce costs for communities who rely on forested watersheds for their drinking water. 

Still, the expert body on climate change – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC – identifies protecting and conserving existing ecosystems as one of the best options we have. In its latest reports, the world’s scientists concluded that only photovoltaic solar and wind energy have more potential for affordable climate mitigation than reducing ecosystem conversion. Many of the world’s ecosystems hold “irrecoverable carbon”, carbon they have captured and stored over decades or even centuries. If it is released because of human activity, these ecosystems could not re-capture that carbon in the next few decades, a critical period to reduce climate change. 

Picture of a coral reef, which host a plethora of biodiversity. Biodiversity conservation, an important component of natural climate solutions, is a benefit of avoiding the conversion of ecosystems to other land uses like farming.
Coral reefs, like this one at Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, host a plethora of biodiversity and support thousands of species. Photo credit: Jim Maragos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr

Biodiversity conservation is another huge benefit of avoiding the conversion of ecosystems to other land uses such as farming or urban development. Keeping ecosystem carbon in plants and soils also preserves valuable habitat for wildlife to forage and raise their young. For example, boreal forests and wetlands in North America, which hold enormous amounts of carbon in their soils, are home to mammals such as the woodland caribou and the snowshoe hare and offer essential breeding habitat to birds such as the whooping crane and the Cape May warbler.

World leaders and decision makers shouldn’t overlook our coasts at COP28, either. Actions to sequester and store “blue carbon” in oceans and coastal areas remain badly underfunded. Today, only 9% of all funding for nature-based solutions targets actions in marine areas. But conservation of carbon-rich coastal ecosystems would be a win for the climate and wildlife alike. 

Take seagrass meadows: these lush underwater ecosystems pull carbon from the atmosphere at an astonishing rate and trap carbon-rich sediments among roots and stems. Although they only cover a fraction of a percentage of the ocean, researchers estimate that seagrass meadows are responsible for about 10% of carbon burial in the ocean. Yet seagrass meadows disappear at alarming rates. Key opportunities include addressing threats to seagrass meadows, such as nutrient pollution from rivers and disturbance of the seafloor related to fishing or mining, and restoring degraded meadows.

Our pathways for success are clear. What we need is to ensure sufficient funding is invested into natural climate solutions such as these for years to come. In part three of this series, we’ll explore how we can use natural climate solutions to adapt to the effects of climate change and increase community resilience. 

This article was originally published in the National Wildlife Federation blog on December 12th, 2023.

USFWS Coastal Program benefits fish and fishing in Freeport, Maine 

  • IMPORTANCE OF ESTUARIES: Estuaries are crucial ecosystems, with over 40% of Americans living in estuary regions and almost 47% of the U.S. GDP coming from coastal areas. Additionally, nearly 70% of American seafood harvests rely on estuaries.
  • USFWS COASTAL PROGRAM: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Coastal Program has partnered with various organizations for decades to protect and restore coasts, with a focus on estuary health and resilience, particularly in the face of climate change.
  • DAM REMOVAL PROJECT: A dam removal project in Frost Gully Brook near Freeport, Maine, supported by the USFWS Casco Bay Coastal Program, Trout Unlimited, and others, removed defunct dams to restore fish habitat and mitigate the negative effects of dams on stream ecosystems.
  • BENEFITS OF RESTORATION: Restoring native plants and riparian buffers along Frost Gully Brook provides shade, erosion control, and habitat for brook trout, while also sequestering carbon dioxide, thus contributing to climate change mitigation.
  • ECONOMIC IMPACT: Removing barriers like dams and restoring estuaries and streams not only benefit fisheries but also support the economy by attracting anglers and outdoor enthusiasts.
  • SUPPORT NEEDED: Partnerships between organizations, governments, and private entities are crucial for achieving conservation goals, and increased funding is needed to sustain these efforts and address climate and coastal resilience challenges.

Estuaries, the coastal intersection of rivers and the sea, are some of the most diverse and economically important ecosystems on planet earth. According to a 2021 Report, The Economic Value of America’s Estuaries, more than 40% of Americans live in estuary regions and roughly 47% of the U.S. GDP comes from our coasts. Additionally, almost 70% of America’s seafood harvest spend some or all their lives in estuaries – including salmon, blue crabs, and oysters. 

One of the key programs in place to protect and restore estuaries is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Coastal Program, a voluntary program that has built its legacy on supporting partnerships in coastal communities for the better part of four decades – working alongside private landowners, non-profits, and various government agencies to restore and protect coasts. Restore America’s Estuaries (RAE), a national alliance of coastal restoration organizations, has been a longstanding partner of the Program, working together with the Service and our various partners to support the mission of the Service and to improve the health and resilience of estuaries, particularly in a changing climate.  

An important facet of a healthy estuary is connectivity between rivers and the sea. One such project opened miles of free-flowing river upstream from the Casco Bay estuary near Freeport, Maine.  

With support from the USFWS Casco Bay Coastal Program, Trout Unlimited (TU), Freeport Conservation Trust, and other local groups completed a project which opened miles of habitat for migratory fish on Frost Gully Brook, a tributary of the Harraseeket River and Casco Bay. The groups removed three defunct dams in the Summer of 2023, and will now embark on a comprehensive stream restoration effort, including work to replant native trees and plants along the stream’s banks.

In addition to blocking fish passage, dams like those in Frost Gully Brook also raise temperatures in streams by pooling water, block the free flow of nutrient rich sediments to flood plains and downstream estuaries, and create increased flood risks to downstream communities.  

The native plant and riparian buffer restoration on Frost Gully Brook will also provide shade to the stream during the summer months, protect from unnatural erosion of stream banks, and provide habitat for brook trout and other species. These trees and plants also help mitigate climate change by naturally removing and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. Indeed, according to the Reforestation Hub, reforesting streamside buffers has the potential to sequester 10 million tons of carbon dioxide a year nationwide. 

Restoring For the Future 

The source and much of Frost Gully Brook is cold water spring influenced, which keeps water temperatures at safe levels for native brook trout; typically, less than 65 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. The newly accessible sections of river will allow these fish to migrate to traditional spawning areas as well as access cooler waters in the warm summer months. According to Keith Curley, Vice President of Eastern Conservation at Trout Unlimited, “the water temperatures on Frost Gully Brook in the hottest part of July were no higher than 66 degrees in the headwaters but warmed up to 74 degrees behind a dam downstream. Removing these dams will help to keep water temperatures within the tolerance range of brook trout.”   

“Given the naturally low water temperatures, Frost Gully Brook is already resilient to warming air temperatures as climate change increasingly threatens our nation’s cold-water fisheries. This made it the perfect site for dam removal and restoration”, said Mark Taylor, Eastern Communications Director at TU. 

The reconnected stream also presents anglers with new opportunities. Aside from the resident brook trout, Frost Gully Brook is also home to a subpopulation of salter brook trout. The Salters, although genetically identical to resident fish, travel freely between fresh and saltwater and tend to grow much larger than resident brookies. Sea-run brook trout are unique to New England and Canada where cold-water streams flow directly into the ocean rather than traversing through warmer coastal plains, such as those in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast United States.  

“Brook trout need clean, cold water to survive, so they can tell you a lot about the health of a watershed. If brook trout are doing well, then it’s a safe bet that other fish and wildlife are doing well too” said Mr. Curley, again. “This is especially important along the coast, where development can harm water quality and watershed health. If we can keep strong populations of brook trout in coastal streams, we will know we’re taking good care of our watersheds.” 

Fishing and the Economy 

Maine is a well-known destination fishery with a long-standing tradition and allure that attracts anglers from all over the world. In addition to salter brook trout, the state is home to some of the last remaining populations of wild landlocked and anadromous Atlantic Salmon in the United States. According to the American Sportfishing Association, more than 281,000 anglers spent upwards of $191 million fishing in Maine in 2021.  

Outdoor recreation accounted for just under 4% of Maine’s total gross domestic product (GDP), putting it in the top five states in the U.S. in value of outdoor recreation added to state GDP, according to the Maine Office of Outdoor Recreation. The state is also home to one of the largest outdoor retailers in the world, L.L. Bean, whose Freeport headquarters sit just a few miles from the Frost Gully Brook dam removal sites. 

Improvements such as dam removal and stream restoration help support this robust economic driver by offering more and more diverse opportunities for anglers, hikers, and other recreation enthusiasts to enjoy. When they come to town, fishermen and women pay for guides, equipment, lodging, food, and fuel, as well as secondary and tertiary tourism related businesses (think housecleaning, insurance, construction). In rural communities, fishing and other outdoor activities can often stand up the entire local economy. Protecting and restoring streams and estuaries, and the fish they support, has much larger ramifications for the broader region.  

Building Conservation Partnerships 

Partnerships like this between the Coastal Program, non-profits, state and municipal governments, and private partners are quintessential for achieving climate goals and protecting climate susceptible species, like brook trout.  

Since its founding in 1985, the Program has engaged more than 8,200 conservation partners to complete roughly 5,000 conservation projects, improved 600,000+ acres, and protected another 2.3 million acres of priority habitat, while supporting the down-listing of at least 15 endangered and threatened species. In 2022 alone, the program leveraged its investment to secure an astounding 9:1 match from partner funding sources.  

“Building partnerships also builds consistency which can translate to more funding, less disruption, and creates stronger long-term relationships” said Samaya Rubio, Community Engagement Associate with RAE. “The Coastal Program is more than just a funding source, they’re a convener, bringing together diverse partners to achieve common goals.”  

Despite its long track record of success and increased demand, the Coastal Program has been consistently underfunded and understaffed since its inception. Annual appropriations for this critical program have hardly increased since at least 2014.  

Beyond supporting fish passage improvements in Maine, the Coastal Program works diligently in 24 priority estuaries across the country to secure shorelines using nature-based processes, restore marsh and wetland habitats to sequester carbon and protect communities from storms and flooding, and engages private landowners, such as farmers and developers, in best practices to maintain healthy coastal ecosystems while also improving economic opportunities.  

Program staff also provide expertise, resources, equipment, historical knowledge, and create an invaluable network of local restoration and conservation professionals. These partner building efforts also help reduce redundancy and streamline restoration.  

Increased funding for the Coastal Program, along with the already established $175 million in funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law through NOAA to remove fish passage barriers (part of a larger allocation $2 billion in funding for ecosystem restoration that supports fish passage), can go a long way in securing the health and viability of our favorite game fish – creating opportunities for more people to enjoy outdoor pursuits as well as providing for local economies.  

Without adequate funding, though, the Program is unable to maintain these relationships and thus critical projects are left in limbo due to either lack of resources or expertise, and oftentimes both. Legislation is currently moving through both Chambers of Congress (H.R. 2950 and S.1381) that would strengthen the coastal program’s financial footing and, for the first time since its founding, provide Congressional authorization.  

If passed, the strength and success of the Program can grow exponentially, providing another tool to reach our climate and coastal resilience goals, and providing countless recreational opportunities for anglers not just in Maine but throughout the United States.  

Rob Shane is the Senior Manager of Communications for Restore America’s Estuaries (RAE) based in Washington, DC. He is an avid angler who can often be found searching for native brook trout in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  

Additional Resources

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

Photo of the lightning point shoreline restoration project, showcasing the innovative hybrid restoration methods of blending 'gray' and 'green' techniques for shoreline stability and biodiversity. The green techniques, or coastal restoration (a natural climate solution) plays a role in the community's efforts to mitigate climate change.
  • Nature-Based Solutions for Climate Resilience: The Lightning Point project serves as a model for nature-based solutions to climate impacts, demonstrating how coastal communities can be protected and enhanced through investments in natural infrastructure. With increasing recognition of the effectiveness of such approaches, there are opportunities for broader implementation supported by recent legislation and initiatives aimed at coastline restoration and climate resilience.
  • Economic and Ecosystem Benefits: The restoration project demonstrated significant economic and ecosystem benefits, with a triple return on investment over 25 years. By enhancing tidal marsh and scrub-shrub habitats, the project not only provided valuable ecosystem services but also boosted eco-tourism and recreational opportunities, contributing to the local economy and quality of life.
  • Adaptive Management and Resilience: With a design life of 25 years, the project was built to adapt to changing environmental conditions, including sea level rise and storm impacts. The incorporation of adaptable features such as breakwaters designed to capture sediments and the development of a long-term sustainability plan highlighted the importance of resilience and adaptive management in coastal restoration projects.
  • Community Engagement and Collaboration: The success of the Lightning Point Shoreline Restoration Project was heavily reliant on collaboration between various entities including local government, NGOs, private sectors, and the community itself. This engagement ensured that the project was understood and embraced by the local community, highlighting the importance of involving stakeholders in restoration efforts.

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 over 1 mile of overlapping, segmented breakwaters and jetties, 2 miles 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 almost four 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 as well as the stone breakwaters that act as the first barrier to wave protection before the storm surge hits the green features. 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. In addition, the “green” features across a 600-foot swath helps buffer the wave action and storm surge before it affects the community’s amenities.

To assess the overall ecosystem and economic values of the Lightning Point Restoration Project, we compared the $22.5 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 over 56,000 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 $22.5 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, home to the busiest seafood processors along the Gulf of Mexico. 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.  

View project fact sheet
(includes pathways for scaling)

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. 

What is the difference between Natural Climate Solutions and Nature-Based Solutions?
Nature-Based Solutions are actions that can be taken to protect and manage land and ecosystems that benefit society. Natural Climate Solutions refers specifically to Nature-Based Solutions that help address climate change. Both terms are frequently used when describing these strategies.

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. Learn more about the Lightning Point Shoreline Restoration Project here.

Download project fact sheet
(includes pathways for scaling)

Explore our Decision-Makers Guide to Natural Climate Solutions to better understand the science behind these strategies and get tools to implement them.

Just Add Water? Restoring Carbon Sinks in Minnesota 

It’s a crisp fall day in northern Minnesota, and our team suits up in mud boots, jackets, and backpacks with greenhouse gas monitoring equipment. We squelch through sphagnum mosses, careful to avoid stepping on rare (and carnivorous) pitcher plants and pausing to taste wild bog cranberries. Sax-Zim bog, a watery landscape that covers more than 300 square miles of bogs, forests, lakes, and farms, is home to peatland research sites as part of a partnership between The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Forest Service, and the University of Minnesota.

Peatlands are a unique type of wetland: waterlogged ecosystems where plant matter builds up without decaying. They cover 2 – 2.3 million hectares (almost six million acres) in Minnesota, more than any other state in the lower 48. Intact peatlands are an incredible carbon sink and store up to 30% of soil carbon worldwide but cover just 3% of the world’s surface. However, in Minnesota, 191,000 hectares have been fully drained and converted to agriculture, roads, mining and other uses. When drained, the peat is exposed to the air and releases stored carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, converting these landscapes from carbon sinks to carbon sources. Of the remaining peatlands, about 162,000 to 193,000 hectares are impacted by partial drainage from failed forestry or agricultural purposes. Ongoing carbon losses in these landscapes are estimated at a rate of about 38,000 metric tons per year– equivalent to the carbon released by burning over 154 million pounds of coal.  Partially drained peatlands across Minnesota mean that there is a lot of untapped potential for carbon storage—if we can plug the ditches and raise the water table. By restoring ditched peatlands, we can likely bring back the carbon-capturing abilities of these ecosystems and help prevent major carbon emissions in the form of peat fires and rapid decomposition.

current carbon source  A ditch draining water from a peatland. Photo by Derek Montgomery. Partially drained peatlands across Minnesota mean that there is a lot of untapped potential for carbon storage—if we can plug the ditches and raise the water table.

Given the critical role that protecting and restoring peatlands plays in the global carbon cycle, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Minnesota is working with partners to develop a strategy to protect and restore peatlands as an important component of an overall climate change mitigation strategy. We are trying to answer the question: how can we best maintain carbon stores in the ground, and avoid their loss to the atmosphere as CO2

We make our way to the first research site, a foot-wide PCV pipe dropping down vertically in the peat, where Colin Tucker of the US Forest Service will use a sensor to take carbon dioxide and methane readings. Chris Lenhart, of The Nature Conservancy and the University of Minnesota, measures peat depth—nearly two meters of partially decomposed organic matter lays below us, storing huge amounts of carbon dioxide.  

Kristen Blann, freshwater ecologist and peatland science lead for The Nature Conservancy, is also onsite. She is working to develop a plan for TNC that will use field data and extensive mapping to help determine the best way to go about peatland restoration. Dr. Blann is collecting data to address some fundamental aspects of rewetting peatlands. 

One big unknown is methane. Raising the water table to restore a peatland does help with capturing carbon dioxide, but it also causes a release of methane, an incredibly potent greenhouse gas. We are working to determine the levels of methane released, and are eagerly researching this question to fill in gaps in our knowledge. If the CO2 storage benefits outweigh losses of carbon to the atmosphere to methane, then large-scale peatland restoration turns out to be a winning climate solution. 

Research  Max Wegner (left, Michigan Tech) and Colin Tucker (US Forest Service) measure carbon dioxide and methane at Sax Zim Bog. Photo by Derek Montgomery. 

As we crunch the numbers on this year’s carbon dioxide and methane measurements, we’re looking ahead to a future where Minnesota—or anywhere else with peatlands—can leverage these valuable ecosystems to help us limit the worst impacts of climate change. And restored peatland landscapes will provide more than just carbon benefits. Healthy peatlands provide public health and economic benefits for communities, such as improved flood management that safeguards property and agricultural productivity, and better drinking water quality. 

Luckily, we are not in this work alone. Indigenous communities like Red Lake Nation have set an example by maintaining healthy, intact peatlands nearby by resisting pressures to drain and convert these ecosystems. Many Conservancy scientists around the world are also hard at work studying tropical peatlands. With support from the Bezos Earth Fund, TNC is able to accelerate this research and share plans, questions and findings with partners in conservation around the world working on similar research. 

As it turns to afternoon, we get back in our cars and visit another peatland site, this time one where restoration is already well underway. Ecosystem Investment Partners (EIP) has worked here to plug drainage ditches, and reestablish a healthier, pre-ditching ecosystem. We conduct the same carbon dioxide and methane measurements here, which will be invaluable in our analysis of restoration opportunities. 

There are still plenty of unknowns that will need to be addressed, but we are moving forward. As the research continues, it is becoming clear that restored peatlands can have a significant impact in the fight against climate change. Now we hope to gain insight into the question: Which restoration projects can get us the most carbon storage bang for our conservation buck?

The Nature Conservancy’s work in Minnesota has the potential to demonstrate a pathway for selling high-quality, scientifically-proven credits in carbon markets. This innovative financing would allow us to dramatically scale up peatland restoration, increasing the amount of carbon stored on these lands. As we build on existing science, there is a great need for state and federal agencies, private funders, and others, to prioritize this work as well.

Healthy peatland  A young tamarack tree in the bog. Photo by Derek Montgomery.

Back in the bog, we’re wrapping up for the day. Today’s chilly temperatures mark the start of northern Minnesota’s transition to fall, when bog tamaracks will turn golden and other fall colors will burst onto the scene, before the landscape freezes over until spring. Our team, too, is transitioning toward winter, when we will be hard at work planning for the upcoming field season, finishing up a mapping analysis of Minnesota peatlands, and continuing to build partnerships. We’re gearing up to put the science to work, and to work towards re-wetting some of Minnesota’s peatlands to keep them as landscapes of climate mitigation.

Wetlands Restoration Boosted Greenhouse Gas Captured by San Francisco Bay Estuary: Study supports states’ efforts to include ‘blue carbon’ in climate change response

The San Francisco Bay and its 59,000 acres of tidally influenced wetlands comprise the largest estuary on the U.S. West Coast and offer the region’s more than 7 million residents many benefits. These include providing habitat for thousands of birds and recreationally and commercially important fish, such as salmon and Pacific herring; protecting the coastline from floods; and helping to maintain a clean, plentiful water supply. And now, a study commissioned by The Pew Charitable Trusts and conducted by Silvestrum Climate Associates highlights another significant benefit of the San Francisco Bay: slowing climate change.

Photo by Steve Crooks/Silvestrum Climate Associates

The research calculated how much carbon dioxide the bay’s tidal wetlands captured from the atmosphere and stored—a process known as “blue carbon”—between 1990 and 2020. Over those three decades, the bay wetlands represented a “net carbon sink,” meaning they sequestered more carbon than they released. The report also documented a steady increase in total sequestration over the years: 31% more carbon dioxide equivalent was captured in 2020 than in 1990, which followed significant coastal wetland restoration investments by local, state, and federal government and nonprofit organizations during the previous two decades.

Although past land use practices such as diking and draining the bay’s coastal habitats mean that its wetlands still are a fraction of the size that they once were, they remain a vital resource for the region, state, and nation. So much so, in fact, that in 2013, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands—an intergovernmental treaty dedicated to wetlands conservation and named for the Iranian city where it was signed—designated the bay estuary as a “Wetland of International Importance.”

Now, this new study shows that continued regulatory protections and restoration investments can not only help maintain the bay’s many benefits, but also expand them, and it offers a persuasive case study for other states considering how coastal wetland conservation and expansion could support their climate change response and resilience strategies.

This article was originally published by the Pew Charitable Trust’s Conserving Marine Life in the United States program.

To read the full white paper, Coastal Wetland Greenhouse Gas Inventory for the San Francisco Bay Estuary, written by Lisa Beers and Steve Crooks of Silvestrum Climate Associates, please click here.

To learn more about blue carbon, wetlands restoration, and its potential as a Natural Climate Solution, please read a summary of our expert panel discussion, Blue Carbon: An Important Climate Mitigation & Adaptation Opportunity.