A boarding school in Duchess County, N.Y., near Poughkeepsie is far away from a 2,600-acre forest preserve in Berks County, even if the school has its own zoo and teaches sustainability.
But recently a team of students and adults from that school, the Millbrook School, connected through a carbon offset program that will help sustain and improve the forests of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Albany Township.
"Students seem to be excited that Millbrook would be one of the first secondary schools to achieve carbon neutrality," said Olivia Charles, a sixth-form Millbrook student who calculated the school's carbon footprint. "I also feel as though the board and faculty were very supportive of the idea as this devotion to the greater community runs deep in Millbrook culture."
Hawk Mountain is one of the three carbon offset projects that the school chose to invest in as part of its carbon neutrality efforts. Carbon neutrality refers to balancing activities that increase carbon dioxide emissions with acts that remove or sequester carbon.
To offset an individual's or company's carbon emissions (or carbon footprint), they buy credits that support projects that will increase the carbon sequestration.
Trees sequester — or capture and store — carbon dioxide through photosynthesis.
The Nature Conservancy — an Arlington, Va., nonprofit — reports that 1 acre of mature forest can absorb 1 ton of carbon each year.
Carbon dioxide is the most commonly produced greenhouse gas, making it a substantial contributor to global climate change. Most carbon enters the atmosphere through the burning of coal, oil or natural gas. Removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere helps limit global warming.
Millbrook worked through Cool Effect, a nonprofit crowdfunding platform that provides individuals with the opportunity to support carbon emissions reductions.
Even though there were less expensive carbon offsets, the students searched for domestic projects to support, said Jeffrey Smith, chief operating officer. The Hawk Mountain project spoke to their interest in endangered species.
A Cool Effect
And what the school in New York was able to do is now open to just about anyone.
The world of carbon offsets is mostly made for big players, corporations and institutions with tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to make up for their climate-damaging ways.
Hawk Mountain’s carbon credits have been marketed in the past two years to several for-profit businesses wanting to reduce their carbon footprint.
Each American on average emits 16.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year, the gas we exhale, while a large corporation emits tens of millions of tons of carbon dioxide annually.
The corporations that purchase Hawk Mountain credits are also working to reduce and replace no- or low-carbon alternatives, reducing their footprints before purchasing credits.
Cool Effect, a California nonprofit, lets smaller organizations and individuals retire carbon credits in amounts as small as a single unit through purchase on its website.
Hawk Mountain's connection to Cool Effect comes through The Nature Conservancy.
Several years ago, Hawk Mountain began a collaboration with The Nature Conservancy on a conservation easement and carbon-offsetting initiative through its Working Woodlands Program. This partnership allows Hawk Mountain to sell the additional carbon stored and sequestered in its forest each year through Bluesource LLC, a company that offers to mitigate environmental impacts.
The sanctuary could receive about $1 million through carbon credit projects.
The minimum purchase amount was too high for individuals, and corporations were the primary purchasers. It costs $11.70 to offset a single metric ton of carbon at Hawk Mountain through Cool Effect.
Hawk Mountain sequesters 47,000 metric tons of carbon emissions per year or more, Cool Effect says.
Instead of selling its timber, Hawk Mountain chose to establish a carbon project on the property, limiting development and harvesting, and "ensuring the health of their mature forest for years to come."
In tandem with the project, a conservation easement with the Nature Conservancy has been put into place to ensure permanence.
Hawk Mountain established a baseline of carbon sequestration.
Money it receives from the carbon credit purchases, like Millbrook's, goes to improving the forest and its ability to store more carbon.
The carbon credit sales are buying plans, crews and time to help clear the forest of invasive species including Japanese siltgrass, Tartarian honeysuckle and Japanese barberry, and add more trees.
That work will not only benefit the atmosphere but also the wildlife that live in the forest and the birds that depend on it. It will also help the humans who rely on the watershed that the trees protect.
The Kittatinny Ridge on which Hawk Mountain is located is what Nature Conservancy's Josh Parrish called the plant-animal superhighway. The ridge forms the 185-mile curving spine through Pennsylvania — from the Mason Dixon line to the Delaware River Gap.
The key for Hawk Mountain has been a new forest management plan.
"As part of the process we had to complete an inventory across the entire sanctuary," said Dr. Laurie Goodrich, Sarkis Acopian director of conservation science.
It wasn't a typical forest management plan that focuses on healthy trees for harvesting.
Instead, the plan takes a wider view looking at it as a wildlife habitat and how invasives are affecting the regenerating process.
The plan was created with staff and The Nature Conservancy foresters and approved by the Forest Stewardship Council certification standard.
Todd Bauman, director of stewardship, and his stewardship team are using income from carbon sales to hire seasonal crews that can help guide the staff to improve forest health and address invasive plants.
"The problem with the invasive species is that they don't have anything to control them and they drive out native species," Bauman said.
Bauman said about 120 acres have been impacted. The areas aren't neat plots: Invasives tend to sprout up from where stormwater runs.
Planting native species requires a fair amount of tending to get them to regenerate, Bauman said. Tulip poplars have done well regenerating on their own, he said.
So far, Bauman's team has planted about 100 oaks. The goal is to have an oak-dominated forest.
Oaks are the most beneficial tree, Bauman said, referring to the research and advocacy of ecologist Doug Tallamy. Oaks host the largest number of insect species that are food for birds, which means more hawks. Oaks also create acorns, which are food for turkey, deer and bear.
Prior to Rosalie Edge’s 1934 purchase of the 1,400-acre parcel that constitutes the core of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, most of Hawk Mountain’s forest was logged or burned for charcoal making and blueberry growing.
During the late 1800s and early 1900s, white pine and other large trees were selectively harvested for timbers that could be used for building mines.
Since 1934, the forest has been allowed to regenerate with minimal human impact.
In fact, much of the forest surrounding Hawk Mountain lands has continued to be heavily harvested for its valuable commercial timber resource, while Hawk Mountain land remains predominately older forest due to the early and ongoing conservation efforts of its staff and board.
Hawk Mountain had to commit to surveying the forest again. It will be an ongoing process.
"This is allowing us to be better custodians of the forest," Goodrich said.'