Kachemak Bay wetlands could be profitable for landowners

Oct 3, 2017

Beluga Slough.
Credit Courtesy of Ginger Frizzell

What if you could get paid for simply agreeing to not develop any wetlands on your property? The idea is to store carbon in marshes and bogs, preventing the greenhouse gas from entering the atmosphere, and the Kachemak Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve wants to know if enough carbon is stored around Kachemak Bay to turn a profit.

The idea of landowners getting paid to preserve carbon-storing property has been done elsewhere, but Alaska could be the mother lode of carbon storage. The Homer-based National Estuarine Research Reserve kicked off a new study this week aimed at learning more about storing carbon in wetlands.

There are several kinds of marshes, bogs and muskegs in Alaska, but the reserve is interested in peatlands, a common wetland found around the Southern Kenai Peninsula.

Wetlands naturally store carbon by keeping plant matter wet and alive. This prevents organic matter from decaying, limiting the carbon it would otherwise release, and companies may be interested in paying landowners to offset their emissions if they have enough carbon-reducing wetlands on their property.

But, land needs to verified before a price tag can be put on its carbon-storing potential.  Depending on how much carbon a property holds, landowners are awarded carbon credits they can then sell to companies and individuals looking to offset their emissions.

James Rassman, a forester who worked on a similar project in Massachusetts, explains that landowners can also use a middleman to sell their credits.

“You want to offset a thousand tons of carbon from something, you go to these middlemen and say I’m looking for a project that could do this,” Rassman explained. “They say, ‘Oh, well we have this project certified in Louisiana where they planted 50,000 trees we certified. The credits from these projects are available. Would you like to buy them?’”

In the United States, companies are not required to invest in offsetting their carbon emissions like other nations, but several do.

TD Bank and Microsoft spend millions of dollars on carbon credits, trying to minimize their footprint, or to appear more environmentally friendly.

However, landowners on the Southern Kenai Peninsula shouldn’t get their hopes up for a large payday just yet. Verifying property can be expensive and sometimes the payoff isn’t worth it, which is why Rassman says this should only a consideration for large amounts of land.

“When we were contacted by Kachemak Bay and they said they were interested in looking at carbon benefits in Alaska, our ears kind of perked up, because that’s the real deal,” Rassman says

There are millions of square miles of wetlands around the state, but the Research Reserve is focusing on the Kachemak Bay area. There are about 1,800 square miles of wetlands on the Southern Kenai Peninsula.

Coowe Walker is a watershed ecologist with the reserve and wants to know if there’s enough land in the area for companies to start investing.

“The state of this project is just a preliminary assessment as to what is possible,” Walker noted. ”If it turns out we have something that’s substantial and of interest, we can start marketing it and saying to the broader world, ‘Hey we got a lot of carbon here and we are willing to conserve in it, and you can invest in it.’”

Walker hopes to have a workshop in the coming weeks to inform people about possibilities.