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Photo by Samuel Bellessa/Reporting Texas. Tammy Stutz gives a tour of her property in Elgin, Texas on April 10, 2021.

TreeFolks’ carbon credit program taking root

Friday, June 18, 2021 by Sumaiya Malik, Reporting Texas

When Tamara Stutz heard about a free tree-planting program at her neighbor’s house, she was sold. Coordinators from TreeFolks, an Austin-based nonprofit, had reached out to property owners in her neighborhood outside Manor offering to plant trees in an effort to prevent flooding.

“This is a 100-year floodplain we are standing on,” Stutz said, when Reporting Texas visited in April.

By February 2020, Stutz had more than 1,800 saplings planted on three-and-a-third acres of her 30-acre farm. Her part of the bargain: Leave them alone. The trees would fend for themselves. Stutz was so delighted with how the saplings progressed that she asked TreeFolks to come back in 2021.

Stutz gets trees and protection against erosion and everyone benefits from the carbon dioxide-sequestering potential of her saplings. TreeFolks earns carbon credits for the plantings, which it then sells to the city of Austin. 

A carbon credit is “a tradable credit granted to a country, company, etc., for reducing emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases by one metric ton,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

TreeFolks earns carbon credits from a third-party certification organization and then sells the credits. One of its customers is the city of Austin, which spent about $2 million between 2015-2020 to offset carbon emissions and repair the urban tree canopy.

Some organizations that emit carbon dioxide are required to buy credits to meet regulatory limits. Austin buys credits in an effort to maintain carbon neutrality and fight climate change. In 2021, TreeFolks for the first time sold carbon credits generated from local reforestation work to the Austin-based urban landscape design company Dwg.

The key to the virtuous cycle: An average mature tree absorbs 48 pounds of carbon dioxide per year. In one year, an acre of forest can absorb twice the CO2 produced by the average car’s annual mileage, according to the website 10 Million Trees.

Stutz, 62, has owned her property in Manor for about 20 years, and it has a history of flash floods. The meandering creek that wraps around her farmland rose rapidly and submerged the long driveway leading up to the house as well as the lowlands east of the acreage. Before TreeFolks, Stutz would periodically allow a hauling company to dump clean dirt on her property to fill up a ravine. But the stormwater would wash it away.

After hearing her neighbor’s story, Stutz, who is a retired middle school counselor and teacher, went to the TreeFolks website and saw it really wanted to replant floodplains.

Tammy Stutz points out one of the trees planted by TreeFolks on her property in Elgin, Texas. Photo by Samuel Bellessa/Reporting Texas.

The 1,807 saplings TreeFolks planted on Stutz’s property included Texas-hardy trees like mulberry, live oak, huisache (a type of acacia), wild willow, hackberry, bald cypress, honey locust and pecan. Treefolks planted another 800 trees in February 2021.

Stutz signed a pledge that she would not remove the saplings for 25 years. Only a quarter of the saplings are expected to survive. The saplings may succumb to extreme weather, unexpected flooding and browsing by land critters.

Andreina Alexatos is director of reforestation at TreeFolks. “We get our saplings from a variety of Texan producers,” Alexatos said. “If a sapling survives year five, its chances of maturity are high.”

TreeFolks was formed in Austin in 1989. It has a current annual revenue of a little less than $1 million and in 2019-20 engaged over 1,200 volunteers to plant trees in Bastrop, Hays and Travis counties. The nonprofit plants thousands of native, drought-tolerant and riparian trees in the floodplains of Central Texas as well as urban East Austin, where the green canopy of the city is lacking.

“We are pioneering this effort in the whole country with private landowners,” Alexatos said.

Once the trees are planted, TreeFolks sends documents and maps of tree locations to City Forest Credits, a Seattle company that has protocols for calculating carbon sequestration. A third party verifies the documents before City Forest issues the credits.

The credits do not all come to TreeFolks in one go. “The first 10 percent we get within the first year of planting and verified through a third party,” Alexatos said. A lump sum comes in year six and the remainder comes in year 26 when 25 years are over, she said.

A young tree planted by TreeFolks grows on Tammy Stutz’s property in Elgin. Stutz hopes the trees will grow up and help control the floodplain on her property for decades to come. Photo by Samuel Bellessa/Reporting Texas.

Zach Baumer, climate program manager for the city of Austin, oversees the city’s efforts to become carbon neutral. The city buys credits equivalent to 2,000-4,000 metric tons of carbon from TreeFolks every year, Baumer said.

“Before this program we would get credits from the open market, but those projects were not in the Austin area,” he said. “We wanted to support credits in the Austin area.”

“Companies that want to offset their carbon emissions will often purchase carbon credits, in order to help build a forest somewhere else in exchange for the carbon that they are producing,” Alexatos said. One carbon credit permits the emission of a mass equal to one metric ton of carbon dioxide.

TreeFolks sells a trademarked version of credits called Carbon+ Credits, which “take into account more ecosystem services than just carbon sequestration. These credits track runoff reduction, air quality improvements, and regional savings in heating and cooling costs,” according to TreeFolk’s website.

TreeFolks charges $30 per metric ton for Carbon+ Credits. The cost is higher than other carbon credits — some sell for as low as $9 per metric ton.

To date TreeFolks has registered 925 credits and sold 221 of them. Austin’s Office of Sustainability will purchase the remaining credits by the end of the year, Alexatos said.

TreeFolks is also working with the city to repair the urban canopy using the Austin Planting Prioritization map. The map shows areas where the tree canopy is deficient. TreeFolks provides saplings free to the property owners and the city picks up the cost.

This year the city will spend about $3 million on community forestry projects, according to Emily King, urban forester at the city’s Community Tree Preservation Division. Her team is one of many forestry programs the city manages, she said.

At Stutz’s farm, the process potentially sequestered more than 350 metric tons per acre of carbon annually, TreeFolks calculated. She plans to apply for a third round of saplings.

As she walked toward the creek in her tall rubber boots, she pointed at the freshly planted saplings with her wooden walking stick. “Hope I am alive long enough to see all those trees,” she said. “That is my dream.”

Stutz had to fence off the areas where TreeFolks planted seedlings in order to keep her cows from grazing on them. Photo by Samuel Bellessa/Reporting Texas.

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