NCC’s Darkwoods property in B.C. provides a blueprint for how nature-based solutions can help reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change

IF YOU’VE EVER FLOWN in a helicopter, you’ll know it fires up your adrenaline. But it’s something else again when that trip takes you over the top of a mountain in the middle of the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s (NCC’s) 63,000-hectare (156,000-acre) Darkwoods Conservation Area in southeastern B.C., then drops you into a rare, old-growth inland temperate rainforest on an adjacent valley floor below.

At that point, the adrenaline blends with feelings of reverence and inspires statements like:

“Thrilling.”

“Immeasurable value.”

“Incredibly impressed.”

Elizabeth Willmott, head of Microsoft Corp.’s carbon negative program, shared these comments during and after a site visit to Darkwoods — aloft and on foot — on a hot, blue-sky day last August.

Based in neighbouring Washington state, Willmott’s job is to lead Microsoft’s commitment to operate carbon negative by 2030, reducing its carbon emissions over half by 2030 and removing the rest. The purchase of carbon credits — to offset emissions that cannot currently be avoided — is part of that effort. And last year that included buying credits from the Darkwoods Forest Carbon Project, NCC’s carbon credit program.

That sale established Microsoft as one of NCC’s largest carbon credit purchasers to date. NCC organized last summer’s visit to Darkwoods to show Willmott the property’s incredible natural attributes first-hand, as well as the valuable conservation work her company’s offset purchases are helping to support.

“To see the acreage protected in reality is such a huge, huge source of excitement for us,” says Willmott.

It’s an excitement shared by everyone connected with Darkwoods, including Rob Wilson, NCC’s director of conservation finance. “Darkwoods is a globally significant conservation project,” says Wilson, with habitat for grizzly bears, wolverines, mountain goats, bull trout and dozens of other threatened plant and animal species, as well as connections to other protected areas.

Darkwoods’ potential for carbon credits has been an important part of how NCC funded such a significant conservation project, by reducing potential carbon emissions that could have resulted from intensive logging and development. “The property would have been substantially deforested over a 15- to 20-year period had NCC not purchased it,” says Wilson.

Protecting the trees at Darkwoods results in the continued storage of an estimated 19 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2). Over the next century, Darkwoods will continue to sequester significant additional amounts of carbon.

NCC developed the project with a team of carbon project development experts to ensure it meets the rigorous requirements of the Verified Carbon Standard (VCS), the leading international voluntary carbon market standard. In fact, Darkwoods is VCS’s largest forest carbon project in North America. Since the program’s launch in 2011, NCC has used the funds generated through carbon credit sales to help cover the costs of managing the biodiversity of Darkwoods and other projects.

“Our first mission is to conserve that land and its wildlife,” says Wilson. “And a carbon project has really supported our conservation goals.”

Nature-based solutions

In a broader context, Darkwoods also demonstrates the overall potential of nature-based solutions to help reduce carbon emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Nature-based solutions start with the recognition that forests, grasslands and wetlands are all carbon sinks, capturing and storing CO2 from the atmosphere. While emerging efforts to capture and store carbon from refineries and other industries get plenty of headlines, nature-based solutions may be the more effective approach. According to leading research published in Proceedings of Natural Science in 2017 (“Natural Climate Solutions,” by Griscom et. al.), safeguarding nature’s ability to store carbon has the potential to provide more than one-third of the CO2 emission reductions needed through 2030 to hold planetary warming below 2 C.

There’s more. Nature-based solutions also support co-benefits, such as water filtration, flood control, diverse natural habitat and recreation opportunities.

Dan Kraus, NCC’s senior conservation biologist, calls this nature’s two-for-one solution. Another way to look at it is to compare the value of investing in “grey” infrastructure versus “green” infrastructure. “A municipality can build a bigger storm sewer system to accommodate more frequent flooding, or it can invest in parks, trees and wetlands that intercept and hold water,” says Kraus. “When we protect nature, we can also protect the ecological services that those places provide to people.”

In the case of Darkwoods, the ecological services are so extensive that NCC obtained a gold-level certification under the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Standards, which recognizes the property’s exceptional biodiversity co-benefits. Along with storing carbon and protecting important habitats and wildlife, other co-benefits include flood control, source water protection, recreation and community engagement.

Partners in conservation

Given its success at Darkwoods, NCC is implementing other nature-based solutions across the country. In Alberta, NCC has partnered with other land trusts, ranchers, farmers, industry and carbon project development experts on a program that will support native prairie grassland conservation. NCC joined a collaborative group that worked to create a standard approved by the Climate Action Reserve offset registry. Under this program, carbon credits may be generated by participating landowners who agree to avoid the conversion of native grasslands for agriculture and other purposes.

“The value of carbon for forests is above ground; the value for grass is what’s below ground,” explains Craig Harding, NCC’s director of conservation science and planning in Alberta. “In native prairies, the roots can be metres deep in carbon-rich soils. By preventing conversion and maintaining the native grass in its original state, and the soils intact, you retain more carbon in the ground.”

This program differs from Darkwoods in that NCC owns the Darkwoods property and the carbon credits, whereas the grasslands carbon program would see NCC working with private landowners who are willing to put conservation easements on their grassland properties. NCC (or another land trust) would “hold” the easement, which prevents any land-use change in perpetuity, while participating landowners would receive payments for carbon credits sold — providing they could demonstrate that if the easement hadn’t been applied, their land faced real risk of near-term conversion.

“Currently, by placing a conservation easement on their land, owners give up some rights to their property and its future potential value,” says Harding. “This would be a way for us to provide them with a new tool that rewards their land conservation efforts and uses their easement as a basis for generating additional income from carbon credit sales.”

The group hopes to launch a pilot program later this year to test the concept’s viability, with possible expansion into Saskatchewan and Manitoba.

Learning in a living lab

The stewardship of Darkwoods, with the aim of conserving and, in some cases, enhancing biodiversity and ecological services, as well as storing and sequestering carbon, is guided by a property management plan that is updated every five years. Current responsibility for executing that plan and providing day-to-day oversight falls to Adrian Leslie, NCC’s project manager for the West Kootenay region since 2015.

“The property management plan has six different conservation, or biodiversity, targets we focus our conservation efforts on — things like improving habitat and protecting species at risk,” Leslie says. “Whenever we make any management decisions, we always consider how that action might impact the wildlife, habitats and ecological services for each of those targets. Carbon sequestration is one of those targets, and so carbon’s considerations are incorporated into everything we do.”

Considerable ambition, care and effort is required to fulfill the plan’s objectives. To improve forest health, actions include prescribed burns, thinning of younger trees and, from time to time, limited selective timber harvesting. Leslie, a forest biologist, is clearly in his element.

“Prescribed burns might have a short-term negative impact on the release of carbon, but the reason we do them is to consume the smaller fuels and reduce the chances of a larger, more catastrophic fire in the future,” he explains. Likewise, on parts of Darkwoods that were logged and then replanted in the past, younger trees tend to get overgrown. Left unchecked, this reduces biodiversity and raises fire risk. “We have a program of thinning out these plantations and promoting native species that are expected to do well in a changing climate — species like ponderosa pine, which is well-adapted to drought and has very thick bark that can survive a wildfire,” says Leslie. Selective harvesting, he adds, is another tool to improve forest health. “With climate change, we’ve seen a lot of stress and mortality in western red cedar. So, we might go into an area, take out some dying trees and leave the other trees as a way of reducing wildfire fuel loads and improving forest health.”

When it comes to benefiting wildlife habitat, one key measure NCC has taken is the closure and rehabilitation of roads — more than 200 kilometres worth. Population studies on grizzly bears in Darkwoods, underway since 2008, show that these restoration methods, coupled with actions to boost the conservation area’s natural connections to adjacent protected landscapes, have been successful in improving the population’s well-being. What had been a genetically isolated group of 50 or 60 bears now numbers closer to 80, with signs of genetic mixing with bears from other locales.

This research, Wilson notes, just scratches the surface of the science taking place at Darkwoods, including climate change studies, aquatic studies, and restoration studies of endangered species and ecosystems. “Because it has scale and it’s protected, you can study things over time,” notes Wilson. “It’s an amazing, living lab.”

Though it’s unclear how things might unfold in the coming months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, action on climate change and biodiversity protection remains essential. According to Wilson, there is increasing interest in these types of nature-based solutions, and he expects that interest to keep growing.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2020 issue of The Nature Conservancy of Canada Magazine. Photo by Steve Vogle courtesy of NCC.