TWO HARBORS, MINN. – The woods up Blueberry Hill Road in northeast Minnesota are the Weideman family's escape, a place to unplug, track signs of bear and wolves, hunt grouse and wander.

The land's carbon storage value? That has not been top of mind. Until now.

Carbon markets are expanding in the fight against climate change, and the Weidemans and a handful of other private Minnesota landowners are calculating the cash-for-carbon credits potential in their woods. They're working with Forest Carbon Works, a Minneapolis-based startup connecting family forests to the regulated forest carbon offset systems in California and Quebec.

"It's intriguing," said Kyle Weideman, standing amid the aspen, birch and white spruce on his property as the sun glittered off golden leaves.

There is no shortage of controversy over the climate benefits of carbon credits, but the 53-year-old Two Harbors accounting manager said the payments could help his family with its conservation goals. He and his wife want to preserve a slice of North Shore wilderness as a legacy for their children.

"I'm looking at what I leave behind," Weideman said. "The North Shore is being loved to death."

The company's mission, said Forest Carbon Works founder and chief executive Kyle Holland, is to promote long-term forest conservation among small private landowners. They own 30 to 40% of the forestland across the United States. Carbon credits, each equal to one metric ton of carbon dioxide equivalents, can sell anywhere from $1 to $40 — depending on the market — to companies trying to offset pollution.

"We're trying to unlock value for this massive forest resource," Holland said.

While forest carbon offset programs aren't new, they have historically involved large corporate owners with tens of thousands of acres. Owners of small forests have been overlooked, said Matt Russell, associate professor in the University of Minnesota's Department of Forest Resources. Few engage in the carbon markets scattered across the country.

A key reason: It's expensive to have a forest measured for carbon storage value. That's a problem Forest Carbon Works says it has fixed.

"What has changed recently is the ability for the programs to be available to very small land owners … 40 acres at the family cabin," Russell said. "That's where a company like Forest Carbon Works is really excelling."

Surveying small forests

A forest inventory still typically involves a professional forester with a clipboard, said Forest Carbon Works' Holland.

The proprietary app Holland created while finishing his Ph.D. in applied statistics at the University of California, Berkeley changes that, he said. It works on a smartphone equipped with a large battery and a laser, allowing an independent contractor to quickly measure how much carbon a forest can store.

Weideman said that when a friend first told him about forest carbon offsets, he called the California Air Resources Board, which runs the state's cap-and-trade program.

"I thought this 1,000 acres would be a big job," Weideman said, referring to the 720 acres he owns and the adjacent 320 acres owned by his good friend, Justin Tuorila.

It was not. California's program has historically dealt with huge forests. Officials sent him some specialized contacts. One was Forest Carbon Works.

The company will sign a six-year contract with landowners if, after calculating the value of the land's carbon storage, the payments would be enough at least to cover an owner's property taxes.

Landowners must also agree to California's rules for managing the forest for the life of the project, which totals 125 years. Owners cannot clear-cut trees, for example.

The California agency issues the carbon credits, and Forest Carbon Works sells them to major regulated polluters. The credits are tracked by the American Carbon Registry, one of the major registries that sets standards for carbon credits and verifies projects that meet them.

The landowner gets an annual payment; Forest Carbon Works takes its cut after the sale.

Payments vary greatly, Holland said, because so many factors affect how much carbon each forest stores. An acre of mature conifer forest in Oregon stores much more carbon than an acre of mixed deciduous forest in Minnesota, he said. Payments range from $30 per acre per year to as much as $275 or more.

Weideman said the extra cash could augment the income from the cabin he rents out in the forest. He did some logging last winter to remove diseased white spruce and balsam fir, and to increase his tree diversity. He and Tuorila spent $5,000 planting 1,000 white pine and oak trees.

If they sign with Forest Carbon Works, they will likely be the company's first Minnesota customers.

A controversial solution

Holland, a Minnesota native, moved his company from California to Minneapolis in 2019 to raise his family. Most of the few dozen projects Forest Carbon Works has done so far are in the eastern United States and Pacific Northwest. The company, not yet profitable, is backed by a climate and biodiversity fund of AXA Investment Managers, a global investment company based in France.

Forest Carbon Works right now only deals in compliance credits in the regulated cap-and-trade programs in California and Quebec. Holland called the rollicking voluntary carbon markets, where corporations wheel and deal to meet their zero-emission goals, a Wild West.

There is no shortage of controversy about the climate benefits of forest carbon offset projects. CarbonPlan, a San Francisco-based nonprofit analyzing climate change solutions, recently concluded that only a fraction of California's forest carbon offsets show real climate benefits. The research was featured in a recent series by the nonprofit investigative news site ProPublica.

A core argument is carbon credits are being issued for land that would have been conserved anyway. Credits should be for just the amount of carbon that is different from business as usual, the nonprofit said.

"What's the right amount of credit that should be given for that carbon on the land? That's really tough," said Grayson Badgley, a forest ecologist with CarbonPlan. "If you get that percentage wrong, you end up with over-crediting and exaggerating real climate benefits."

Holland agreed it's a problem, particularly in the voluntary markets. But all his company's projects are on land that wouldn't have been protected in perpetuity. Families face pressures to sell or log "to put kids through college, pay a medical bill," he said. Landowners who start valuing carbon tend to change their management and sequester more carbon over time.

Michael Noble, executive director of St. Paul-based Fresh Energy, said he is cautious about carbon markets, which need rigorous standards and accountability.

"What happens when climate-driven wildfires wipe out all that investment and release all the carbon back to the atmosphere?" he said.

But we need to remove "mind boggling" amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, Noble said. He said he hopes Holland's startup can help.

As for Weideman, he will likely make a decision in coming weeks. Back in his forest, he checks on the seedlings, steering an all-terrain utility vehicle outfitted with tracks, not wheels, down a muddy path.

In the clearing stands a cluster of young trees staked in protective white tubes.

His 11-year-old twins helped plant them, he said with a touch of pride: "They love being out here."

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683