USDA Forest Service research is transforming exhausted farmland in Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee into thousands of acres of hardwood forests that will provide revenue to landowners, remove carbon from the air and serve as habitats for wildlife.
In 1998, scientists with the Forest Service’s Center for Bottomland Hardwoods Research, in Stoneville, Miss., began testing methods of afforestation – growing trees on barren farmland. The result was a tree-planting technique that mixed cottonwoods trees (poplars) with hardwood yearlings to produce strong, straight-stemmed hardwood trees.
The technique’s environmental and economic promise won over conservation capitalism company C2I. The company and its partners adopted the method and are using it to grow millions of trees across the South and Midwest. The partnership combines capital, land and Forest Service “know-how” to create wildlife habitats, provide wood products, and remove carbon from the air for several decades.
More than three million new mixed hardwood tree species have already been planted in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Another six million trees are scheduled to be planted on 10,000 acres over the next five years in Louisiana and Mississippi. About 302 hardwoods and 302 cottonwoods will be planted per acre.
The forestation technique begins by planting rows of cottonwood trees, which grow about 10 feet per year and adapt to various soils and climates. Once the cottonwoods are established, yearling hardwoods are planted between them.
Cottonwoods can be cut three times during the first 25 years of the planting cycle and be used to produce bioenergy and biobased products, including composites, paper, and chemicals. Once the cottonwoods are finally cut away, the slower-developing hardwoods are left to flourish until they are ready for harvesting.
The long-term plan for the tree-planting project, called GreenTrees, uses an initial 15-year lease agreement with landowners with an option to renew for another 25 years. The length of the leases increases the environmental benefits of the project – the longer the trees grow, the more carbon they’ll absorb.
A key element of the project is that landowners keep their land and can possibly bring in additional revenue through recreational usage, conservation tax benefits, and regulated timber sales through the USDA Conservation Reserve Program.