The quest to keep carbon in North Carolina’s wetlands

“Every time you lose a foot of peat, there are just so many emissions associated with that," says one federal official. But the long-running restoration efforts need private partners in order to scale up.

Sunlight illuminates steam in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge on March 15 near South Mills, N.C. The refuge, which straddles the border with Virginia, is the largest remnant of a forested swamp that once covered more than a million acres.
Sunlight illuminates steam in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge on March 15 near South Mills, N.C. The refuge, which straddles the border with Virginia, is the largest remnant of a forested swamp that once covered more than a million acres. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
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GREAT DISMAL SWAMP NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE — George Washington himself aspired to drain this sprawling wetland that straddles the border of North Carolina and Virginia — one in a long line of investors eager to carve out farmland, harvest stands of Atlantic white cedar and make something useful out of what many once saw as a “miserable morass” of swamp.

These days, as Eric Soderholm rumbles through this wilderness in his truck just after dawn, he is determined to do precisely the opposite: make as much as possible of the once-drained wetland wet again.

At one stop on his usual rounds, he crosses a man-made canal by canoe and navigates the thorny underbrush until he reaches a small clearing, where he checks a monitoring gauge buried in the muck.

“I spend a lot of time bushwhacking through trails into these peatlands so we can get an accurate picture of water levels,” says Soderholm, a wetland restoration specialist for the Nature Conservancy. “We are trying to mimic what the natural hydrology of these peatlands would look like.”

Nearby, Fred Wurster, a hydrologist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, points out tree roots that stand exposed a couple feet above the ground — an unmistakable sign that the peaty soil below has degraded and subsided over time.

“We are trying to stop the loss,” Wurster says. “To turn this back into a sink of carbon rather than a source.”

Up and down the coast of North Carolina, as well in other parts of the Southeast, environmental advocates and wildlife officials have spent years working across tens of thousands of acres to reverse the toll caused by the network of ditches and roads that long ago altered a landscape critical to plants and animals, and essential to combating climate change.

Site by site, grant by grant, they have constructed a series of water control structures — some of them little more than aluminum or wooden risers installed across existing ditches — to help regulate the flow of water and maintain moisture across vast swaths of parched peatland.

“A big plumbing job,” Brian Boutin, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Albemarle-Pamlico Sounds Program, calls it.

And as scientists scramble to restore as much peatland as possible in this corner of the South, they are insistent that nonprofits and public agencies have neither the funding nor the manpower to do it alone — so they’re looking for ways to make it attractive for private landowners to become saviors of peat, as well.

Peat could be a 'carbon bomb' or a climate change solution

While the basic idea is simple, the implications can be profound.

Restoring peatland can reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires that in the past have fed on the parched peat and burned for months on end, sending greenhouse gases and other pollution into the air, scientists say. It can safeguard habitat for black bears, migratory birds and other animals that call these wetlands home. Healthy peat can improve local water quality and help mitigate flooding.

And as the world speeds toward dangerous levels of global warming, few landscapes can prevent as much carbon from escaping into the atmosphere as peat, which is made up of decayed organic matter that forms over thousands of years. It is one of nature’s least glamorous, most powerful forms of carbon capture.

‘It builds resiliency’

The type of peat that populates much of North Carolina and neighboring states, known as “pocosin,” is marked by woody shrubs and acidic soils. It can store huge amounts of carbon when wet, or release huge amounts when drained or burned.

The United Nations has said that while peatlands cover only 3 percent of the world’s land surface — from Scotland’s bogs to the yawning tropical tracts in the Congo Basin — they store twice as much carbon as in all the planet’s forests. Protecting them could reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated hundreds of millions of tons per year.

But while scientists and conservationists have long focused on the role that trees and oceans play in storing monumental amounts of carbon, only more recently has the power of peat to help the world meet its climate goals gained more widespread attention.

“They are enormous carbon sinks,” Curtis Richardson, director of the Duke University Wetland Center, said of peatlands. “And if you allow them to oxidize away because they are drained, you are adding tremendous amounts [of carbon] to the atmosphere and causing a huge problem.”

By the time the government established Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in the early 1990s, much of the peatland in the area west of North Carolina’s Outer Banks was dry and brittle. Decades of ditching and draining by previous owners had altered a third of the landscape and left parts of the area dried out and degraded.

Over time, devastating wildfires ravaged parts of the landscape, requiring huge firefighting resources and releasing millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere.

One in particular, known as the Evans Road fire, caused a lasting scar and underscored the importance of the efforts officials already had started to restore as much peat land as possible.

The fire began with a lightning strike on private land on June 1, 2008, and burned for nearly four months. Ultimately, it scorched more than 40,000 acres, including parts of the federal wildlife refuge. Smoke from the blaze reached the state capital, Raleigh, 150 miles west, and the firefighting costs approached $20 million.

“Every time you lose a foot of peat, there are just so many emissions associated with that,” said Sara Ward, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife ecologist who has worked for more than a decade to restore peat lands in the area.

The Democratic Republic of Congo faces pressure its peatland and the huge amount of carbon it holds

In the years since, the peat restoration effort at the refuge has grown into one of the largest in the nation, encompassing the re-wetting of more than 43,000 acres of peatlands. Officials maintain a system of infrastructure — mainly water control structures and dikes in existing ditches — aimed at counteracting the artificial drainage that can starve wetlands of their natural moisture, make them susceptible to fire and the release of stores of carbon.

“This is both a climate mitigation and an adaptation strategy,” Ward said one day as she rode through the refuge and its massive plots of shrubby vegetation stretching in every direction. “It builds resiliency.”

Despite the tens of thousands of acres environmental activists and public officials have restored, scaling up the effort — including into areas that are privately owned — is neither cheap nor easy.

“We have no illusions that the Fish & Wildlife Service is going to have the budget to do these restorations at scale,” Ward said. “We need partners.”

‘Those emissions reductions are real’

One way advocates hope to find those partners is by demonstrating that restoring drained and deteriorating peat land can be financially beneficial.

Beginning nearly a decade ago, environmental advocates teamed with government and university scientists to launch a pilot project at Pocosin Lakes that examined how greenhouse gases are released and absorbed from peat that is restored, vs. those left drained.

In 2017, the Nature Conservancy, along with the greenhouse gas accounting firm TerraCarbon, won approval for a first-of-its-kind carbon accounting methodology that created a path for landowners to generate carbon offsets from the restoration of peatland.

“We are able to show tangible greenhouse gas reductions immediately upon re-wetting peatland,” said Boutin, of the Nature Conservancy. “Those emissions reductions are real, and they are measured.”

It is still early days, but the hope is that with a proven methodology on the books, private landowners will eventually be enticed to restore pocosin sites and sell the certified carbon credits that result. The approach could help cover the upfront restoration costs and create a new source of income for landowners, while improving wildlife habitat and keeping a growing amount of carbon in the ground.

A similar notion was behind an effort backed by Duke University in recent years, where researchers undertook a pilot project on about 300 acres. They measured how much carbon saturated peat can store, which will influence the amount of credits the land might ultimately produce.

“We’ve got a couple really good years of data that demonstrated scientifically how many tons of carbon these systems could store if they were restored,” said Richardson, the Duke wetlands expert. “It looks very promising, and the science supports it.”

Richardson said he expects that the approach will pick up steam in coming years if the financial incentives prove worthwhile. “It’s not a gold mine,” Richardson said. But, he added, “I think it’s a win-win.”

Boutin agrees. “Nobody is going to become a gazillionaire because they are sitting on drained pocosin land,” he said. But it could be an additional revenue stream that helps landowners and the environment at the same time.

That’s the goal of Angie Tooley, manager of the Carolina Ranch of Hyde County, a 15,000-acre private ranch that sits near the Pocosin Lakes refuge.

I didn’t know what carbon offsets were four or five years ago,” Tooley said, but these days the ranch is working toward transforming its thousands of acres of drained pocosin into an active carbon farm. The idea is to generate credits to offset some of the ranch’s tax burden, while also funding conservation work, making the land more resilient to wildfire and creating habitat for wildlife.

“We have had a lot of landowners up and down the coast who have pocosins knock on our door and ask, ‘How do you do this?’ ” Tooley said. “It’s exciting; it’s generated an interested that you didn’t see before.”

Until such private efforts proliferate, public officials and environmental advocates continue to try to expand the footprint of their restoration work. The Nature Conservancy, for instance, is involved in pocosin projects across more than 100,000 acres and numerous government refuges.

Back in the Great Dismal Swamp, where two massive wildfires over a decade ago released more than 6 million tons of carbon into the atmosphere, Soderholm makes his rounds through the shrubby wilderness, where bald cypress, tupelo, maple and pine trees that rise from its murky floor.

He stops to inspect the water flowing through a series of structures meant to keep drainage in check, to keep the wetland as close to natural as possible, to keep the carbon safely stored in the loamy soil.

“We are setting these sites up for long-term sustainability,” Soderholm said.

The project, he said, is undoubtedly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and there is “an urgency to do that,” he said. But Soderholm feels a similar urgency to maintain this wild and diverse landscape, which took thousands of years to form but which humans managed to alter in a number of decades.

He hopes people today will be able to show their grandchildren the same trees and the same species of birds and bears that have long thrived in a swamp that others once sought to drain.

“Restoration is such an important part of our work as humans going forward,” he said, “if we want to make it possible for our descendants to enjoy all these things we take for granted.”

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