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May 31, 2023

A Great Way to Pay for the Things People Love About the Outdoors


Story by William H. Funk

For over twenty years, Wes Winborne CPA has been a partner at the 3,000-employee financial advisory firm HORNE, providing assurance services to the construction industry in and around the southeastern United States. Winborne’s expertise includes, according to the company’s website, “audit and tax services as well as management advisory services related to job costing, bonding, IT consulting and internal control reviews to contractors,” but his areas of enthusiasm aren’t limited simply to business consultation.

Winborne owns around 700 acres of land here in the Mississippi Delta, with 120 acres in mature hardwoods and the rest in various watershed conservation easements via the USDA, with 200 acres in need of replanting[1]. This will be done through GreenTrees, though as a skeptical businessman Winborne initially had his doubts. “It sounded too good to be true,” he admitted to me regarding carbon credits in his comfortable (and LEED certified) downtown Ridgeland, Mississippi office.

But through a friend and neighbor, Richard Hawthorne, Winborne was introduced to carbon capture as a means of earning income while raising the hardwood trees he’s committed to growing. GreenTrees employer Steve Burgess helped this careful investor to realize just what was being offered: a means of being paid to do what he loves best, to rebuild the forests he grew up in. “I really love seeing them come up,” he told me, emphasizing his plantings are all “hardwoods, not pines,” especially red, sawtooth, white, and pin oaks.

His business acumen has made him comfortable, so that, “I have no reason to cut timber for money, but credits are a real incentive not to. I bought this land so I could grow a natural forest the way I wanted to,” highlighting the wildlife that have recolonized the property, including sightings of black bears in 2022 for the first time in ages, just two miles from the hallowed spot where Teddy Roosevelt refused to shoot a young captured black bear.

We discussed ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) investing, which he says the top five banks in the U.S. have committed to. Winborne claims that ESG essentially makes corporations borrowing money from banks somewhat dependent on the banks’ compliance with the ESG rating system, which focuses on a company’s record regarding their environmental (such as carbon emissions and reforestation), social (such as employee diversity) and governmental (such as political donations and lobbying) records when making lending decisions. The ESG, which arose among powerful European financial institutes and is growing worldwide, has a ratings system that can be hard for some to comply with, and Winborne says that some of his clients can’t get financing because their situations didn’t comply with ESG standards.

ESG’s environmental protocols are numerous, Winborne says, including the current policies of a business or individual “regarding greenhouse gas emissions, energy use, waste management, toxic pollution, and animal welfare.” But this wide variability makes it easier for loan-seekers to choose from a broad range of potential environmental benefits stemming from their business or personal practices, thereby taking full advantage of what is rapidly becoming the standard for international investment.

From an environmental perspective, one of the most logical and newish means of achieving ESG’s tough but admirable standards is investment in the reforestation of old farms or fields with carbon-capturing hardwood trees, and as they mature to collect regular (and growing, says Winborne) payments for the CO2 offset that forests naturally provide. ESG may seem politically “woke,” Winborne said, but by heeding their ratings system, banks can increasingly deliver loans to investors whose corporate behavior can ultimately service the world we all live in. “Instead of government it’s the banks” that are serving in this new capacity of encouraging responsible environmental standards, he says, and while major corporations seeking loans will be rewarded through compliance with firm ESG requirements, simply storing carbon in your trees is something almost any landowner can do through, especially experienced counselors like GreenTrees.

Winborne works in land development, but he’s hardly an anti-environmentalist. We spoke about the property-owning clients he deals with (“They all enjoy the outdoors,” he noted with a smile), and his relationship with GreenTrees has “allowed me to take carbon credits and turn them into cash,” which he often uses to purchase additional acreage that will soon be replanted in hardwoods. Winborne claimed that few conservative landowners in his area would immediately jump into buying property under an easement, which perpetually limits the amount of construction, infrastructure, and habitat destruction for development, often in exchange for state tax incentives, but, he emphasized, “I’m for the wildlife.”

February through May is the typical flooding season in Winborne’s part of the Delta, and he says he experiences higher water levels across much of his property, covering old farmland and restored forests as well. He says that while the property came with some dikes and sloughs, there is no major infrastructure for flood control, no dams or pumps, because as his new forest matures and expands, there will be no need for that kind of major investment. “Trees only,” he said.

Growing up a hunter, as is the case with many ardent conservationists, instilled in Winborne a love for the outdoors that reverberates among the soaring seedlings that are forming a fresh hardwood forest on his property. He told me that his landscape’s various interwoven sloughs provide excellent habitat for game animals such as ducks, while the recovering woodlands have abundant habitat for deer and squirrels, of the latter, Winborne boasts, “We have four kinds: gray, black (a regional melanistic coloration of the gray), fox and flying squirrels.” With bears slowly recovering in the area, it’s almost like an older new world is gradually unveiling itself, one growing tree and fresh pawprint at a time.

GreenTrees has had a profound effect on this financier’s views about carbon capture, and he’s eager to spread the word to friends and colleagues. From an accountant’s point of view, Winborne says, CO2 credits “are a great way to help pay for the things people love about the outdoors. They’re an excellent revenue stream for returns on land investment, keeping land as it should be instead of as tree farms. This way you can make money without having to cut down trees, all while attracting and preserving wildlife.” For a long-term investment, being paid to plant carbon-capturing hardwoods that can live for centuries seems the epitome of good financial sense.