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April 21, 2023

No Net Loss of Wetlands is the Goal Here


Story by William H. Funk

Harold Smith graduated from forestry school at the University of Arkansas in 1973. He was employed by Silvicraft, Inc., a forest management and timber harvesting company based in Monticello, Arkansas, from graduation until 2020 and his retirement, though he still works for them on a consulting basis. “I’ve always liked the outdoors,” he assured me one muggy morning as we weaved through narrow roads toward his 5,500-acre wooded property, named Silvilands, Inc., spread over five counties.

Smith spoke of sustainability, noting that Arkansas has few state laws that provide meaningful paths forward for maintainable timber harvesting, but that certain sawmills make prerequisites for business relations, including field audits on commercial woodlands to ensure sustainable logging is taking place as agreed to by landowners. A veteran forester, Smith recommends that his colleagues looking to sell carefully managed timber follow the guidelines provided by the America Tree Farm System, a program of the American Forest Foundation which constitutes “a network of 74,000 family forest owners sustainably managing 19 million acres of forestland … the largest and oldest sustainable woodland system in the United States, internationally recognized, meeting strict third-party certification standards.”

“I love the process of growing trees,” Smith said smiling this sunny day as we arrived on his property, a flowing admixture of hardwoods, pines, and cypresses along a boggy lowland. Despite his deep experience with forestry, carbon credits were new to Smith when he learned that GreenTrees provided hardwood plantings gratis in exchange for simply allowing the trees to grow freely so that they can reach the maturity necessary for CO2 capture. Through GreenTrees, Smith has proudly planted five species of oak alone: cherrybark, red, water, willow and nuttall. The young hardwoods were all around us, respiring deeply in the thick morning air.

“Carbon capture has really picked up over the past three years as the credit market has gone up,” Smith said as he guided his pickup over the jolting dirt road. “GreenTrees were pioneers, really betting on the future. Carbon credits are a long-term investment.” Smith has been a GreenTrees partner since 2013.

We stopped by a dyke that had created a permanent wetland for waterfowl, an aspect of his membership in the USDA Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), in which landowners set aside environmentally sensitive areas from farming or ranching in exchange for a yearly payment. This meshes neatly with Smith’s love of hunting, a passion that has taken him from Europe to Africa after game species; he’d recently returned from hunting moose in Canada when we met. In addition to the duck hunting, the Smith property has 23 acres set aside for bobwhite quail, a refuge also accomplished under the auspices of the federal CRP. As I learned with many GreenTrees clients in the Delta region, hunting runs deep in the local culture here, and earning money by planting wildlife habitat that heals the air is an increasingly attractive proposition for many.

We rolled by a dense stand of loblolly pines, which Smith said had been cloned to enhance their “genetic strength” for timber. 10,000 had been planted, he said, at $.40 each a decade ago, with rows being thinned over five-year periods until the entire stand is clearcut after 30 years. Smith said a rising problem is the threat posed by feral hogs to pine seedlings and native species generally, which helps promote hog hunting in the area.

So certain is he of the restorative power of planting trees on vulnerable lowlands like this that Smith is a proud supporter of the Bayou Bartholomew Alliance, a grassroots organization whose members celebrate and work to protect the longest marshland in the world, rich in wildlife, cypress, and tupelo swamps. There was a slight stigma among his neighbors when Smith told them about carbon capture programs, Smith said, some of whom felt it was financially improbable. Smith was himself somewhat leery of what sounded too good to be true, and it was his friend Andy Johnson, who had been a GreenTrees forester, that won him over, convincing Smith that “eventually this would be a good thing” when the trees’ carbon storage increased with age.

We were standing on the edge of the bayou now, jutting cypress knees laid out before us, crayfish sign among the multitudinous deep hoofprints of wild hogs. Three deer quietly browsed the undergrowth nearby, and a young box turtle gave us a shy look before moving along the bumpy ground. Smith currently has 341 acres of oaks planted through GreenTrees, with cherrybark, a species of red oak, the best for sandy soils. “It’s a privilege to have a job like this,” Smith said. “A lot of people never get to see what I do.”

We saddled back up in the truck and headed to Blackman Field, a freshly planted forest that until Smith had acquired it under the Conservation Reserve Program had been a “forever soybean field” that added significant toxic agricultural runoff to the bayou. “I planted it in trees because I just wanted to,” Smith told me, elaborating on how marginal farms like this had been successfully converted through the CRP and in collaboration with GreenTrees into Smith’s top three priorities: dependable income, clean water for downstream, and fresh wildlife habitat for hunting and fishing.

A constant cloud of floating white cottonwood seeds—snowfall amid purgatorial heat—brushed over the windshield as we drove by a logging operation, giant skidders hauling 20-year-old softwoods to the delimber for processing. While a proud forester, Smith calls the carefully placed mini-clearcuts of pines “a necessary evil” for the eventual placement of mast-producing, carbon-capturing hardwoods, trees whose fortitude makes them the clear choice for wetlands stability. Selective logging is still Smith’s main financial stream, followed by GreenTrees and CRP revenue, as well as hunting leases. In fact, Smith regularly guides duck hunters, and assisted a team from University of Arkansas-Monticello to band over 1,000 ducks on his property.

Mr. Smith’s tangible devotion to sending clean, living water to his downstream neighbors came up again as we reached the road. “You don’t mess around with the wetlands,” Smith warned me with a smile, “and no net loss of wetlands is the goal here,” a long-term commitment to the common good that Smith is delighted to play a role in.