Norfolk Southern’s community conservation program, Trees and Trains, turns the railroad’s carbon footprint into a corporate opportunity. Through reforestation and land conservation partnerships, Trees and Trains mitigates greenhouse gas emissions from business operations and generates environmental, economic, and social benefits.
Launched in 2011, the program balances business imperatives of economic growth with preservation of natural resources. Norfolk Southern has partnered with GreenTrees to reforest former woodlands in the Mississippi Delta; The Nature Conservancy to plant longleaf pines in Virginia; the American Chestnut Foundation to restore American chestnut trees to their historic range; and the Longleaf Alliance to support research and growth of longleaf pine forest ecosystems.
Over time, the trees planted by Norfolk Southern’s support will capture millions of tons of carbon emissions, improve air and water quality, provide recreational opportunities and jobs, create habitats for wildlife, and generate income for landowners. While restoring natural resources, Norfolk Southern hopes to earn an economic return on some of these projects by selling carbon credits earned as the trees mature.
Trees and Trains: Measuring the Impact
Between 2016 and 2030, the trees planted in the Mississippi Delta through Trees and Trains are expected to generate 1.12 million carbon credits that can be sold to individuals or businesses wishing to offset their carbon emissions.
These credits are verified and registered by the American Carbon Registry, a nonprofit enterprise that handles over-the-counter transactions in the voluntary U.S. carbon-offset market. In late 2013, the ACR transferred the first 10,000 tons of carbon credits into Norfolk Southern’s account.
Using U.S. Forest Service estimates of the ecological value of a single tree, GreenTrees calculates that Norfolk Southern’s 6 million trees will create nearly $1 trillion in value over 50 years. The calculation includes dollar values assigned to the trees’ natural attributes of releasing oxygen, controlling air pollution, recycling water, and controlling soil erosion.
Norfolk Southern introduced Trees and Trains as a partnership with GreenTrees, the nation’s leading reforestation program, to restore 10,000 acres of former woodlands in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley.
By the end of 2014, four years into our five-year, $5.6 million commitment, native hardwoods and cottonwoods had been planted on more than 9,300 acres of private property. In addition to fast-growing cottonwoods, the plantings include oak, bald cypress, hickory, ash, poplar, and pecan. Eventually, the carbon absorbed by these trees will be equivalent to about 20 percent of the railroad’s annual greenhouse gas emissions, far exceeding our five-year operations goal to reduce GHG emissions.
Over the next year, the last 400,000 of 6.04 million trees under the partnership will be planted, mostly on flood-prone farmland cleared for agricultural uses decades ago but that now is fallow or marginally productive. At the close of year four, 41 landowners had offered use of their land for the plantings. Through Norfolk Southern’s support, they will receive lease payments – an economic incentive to restore the property to forest rather than sell it for development or retain it in its current use. Another four to eight landowners are expected to participate during the fifth planting season.
With corporate backers, GreenTrees hopes to reforest 1 million acres in the Delta. The organization already has 100,000 acres under management, including the 10,000 acres supported by Norfolk Southern, currently GreenTrees’ largest corporate investor.
Longleaf pine forests, once covering 90 million acres across nine southeastern U.S. states, now are one of North America’s most threatened ecosystems. Norfolk Southern has partnered with The Nature Conservancy to help restore this diverse habitat as part of Virginia’s largest-ever longleaf pine reforestation.
In 2013, the Norfolk Southern Foundation, the corporation’s charitable giving arm, awarded the conservancy a $50,000 grant over two years to plant longleaf seedlings – about 77,500 trees – on 125 acres in rural Sussex County. Planting was completed in March 2014. Norfolk Southern’s support helped the conservancy attract additional funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, nonprofit organizations, and private landowners, resulting in additional acres of longleaf plantings.
The Sussex County project is part of a larger conservancy plan to restore longleaf pine habitats in the southeastern U.S. Collectively, the plantings represent the largest forest restoration project in North America.
Brosnan Forest, Norfolk Southern’s corporate retreat near Charleston, S.C., conserves a diverse range of plants and wildlife on the 14,400-acre site – including a longleaf pine forest that is home to the largest U.S. population of endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers on private lands.
Norfolk Southern’s conservation approach at Brosnan has centered on controlled burns, selective tree harvesting, and a 12,488-acre conservation easement that permanently protects the forest from development. Earlier this year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers approved the company’s request to create a wetlands mitigation bank on 290 acres of timberland that was historically a Carolina bay.
The ecological restoration process includes harvesting timber, plugging ditches, and planting shrubs and trees native to a wetlands environment. Once it's completed, Norfolk Southern expects to receive about 800 wetlands credits that can be sold to landowners to offset wetlands impacted from development projects in the Charleston region.
Brosnan Forest, hosting 7,000 to 8,000 visitors annually, is an outdoor laboratory for wildlife biologists and researchers studying red-cockaded woodpeckers, white-tailed deer, and longleaf pine ecosystems.