In 2021, a lightning strike sparked a massive fire in Montana’s Harris Mountain, scorching through over 3,000 acres of forests. More than 2,700 acres of that was Sheep Creek Ranch, a key migration corridor connected to Yellowstone National Park, essential for migrating the majestic Rocky Mountain elk, and threatened species like grizzly bears and the Canada lynx.
Now, later this month after the last of winter’s snow finishes melting off the ranch, Seattle, Washington-based startup Mast Reforestation will begin replanting the forest with an innovative business model that comes at absolutely no upfront cost to landowners.
The huge project is sprouting just after Mast secured $15 million in project financing from Carbon Streaming Corporation, a carbon credit company that helped develop Mast’s unique funding model. It also invested $2 million in the startup in addition to the project financing agreement.
Mast got its roots back in 2016 as DroneSeed, a startup founded to provide aerial seeding services in the wake of wildfires. Since, it acquired Cal Forest Nurseries, which supplies the majority of trees for California’s reforestation, back in March, and two years ago, bought the 130-year-old nursery and the largest seed supplier in the American West: Silverseed.
Now known as Mast Reforestation, drones are just one part of its “reforestation as a service,” model which includes the collection and cultivation of seedlings, total reforestation project management, site preparation, planting, long-term monitoring, and most interestingly, complete project financing through the sale of carbon removal credits.
Images courtesy of Mast Reforestation
“This innovative project financing is a scalable model that will help us get more trees in the ground, accelerating reforestation efforts in areas devastated by the rise in forest fires amplified by climate change,” Mast CEO and Founder, Grant Canary said in a statement.
Additionally, because of the migratory aspects of its upcoming Sheep Creek Ranch project, this project may also generate biodiversity credits to reward the protection of plant and animal species and the benefits they provide to communities.
Increasingly, companies are looking for ways to offset their emissions either to meet internal sustainability goals or comply with a growing body of emissions laws. While carbon credits are controversial, as they don’t directly reduce a company’s emissions, they represent a prime way for funding biodiversity projects, which are typically less funded than other climate tech ventures by both private firms and federal initiatives which, right now, are focused on electrification.
In spite of the lack of attention, reforestation efforts are essential to planetary restoration, alongside climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.
As the carbon removal market continues to explode, surging to a record $851 billion in 2021, Mast is getting in on that demand and the inflaming interest in firetech, and using it to restore lands eaten by increasing wildfires, which are often fanned by the heatwaves of the climate crisis.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, in 2021, the U.S. endured more than 68,000 wildfires, one flame in a trend of a growing number of wildfires over the past decade. These fires are increasing in the North American West — most recently an “unprecedented” fire raged through Alberta, Canada.
The center reports that 7.6 million acres were burned across the U.S. in 2022, with 86,927 of those acres consumed by the 692 wildfires caused by lightning strikes in Montana, the Land of the Shining Mountains.
The state with the most acres burned by lightning-catalyzed fires, however, was cold Alaska, with numbers topping 3 million, with Oregon having the most lightning wildfires at nearly one thousand.
Across the West, Mast has many pilot projects preceding its upcoming Montana program, especially in Oregon. In 2022, they began restoring Umpqua National Forest, a 25-acre project in the footprint of the Thielsen Fire, and last year, launched a project in Henry Creek located in the foothills of Western Oregon’s once fully-forested Cascade Mountains, devastated by a 2020 wildfire.
The Henry Creek project is financed completely through pre-sold third-party verified carbon credits. While carbon credits have been the source of malpractice by other companies in recent years, Mast Reforestation and Carbon Streaming are precautious at not only having credits verified, but Mast monitors sites both through aerial satellite imagery and on-site inspections over a century-long timeframe, showing that the startup intends to be around for a very long time.
In addition to the third-party credit verification, a third-party forester also goes out a year after Mast replants a site to ensure trees are growing as planned and drawing the intended environmental benefits.
Corporate buyers for the Henry Creek project include big names like Shopify and TIME’s climate firm Time CO2, which says it picked the project because it “pioneers a new model of carbon finance tailored to the particular upfront needs of reforestation projects,” calling it “innovative on a number of levels.”
The Sheep Creek Ranch project will be financed similarly, and because of the natural carbon removal ability of trees, is expected to remove a total of approximately 225,000 tons of CO2 equivalent, a fraction of the 1 million tons of CO2e Carbon Streaming expects Mast to remove across the Western U.S.
“This immediate impact for landowners combined with the strong demand for Mast's unique vertically-integrated reforestation model and high-quality carbon removal credits make this a win-win collaboration for us,” Justin Cochrane, the CEO of Carbon Streaming, said in a statement.
In addition to its carbon credit revenue model, Mast also has plans to venture into real estate for businesses that want to be near healthy forests and to potentially partner with federal and state agencies tasked with reforestation, CNBC — which recently named the company a top 50 Disruptor — reports.
Mast developed its financing model with Carbon Streaming, which joined Mast’s existing investors: Social Capital, Alexis Ohanian's Seven Seven Six, DBL Partners, Marc Benioff's TIME Ventures, and Elemental Excelerator, among others. Over its lifetime, Mast has raised $36 million.
In addition to the benefits for forest conservation and restoration, biodiversity, and CO2 removal, Mast’s projects also support rural livelihoods, providing jobs in seed collection, nursery operation, site preparation, and seedling planting.
Images courtesy of Mast Reforestation
Mast isn’t the only company merging software, hardware, and reforestation. Others include Canada’s Flash Forest, which by 2028 aims to plant 1 billion trees using its drone tech, and Hawaii’s Terraformation, which earlier this year launched “the world’s first” carbon-funded forest accelerator devoted to biodiversity, which like Mast, enables local communities to revitalize their lands.
“The ultimate outcome will be more forests restored, more carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere, and more carbon removal credits generated and sold,” Cochrane said.
“This is the kind of virtuous cycle that drives climate progress.”