There hasn't been this much hubbub since Smokey Bear became licensed property of the USDA Forest Service in 1952.
The federal agency once again is venturing into the dense greenery of eco-marketing, this time tracking carbon footprints.
The Forest Service has teamed up with the National Forest Foundation (NFF) to create the Carbon Capital Fund, designed to raise money for reforestation and ecology projects through a method that brought former Vice President Al Gore some buzz in the past year — the carbon footprint calculator.
"The project is beyond fundraising. We also want to inform and educate the public," NFF President Bill Possiel said yesterday.
It's an opportunity "for people to learn more about their carbon footprint while helping trees to be planted in national forests," Forest Service Chief Gail Kimball said.
That's where the handy-dandy calculator comes in.
The tree-conscious consumer can visit the official Web site (www.carboncapitalfund.org) and supply basic information about personal driving habits, gas mileage, air travel and utility bills — and voila: The calculator generates how much carbon is emitted into the atmosphere from all that driving, flying and energy consumption, then compares the results with the national average — about 20 tons per person, per year.
Should one's footprint be grizzly bear- rather than bunny-sized, the calculator also comes up with the dollars it would take to "offset" the effect of modern life on the environment. And voila again: That's the suggested donation.
"This is all nonsense. It's a racket, and it's sad to see a government agency involved in it," said Steven Milloy, editor of the online news watchdog Junkscience.com and an adjunct scholar with the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
"Buyer beware. The carbon offset calculator preys on people's conscience — particularly those who don't realize you can't stop climate change, because it changes no matter what we do," Mr. Milloy said.
The method has become wildly popular. Mr. Gore showcases a calculator at his own "climate crisis" Web site, though it amused his critics after a Tennessee Center for Policy Research investigation revealed in February that the former vice president's carbon footprint was 20 times the national average.
Purchasing carbon offsets is big business, generating $110 million in donations last year, according to ICF International, a Virginia-based consultant. But global alarmism has fostered some scamming. A Boston Globe investigation earlier this year revealed that in the United States alone, about 60 companies now sell "carbon offsetting services" to consumers and businesses — with no government oversight. Congress held its first hearing on the practice on July 19.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service and NFF have done their own calculations. For every $6 donated to their fund, 1 metric ton of carbon dioxide emissions will be offset through such pilot projects as the reforestation of Custer National Forest in Montana and the Payette National Forest in Idaho. One burned, and the other was flattened by a tornado.
The process will be monitored by Winrock International, an "independent third party," Mr. Possiel said.