Forest fires are accelerating global warming, so RenewWest gives landowners a reason to replant trees

5 min. read
Firefighters on federal land. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr)


Firefighters on federal land. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr)

In this series, we visit Denver-metro, Boulder and Rocky Mountain region startups. Contact [email protected] or fill out the form below to be considered.

Wildfires have left countless thousands of acres of skeletal trees and bare ground across the mountains of Colorado. Former fighter pilot Michael Smith sees an opportunity there.

Every acre that burns means fewer trees.

Trees are one of our few natural defenses against climate change, as they're able to capture and store carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas.

"We need to be sequestering carbon from the atmosphere in order to meet our climate change concerns," said Smith, the founder of the Denver startup RenewWest. "There’s really only one way to absorb emissions: That’s through photosynthesis."

The trouble is that it can take decades for burned forests to regrow, amplified by the fact that wildfires are burning longer and larger. In fact, 2015 was the biggest year for wildfires since World War II.

"All you have to do is drive up to Centennial, Gold Hill -- there are scars from fires 10 years ago, and there’s been absolutely no change," said Pete Dignan, CEO of Renewable Choice Energy in Boulder and an adviser to Smith.

A view of the Green Mountain Fire. (Courtesy Gabe Mercado)
Smith thinks the solution is to convince landowners to replant the land themselves.

The process of replanting a forest is simple -- "literally just people walking around with a basket full of seedlings and a shovel," said Smith, who majored in systems engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy and left active service with the U.S. Navy in 2014.

Unfortunately, it rarely makes financial sense to replant trees in the arid mountains of the West. "These landowners can’t afford to reforest, and they don’t have an incentive to," he continued. "Most of the American timber industry’s moved to the Southeast."

Instead, Smith's company uses an emerging new market to make forestry profitable in a new way. Still in its early phases, RenewWest is one of a few startups that makes "carbon credits" accessible to more landowners.

Michael Smith of RenewWest. (Courtesy Michael Smith)

Founder: Michael Smith 

Employees: 1

Industry: Carbon offsets

Founded: 2015

Funding: Looking to raise $20 million

Offices: West Wash Park, Lower Highland

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