A Recipe for Climate Resilient Reforestation

Plant the right tree in the right place, using the right techniques for climate resilience.
By Jad Daley, President & CEO of American Forests

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First part of the recipe is choosing the right trees to plant, such as these disease-resistant whitbark pine trees (growing in an Idaho nursery). Photo credit: U.S. Forest Service

The surging excitement around the world about using trees to help solve climate change has converged on the visionary goal of one trillion trees globally by 2030.

But this movement is now tinged with nervousness in some circles. New research and reporting, focused on a few poorly conceived reforestation projects, has raised questions about the ability to responsibly reforest billions more trees each year in ways that will be ecologically appropriate and climate resilient.

If your confidence has been shaken, here’s some good news. The forest community has the recipe for reforestation done right, and we are now positioned to share it with everyone doing this work through a powerful new partnership platform for the trillion trees movement, called 1t.org.

First let’s confirm a few basics. Trees and forests alone cannot solve climate change, but they can help a lot. America’s forests already capture 15 percent of our nation’s carbon emissions each year, and we have potential to increase this to more than 20 percent through reforestation. This is complementary to other necessary climate actions, such as reducing emissions in the power sector.

Also, reforestation must be done in close concert with local communities, whether planting street trees in cities or reforesting rural areas. This includes creating jobs so local residents can participate. Considering that forest restoration can generate as many as 40 jobs per million dollars invested, this employment effect can be a significant local benefit.

Last, there is widespread agreement in the conservation community that reforestation initiatives should only involve planting trees in ecologically appropriate ways that enhance, not diminish, biodiversity. This means not planting trees in grasslands and other systems where they don’t belong, and not replacing diverse native forests with replanted monocultures.

With these fundamental agreements in place, let’s focus on the complex scientific details of planting the right tree in the right place with the right techniques for climate resilience, whether in urban settings or large natural landscapes. Our recipe has four ingredients:

1. Tree Species: We have tremendous scientific information on what tree species will be best adapted to withstand climate change, thanks to the work of government agencies, universities, and nonprofit organizations. Every reforestation project should begin by informing tree species selection with tools like the U.S. Forest Service Climate Change Tree Atlas.

2. Tree Genetics: Even within a single species, the genetics of the tree can produce very different characteristics. For example, a white oak grown at the southern edge of its range in Alabama might have greater tolerance for heat than one from its northern range in Vermont. Tree genetics can also influence a tree’s ability to withstand threats like pests and disease. Some are naturally resilient “survivor trees.” Reforestation projects should consider the genetics of the trees to be planted and select seedlings that have the right characteristics for resilience, like this effort to reforest disease-resilient whitebark pine in the Northern Rockies. Where we don’t have enough seedlings with the required genetics for resilience, we need to collect the right seeds and grow them in nurseries.

3. Planting Techniques: The right site preparation, including remediating damaged soils, can set reforestation up for success. How many trees per acre we plant, and the spacing of those trees, also has a substantial impact on survival. This attention to forest structure is especially important in the West, where forests are already being harmed and reshaped by a damaging synergy of drought, mortality, and wildfire. In some settings, techniques like planting with tree tubes can also make a huge difference in promoting survival through the delicate early growth stages. Reforestation projects must be executed with these kinds of techniques that optimize each planting for its environment.

4. Adaptive Management: Reforestation must be paired with the human capacity for ongoing management, because we know climate change will have some surprises in store. Urban foresters and rural forest managers alike must nurture planted trees with actions like managing pests and invasive species, and take action to more fundamentally change forest composition if climate change demands it. The Climate Change Response Framework, a remarkable partnership led by the U.S. Forest Service, illustrates how private forest owners and public land managers can use science to undertake this climate-informed management approach.

Propagating this approach to resilient reforestation has gotten easier, thanks to 1t.org. The reforestation community has grown far beyond traditional forestry organizations to include corporate partners from every part of the economy, youth organizations, faith groups, civic leaders and motivated individuals. The 1t.org platform brings these diverse entities and individuals together with public and private sector forestry experts so everyone can learn from each other and access the best information and tools. This will assure that we deliver truly resilient reforestation as we work together toward the visionary goal of one trillion trees by 2030.

So let’s thank the nervous voices who have pushed our field to deliver reforestation results that will last. They are right that “tree planting isn’t simple.” But this part is easy: just follow our recipe for resilient reforestation and we can cook up success every time.

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