Climate Stewardship Act Puts Forests to Work on Climate

By Jad Daley, President & CEO of American Forests

Are you losing patience with talk about natural climate solutions, and ready to see America get to work? I am, too. Thankfully, we have new leadership in Congress to move from talk to action.

Each month we get another reminder of the power of forests to slow climate change, like the new study from Crowther Lab suggesting we could slow climate change by planting trees across billions of acres worldwide. While inspiring, these studies always trigger the same question, “Where and how?”

The Climate Stewardship Act (S.2452), introduced on September 10, 2019 from leaders U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), U.S. Senator Tom Udall (D-NM), and U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and H.R. 4269, introduced by Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM), is the most ambitious reforestation proposal in our nation’s history, surpassing even the New Deal.

Did you know that more than 40 percent of America’s forests are in public ownership? This includes 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands, along with more than 130 million acres of other federally owned forests as well as tribal forests, state and county lands, and municipal forests.

Unlike private lands, public lands require no special permission to use for climate action. Motivated governments can quickly put public forests to work on natural carbon capture, because most of the needed forestry actions fit comfortably within the laws and regulations that guide public land management.

We should start by rapidly ramping up tree planting on public land, because this is a powerful way to increase natural carbon capture and is widely popular with the public. Here are some examples where our public lands need tree planting:

- Lands so severely burned by climate-fueled “super fires” that soils are damaged and potential seed sources too far away for natural regrowth.

- Forests seeing widespread die-off due to climate change, requiring replanting with tree species and genetic stock that can withstand future climate change.

- Lands permanently damaged by mining or other resource extraction, and now covered with invasive grasses or shrubs instead of native forest.

- Defunct agricultural lands purchased by agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service without funding to replant forests as quickly or fully as desired.

In these and many more examples, stepping in to replant forests on public land will provide near and long-term gains in natural carbon capture. How much? According to The Nature Conservancy, reforestation could increase annual carbon capture in U.S. forests by more than 40 percent.

Our national forests are a great place to start. The U.S. Forest Service conservatively estimates it is more than 1 million acres behind in reforesting forests killed by drought, pests, wildfire and other similar events. Reputable private sector studies that include more diverse planting sites have estimated more like 4 million to 19 million acres of our national forests could be in need of replanting. At the high end, this would equate to planting almost 5 billion trees!

With so much at stake, my organization is proud to have helped develop the first detailed federal legislation showing how we can make this happen on national forests and every other kind of public land.

The Climate Stewardship Act of 2019 includes an unprecedented proposal to plant 16 billion trees on public land by 2050, including city-owned land. These newly planted trees would capture more than 13 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent by the end of the century, the equivalent of wiping away more than two full years of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions at our current high levels.

To make this happen, the bill directs funding through the federal Reforestation Trust Fund to plant 9.5 billion trees on our federal lands, including tribal trust lands. The bill also establishes a new Reforest America grant program to help states, tribes, local government, and non-profits to plant 6.6 billion trees on lands under their control. This includes 400 million trees to be planted in cities, focused on lower-income neighborhoods and communities of color that most need the natural cooling and air quality improvements provided by city trees.

Like the New Deal, the Climate Stewardship Act would create jobs for people in need, employing more than 200,000 people planting trees in just the first ten years. The bill establishes a new Stewardship Corps, modeled on the Civilian Conservation Corps, to train youth from low-income communities, indigenous communities, and communities of color for positions doing this work.

Public lands are set aside to provide for our most basic and common needs, like clean drinking water. With no time to lose on climate change, and so much to gain for us all, now is the time to put our public lands to work naturally capturing even more of our carbon emissions. Let’s Reforest America to act on climate!

Jad Daley is president & CEO of American Forests, as well as the co-founder and current co-chair of the Forest-Climate Working Group.

American Forests inspires and advances the restoration of forests, which are essential to life.