Legislating Today for a Better Climate Tomorrow

Four ways the bipartisan infrastructure bill and budget reconciliation bill will deliver forests for climate

Starting a controlled burn in the Sierra National Forest in 2018.

By Jad Daley, American Forests president and chief executive officer

Sometimes our dreams come true in unexpected forms. After almost 15 years of building toward a big federal policy move on forests for climate, we have an administration that is proposing the climate-smartest forest strategy yet, and a Congress that has proposed $50 billion — yes, with a “b” — for everything from wildfire resilience to vast reforestation initiatives in landscapes and cities alike. And all through the lens of equity and job creation, including a new Civilian Climate Corps.

While not the traditional climate bill so many have waited for, the two infrastructure bills currently moving in Congress — the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the budget reconciliation bill — together actually propose a bigger investment in natural climate solutions than offered by prior climate bills, and that is the case for some other climate solutions, too. We need everyone on board right now to push this vital climate investment over the line.

As a veteran of the seemingly promising cap-and-trade climate bills a decade ago, I understand why some have been slow to wake up to the full import of this moment. After all, conventional wisdom has wrongly assumed the only way we could pay for serious climate investment would be with a new carbon pricing mechanism.

While a carbon price could help in multiple ways, the current package of infrastructure and budget reconciliation legislation has shown that we can invest in climate solutions at a vast scale the same way we invest in other priorities — from the United States Treasury. A climate crisis this dire deserves urgent investment just like a pandemic or a war or a crumbling bridge.

And what a forest-climate investment plan Congress has laid out, perfectly aligned with the direction set by the Biden-Harris administration! Here are four key ways the bipartisan infrastructure bill and budget reconciliation bill will deliver forests for climate.

Big move on wildfire resilience. The immensity of our climate-fueled wildfire crisis, especially in the western states, is overwhelming. Wildfire extent has doubled in recent decades, and the greater intensity of wildfires is leaving more areas so scorched that they cannot recover without active reforestation. How bad is it? The first two fires ever to burn clear through the Sierra Nevada happened this year, made possible because tinder dry forests are burning at higher elevations than ever before.

This is a disaster for our communities, our water supplies, our forest carbon sink, and forest resources from timber to recreation opportunities. The U.S. Forest Service has estimated that we need to restore 50 million acres at an approximate cost of $50 billion to get on top of this issue.

When taken together, the infrastructure and reconciliation bills meet this historic moment with more than $30 billion dollars to restore public and private forests alike via thinning and prescribed fire, guided by climate-smart principles and prioritization. This would create more than 840,000 jobs, save lives, and slow this growing emissions leak from our forest carbon sink.

Reforestation writ large. Equally important, these bills include unprecedented investment in restoring burned areas and other lands in need of reforestation. This includes the REPLANT Act, a provision integrated into the infrastructure bill, which would quadruple dedicated funding to the U.S. Forest Service for reforestation so it can clear a 4 million-acre backlog on National Forest System lands, largely driven by wildfire, and keep up into the future. Timely reforestation will quickly restart natural carbon sequestration and water filtration on burned and degraded pieces of our national forests, and help avert the damaging mudslides that often originate from them — such as the disastrous mudslides this summer in Colorado. This investment in reforestation is backed by a $300 million investment in implementing our national seed and seedling strategy, so we have the right trees to plant.

Putting working forests to work on climate. More than half of America’s forests are in private hands, with the largest share held by family forest owners. These bills put our private lands to work on climate with $1 billion for carbon incentives to landowners, including those who have been historically underserved like the members of the Sustainable Forestry and African-American Land Retention Network. This will provide a straightforward way to provide direct payment for landowners to undertake specified carbon-friendly forestry practices.

These incentives are complemented by an unprecedented investment in science and data to make sure we are doing this right. This begins with a $550 million investment to modernize the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis Program, our nation’s primary source of forest carbon data, and use that data to prioritize and benchmark the most effective forest carbon practices. This is complemented with $1 billion for wood innovation research and development to find new ways to turn diverse wood products into additional carbon storage and other GHG savings.

Tree and jobs for everyone. Lastly, consider the Build Back Better package’s totally unprecedented $3 billion investment in planting Tree Equity across our cities to address climate-fueled extreme heat and air pollution. This matches a new White House initiative on extreme heat, and comes amidst shocking developments like the Pacific Northwest heat wave this summer that killed hundreds of people across famously temperate cities such as Portland.

Trees are our best natural defense against heat and air pollution, reducing temperatures underneath as much as 45 degrees Fahrenheit, and averting 670,000 incidents of respiratory illness per year. As shown by American Forests’ Tree Equity Score, communities of color have 33 percent less tree canopy, on average, and lower-income communities have 41 percent less. This has life or death consequences as heat deaths continue climbing, already at 12,000 annually today with potential to reach more than 100,000 annually this century.

The vital work of planting and caring for trees in high-need neighborhoods is a proven job creator, 25.7 jobs per $1 million invested, according to recent research. The budget reconciliation bill captures this opportunity with a massive $4.5 billion investment in a Civilian Climate Corps to help advance all of the work above, from wildfire resilience to Tree Equity. This new CCC will target youth populations most in need of these economic opportunities, including urban youth from BIPOC communities, to build the natural climate solutions workforce of the future.

This partial tally of the massive, unprecedented forest-climate moves in the infrastructure and reconciliation bills should inspire you to action, if you are not already on board. You will have company. I am proud that 46 member organizations of the Forest-Climate Working Group, including diverse leaders among private landowners, forest products, government agencies, NGOs, researchers and carbon markets, have spoken together in support of these landmark forest provisions. Now is our time to stand all together as One Nation Under Trees and get this done. Our climate cannot wait, and neither can our communities.

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