By Jad Daley, President & CEO of American Forests
Here is climate action made simple: if we plant more trees, those trees will pull more carbon from the air through the natural process of carbon sequestration. In fact, trees are the only proven way to achieve “negative emissions” at the massive scale required to solve climate change. That is why it is past time for an unprecedented federal commitment to Reforest America by planting a billion trees or more in cities and vast natural landscapes alike.
How much could this do to slow climate change? According to one analysis by The Nature Conservancy, reforestation is the single largest “pathway” to increase carbon capture in U.S. lands, with the potential to ramp up to more than 300 million tons of carbon dioxide capture per year by 2025. That powerful potential is why the U.S. Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization, compiled in the final year of the Obama administration, called for 40–50 million acres of new reforestation by 2050 to achieve America’s long-term climate goals.
A massive new federal commitment to reforestation would align beautifully with the vision for a Green New Deal, as I have written previously in The Hill. Reforestation is a hands-on climate solution that can create jobs in areas of high unemployment, such as rural communities and disadvantaged urban communities.
Under the original New Deal, the Civilian Conservation Corps planted three billion trees and employed 3 million workers in the process. America is well positioned to advance a similar effort again, with almost 20 million acres of recently disturbed land needing reforestation according to one analysis published in the Journal of Forestry.
A Reforest America agenda should start with public lands, which is primarily a question of money. For example, America’s national forests currently have more than a million acres of land awaiting reforestation because they are struggling to regrow naturally due to intense wildfire, pest infestations, and other damaging events. This reforestation backlog only grows larger each year due to climate change impacts on our national forests like more extensive and intensive wildfire.
We can bring these denuded national forests back to life simply by investing more public funding, starting with the Reforestation Trust Fund established by Congress for this purpose. Our investment must include more funding for tree nurseries to provide a higher number of seedlings that will be needed. This common sense investment in our national forests will do much more than just slow climate change, renewing the capacity of these lands to collect and filter water supplies, generate forest products, and provide habitat.
Our national forests are just the beginning of a Reforest America agenda. Similar opportunities exist to reforest millions of acres of public forests on Bureau of Land Management properties, national wildlife refuges, and a wide range of state, county, municipal, and tribal lands. This can be accomplished by increasing appropriations to relevant federal agencies and by creating new federal matching grants to encourage states, localities, and tribes to step up reforestation.
To push the Reforest America agenda to the limit, there are millions of acres of marginal lands that could be acquired and then reforested. This includes abandoned private mine lands in the Central Appalachians that can be rejuvenated by ripping up compacted soils and conducting tree planting. Similarly, the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley and Lower Rio Grande Valley have marginal agricultural lands that are ripe for being replanted back into the native forest types that once covered these areas.
Given the urgency of climate action and all the other benefits that trees provide, you might be wondering why this has not happened already? After seeing forests repeatedly overlooked in the climate change conversation, I believe the problem is two-fold.
First, the climate action community and some policymakers have worked so hard to promote a laser focus on clean energy solutions that it has crowded out other avenues for climate action. This recent Washington Post editorial on the Green New Deal, which completely ignored forests, is one example of this climate action myopia.
Second, embracing forests as a climate solution is hindered by concerns that their carbon benefits might be reversed at some time in the future. This is a legitimate question to raise, given that climate change is harming our forests at an accelerating rate. We can mitigate this risk by committing a Reforest America effort to embrace climate-informed selection of tree species and planting techniques. We have the requisite science available now to plant new forests to be climate resilient.
At this urgent moment for climate action, we don’t have any climate solutions with such a straightforward path. Trees offer a ready technology with a clear trajectory to scale, and co-benefits that will make our lives better in other ways. The primary barrier we face is simply the political will to allocate the money that will be required to Reforest America, starting with federal funds that can catalyze investment at all levels of government and from the private sector. Let’s encourage our political leaders to make this no-regrets investment.
Under the original 1933 New Deal, the Civilian Conservation Corps planted three billion trees and employed 3 million workers in the process.
Agricultural lands are ripe for being replanted back into the native forest types that once covered these areas.
It is past time for an unprecedented federal commitment to Reforest America by planting a billion trees or more in cities and vast natural landscapes alike.
We have the requisite science available now to plant new forests to be climate resilient.
Jad Daley is president & CEO of American Forests, as well as the co-founder and current co-chair of the Forest-Climate Working Group.