Putting America’s forests to work on climate change
By Christopher Thompson
With the impacts of a warming planet becoming more apparent every day, climate change is taking center stage in the race for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Most of the candidates have articulated commitments or released plans to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions through legislation, administrative actions, international diplomacy and other initiatives.
Yet, the candidates have spent almost no time on one of America’s best weapons against climate change — forests.
America’s nearly 1.3 million square miles of forests absorb about 15 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions annually, storing carbon in growing trees, ecosystems and wood products. By maintaining and expanding this forest carbon “sink,” America can reduce greenhouse gas emissions more effectively and for less money. Yet, our forests’ capacity to capture carbon from the atmosphere is diminishing as forests are lost to suburban development or are ravaged by wildfire and pest outbreaks, fueled in part by climate change.
History shows that we can respond. In the 1930s, in the wake of large-scale forest loss in the preceding decades, President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal planted some 3 billion trees. Today’s climate crisis calls for an even bigger investment in America’s forests.
This means we must plant more trees — a whole lot more. The U.S. Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization, a report published in 2016 and written by some of the federal government’s most-experienced climate experts, called for as much as 78,000 square miles of new forests across America. Mirroring the original New Deal, we should make a dramatic “Reforest America” commitment to plant billions of trees.
As we add new forests, we must also slow the loss of existing forests to urbanization by providing incentives to landowners to conserve forests. While the amount of U.S. forestland is currently stable, projections indicate we will begin to lose millions of acres to development in the years ahead if we don’t act.
Third, policy must promote the restoration of healthy forest ecosystems, particularly on public lands. This will require a dramatic increase in the selective harvest of trees in overgrown forests and the reintroduction of natural, low-intensity fires in order to reduce carbon emissions from catastrophic wildfires, disease and pests.
Accomplishing these goals will require substantial new public investment, matched by private financing. On private lands, financial resources will be required to help landowners plant trees, conserve forests in the face of development, and manage them to increase long-term carbon storage. On National Forests and other public lands, we must provide the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies with funding to undertake largescale forest restoration.
But, public dollars alone won’t meet the challenge. To be successful, we must expand markets for wood products in building, bioenergy and other applications. While this might seem counter-intuitive, private landowners respond to higher wood prices by planting trees and maintaining forests.
Wood markets are needed for conserving forests on public lands, too, where a century of fire exclusion has left our forests overstocked with smaller trees and thus far more vulnerable to wildfire, pests and disease. Robust wood markets can help finance restoration of National Forests and other public lands.
We need to move forward despite a vocal minority who argues that we must curtail forest management and the use of wood products to protect the climate. This approach would risk much greater carbon emissions from climate-induced forest mortality and wildfire. Reducing the demand for wood products would increase the cost of restoring forests on public land while diminishing the financial incentive for private landowners to plant, manage and conserve forests.
Of course, forest harvesting must be done sustainably. Fortunately, increasing consumer demand for sustainably-produced wood is driving broader adoption of improved forest management practices. America’s working forests provide not only wood but clean water, wildlife habitat and a host of other benefits.
For the Democratic presidential candidates and all policymakers for that matter, investing in forests to slow climate change makes political sense. America’s forest industry supports 2.5 million jobs, many in rural areas where voters tend to be skeptical of efforts to address climate change. Well-conceived climate policy has the potential to dramatically bolster U.S. forests — on public and private lands — while creating new job opportunities for rural Americans.
But this promise will only be achieved if we pursue policies that provide incentives for forest conservation and restoration, embrace sustainable wood production, and thereby increase the ability of our forests to fight climate change. Forests should be a central plank of our nation’s response to climate change.
Robert Bonnie is a Rubenstein fellow at Duke University and former undersecretary of Natural Resources and Environment at USDA.
Jad Daley is president and CEO of American Forests, an organization that inspires and advances the conservation of forests.