The restorative properties of healthy forests and their role in taking on climate change and providing sustainable biodiversity has long been a point of advocacy for Solutions from the Land. To that end, it was encouraging to hear Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s recent announcement of a strategy that the USDA will follow to address a reforestation backlog of four million acres on national forests.
Vilsack recognizes that healthy forests are a powerful tool in stemming climate change. He acknowledges that nurturing the natural regeneration offered by forests and planting trees in areas with the most need is critical to mitigating the worst effects of climate change. Healthier forests also offer greater resilience to the threats they face from catastrophic wildfire, historic drought, disease outbreaks and pest infestation.
USDA’s new initiative provides a much-needed new approach to addressing the challenges on our vast public and adjacent private forests. The centerpiece of this approach is multi-stakeholder collaboration, through which state, local, and Tribal governments private landowners and conservation, partners can work together restore dead and dying forests and improve biological diversity.
For too long, forest management approaches on public land have been shaped by ideological agendas and litigation that have prevented the deployment of integrated strategies to restore forest heath, enhance biodiversity, filter and store water and provide habitat for migratory birds and fish. The “take no action; let nature take its course” approach advocated by preservationists and others, has resulted in the expansive decline in forest heath and functioning and fails to recognize the benefits of proactively managing these working lands to secure the wide range of ecosystem services they can provide.
It’s time for a new way forward, through which large landscape scale, cross boundary and multidisciplinary enhancement projects are guided by collaborative efforts of ranchers, landowners, local businesses, the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, conservationists, scientists and other stakeholders. Dead tree removal, tree planting and sustainable grazing with associated “hoof action” will increase water storage and supply; support agro-forestry production and biodiversity; improve wildlife habitat and fisheries; sequester carbon; produce renewable energy feedstocks; and enable economically viable rural communities to thrive.
After decades of gridlock and worsening conditions in the forests, policies are changing, and help is on the way. This year, the U.S. Forest Service has invested more than $100 million in reforestation – more than three times the investment in previous years – thanks to the Repairing Existing Public Land by Adding Necessary Trees (REPLANT) Act adopted last November as part of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Before that legislation, the Forest Service was only able to address about 6 percent of its post-wildfire reforestation needs. The REPLANT Act removes a cap of $30 million on reforestation efforts and is now expected to provide the agency significantly more resources every year to boost health forest growth.
Even more promising is that a significant portion of some $40 billion set aside for USDA climate efforts in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) now awaiting final passage in the House would go toward forest restoration work. The Senate Agriculture Committee says the measure offers $5 billion to support climate-smart forestry, which would boost carbon sequestration and help combat the climate crisis. By investing in forest health projects on both public and private lands, communities would be better protected from wildfires and the forestry workforce would gain wider support.
More than two billion dollars would be set aside under the IRA for Forest Service efforts to restore forest growth, while reducing of hazardous fire materials. For state and private forests, the bill includes $700 million in funding for the Forest Legacy Program, which offers competitive grants to states to acquire land or easements, particularly those which can offer significant natural carbon sequestration benefits.
On the private level, another demonstration of SfL’s long-term commitment to boosting the health of forests and enhancing their ability to counter a changing climate can be seen with its recent launch of the Headwaters of the Colorado (HOC) initiative. HOC is a cross-boundary, watershed basin program to restore 100,000 acres of dead and dying forests in the Medicine Bow and Routt National Forests of Wyoming and Colorado, SfL is partnering with private landowners, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Bureau of Reclamation (BoR), state foresters, and collaborating agroforestry, business, conservation and academic partners to carry out this project
New approaches like the USDA plan to boost reforestation and, on a more regional level, the Headwaters Project, offer a pragmatic, 21st century approach to restore forest heath and mitigate climate change. We have a lot of work to do- let’s get at it.