Billings, Mont. – The Biden administration said Monday that the government will plant more than a billion trees across millions of acres of burned and dead forests in the American West, as officials fight wildfires, pests and other threats to the nation’s forests. Struggling for climate change.
Devastating fires in recent years, which have burned too much forest to regenerate naturally, have outstripped the government’s ability to plant new trees. That has created a backlog of 4.1 million acres (1.7 million hectares) in need of replanting, officials said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said it would have to quadruple the number of tree seeds produced by nurseries to fill the backlog and meet future needs. It comes after Congress passed bipartisan legislation last year directing the Forest Service to plant 1.2 billion trees over the next decade, and President Joe Biden ordered the agency in April. It was to make the country’s forests more resilient as the world warms.
Much of the administration’s broad agenda to tackle climate change has been stalled by disagreements in Congress, where Democrats hold a razor-thin majority. That has left officials scrambling further with escalating measures like Monday’s announcement, while the administration considers whether to declare a climate emergency that could open the door to more aggressive action by the executive branch. .
Officials said the Forest Service plans to ramp up operations over the next two years to about 400,000 acres (162,000 hectares) annually from about 60,000 acres (24,000 hectares) last year to cover the backlog of degraded forest cover. Is. David Little, the agency’s director of forest management, said most of the work will take place in western states where wildfires now burn year-round and the need is greatest.
5.6 million acres have burned in the U.S. so far this year, putting 2022 on track to match or exceed the record-setting 2015 fire season, when 10.1 million acres (4.1 million hectares) burned. went.
Many forests regenerate naturally after a fire, but if fires get too intense, they can leave behind barren landscapes that last for decades before the trees return.
“Our forests, rural communities, agriculture and economy are connected to a common landscape and their existence is at stake,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilcek said in a statement announcing the deforestation plan. “Only through bold, climate-smart actions … can we ensure their future.”
The Forest Service is spending more than $100 million on deforestation this year. Spending is expected to increase further in coming years under the federal infrastructure bill passed last year, up to $260 million annually, agency officials said.
Some timber industry advocates criticized last year’s forest restoration law as insufficient to turn the tide on the scale of the wildfire problem. They want more aggressive logging on thin stands that have grown over years of fire suppression.
To prevent reforested areas from becoming similarly overgrown, practices are changing so reforested stands are less dense with trees, said Joe Fargione, North American science director at The Nature Conservancy. Fire hazard is reduced.
But challenges remain to the Forest Service’s goal, from finding enough seeds to hiring enough workers to plant them, Fargione said.
Many plants will die before reaching maturity due to drought and insects, both of which may be exacerbated by climate change.
“You have to be smart about where you plant,” Farjeon said. “There are some places where the climate has already changed enough that it is very unlikely that the trees will successfully re-establish themselves.”
Living trees are an important “sink” for carbon dioxide, which causes climate change when it enters the atmosphere, Fargione said. This means that the dead must be replaced in order to prevent climate change from worsening.
Congress created a forest trust in 1980 that previously capped funding — which came from tariffs on timber products — at $30 million a year. That was enough money when the most important forest needs came from logging, but it became insufficient as the number of large, high-intensity fires increased, officials said.
Insects, disease, and logging also contribute to the amount of land requiring reforestation, but most comes from fire. More than 5 million acres have been severely burned in the last five years alone.