Forests offer more than just beautiful scenery. They also protect drinking water, serve as stopover habitat for migratory birds like Magnolia Warblers, and are an important piece in our defense against climate change.
Like any resource, forests need care and investment to reach their fullest potential. As climate change worsens, forests will be increasingly vulnerable to drought, wildfire, pests, and disease, some cases of which have already become so severe that the forests lose the ability to naturally regenerate. In fact, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) has at least 1.3 million acres of forests in need of restoration, but without adequate resources to address these needs, the risk of further destruction like mudslides and damaged infrastructure only increases.
Forests are also a key piece of the climate solution because they naturally store carbon dioxide in their trees, shrubs, and soils, and keep carbon emissions out of the atmosphere. Approximately one-third of the U.S. is forested, presenting huge potential for increased carbon storage through natural climate solutions—actions that protect and restore natural spaces while simultaneously reducing harmful emissions. We can help forests adapt to the changing climate while also drawing down carbon emissions, enhancing biodiversity, protecting our air and water, and creating new jobs.
Audubon’s own science shows that climate change is the greatest threat to North American birds, with two-thirds of species vulnerable to extinction if carbon emissions continue at their current pace. Birds that rely on boreal and western forests are at especially high risk. However, if we keep warming below 1.5 degrees C—which would require reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050—we can improve the outcomes for 76 percent of those imperiled birds. While reaching this target will require decarbonization across our electric, transportation, and industrial sectors, we can also implement policies that help our working lands be part of the climate solution.
This year, Audubon hopes to see Congress pass policies that can help improve the health and resilience of our forests, enhance bird habitat, and create jobs, including:
- Incentives for Forest Owners to Adopt Climate-Smart Practices: To adopt climate-smart practices, private forest owners need financial resources and some protection from financial risk. Congress should consider new programs that provide direct payments, tax incentives, or easier access to voluntary carbon markets to reward landowners for climate-smart management practices. Any new programs must have proper safeguards that ensure the actions taken result in carbon storage that would not have happened otherwise. Programs must also value the health of the entire ecosystem over short-term gains, and should disqualify actions that result in clearcutting or illegal deforestation. Last Congress, the Trillion Trees and Natural Carbon Storage Act outlined a set of programs that could help increase ‘net carbon stock’ on private and public lands, and the Growing Climate Solutions Act would provide needed structure to voluntary carbon markets. While these bills did not advance last session, we anticipate new versions to be introduced in the current Congress.
- Restore National Forests: The USFS manages 193 million acres of forest lands, which includes at least 1.3 million acres in need of reforestation. These activities are paid for through the Reforestation Trust Fund (RTF), which only has dedicated resources to address a fraction of the backlog each year. Congress can help the USFS restock forests efficiently by removing the $30 million cap on the RTF and requiring USFS to develop a plan to address the backlog, both of which are included in the REPLANT Act. Reforestation should only be done with regionally appropriate species in areas that were historically forested, and in a way that enhances wildlife habitat.
- Invest in Urban Forestry: Urban trees and parks are vital to any city or town. Planting trees in urban areas can decrease air pollution, improve public health, increase access to green spaces, and provide important habitat for urban wildlife. Tree canopy can also provide shade and decrease the amount of energy needed to cool homes, which currently presents a disproportionate burden for low-income communities. Unfortunately, low-income communities have much lower rates of tree canopy cover, and don’t benefit as much from the cooling effects, flood protection, and reduced air pollution provided by urban trees. Congress can take action to increase resources for the maintenance of urban trees and forests through programs like the Urban and Community Forestry Program.
- Protect Old-Growth Forests: Old-growth forests comprise less than seven percent of all U.S. forests but have outsized importance for wildlife habitat and carbon storage. Old-growth stands in the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska store considerably more carbon than younger parts of the forests, both in their trees and deep soils. Congress should protect these remaining stands by not opening them up to new logging.
- Invest in Research and Development: There is still much we don’t know about how our forests can be part of the climate solution. Congress can support scientific inquiry into forestry by increasing funding for relevant research—such as the Forest Inventory and Analysis program—and to entities that can help provide regional expertise, like land-grant institutions.