While the majority of our greenhouse gas emissions reductions must come from decarbonizing our electricity, transportation, and industrial sectors, natural climate solutions like forest management, avoided conversion, and reforestation can help us get the rest of the way. Landscapes like forests, grasslands, and wetlands naturally sequester carbon dioxide, but have not realized their full potential, partly because existing conservation programs are oversubscribed or not directly aimed at carbon reduction.
Additional funding will be needed to implement natural climate solutions across public and private lands, as will new initiatives and programs from government agencies that prioritize sequestration in a manner that is ecologically appropriate. Covering about one-third of the U.S., forests are an important part of the solution to climate change, and provide other benefits like clean water and wildlife habitat.
Last month, a bipartisan group in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a new version of the Trillion Trees Act, which aims to increase our forests’ ability to store and sequester carbon. The new version of the Trillion Trees Act makes improvements to last year’s version, notably by changing the metric of success from number of trees planted to ‘forest carbon stock.’ Forest carbon stock takes account of the carbon stored in various parts of the forest—including the trees, soils, shrubs, and dead wood and litter—and how the content changes over time with growth and decay.
While setting wood growth targets rewards cutting down trees and replanting fast-growing species, forest carbon stock evaluates the capacity of the entire ecosystem to store additional carbon relative to an established baseline. Last year, a similarly-titled Trillion Trees and Natural Carbon Storage Act was introduced in the Senate, and was also built around the idea of increasing the ‘net carbon stock’ of the forest.
The bill authors have done important work to elevate the role of forests as a climate solution and have taken steps to improve the Trillion Trees Act since its introduction last year. In its new form, the bill also increases the cap on the Reforestation Trust Fund from $30 million to $180 million annually to help the U.S. Forest Service reforest areas that will not be able to naturally regenerate due to catastrophic wildfire or disease. The bill also devotes additional resources to urban forestry and prioritizes new grant projects in areas with lower rates of tree canopy cover.
Despite some positive provisions, we are concerned with the manner in which the bill addresses environmental review for certain projects on public lands. The bill would shorten the time given for, and reduce the role of, analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which remains one of the most important laws for ensuring that potential impacts to the environment have been sufficiently considered before large projects are approved. It is important to complete NEPA review processes in an appropriate timeframe, especially on areas that are prone to burning, but eliminating some NEPA review would pose other risks to the natural and built environments, while also making it more difficult for the public to participate in the process. Land management agencies will be able to review and complete projects that reduce the risk of wildfire more efficiently with increased staffing and resources, without the need to make sweeping changes to NEPA. Some provisions in the bill also create new demand for wood products, including through a building tax credit, without including other requirements to ensure that they are sustainably harvested. Lastly, unlike last year’s Senate bill, the House bill does not acknowledge the potential of other landscapes to help sequester carbon, like grasslands and blue carbon ecosystems.
While it is important to invest in management changes, avoided conversion, and reforestation, neither bill addresses one of the most substantial steps we can take to store carbon in our natural landscapes: conserving old-growth forests. The Tongass National Forest in Alaska holds 11% of all carbon stored in the National Forest system, but is still vulnerable to clearcutting under recent management changes.
As the United States sets its sights on reducing emissions to 50% of 2005 levels by the end of the decade, we must prioritize ambitious solutions that will meaningfully reduce emissions without undermining protections for nature, wildlife, and vulnerable communities.