Billings, Mont. The Biden administration said Monday that the government will plant more than a billion trees across millions of acres of burnt and dead forests in the western United States, as officials struggle to cope with mounting losses in the country’s forests. from wildfires, insects and other manifestations of climate change.
devastating fires In recent years the temperature has burned too high for forests to regrow naturally, far beyond the government’s ability to plant new trees. This has left 4.1 million acres (1.7 million hectares) in need of replanting, officials said.
The USDA said it will have to quadruple the number of tree seedlings that nurseries produce to get past the backlog and meet future needs. It comes after Congress last year passed bipartisan legislation directing the Forest Service to plant 1.2 billion trees over the next decade and after President Joe Biden in April ordered the agency to make the nation’s forests more resilient. With global warming.
Much of the administration’s broader agenda to deal with climate change remains stalled amid the row in Congress, where Democrats have a very slim majority. That has left officials taking a more piecemeal approach with additional measures like Monday’s declaration, while the administration considers whether to declare a climate emergency. It could open the door to more aggressive actions of the executive branch.
To erase the backlog from areas of collapsed forest, the Forest Service plans over the next two years to expand work from about 60,000 acres (24,000 hectares) replanted last year to about 400,000 acres (162,000 hectares) annually, officials said. Most of the work will be in western states where wildfires now occur year-round and the need is more urgent, said David Little, director of the agency’s forestry department.
Fires have destroyed 5.6 million acres so far in the United States this year, putting 2022 on track to match or surpass the 2015 fire season, when 10.1 million acres (4.1 million hectares) were burned.
Many forests regenerate naturally after fires, but if the fires intensify, they can leave behind arid landscapes that will last for decades before trees return.
“Our forests, rural communities, agriculture and economy are linked together by a shared landscape and their very existence is at stake,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement announcing the reforestation plan. “Only through bold and climate-smart actions… can we secure their future.”
This year the Forest Service is spending more than $100 million on afforestation. Agency officials said spending in the coming years is expected to increase to as much as $260 million annually, under the comprehensive federal infrastructure law approved last year.
Some timber industry proponents criticized last year’s reforestation legislation as insufficient to turn the tide on the scale of the bushfire problem. They want more aggressive felling of trees in thin booths that have become overgrown from years of putting out fires.
To prevent replanted areas from becoming similarly overgrown, practices are changing so that reforested terraces are less tree-dense and therefore less prone to fire.
But Vargione said challenges to the Forest Service’s goal remain, from finding enough seeds to hiring enough workers to plant them.
Many seedlings die before they reach maturity due to drought and insects, both of which can be exacerbated by climate change.
“You have to be smart about where you’re planting,” Fargione said. “There are some places where the climate has already changed enough that the probability of successfully re-establishing trees is very low.”
Living trees are a major “sink” of carbon dioxide that causes climate change when it enters the atmosphere, Fargione said. This means that replacing those who are dying is important to prevent climate change from getting worse.
Congress in 1980 created a fund for reforestation that had previously limited the funding—which came from tariffs on timber products—to $30 million a year. That money was sufficient when the most important need for reforestation came from felling trees, but it has become insufficient as the number of large, high-intensity fires increased, officials said.
Insects, disease, and wood harvesting also contribute to the amount of land that needs afforestation, but the vast majority come from fires. In the past five years alone, more than 5 million acres have suffered severe burns.
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