If managed to be healthy, forests are the best example of a naturally sustainable resource.
Because forests provide a wide range of values including forest and non-forest products, recreation, fish and wildlife habitat, forage and range, biomass energy, clean water and cultural and spiritual values, the management of forests reflects a wide range of multiple uses on private and public forests.
Accomplishing healthy forests to provide these multiple uses requires managing for the increasing threats of wildfire, drought, insects, disease and invasive species. Because of these threats, it is estimated that up to 80 million acres of national forest system lands are in need of restoration. Wildfires predominately threaten western states like Colorado and now consume about 50 percent of the US Forest Service budget.
Even before withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement, which by 2025 commits to a 26 percent reduction in CO² emissions from 2005 baseline levels, President Trump began dismantling the Obama administration’s U.S. Climate Action Plan. This emission reduction plan included our forests.
Healthy forests are important because they sequester about 14 percent of our nation’s CO² emissions. Ensuring forest health is a critical part of an “all of the above” U.S. climate policy. What’s alarming is that in 2015, forest service researchers Wear and Colston found that carbon sequestration of our nation’s forests will decline by as much as 30 percent by 2030, and 90 percent by 2060 because of unhealthy forests and conversion to alternative land-uses.
A part of ensuring forest health includes investing more capital from both public and private sources. But where will the necessary capital come from? How do we create the necessary incentives for the private sector to invest in helping us solve this massive problem? The answer is that we need common sense voluntary and regulatory approaches. A goal of all voluntary and regulatory approaches needs to be to “keep forests as forests” so that forest land owners receive additional revenues (public or private) in ways that prevent these lands from being converted to an alternative land-use.
On the voluntary side, in May 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a comprehensive and detailed approach to support farmers, ranchers and forest land owners in their response to climate change on private lands. The framework consists of 10 building blocks that span a range of technologies and practices to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase carbon storage and generate clean renewable energy.
USDA’s strategy focuses on climate-smart practices designed for working production systems that provide multiple economic and environmental benefits, in addition to supporting resilience to extreme weather, reduced emissions and increased carbon storage. Through this comprehensive set of voluntary programs and initiatives, USDA expects to reduce net emissions and enhance carbon sequestration by more than 120 million metric tons of CO² per year – about 2 percent of economy-wide net greenhouse emissions – by 2025. That’s the equivalent of taking 25 million cars off the road, or the emissions produced by powering nearly 11 million homes.
On the regulatory side, since January 2013, more than 40,000,000 metric tons of CO² have been registered in forest carbon offset credits in the California emissions trading program. Carbon offsets that are real, additional and permanent bring sectors of the economy outside the cap, in this case forests, into the fight against climate change. Additionally, the multi-stakeholder Forest Climate Working Group has been active at providing policy guidance to states on legislative initiatives that generate revenues for investing in practices on private and public forests that sequester additional carbon, and creating incentives that encourage storing carbon in long-lived wood products.
An important forest health bill has been making its way through Congressional hearings for the past couple of years and on June 20, H.R. 2936, the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017, was re-introduced. This bill provides protection to the national forest system by implementing proactive management standards intended to lessen the threat of wildfires and other risks. Rep. Scott Tipton is a co-sponsor of this bill.
It calls for the federal government to empower governors with the authority to designate high-risk areas within the national forest system, and to consult with counties and tribes to proactively take action to restore forest health and reduce the risks of catastrophic wildfire. This legislation supports the goals of the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy.
Steve Ruddell, professional forester and environmental economist, is president and owner of CarbonVerde, LLC. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.