By MATTHEW BROWN Associated Press
BILLING, Mont. (AP) — The Biden administration announced plans Monday to replant trees on millions of acres of burned and dead forests as officials struggle to counter the rising toll of wildfires, insects and other manifestations of climate change in the world’s forests. country.
Destructive fires in recent years that burned too hot for forests to grow back quickly have far outstripped the government’s ability to replant trees. That has created a backlog of 4.1 million acres (1.7 million hectares) that needs to be replanted, officials said.
The US Department of Agriculture said it will have to quadruple the number of tree seedlings produced by nurseries to overcome the backlog and meet future needs. That 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 directed the agency to make the nation’s forests become more resilient as the planet warms.
Much of the administration’s broader agenda to address climate change remains stalled amid disagreement in Congress, where Democrats hold a slim majority. That has left officials to pursue a more gradual approach with incremental steps like Monday’s announcement while the administration considers whether to declare a climate emergency that could open the door to more aggressive executive branch action.
To erase the backlog of decimated forest area, the Forest Service plans over the next two years to expand the 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 done in western states where wildfires now occur year-round.
“Our forests, rural communities, agriculture and economy are connected through 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, climate-smart action…can we secure their future.”
Nearly 5.6 million acres have burned so far this year in the US, putting 2022 on track to match or exceed the record-setting fire season of 2015, when 10.1 million acres (4 .1 million hectares). Many forests regenerate naturally after fires, but if the flames get too intense, they can leave barren landscapes that persist for decades before the trees return.
The Forest Service spent more than $100 million on reforestation work this year. Spending is expected to rise further in coming years, to as much as $260 million annually, under the sweeping federal infrastructure bill passed last year, agency officials said.
Some logging industry supporters criticized last year’s reforestation legislation as insufficient to turn the tide on the scale of the wildfire problem. They want more aggressive logging in thin stands that have overgrown from years of fire suppression.
To prevent replanted areas from becoming too large, practices are changing so that reforested stands are less dense with trees and thus less prone to fire, said Joe Fargione, science director for North America at the Nature Conservancy.
But challenges remain to the Forest Service’s goal, from finding enough seeds to hiring enough workers to plant them, Fargione said.
Many seedlings 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 to plant,” Fargione said. “There are some places where the climate has already changed enough that the chance of successfully re-establishing trees is quite low.”
Living trees are a major “sink” for carbon dioxide that drives climate change when it enters the atmosphere, Fargione said. That means replacing those who die is important to prevent climate change from getting even worse.
In 1980, Congress created a reforestation trust that had previously limited funding, which came from tariffs on wood products, to $30 million annually. That was enough money when the most important need for reforestation came from logging, but it turned out to be too little as the number of large, high-intensity fires increases, officials said.
Insects, diseases, and timber harvests also contribute to the amount of land that needs reforestation work, but the vast majority comes from fire. In the last five years alone, more than 5 million acres were severely burned.
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