On Monday, the federal government announced plans to plant more than one billion trees across the U.S to counteract changes — namely wildfires — that have resulted in the loss of forests.
According to AP News, fires have decimated 5.6 million acres of forests in the U.S. so far this year, and we're on track to break the record-setting fire season of 2015, in which 10.1 million acres of forests were burned down.
While forests tend to regenerate naturally following a blaze, those that were destroyed in fires that are too hot won't regenerate for up to a decade. Many of these fires are so severe because the U.S. has focused on fire suppression for decades, causing a lot of dead trees and other plant matter to build up so that when wildfires do occur, they’re often very hot. That’s why many Native Americans have long practiced prescribed burns, causing small, controlled fires to prevent the buildup of dead plant matter that’s kindling for large, hot, and uncontrollable mega-fires.
That backlog of lost forests can have damaging consequences — from lost species of bugs and animals to the disappearance of “carbon sinks.” Carbon sinks absorb more carbon from the atmosphere than they release. Naturally, many forests and the like are major carbon sinks worldwide and are crucial to absorbing greenhouse gases and combatting climate change.
As a result of years of major, out-of-control fire seasons, that have “outpaced the government’s capacity to plant new trees” and fires that have burned too hot for forests to regrow on their own, 4.1 million acres need to be replanted and reforested, per government officials. To respond to this backlog, the Agriculture Department will increase — actually quadruple — the number of tree seedlings produced by nurseries to meet future reforestation needs. The Forest Service also plans to replant about 400,000 acres of forest annually, mostly in the western United States. Right now, about 60,000 acres are planted each year.
"The Forest Service this year is spending more than $100 million on reforestation work," AP News notes. "Spending is expected to further increase in coming years, to as much as $260 million annually." This additional spending comes from bipartisan legislation passed last year, directing the Forest Service to plant 1.2 billion trees over the next ten years, but the plans to accomplish the feat were just released Monday.
Joe Fargione, science director for North America at the Nature Conservancy, spoke with The Hill and addressed concerns that the replanting strategy might not be a silver bullet. "You’ve got to be smart about where you plant,” he said. “There are some places [where] the climate has already changed enough that it makes the probability of successfully re-establishing trees pretty low.”
While there is still a lot more the administration and people in general could (and should) be doing to protect the environment — like passing major climate legislation, declaring a climate emergency, and more — the reforestation plan is a step in the right direction.