Each year, wildfires rip through the American west, devastating both homes and forests. The rapid loss of trees has escalated in recent decades as climate change has ramped up wildfires and allowed damaging insects to destroy native species of flora. As trees are a “carbon sink” critical to slowing the ravages of the climate, this is bad news. In response, Congress and the Biden administration have an ambitious, necessary plan to plant over 1 billion trees in the American West.
Forest fires can be a healthy part of an ecosystem's lifecycle. However, when the fires burn too hot and too far, they can prevent regrowth for decades. Efforts to supplant deforestation caused by logging impunies have been in place for decades; but, with the prolific fires of today, there is a backlog of 4.1 million acres in need of replanting. President Biden's announcement means that the Forest Service will scale up work from about 60,000 acres replanted last year to about 400,000 acres annually over the next few years. This executive initiative builds off the bipartisan legislation of last year which directed that 1.2 billion trees be planted in the next decade.
“Our forests, rural communities, agriculture, and economy are connected across a shared landscape and their existence is at stake,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement announcing the reforestation plan. “Only through bold, climate-smart actions…can we ensure their future.” Of course, the logistics of such a massive mission are complex. Seedling production must be rapidly increased while workers to plant the trees must be hired. Locations also must be chosen. “You’ve got to be smart about where you plant,” Joe Fargione, science director for North America at the Nature Conservancy, told the AP. “There are some places that the climate has already changed enough that it makes the probability of successfully reestablishing trees pretty low.”
This project is a response to a dire need—5.6 million acres of forest have burned so far in the U.S. in 2022, racing towards the record set in the 2015 fire season of 10.1 million acres. “America’s forests already capture more than 10% of our nation’s carbon emissions each year and they have the potential to do more,” Secretary Vilsack notes. “We must safeguard and restore our forests to ensure they store carbon, rather than release it through catastrophic wildfire.”