More trees or fewer? The balancing act of the Trillion Trees Act

Every year on Arbor Day school children across the United States are told about the many benefits trees provide to people and the environment.

To drive the point home, schoolchildren are given saplings to plant, so they can watch them grow and feel a connection to the environment. Invariably there are cute pictures of kids standing proudly in front of a small sapling that will someday become a mighty tree.

More trees. Cute kids. Who could be against that?

Well, me, for one.

While working at the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, I oversaw the agency’s environmental education program.

For years, the saplings that teachers handed out at schools came from the same state nursery used to replant trees after a timber harvest. I decided we should stop handing out trees to kids. The saplings were more likely to be used as toy swords, with children whacking each other in a frenzied display of arboreal battle, than to be planted.

This experience came to mind when I saw the Trillion Trees Act recently introduced in Congress and co-sponsored by Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Dan Newhouse, both Eastern Washington Republicans.

While promoting more tree planting, it also recognizes there are tradeoffs and that in some places, like Eastern Washington, the problem is not too few trees, but too many and a lack of stewardship of federal forests.

Planting more trees can be good, but we have to be smart about it.

The act has many elements but two stand out.

The first is a provision to encourage the planting of billions of new trees across the United States as part of an effort to plant a trillion new trees worldwide. Second, the bill would expand management tools used to care for unhealthy federal forests, including “Good Neighbor Authority” which allows states and tribes to reduce the risk of fire in forest that neighbor their lands.

This balance of more trees and healthier forests has great potential to improve wildlife habitat, reduce destructive forest fires, and begin to rebuild the forestry economy.

One key goal of the Trillion Trees Act is to use trees to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, reducing the risk of increased global temperatures. No matter your view of climate change, planting trees is a no-regrets policy that provides other environmental and economic benefits.

The cycle of planting trees, letting them absorb CO2, and then harvesting and replating can be an extremely effective strategy for reducing greenhouse gases. Using harvested wood in construction stores the absorbed carbon for decades, allowing new trees to grow and absorb more CO2. In a study released in May 2021, researchers at the Consortium for Research on Renewable Industrial Materials found that, “Planting trees, then utilizing the harvested wood for construction, and replanting is a ‘carbon removal technology’ that perpetually removes CO2 from the atmosphere.” The environmental benefits become even greater when wood is used instead of more energy-intensive materials like concrete and steel.

However, simply planting more trees would ignore a major problem with our forests. Across the country, and especially in the West, there are millions of acres of fire-prone and unhealthy forests. That problem was on display last year as fires ripped through diseased and dying forests, especially in Oregon and California. The amount of dying forests is dramatically outstripping our ability to care for them. A recent study from the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) found that “tree mortality in national forests exceeds the amount of material removed from them through harvests.” Bureaucracy and lack of funding are undermining our ability to take the actions forestry scientists agree are necessary.

Fortunately, the Trillion Trees Act would expand the tools available to care for unhealthy forests. “Good Neighbor Authority” allows states to engage in forest-health projects on U.S. Forest Service land that would not otherwise receive treatment. The proposed legislation expands that authority to neighboring American Indian tribes that have an excellent record of reducing the risk of wildfire in forests. In Washington state, both the Yakama Nation and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation have made significant progress in restoring the health of forests on tribal land. They still face the risk of catastrophic fire from neighboring forests, however. Cody Desautel, the president of the Intertribal Timber Council, argues that Good Neighbor Authority would help address that threat, noting that “tribes look forward to enjoying the same success demonstrated by states.”

The solution to unhealthy forests requires an “all hands, all lands” approach that crosses jurisdiction boundaries. The Trillion Trees Act expands our ability to do just that.

As schoolchildren learn every year, planting trees is good for the environment. How we plant and then care for forests is a critical part of ensuring that those trees provide the promised environmental and economic benefits. The planting, managing and harvesting found in the Trillion Trees Act are all critical to smart stewardship.

Todd Myers is the director of the Center for the Environment at Washington Policy Center.

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