This week, President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act, which included $369 billion in funding for climate change mitigation projects, into law. The biggest investment of its kind in the country’s history focuses mostly on clean energy infrastructure and electric vehicle research and development, but also includes $5 billion for conservation, specifically sustainable forestry.
Forests can sequester carbon, cool surrounding areas, and provide essential habitat for wildlife, all of which this era of climate change urgently needs. Further upping the stakes, proper management is the difference between a forest that can weather wildfire or disease and one that’s totally destroyed.
“This bill creates tremendous opportunity,” says Nadine Block, a vice president at the nonprofit Sustainable Forestry Initiative, which develops certifications and advocates for sustainable forestry. “The next challenge will be to get the critical work needed on the ground.”
In this case, “on the ground” means most of the country—everywhere forests can make a difference to slow or mitigate the effects of climate change, from urban centers to remote federal forests. Most of the money for forestry in the IRA is destined for management projects, including the Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry Program, federal wildfire mitigation and prevention, an initiative to catalog and protect old growth forests, and grants to support non-federal forest management.
“In general, I’m really supportive of more funding going to more proactive management,” says Susan Prichard, a research scientist at the University of Washington. “I hope [the IRA] allows the Forest Service and public agencies to staff up—it takes so much planning, and then there’s a dearth of professionals that can get on the ground right now.”
The IRA won’t seed new projects. Instead, most funding will beef up the budgets of existing programs or extend their operational lifespans.
Planting urban trees
More than one-fifth of the funds set aside for forests in the IRA ($1.5 billion) is for the Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry Program, which works with groups in states and cities to help plan, implement, and maintain urban greenspaces.
Those trees and vegetation play an important role lessening the impacts of extreme heat for the more than 8 in 10 Americans who live in urban areas. Exposed pavement and less tree cover create “urban heat islands,” pockets with temperatures around 5° to 7°F hotter than other parts of town. People of color and low-income communities are more likely to live in heat islands, a disparity the bill addresses with specific language to prioritize historically underserved communities.
The Urban and Community Forestry Program has already been working to erase heat islands in places such as South Tuscon, Arizona, a city with very little tree cover. It had only one acre of designated park before 2021, when the federal forestry program pitched in to help develop a tree-lined greenway, with the help of engaged community members, creating a 6-mile-long shaded path for walking and biking. With the IRA funding, the program will be able to keep giving grants to towns, states, tribes, nonprofits, and other government agencies until 2031.
Supporting private forests
Private landowners own just over half of the forests in the US, or around 443 million acres. Sixty-two percent of them are families and individuals (as opposed to a business, conservation group, or tribe) who Block says sometimes lack the knowledge or resources to manage their forests with the best available climate-smart practices.
Only 1 in 5 family-owned farms have forest management plans, as a 2008 report by the National Forest Service found. A portion of the $2.75 billion for non-federal forests will go to grants for private landowners to develop plans and implement measures to decrease the risk of wildfires while increasing resilience to pests and disease.
Keeping old growth healthy
Old-growth forests, in addition to being bastions of biodiversity, can help slow the spread of wildfires and sequester carbon at greater rates than their younger counterparts. Recognizing this, the Biden administration put out an executive order in April that called for the Departments of Agriculture and Interior to “specifically prioritize the restoration of old-growth forests, taking into consideration their contributions to landscape fire adaptation.”
But definitions of old growth vary—towering stands of thousand-year-old redwoods might be the first image that comes to mind at the term, but can be as simple as a “late stage forest.” This means a forest that has been around for long enough that its composition of different trees and understory plants has stabilized (as opposed to young forests, which characteristically see waves of different species) The Forest Service is working to define “old growth,” catalog the extent and location of these forests in the US, and create a plan to protect and maintain them on federal land. And now, an additional $50 million from the IRA will bulk up the project’s budget.
Block says that the Sustainable Forestry Initiative will advocate to account for local variation, rather than a blanket definition based on tree size or age. “We’re suggesting they avoid a prescriptive definition,” says Block. “Old growth might not look the same in Washington as it does in Minnesota, but it’s all still ecologically important.”
It’s widely accepted by wildfire ecologists that decades of wildfire suppression has resulted in a buildup of dead trees, grasses, and other flammable materials that are making fires today hotter and bigger. Of the $5 billion earmarked for forestry, nearly $2.15 billion is dedicated to wildfire mitigation in federal forests to shrink those massive blazes. Although best practices for local wildfire management remain debated among researchers, government environmental managers, and conservation groups, the IRA will support controlled burns where small, regular fires were regular parts of the ecosystem’s cycles.
Likewise, foresters are trying to remove flammable material, so that fires don’t burn unnaturally hot and fast, and to prevent ecologically healthy ground fires from jumping into forest-destroying crown fires. The funding from the IRA would allow them to expand on those efforts.
From sweeping national forests to city parks, there’s a lot more we could be doing to mitigate the impacts of climate with trees. “It’s really heartening to be getting some funding and getting projects moving to address the backlog of needs,” says Block.