Destructive fires in recent years that burned too hot for forests to quickly regrow have far outpaced the government's capacity to replant trees. That's created a backlog of 4.1 million acres in need of replanting, officials said.
The US Agriculture Department said it will have to quadruple the number of tree seedlings produced by nurseries to get through 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 ordered the agency to make the nation's forests more resilient as the globe gets hotter.
Much of the administration's broader agenda to tackle climate change remains stalled amid disagreement in Congress, where Democrats hold a razor-thin majority. That's left officials to pursue a more piecemeal approach with incremental measures such as Monday's announcement, while the administration considers whether to declare a climate emergency that could open the door to more aggressive executive branch actions.
“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."
Almost 5.6 million acres have burned so far in the US this year, putting 2022 on pace to match or exceed the record-setting 2015 fire season, when 10.1 million acres burned. Many forests regenerate naturally after fires, but if the blazes get too intense they can leave behind barren landscapes that linger for decades before the trees come back.
The Forest Service this year is spending more than US$100 million on reforestation work. Spending is expected to further increase in coming years, to as much as US$260 million annually, under the sweeping federal infrastructure bill approved last year, agency officials said.
Some timber industry supporters were critical of last year’s reforesting legislation as insufficient to turn the tide on the scale of the wildfire problem. They want more aggressive logging to thin stands that have become overgrown from years of suppressing fires.
Congress in 1980 created a reforestation trust that had previously capped funding - which came from tariffs on timber products - at US$30 million annually. That's proven far too little as high intensity fires increase.
Insects, disease and timber harvests also contribute to the amount of land that needs reforestation work, but the vast majority comes from fires. In the past five years alone more than 5 million acres were severely burned.