Conservationists often think of forests as the only suitable ecosystems for natural carbon storage, but thanks to an emerging body of new scientific research, we have learned how blue carbon ecosystems such as salt marshes, seagrass beds, and mangrove forests have real carbon sequestration and storage superpowers. These often overlooked and threatened ecosystems are now considered vital to helping adapt to and mitigate climate change.
Blue carbon ecosystems are exceptional at storing carbon because they are more effective at burying plants that have settled in the soil. When these plants get buried they do not decompose, which keeps the carbon that is stored in them from being released back into the atmosphere. Coastal blue carbon ecosystems also help make coastal communities more resilient to flooding, provide habitat for wildlife and opportunities for recreation.
Mangroves, seagrasses, and salt marshes have been storing carbon for millenia. They have amassed so much stored carbon already and have the potential to store so much more, making the conservation, restoration, and management of these ecosystems critical in the fight against climate change. Unfortunately, they also risk emitting that stored carbon back into the atmosphere if they are degraded by rising sea levels and encroaching development.
That is why WILDCOAST, an international conservation team, is helping to conserve and restore blue carbon ecosystems. In California, we are collaborating with researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography to study the amount of carbon stored in local blue carbon ecosystems. In Mexico we are planting tens of thousands of mangroves in partnership with local fishing communities. By conserving and restoring these ecosystems, we ensure that the carbon stored in them remains in the ground for years to come, and that they will have even greater potential to store more carbon in the ongoing fight against climate change.
In Southern California, WILDCOAST is working with organizations such as the San Dieguito River Valley Conservancy and the Batiquitos Lagoon Foundation to restore some of San Diego County’s iconic coastal wetlands. Community members are helping us to restore these lagoons by removing invasive species of plants, replanting native species, and maintaining trails so that visitors and local residents can respectfully enjoy these natural wonders.
Many of our volunteers in San Diego County are from Indigenous communities that have been stewarding the coast for time immemorial. These communities have been displaced and disconnected from their coastal spaces.
To this end, WILDCOAST recently launched the Coastal Leaders internship for Indigenous Youth, a year-long opportunity for students from local Indigenous communities to gain hands-on experience in conservation, including blue carbon ecosystem conservation and restoration.
By involving local communities in blue carbon ecosystem protection and restoration we can cultivate the next generation of ocean stewards, thereby ensuring these ecosystems and our planet continue to thrive for generations to come.
Angela Kemsley is the Conservation Director and Carlos Callado is the California Conservation Coordinator of WILDCOAST.
WILDCOAST is an international team that conserves coastal and marine ecosystems, and addresses climate change through natural solutions www.wildcoast.org
“With agroforestry, we can grow trees and produce food for people by working with nature”
Kathy Dice, Red Fern Farm
Agroforestry is, in a nutshell, farming with trees. But agroforestry, which is considered one of the earliest forms of agriculture and has been practiced by peoples around the world for generations, can take many forms. A renewed interest in agroforestry comes from the opportunity it presents to turn farmers into climate heroes, sequestering carbon on working farmland while keeping it productive and profitable.
Kathy Dice and Tom Wahl have been experimenting with agroforestry on their farmland in southeastern Iowa for over 20 years, and they have emerged as leaders and mentors to a new generation of farmers who are looking to adopt a more resilient kind of agriculture. With over seventy different species of fruit and nut crops on their farm, Red Fern Farm stands in stark contrast to the majority of Iowa farmland: millions of acres of corn and soybean monocultures. “We’re trying to mimic the biodiversity you would see in nature,” says Kathy.
Red Fern Farm represents a hyper-diverse, integrated agroforestry operation, but other forms of modern agroforestry can also produce substantial benefits with more simplified practices. Alley cropping is the practice of planting trees in widely-spaced rows, with crops like corn or soybeans grown in between the rows until the trees reach maturity. Silvopasture utilizes the principles of managed grazing to pasture livestock beneath stands of trees without harming the trees or the soil. Forest farming is a term used to describe the cultivation of a wide variety of valuable plants and mushrooms that grow best in a forest environment.
The potential for agroforestry as a tool for both climate resilience and climate mitigation is significant. Agroforestry could sequester nearly 6 gigatons of carbon per year globally, more than any other management method for agricultural land (Roe et al 2022). That is the equivalent of burning 50 billion barrels of oil. Project Drawdown ranks silvopasture ninth in its list of climate solutions – higher than rooftop solar power, electric vehicles, and geothermal energy – with additional agroforestry methods ranking in the top twenty. In the US, agroforestry has the potential to remove at least 156 million metric tons of carbon dioxide a year from the atmosphere, the equivalent of shutting 39 coal-fired power plants.
The Savanna Institute, a nonprofit organization created in 2013 to catalyze agroforestry in the US Midwest, has been working to expand agroforestry adoption through partnerships with experienced farmers like Kathy Dice and Tom Wahl. Red Fern Farm has been featured in the Savanna Institute’s Pioneer Agroforestry Farm Tour Series and online agroforestry courses. Kathy and Tom have served as mentors in Savanna Institute’s Agroforestry Apprenticeship, and presented at the organization’s yearly Perennial Farm Gathering, which brings together hundreds of agroforestry experts and enthusiasts from across the Midwest and beyond. In addition to Tom and Kathy, Savanna Institute shares the stories of other Midwestern farmers who have adopted agroforestry through Landowner spotlights and video series.
Through partnerships with farmers, researchers, and other collaborators, the Savanna Institute seeks to overcome barriers to agroforestry that cannot be addressed by farmers individually. Land access and tenure present significant challenges for aspiring agroforesters, since many agroforestry crops do not become profitable for 5-10 years, and are not worth investing in if land access might be lost. Investment mechanisms to support beginning perennial farmers is a key need. By developing markets for key crops, and breeding improved varieties, the Savanna Institute is working to make agroforestry work for more farms. Through a network of on-the-ground demonstration farms, the Savanna Institute is also working, like Tom and Kathy, to stir people’s imaginations with living examples of what agroforestry can look like.
“We made all the mistakes – every last one of them,” Tom Wahl says of his time on the farm. His statement could just as easily describe humanity’s response to the climate crisis. And yet, Kathy and Tom have persevered.
With agroforestry, they have hope for the future.
Red Fern Farm is a family-owned nursery and farm in southeastern Iowa owned and operated by Kathy Dice and Tom Wahl. It is also the site of ongoing research on a variety of tree crops.
The Savanna Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that works with farmers and scientists to lay the groundwork for widespread agroforestry adoption in the Midwest US.
“Trees do an amazing job of capturing and absorbing carbon… it seems logical that we would look to nature as part of a solution toward climate change.”
Cree Bradley, Chelsea Morning Farm
Climate change is here. Minnesota’s Northwoods are already experiencing the impacts. In this northern landscape, trees are built to withstand the extremes of winter—the coldest temperatures and the deepest snow. But as the region’s climate becomes warmer—and drier during the growing season—these cold-hardy trees are beginning to struggle.
“It’s such a big problem, climate change—and we need big solutions,” says Bradley.
The Forest Assisted Migration Project is the kind of big solution needed to adapt to climate change in Minnesota. The premise for the project is deceptively simple. For trees that are already growing in northern Minnesota—think white pine, bur oak and red oak—seeds are collected from their more southerly “cousins.” The seeds are sourced from the same kinds of trees, but the parent trees may be better adapted to slightly warmer, drier growing conditions.
Scientific evidence supports an assisted migration approach. For example, research from the University of Minnesota’s Dr. Julie Etterson and The Nature Conservancy has demonstrated that seedlings raised from more southerly acorns have better growth and survival rates than their northern counterparts when planted in the Northwoods.
Another challenge to reforestation across the US is seedling supply—and Minnesota is no exception.
Not only is very little of the state’s existing planting stock climate-forward, but we lack the numbers of seedlings needed to meet demand for forest restoration projects across the state. This seedling shortfall poses a major barrier to helping northern forests adapt to climate change.
As part of the Forest Assisted Migration Project, farmers like Cree and Jason Bradley are helping to address both problems–seedling supply and climate-adapted planting stock—by producing “climate-smart” trees that can survive as the climate changes around them.
Growing solutions, such as the Forest Assisted Migration Project, can only succeed if we are all pulling in the same direction. In addition to seedling production on small farms, we need a broader initiative that includes state nurseries, Tribal, and other commercial growers to expand seedling production as well —toward an end goal of ~750 million new trees in the state.
Identifying committed buyers up-front is key. Matching the land managers and landowners who need to buy seedlings with the growers who can produce them is key to achieving large-scale reforestation. As part of the project, TNC and other partners signed on to purchase 40,000 seedlings for use in their restoration efforts. Cree and Jason Bradley note that having committed buyers and contracts for seedling purchase is critical to being able to make an investment in growing seedlings as a small-scale operation. Small farmers are not alone in this. Larger nurseries also need to have committed buyers identified and purchase agreements in place to justify making the investment in growing large numbers of seedlings — especially new species or seed sources that are needed for climate adaptation.
Adaptation solutions for Minnesota’s forests are a wise investment. Helping the Northwoods adapt to climate change is essential to sustaining biodiversity, water resources and the region’s timber-based economy—as well as to sequestering carbon as a natural climate solution.
“If we can all step up our role and do more, it’s going to make a difference. But it’s going to take every one of us.”
Cree Bradley, Chelsea Morning Farm
Meredith Cornett is the Climate Director for the Nature Conservancy in Minnesota; David Abazs is Executive Director of the Northeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnership; Julie Etterson is the Director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.
This article was originally published by the Bipartisan Policy Center. Read the original article here.
Last year marked one of the worst wildfire seasons in United States history. More than 10 million acres burned across the country, forcing hundreds of thousands of Americans from their homes and costing the nation $16.5 billion in damages. Climate change contributed to a historically dry period for the Southwest U.S. in recent decades, making devastating wildfire seasons longer and more frequent. Since 2000, wildfires have burned an average of 7 million acres per year, more than double the average annual acres burned in the 1990s. Images of burnt orange skies spanning the Western U.S. are increasingly commonplace, and the costs of catastrophic yearly wildfires are becoming unbearable. While the impact of wildfires is mostly visible—burnt forests and communities, unhealthy air, and mass evacuations—they also have a less obvious effect: carbon dioxide emissions.1
Wildfires and the emissions they release are a natural part of the disturbance regimes of many western forests, aiding in the regeneration of tree species, which in turn sequester more carbon. However, the complex cycle of ecosystem restoration from wildfires is thrown out of balance with catastrophic fire events. Severe burns impact tree survival rates and impede future growth by negatively affecting the soil. The 2020 California wildfires were some of the most catastrophic wildfire events in America’s recent history, releasing 112 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, or the equivalent emissions of 24.2 million cars on the road for a year. While the emissions released by wildfires is a drop in the bucket compared the 6,558 million metric tons of carbon dioxide released nationally in 2019, catastrophic wildfire events contribute to a feedback loop where drier conditions created by climate change further prolong wildfire seasons, increasing the prevalence of wildfires, and therefore increasing carbon emissions. Proper wildfire management is critical to reduce risks for American communities and protect fragile ecosystems.
Fire requires fuel to burn, and in the case of wildfires, trees, leaves, and vegetation are the fuel. Accumulated vegetation cause fires to burn faster, at higher temperatures, and with greater intensity, increasing the risk to communities, structures, and valuable infrastructure. Federal land management agencies along with state and local partners use fuel reduction projects to prevent wildfires from becoming more devastating by thinning vegetation and using prescribed burns. Prescribed burns are considered by many to be “good fires” since they are intentional, low-intensity fires that burn vegetation, reducing the amount of fuel available and mitigating the possibility of a larger, disastrous wildfire event. However, these wildfire management techniques are not being deployed on a wide enough scale. In fiscal year 2018, five federal land management agencies identified more than 100 million acres under their management at high risk from wildfires, yet they only treated approximately 3 million acres, leaving a sizable gap between the deployment of wildfire mitigation techniques and the high-risk acres in need of treatment.
Current Wildfire Management Approaches
Wildfires frequently cross jurisdictional boundaries, requiring strong collaboration among federal and nonfederal stakeholders on both wildfire prevention and wildfire management. At the federal level, five agencies are responsible for wildland fire management: the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service. The federal government devotes significant funding to preventing and managing wildfires. In 2020, $952 million was appropriated for DOI’s Wildland Fire Management Budget and $2.35 billion was appropriated for USFS wildland fire management. An additional $445 million was appropriated for hazardous fuels management through the USFS. Notably, while the budgets for wildfire suppression have risen over the past decade, the budgets for hazardous fuels management have remained relatively constant.
The National Wildfire Coordinating Group was established in 1976 to provide “national leadership to enable interoperable wildland fire operations” and currently has 11 members representing federal, state, local, and tribal interests. More recently, the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enforcement Act of 2009 authorized the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, which was completed by the agencies and their partners in 2014. The Strategy acts as a framework to guide federal and nonfederal collaboration to develop resilient landscapes, create fire-adapted communities, and improve fire response.
The Strategy divides the U.S. into three regions: the Northeast, Southeast, and West. The frequency, size, and risk of wildfires varies geographically leading to regional differences in wildfire management approaches. Perhaps counterintuitive, the West experiences fewer wildfires than the Eastern U.S. But fires in the West burn significantly more acres and are more likely to make national headlines due to the scale of damage they cause. In 2020, only 700,000 acres burned in the East, while almost 9.5 million acres burned in the West. Frequently igniting on vast swaths of public land, Western wildfires often jump from public land to private land. Unique challenges to fire management in the West include changing climate conditions such as drought, invasive species, and steep terrain. Historically, wildfire management focused on suppressing all wildfires and did not consider the important role wildfires play in western ecosystems. After 100 years of fire suppression and changes to forest management, there is a dangerous buildup of surface fuels on western lands. A landscape-level approach that includes cross-jurisdictional collaboration on wildfire management is needed to mitigate and respond to wildfires in this region.
In Alaska, fire plays a critical role in improving ecosystem productivity, removing accumulated organic matter, and maintaining the permafrost table. However, climate change is leading to an increasing number of zombie fires – fires that come back after they appear to be extinguished – across the state. These fires can continue burning due to a thick layer of organic matter common in northern ecosystems. Fire suppression responsibility in Alaska falls to three protecting agencies: USFS, BLM, and the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. Each protecting agency responds to fires within their assigned geographical area as defined in the Alaska Interagency Wildland Fire Management Plan regardless of jurisdictional agency.
Signed into law in November 2021, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) includes $6.5 billion in new funding for urgently needed wildfire risk reduction efforts underway within USDA and DOI. Of the $6.5 billion, $514 million is provided to the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service and $178 million to DOI to scale up their hazardous fuel reduction and management projects, resulting in more acres at high risk from wildfires being treated with wildfire mitigation techniques. To accomplish this, critical investments have been made in both real-time monitoring equipment to accelerate fire detection and reporting and an increase in wildland firefighters, with funding for at least 1,000 people to join the workforce, efforts to convert seasonal employees to full-time equivalents, and new compensation to recruit and retain wildland firefighters. This funding could more than double the pace of current treatments per year, but it still falls short of meeting the mounting climate threat.
Additionally, by including the bipartisan REPLANT Act and $225 million in new funding for burned area rehabilitation, the IIJA places significant emphasis on reforestation and ecosystem restoration, both of which are vital for a robust wildfire management strategy. Following wildfires, forest restoration efforts are needed to prevent further degradation of the landscape, such as soil erosion and landslides. Restoration has many benefits, including reducing wildfire risk, improved ecological and watershed health, increased carbon sequestration, and rural economic benefits from the use of forest restoration by-products. Passage of the REPLANT Act will reduce the backlog of 1.3 million acres of forests requiring reforestation by removing a $30 million cap placed on the Reforestation Trust Fund. Removing this cap will result in an average of $123 million going to reforestation each year, with priority given to forests degraded by wildfires and other natural disasters. This new demand for reforestation will support the nursery infrastructure and workforce across all land ownership types and advance tree planning as a natural climate solution. For more details on the IIJA’s significant impact on wildfire and carbon management, check out the BPC’s blog, The IIJA is a Big Deal for Carbon Management.
The IIJA’s wildfire mitigation funding is critical, but there’s potential for even greater Congressional action. During the 117th Congress, 143 bills have been introduced that would expand America’s wildfire mitigation and reforestation capabilities, 13 of which have bipartisan support. This is an enormous increase in bills introduced that address wildfires compared to a decade ago when the 112th Congress introduced 32 such bills. As wildfires grow more prevalent and devastating, the increased Congressional attention is vital to ensuring communities and ecosystems are protected. However, new strategies for combating catastrophic fire events and managing reforestation are needed to mitigate wildfires further.
The Future of Wildfire Management
Although progress is being made to improve federal and non-federal collaboration in wildfire management, current approaches are likely not enough to combat increasingly severe wildfire seasons due to climate change. According to a Government Accountability Office report, surveyed stakeholders stated the Cohesive Strategy encouraged collaboration, although there is room for improvement. New tools, resources, and innovative partnerships on the horizon offer opportunities for greater mitigation.
The All Lands Risk Explorer informs the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy through the use of geographic information system (GIS) maps that show where large fires are likely to occur and the associated impacts and benefits they would likely have. One feature of this web portal is the identification of community firesheds – areas where large fires are likely to start and spread, threatening nearby communities. This identification can support the development of fire-adapted communities by highlighting where the risk will most likely come from and who is responsible. Using this type of tool opens the door to more targeted treatments that can have a greater impact as well as better prioritization of funding. This is especially critical since a small percentage of wildfires account for the majority of the risk to communities and infrastructure.
The Nature Conservancy and the Aspen Institute have also recognized the need for change with the launch of their new partnership to improve wildfire resilience across the U.S. They are hosting a series of convenings with diverse stakeholders to develop recommendations for a comprehensive approach to boosting wildfire resilience. This work builds on previous work by TNC, which found that an additional $5 to $6 billion per year may be needed over the next decade to reduce wildfire risks and prepare communities.
The time is ripe for a paradigm shift in wildland fire management as the influx of federal funding from the IIJA is deployed. Prioritization will be essential for targeting high-risk community firesheds, and collaborative partnerships will be key to implementing new funding effectively. In addition to protecting lives, homes, and wildlife, wildfire management can contribute to climate mitigation. BPC’s Farm and Forest Carbon Solutions Task Force is focused on policy opportunities to scale natural climate solutions, including those related to enhanced wildfire resilience. In a recent statement, the Task Force called on Congress to prioritize landscape-scale climate resilience to wildfires in the current policy discourse, and will release recommendations and policy priorities in early 2022.