Wetlands Restoration Boosted Greenhouse Gas Captured by San Francisco Bay Estuary: Study supports states’ efforts to include ‘blue carbon’ in climate change response

The San Francisco Bay and its 59,000 acres of tidally influenced wetlands comprise the largest estuary on the U.S. West Coast and offer the region’s more than 7 million residents many benefits. These include providing habitat for thousands of birds and recreationally and commercially important fish, such as salmon and Pacific herring; protecting the coastline from floods; and helping to maintain a clean, plentiful water supply. And now, a study commissioned by The Pew Charitable Trusts and conducted by Silvestrum Climate Associates highlights another significant benefit of the San Francisco Bay: slowing climate change.

Photo by Steve Crooks/Silvestrum Climate Associates

The research calculated how much carbon dioxide the bay’s tidal wetlands captured from the atmosphere and stored—a process known as “blue carbon”—between 1990 and 2020. Over those three decades, the bay wetlands represented a “net carbon sink,” meaning they sequestered more carbon than they released. The report also documented a steady increase in total sequestration over the years: 31% more carbon dioxide equivalent was captured in 2020 than in 1990, which followed significant coastal wetland restoration investments by local, state, and federal government and nonprofit organizations during the previous two decades.

Although past land use practices such as diking and draining the bay’s coastal habitats mean that its wetlands still are a fraction of the size that they once were, they remain a vital resource for the region, state, and nation. So much so, in fact, that in 2013, the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands—an intergovernmental treaty dedicated to wetlands conservation and named for the Iranian city where it was signed—designated the bay estuary as a “Wetland of International Importance.”

Now, this new study shows that continued regulatory protections and restoration investments can not only help maintain the bay’s many benefits, but also expand them, and it offers a persuasive case study for other states considering how coastal wetland conservation and expansion could support their climate change response and resilience strategies.

This article was originally published by the Pew Charitable Trust’s Conserving Marine Life in the United States program.

To read the full white paper, Coastal Wetland Greenhouse Gas Inventory for the San Francisco Bay Estuary, written by Lisa Beers and Steve Crooks of Silvestrum Climate Associates, please click here.

To learn more about blue carbon, wetlands restoration, and its potential as a Natural Climate Solution, please read a summary of our expert panel discussion, Blue Carbon: An Important Climate Mitigation & Adaptation Opportunity.

New Guide Helps Decision-Makers Adopt Natural Climate Solutions

On its first day in office, the Biden-Harris Administration established a national goal of reaching net-zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by 2050, with a 2030 milestone of reducing emissions by 50-52 percent below 2005 levels. Achieving these goals will require widespread efforts, first and foremost harnessing the power of nature itself.

Climate measures that harness the power of nature are known as “natural climate solutions.” They include land management, conservation, and restoration practices—particularly of forests, farms, ranches, grasslands and coastal wetlands—that provide climate change mitigation benefits, typically with additional benefits for the environment, the economy, and society.

Natural climate solutions receive miniscule investment considering their potential for climate change mitigation. According to The Nature Conservancy, natural climate solutions can provide up to one-third of the emission reductions needed by 2030 that would allow global temperature increases to remain below 1.5 degrees Celsius as laid out in the Paris Agreement. In February 2022, the Bipartisan Policy Center published a report which urges Congress to massively increase Department of Agriculture funding (“up to a doubling of current budgets”) for key programs to bolster natural climate solutions.

U.S. Nature4Climate (USN4C), a non-profit and non-partisan coalition of conservation, environmental, and sustainable business organizations, recently unveiled their “Decision-Makers Guide to Natural Climate Solutions” to address the disconnect between the limited funding going towards natural climate solutions and their vast potential impact. The Guide is designed to ensure a clear path forward for the effective planning and implementation of natural climate solutions nationwide.

According to Nathan Henry, program manager at USN4C, “We identified the need for the Decision-Makers Guide last year out of a recognition that there are many individuals in government, business, and academia who are strongly committed to solving the climate crisis, but who are either unfamiliar with Natural Climate Solutions, or don’t have time to navigate the vast amount of information highlighting their benefits and the actions necessary to support their implementation.”

The Guide was launched on February 28 of this year—the same day that the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a major report on the vulnerability of human societies and natural ecosystems to climate change and on possible adaptation measures. USN4C’s Decision-Makers Guide is a fitting companion to the IPCC report, which also highlights the powerful impact that healthy natural habitats can have in addressing the climate crisis, but focuses on the benefits for adaptation rather than mitigation.

Henry stated that “while we tend to lead with the climate mitigation potential of these strategies, part of the appeal of Natural Climate Solutions is the crucial role they can play in solving a wide array of additional problems.” Natural climate solutions often produce additional outcomes that are distinctly positive, especially for climate adaptation and resilience. “For example, coastal restoration activities not only sequester carbon, but also protect biodiversity and improve the resilience of coastal communities to flooding,” explained Henry. “Regenerative agriculture practices store carbon, but also increase land productivity and help make soils more resilient to drought and floods. Efforts to increase urban tree cover not only sequester carbon, but also help provide communities with relief from extreme heat.”

USN4C is dedicated to making sure that natural systems and working lands are incorporated as much as possible into climate policy and action plans and has been encouraged by some of the policies and programs that have been established since the coalition was launched in 2020. “Over the past few years, federal and state governments have really begun to step up efforts to support implementation of Natural Climate Solutions, through passage of the infrastructure bill and programs like the Partnership for Climate Smart Commodities,” said Henry. Even with this recent progress, however, much more is urgently needed. That is where the Guide comes in.

Individuals from institutions of all types, including governmental, corporate, agricultural, academic, or non-profit, can use the guide to identify their role in advancing more widespread adoption of natural climate solutions. For those in need of background information about the science of natural climate solutions and the ample benefits they deliver, the guide has a section titled “Science for Decision-Makers” that covers strategies for forests, agriculture, and blue carbon (or aquatic ecosystems). On this page, USN4C has compiled an extensive selection of resources from respected organizations—peer-reviewed studies are paired with various articles, infographics, and videos that make the research more approachable for non-experts. There is also a glossary to provide key terminology and distinguish between terms that might be incorrectly regarded as synonymous, such as “climate-smart agriculture” versus “regenerative agriculture.”

Once users are equipped with the baseline knowledge they need, they can move on to the “Natural Climate Solutions Toolbox” for a more tailored analysis of the optimal strategies for various landscapes and regions. This section contains a curated list of free and publicly available tools—many of them generated by members of USN4C—including interactive features and strategic data sets designed to help decision-makers pinpoint the natural climate solutions best for them and their communities.

For example, the “U.S. Natural Climate Solutions Mapper” allows the user to quantify the maximum carbon mitigation potential of 11 different “pathways” (such as reforestation or grassland restoration) in their state based on various price points. Another feature of the mapper shows how states rank by climate change mitigation potential and contribution relative to the U.S. national level. The top five states with the highest overall mitigation potential are Texas, Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas, and Missouri. This tool is an ideal starting point for those seeking guidance on the most impactful and cost-effective natural climate solutions for their state.

More research is needed to fully understand the climate mitigation potential of certain types of natural climate solutions like fire management and no-till agriculture. “We recognize that the science behind some Natural Climate Solutions strategies is still evolving, so we provided a forum for people to hear diverse perspectives,” said Henry. This forum can be found in the “Discussion and Debate” section of the Decision-Makers Guide.

The Guide is designed to continue growing at the same pace as the emerging science. Henry explained, “This resource is not meant to be read like a book that is only read once. We plan to manage the guide as a living resource that will evolve over time—as new tools, new science, and innovation on Natural Climate Solutions progress.”

EESI is part of the USN4C Coalition. This article was originally published on EESI’s website on July 21, 2022.

Peatlands, Which Can Help Fight Against Climate Change, Face Many Threats: Improved science could spur conservation, with myriad benefits to nature and people

Known by many names—from fen, bog, and marsh to mire and swamp—peatlands are a type of wetland that plays important roles in the environment, including absorbing carbon from the atmosphere and supporting an abundant array of wildlife. They also provide numerous benefits to people, including drinking water and food as well as recreational and educational activities. But many of these benefits may not be around for long, because peatlands around the world face myriad threats to their existence.

That’s why The Pew Charitable Trusts is working to improve peatland conservation in many regions of the world, in part by seeking to fill gaps in research and advocate for strong policies to safeguard these ecosystems. Here, we delve into what exactly peatlands are, how they support wildlife and people, and what lies ahead for peatland conservation science.

An introduction to peatlands

Although there is no universally accepted definition of peatlands, scientists most often describe them as a class of wetland with a naturally accumulated layer of dead plant material, or peat, at the surface. Peat is formed when organic matter accumulates faster than it decomposes because of a lack of oxygen in waterlogged matter. In areas where peat accumulation has continued over long periods of time, the land may have layers of peat that are meters thick. Although all peatlands are wetlands, not all wetlands are peatlands.

Graphic courtesy of Pew Charitable Trusts

There are two major types of peatlands: bogs and fens. Bogs are fed by precipitation, whereas fens receive water and nutrients from other sources, such as groundwater. Because peat can accumulate only in perennially waterlogged places, the distribution and characteristics of peatlands largely depends on local conditions, such as weather and freshwater inputs. Peatlands are found in and near fresh and brackish waters, and in coastal and inland areas around the world. As a result of their broad geographic coverage and highly diverse characteristics, peatlands are often unrecognized and overlooked by governments and policymakers.

Peatlands occupy only about 3% of the global land area but contain about 25% of the global soil carbon stock—twice the amount found in the world’s forests. These wetlands store older carbon in their peat layer for the long term, and in vegetation for the shorter term. Peatlands are also home to rich biodiversity, including a wide range of threatened and endemic species, and provide important places for recreational, spiritual, inspirational, educational, and other cultural activities for communities. In addition, peatlands support livelihoods with activities such as animal grazing. They also help to control flooding and filter sediments, pollutants, and other nutrients from sources of drinking water.

Threats and impacts

Scientists estimate that 15% of global peatlands have been drained for land development and agriculture, resulting in significant greenhouse gas emissions through release of the carbon that those wetlands were storing over long periods of time. The world’s carbon-rich soils, mostly located in boreal areas, are disproportionally drained in tropical regions—an action that accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than the draining of temperate and boreal peatlands. Notably, half of the world’s known peatland emissions come from Southeast Asia, where high rates of deforestation and drainage and high temperatures speed the decomposition. Recent research estimates that current greenhouse gas emissions from drained or burned peatlands globally account for 5% of all emissions caused by human activity.

Graphic courtesy of Pew Charitable Trusts

Importance of global peatland conservation

To date, most peatland conservation has used one or more of the following approaches: conserving intact peatlands, rewetting drained peatlands, applying climate-responsible peatland management, or implementing adaptive management where rewetting is not possible.

Scientific studies have estimated that peatland restoration would prevent the release of 394 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent per year, an amount slightly larger than Australia’s annual emissions. But altering drainage patterns and local hydrogeography can be costly, so key industries or communities benefiting from extractive uses of peatlands may push back on restoration efforts. In addition to restoration, preventing peatlands from being disturbed could also yield substantial climate benefits and may be more economically feasible than restoration in some regions or under specific circumstances. This also highlights the need for equitable access to creative financing solutions so that communities can fund these conservation and restoration activities.

How science can help to improve peatland conservation

Despite the important role that peatlands play in sequestering carbon, the scientific community is not currently able to factor them into future climate models and projections, largely because of gaps in data and research. To address these data gaps, additional research is needed to better understand:

  1. The status and extent of global peatlands, particularly in data-poor regions.
  2. Peatland contribution to greenhouse gas fluxes.
  3. The impacts of climate change and other human-made stressors on peatlands.
  4. The costs and benefits of peatland conservation and restoration to deliver ecosystem services, such as those mentioned above, to people.

The development of standardized approaches to map and quantify peatlands should enable natural resource managers to adapt conservation approaches to different peatland types and locations. Similarly, governments and other key stakeholders can use improved baseline information to track peatland restoration, which may even play a role in verification standards as carbon markets for financing peatland conservation efforts are developed.

Peter Edwards is an officer and Kathrynlynn Theuerkauf is a principal associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conservation science project.

This article was originally published by the Pew Charitable Trust.

Learn more about Peatlands by visiting U.S. Nature4Climate’s Decision-Makers Guide to Natural Climate Solutions Science.

Let’s Also Not Pretend We Can Reach Our Climate Goals Without Trees

We humans just can’t help ourselves. Apparently – for evolutionary reasons – we are wired to create a ‘them versus us’ framework for interpreting the world. For our first ancestors, this was an advantage, helping us to sort out friend from foe at rapid speed. Sadly, this also means that today – when we are in dire need of more cross-faction collaboration to solve the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss – we are pointlessly pitting solution against solution in the public debate. An example of this is the recent New York Times opinion piece by an IPCC author, which joins a divisive campaign against those advocating for the need to both protect forests and grow new ones.

It is extremely disappointing to continue to see these solutions framed as an “either/or” proposition. We are in a climate crisis and need every tool in the toolbox; there is no luxury of choosing between technology and nature. This argument is particularly odd given the IPCC’s most recent report which lists restoration of ecosystems as one of the top five most cost-effective climate actions we can take by 2030. This definitive scientific report states with high confidence that rapid deployment of land-based measures for reducing emissions is ‘essential in all pathways’ for keeping global warming to 1.5°C. Put simply, we cannot get to 1.5 without nature – including both the protection of our remaining forests and restoring damaged ecosystems. Not only can we not reach our agreed global goal without nature, but we also need to mobilize fast, as nature’s efficacy and abilities to mitigate the most damage are most potent in the next eight years.

Sadly, we are nowhere near close to that goal today because of our continued destruction of nature – and because corporate and public investment is falling well short of what is needed to end nature loss. We need to stimulate investment in nature now to avoid the risky proposition of further dependence on carbon removal technologies that are currently nascent, expensive and still largely theoretical at scale.

Neglecting investments in nature today is one of the worst things we could do. We need more, not less, investment in nature – for so many obvious reasons. While we will need carbon removal technologies as a response to climate change, they will do absolutely nothing towards stopping and reversing biodiversity loss. This is now widely accepted as a human-made crisis on the same existential scale as climate change. Nature-based solutions – when done right – deliver immeasurable benefits for climate, nature and people, and are closely aligned with achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

If we are to stand any chance at all of succeeding, we have to do everything in our power as soon as possible. And there are enough of us on the planet – and enough money – to do many things at once. As the author states up front, ‘trees are our original carbon removal technology: through photosynthesis, they pull carbon dioxide out of the air and store it.’ This is why so many scientists are focused on researching the best strategies to avoid losing that carbon, which has already been stored over millennia. In fact, our dependence on yet-to-be-scaled carbon removal technologies will increase exponentially as we lose that ‘irrecoverable carbon,’ which will take centuries to restore. That is why leading scientists came together to launch the ‘natural climate solutions’ hierarchy that urges climate efforts to focus on the protection of nature first, followed by land management strategies and then restoration.

Nobody in the nature-based solutions community is arguing that we don’t need drastic emissions reductions from fossil fuels. This has to be the priority. Nor is this community arguing against investment in new technology. But arguments for “either/or” divisions create unnecessary confusion and uncertainty that inhibits investment, particularly from companies that are trying to navigate this space. The fact is that we need corporate investments to increase exponentially in nature to meet our climate goals, which is why the We Mean Business Coalition is calling on companies to address at least 10% of their annual emissions through nature investments in addition to halving their own emissions by 2030.

Scrutiny of carbon markets is warranted and welcomed to ensure they fulfil their potential to direct much-needed private finance to nature-based climate solutions in support of the goals of the Paris Agreement.  Emerging initiatives, such as the Voluntary Carbon Markets Integrity Initiative are bringing much-needed guidance to companies to ensure their carbon credit investments are done right and with credibility. By following VCMI’s guidance companies should feel confident in their ability to make impactful, and critically needed investments in nature.

We also know we need carbon removals to meet our goals – both nature-based and technology-based.  It is unhelpful to pit these vital solutions against each other. The good news is companies should – and are – doing both: taking holistic approaches which integrate both nature-based and technology solutions.  Others should follow their lead.

There is no doubt in this age of jeopardy that we need to hedge our bets on all available solutions. Cutting nature out of the equation is equivalent to entering the ring with one arm tied behind your back. Let’s stop chasing sensational headlines, and take pains to emphasize the “both/and” imperative of the climate response.

This opinion piece originally appeared on the Nature4Climate website.

The State of the Puget Sound Tree Canopy

Trees help clean the water flowing into streams, rivers and Puget Sound, help purify the air people breathe, lower the temperature of surrounding neighborhoods—and so much more. As Puget Sound cities and towns experience rapid growth, identifying opportunities to invest in high-impact tree planting and preservation projects is essential to ensuring people will continue to receive the multiple benefits of trees.

A coalition of local, regional and national partners came together to address this goal and develop a model for the Central Puget Sound region to target projects that maximize the benefits of the urban tree canopy. The three-year collaboration included The Nature Conservancy, Davey Expert Tree Company, American Forests and City Forest Credits and was funded by a grant from the USDA Forest Service Urban and Community Forestry Program, administered through the State of Washington Department of Natural Resources.

Trees grace the urban environment. Photo by Kevin Lee.

By approaching this from a regional lens, the Central Puget Sound partners were able to leverage resources to ensure that jurisdictions – regardless of their individual capacity – were able to access high-quality data and tools to understand their existing tree canopy and opportunities to invest in future tree canopy through a lens of ecosystem benefits, social equity and climate adaptation. In addition, a regional analysis provided an overall understanding of regional tree canopy distribution. After all, trees and forests do not care about city lines.

The Urban Tree Canopy Assessment Toolkit details the results of this effort and highlights a model that can be adapted and applied by other regions in Washington State and across the United States. 

The Conservancy, Davey Tree, American Forests and City Forest Credits conducted an urban tree canopy assessment and incorporated into multiple tools, including: a planting prioritization based on ecosystem benefits, i-Tree Landscape and Tree Equity Score. To supplement these tools, the Northern Institute of Applied Climate Sciences produced a climate-adaptive tree species guide for the Puget Sound. To encourage and support community action, the City Forest Credits demonstrated how carbon financing can support urban forestry goals.

The products of this partnership can be used by urban forestry practitioners to target investments in urban tree planting and maintenance based on a variety of priorities, including looking at available planting space, equitable distribution of trees, stormwater benefits, and more. These tools can be used to communicate with decision makers using ecosystem service benefit and more.

Since these tools cross jurisdictional boundaries, the final products offer the opportunity for those in different jurisdictions to connect, learn from each other and even potentially collaborate on future analysis and projects.

Those looking to develop their own regional effort to understand urban canopy can look to this toolkit for Seven Steps to Building an Urban Tree Canopy Model. Core to this is connecting with partners with different types of expertise and connections.

Graphic courtesy of The Nature Conservancy – Washington

Dig into the Urban Tree Canopy Assessment Toolkit to learn more, explore tools and check out all the different resources to support healthy urban trees! 

Funds for this project were provided by the USDA Forest Service and Community Forestry Program, administered through the State of Washington Department of Natural Resources Urban and Community Forestry Program. The Nature Conservancy partnered with Davey Expert Tree Company, American Forests and City Forest Credits throughout the project.

This article originally appeared in The Nature Conservancy Washington’s Field Notes blog. If you have any questions or would like to discuss this work please connect with Hannah Kett, Urban Program Director at The Nature Conservancy – hannah.kett@tnc.org

Learn more about the economic, health, and climate benefits of urban trees by visiting U.S. Nature4Climate’s Decision-Makers Guide to Natural Climate Solutions.

What States Received the Most Pandemic Cover Crop Program Funding?

Cover crops are one of the most effective conservation practices that farmers can use to protect soil health. Cover crops slow down soil erosion and help hold water in the ground. Over time, these benefits mean more reliable crop production and more stable yields for farmers—even during times of drought and other kinds of extreme weather that are expected to worsen as a result of climate change. It also means less reliance on costly agricultural inputs that adds up to more savings for farmers. That’s why rapidly expanding the use of cover crops is one of our top priorities at AFT.  

We were glad to see the USDA sharing this focus when they introduced the Pandemic Cover Crop Program (PCCP) during the 2021 crop year.  

Photo credit: Colette Kessler, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Licensed under a Creative Commons-Share Alike license.

PCCP works by providing farmers with a $5/acre discount on the cost of their crop insurance premiums when they also plant cover crops on their fields. Sign-up is easy, farmers just need to certify the cover crops they plant with the Farm Service Agency (FSA). Once that is done, no other time intensive or difficult application is needed. FSA sends the information over to the Risk Management Agency (RMA) that then applies the discount before invoices go out to farmers later during the growing season.  

With such a simple program, the question is likely to be asked: just how effective can it be? AFT dug into the numbers provided through RMA’s Summary of Business reports to find out. The answer, very effective.  

The PCCP proved to be every bit as popular as the state cover crop discount programs. In the 2021 crop year, more than 12.2 million acres enrolled in the program, representing all lower 48 states, at a total program cost of $59.4 million.  

North Dakota led the way with more than 1.2 million acres receiving the $5/acre discount. In the top 5, they were followed by Texas, Iowa, Indiana and Missouri.   

Top 10 PCCP States  

State PCCP Estimated Acres PCCP Funding/State % of Total PCCP Funds 
North Dakota 1,296,744 $6,315,144 11% 
Texas 1,072,182 $5,221,525 9% 
Iowa 871,624 $4,224,810 7% 
Indiana 860,397 $4,190,131 7% 
Missouri 800,282 $3,897,373 7% 
Nebraska 683,489 $3,328,590 6% 
Minnesota 645,108 $3,141,678 5% 
Georgia 536,919 $2,614,795 4% 
Ohio 535,826 $2,609,473 4% 
Illinois 533,282 $2,597,084 4% 

In states with their own programs, enrollment in PCCP far outpaced available funding. Iowa and Illinois saw 4.8 times as many acres submitted to the PCCP as their programs could support. Indiana saw 129 times as many acres submitted to PCCP compared to what could be funded by their program!  

PCCP has the potential to stand next to other critical USDA conservation programs to provide a new kind of option for farmers to access resources in the short term for planting cover crops. To put these numbers in context, in 2020, 10.5 million acres were enrolled in EQIP at a cost of $1.8 billion, while 6.4 million were enrolled in CSP at a cost of $2.2 billion and 21.9 million were enrolled in CRP programs at a cost of $1.8 billion.  

While PCCP is no replacement for these programs, it serves as a good compliment. That’s especially true for those experimenting with cover crops for the first time or those who are no longer eligible to participate in these other programs but who could still use a little financial support to keep their fields planted in cover crops.  

Investment for all of these programs needs to be boosted in the next farm bill to get to where we need to go. If the PCCP is extended for a third year or beyond, it can serve as a new kind of option at a modest cost  

While this is just one year of program data, it tells us that it’s possible to put together a simple yet very effective program to help farmers plant cover crops in a very short period of time. If program options like the PCCP continue to be offered, we expect to see the total enrollment numbers continue to climb, and, with that, more stable and environmentally sound farming operations.  

USDA offered the PCCP again in 2022. We’ll be watching for those numbers to come in over the next few months.    

This article originally appeared in the American Farmland Trust blog.

To learn more about the important role cover crops and other regenerative agriculture strategies can play in addressing climate change, visit USN4C’s Decision-Makers Guide to Natural Climate Solutions.

Four Steps to Reforest the West for Climate Resilience

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to see: we’re in for another explosive wildfire season across the western U.S. Climate change has been baking our forests tinder dry for years, and with temperatures climbing and summer on our doorstep, we’re practically guaranteed another year of devastation. But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost.

This year, as in recent years, we’re sure to see millions more acres burned compared to fire seasons just a few decades ago. And much of that land will be so scorched that trees won’t regrow if we don’t plant them. One response to this crisis must be to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are driving climate change and killing our forests. But the future of our western forests will also hinge on this: How quickly we can regrow millions of burned over acres with climate-resilient forests able to thrive in a hotter and drier world?

Climate-adapted reforestation will do more than just save forests — it will also help save lives and property, too. That’s because planting climate-resilient forests is a crucial opportunity to get ahead of escalating wildfire threats in our western communities. The need for scaling up forestry actions to increase wildfire resilience, like radically thinning vulnerable forests, could be reduced if we are able to reforest millions of acres of burned areas with the right forest structure and composition to be more wildfire resilient from the start.

To understand the urgency and scale of needed action, we need to appreciate how dramatically climate change is impacting forest health. Climatic shifts have ramped up forest stressors such as drought, pests, disease and catastrophic wildfire. Dried out, sickly forests are just a tinder box waiting for a spark, like parts of the Front Range in Colorado and Sierra Nevada in California that have seen unprecedented forest mortality over the last two decades.

Bark beetles devastated the forest lining the shore of Grand Lake in Colorado. Photo Credit: Don Graham/Flickr

At this moment when our forests are increasingly vulnerable, our expanding human footprint means we are accidentally igniting more fires, creating a verifiable powder keg. This is happening at the same time that climate-fueled increased frequency in dry weather lightning are also more readily sparking fires.

As a result, the extent of western wildfire has doubled in the last few decades, including more expansive and intense “mega-fires”. To give a sense of scale, U.S. wildfire seasons now routinely burn more than 10 million acres per year. In California, roughly one out of every eight acres of forest has burned in the last decade.

It is not just more acres burning, but also how they are burning. Soils can be so scorched from these fires they are made hydrophobic, which means they repel water, and must be remediated to support healthy, native forests again. When mega-fires burn whole landscapes, this can push any seed source from live trees too far away to help support natural regeneration.

By way of example, roughly half of the newly burned areas each year on America’s national forests now require planting in order to recover, a percentage that continues to rise because of the growing extent and severity of today’s wildfires. As a result, the U.S. Forest Service is at least 4 million acres behind on reforesting national forests that need it — roughly 1.2 billion trees. By some estimates, this reforestation backlog on our national forests could be more than 7 million acres, which is an area the size of Maryland.

Wildfire is also happening in places that have historically not burned as often — like our highest mountains. In 2021, wildfire burned clear across the Sierra Nevada mountain range for the first time in recorded history. And then it happened again in the same month. The same phenomenon has occurred in Colorado, where in 2020, wildfires burned across the Continental Divide for the first time. In both cases, this expansion of wildfire impact was made possible by the dramatic drying of high elevation forests that used to be naturally fire-resilient. We must be ready to reforest in forest types and landscape areas that have historically not needed it.

Even our tallest trees are feeling the heat. Experts have long thought that large and old trees of species like the Giant Sequoia were impervious to wildfire due to their thick bark, long distance from ground to branches, and other natural defenses. But climate-fueled wildfires are now putting even these forests at risk, like the Castle Fire in California that killed as many 10,000 Giant Sequoia with trunks of 4-foot diameter or more. That represents a shocking 10 to 15 percent of these trees found worldwide. And while sequoias need fire to reproduce, these fires are reaching such magnitude that the seed bed is wiped out.

With natural processes so profoundly broken by climate change, we need to take a more active role in promoting recovery and fostering climate-resilient forests. For many landscapes across the West, replanting burned areas could save millions of forested acres from potential transition into shrubs and other non-forest cover. To be clear, this does not mean that we must resist these climate-driven shifts in every instance. As I have written before, “pre-storing” forests for climate change will require strategically choosing where to fight back with climate-resilient reforestation, and where we need to allow transition to a different kind of land cover.

Strong science shows millions of burned acres across the West that we can still potentially keep as forest if we make the right moves with rapid reforestation. Losing millions of forested acres unnecessarily would cost America dearly in forgone carbon sequestration, water supply filtration and protection, wood supplies, forest recreation and critical habitat. Of equal concern, un-remediated burned areas are a real hazard to people, triggering mudslides like the ones last year that took out Interstate 70 through Colorado and poured through Flagstaff, Arizona.

So how do we make this happen? There are four interconnected actions we must take to rapidly reforest burned areas with a climate-resilient approach.

  • Site Assessment and Planning: The first step is to assess each burned area for its own unique context. We can use science to determine which burned areas are positioned to naturally regenerate, sometimes with a little help, and which ones need tree planting. This prioritization must also overlay other considerations: climate threats; which burned areas are most important for water supply protection or are most at risk of mudslides; and which areas have the greatest value for carbon sequestration, habitat, recreation and wood supplies. Additionally, having post-disturbance plans in place will help speed up reforestation response times. Rapid reforestation is important in order to contain competition from shrubs and invasive species.
  • Align Tree Species and Genetics: For areas that we determine need to be planted, we can use cutting-edge scientific tools and traditional ecological knowledge to assess which tree species and genetic strains are best matched to current and future climate conditions. Then we must work with local seed collectors and tree nurseries to collect the right seeds and grow the right seedlings to match this climate-resilient planting approach, and to ramp up seed and seedling supplies dramatically — doubling or more in most locations. We can set these seedlings up for success by using new growing techniques in nurseries that will better prepare seedlings for harsh conditions in the field like drought.
  • Climate-Smart Planting: It is not just about selecting the right trees themselves, but also how we plant them. Climate-smart planting must include the right site preparation to address wildfire damage to soils and other site repairs, such as stabilization. We must also match the number and distribution of trees planted on the landscape to our new climate realities, including water availability and fire frequency. This climate-resilient forest structure might look very different from the forest that just burned, such as having fewer trees per acre in chronically drought-stressed landscapes.
  • Adaptive Management and Research: No matter how well we craft reforestation for climate resilience, we must be ready to learn as we go. We can do this through intensive research and evaluation of replanted areas and management-scale experimentation. But climate change is playing out quickly. We need to be ready to manage reforested areas to adjust their composition and structure based on these observed results, and to use tools like prescribed fire to keep these growing forests maximally aligned for wildfire resilience. For public lands, this means providing the policy guidance, staffing and funding to adaptively manage these reforested lands for climate-resilience.

There’s no dodging it — this will be a huge challenge. We must stand up this new climate-resilient approach to reforestation while simultaneously working at a totally different pace and scale, something akin to the original Civilian Conservation Corps, which planted 3 billion trees over a decade. (No wonder they were known as “Roosevelt’s Tree Army”!) Our climate and communities, both human and natural, need us to step up to this scale of mobilization today.

The good news is that an unprecedented movement is taking shape to advance climate-resilient reforestation, and we can push it over the top with the right actions and investment right now.

The U.S. Forest Service has painted the target by including climate-resilient reforestation of burn scars as a central pillar in its new 10-Year Wildfire Strategy. The agency recognizes that we can significantly reduce the risk of future wildfires if we use the right approach to how we reforest after the last one. The agency and its partners will need to hold each other accountable to make sure that reforestation does not fall by the wayside as efforts intensify on other aspects of the wildfire strategy, such as hazardous fuels reduction.

We can step up together on the science, too. My organization, American Forests, has seen what is possible through the new Camp Fire Reforestation Plan we co-created with federal and state agencies and financial sponsorship from Salesforce. This plan maps out a climate-resilient approach to reforest one of California’s largest burned areas. Now we are partnering with the State of California to apply this climate-informed planning approach to burned areas statewide. As one way to assure we get the right science in the right hands, the USDA Climate Hubs should step forward boldly to help catalyze this kind of scientific assessment for every state’s burned areas. The Climate Hubs are well-poised to get climate-resilient reforestation guidance out to public and private sector reforestation leaders alike.

The good news is that an unprecedented movement is taking shape to advance climate-resilient reforestation, and we can push it over the top with the right actions and investment right now.

Reforestation at the scale needed will take billions of dollars, and Congress has provided the largest funding allocation in history for post-fire reforestation through the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. This includes the REPLANT Act provision, which will permanently increase U.S. Forest Service funding at least four-fold for replanting on America’s 193 million acres of national forest. It also includes additional funding for reforesting burned areas on Department of Interior lands, expanding seed collection and nursery capacity, and more. But alone, this funding won’t be enough. We need any climate package that might emerge from current discussions between the Biden Administration and Congress to include additional funding for post-fire reforestation, including funding to help states, tribes, local governments and private landowners to do their part alongside federal agencies.

Here’s more great news — the federal government is not in this alone on science, funding or implementation of this reforestation push. An unprecedented coalition of state and local governments, tribal leaders, companies, NGOs and civil society groups organized as the U.S. Chapter of 1t.org has stepped up to match federal efforts. More than 90 partners in the U.S. Chapter have already pledged to plant billions of trees and provide billions of dollars in supporting actions such as nursery capacity, workforce development and carbon finance.

The payoff from reforesting our burned areas will be huge for our economy as well as our environment. Reforestation, from seed collection all the way to conducting and monitoring plantings, has been shown to support as many as 27 direct, indirect and induced jobs per million dollars invested. To achieve our goals, we will need many more employees and businesses working at every point on the reforestation pipeline, now and into the future, employing a wide range of skills. This is an economic development opportunity with huge potential impact in rural communities.

Yes, turning millions of burned acres into climate-resilient forests will be a generational challenge that requires unprecedented investment from the public and private sector alike. With so much at stake, I’m betting America is ready. Taking action that will produce healthier, more resilient forests and local economies? That’s something we all can agree on.

This article was originally posted at americanforests.medium.com.

For more information about efforts to support climate-adapted reforestation, watch USN4C’s video, Building Capacity for Reforestation, and read our accompanying blog article, Reforesting Minnesota: Building Capacity in a Changing Climate.

The Most Effective Carbon Credit Projects Place Communities Front & Center 

The new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report underscores a stark reality: that we must urgently pursue all our options to cut emissions and remove carbon from the atmosphere if we have any hope of avoiding the worst impacts of the climate crisis.   

Carbon credits have a clear but limited role to play in reducing this existential risk to our planet. When used to raise the ambition of climate commitments — and not to replace ambitious emission reduction goals — carbon credit projects, especially those that protect, improve, and restore natural and working lands, can make an important contribution to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement.   

The interest in carbon credit programs is rising – last year, the total value of the voluntary market hit $1 billion. The potential of such projects to meaningfully contribute to mitigating climate change depends substantially on whether they contribute to sustainable communities and resilient ecosystems.  

As new analysis from Ceres lays out, carbon credit projects that are designed with the full participation of communities they impact and that implement key safeguards are more likely to be sustained and meaningfully contribute to emission reductions and carbon sequestration over the long term. It is critical that companies follow strict guardrails not only for when they use credits, but for what types of credits they purchase—so that they contribute to more sustainable communities and resilient ecosystems, rather than leading to land grabs or restricting access to critical resources.  These critical safeguards can help strengthen participation, improve the distribution of benefits and burdens, enhance cultural and political recognition, and enhance project longevity: 

  • Upholds the rights of Indigenous Peoples, local communities, and Afro-descendent peoples. Projects should ensure that they are recognizing and upholding the sovereignty, governance structures, and right to self-determination of Indigenous Peoples, local communities, and Afro-descendant Peoples. 

  • Secures land tenure and access. Projects should not encroach on land where customary rightsholders have not granted approval to access. Communities should also be able to maintain access to land because it constitutes the basis for accessing food, housing, water, and development, as well as traditional, cultural, and sacred practices and ways of life.  

  • Incorporates full and effective community participation. All affected parties should have access to resources necessary to have informed conversations about the project. Effort should be made to have equitable participation by all community members, including women, youth, ethnic minorities, religious minorities, and other marginalized groups. Rightsholders should give free, prior, and informed consent of the project. 

  • Has a grievance and redress mechanism.  Projects must include specific, formalized procedures that local communities can use to address any disputes that might arise during the planning, implementation, and evaluation of a project. 

These are just a few of the safeguards identified in Ceres’ report that prevent undesirable outcomes and ensure that people are at the center of climate solutions. Certification programs can help ensure that carbon projects address the above safeguards. Companies should purchase credits that are certified by one of the social and environmental standards and conduct due diligence as needed.   

Done right, carbon credit projects have the potential to both reduce emissions and empower communities. But done wrong, they can make the situation worse for populations already vulnerable to climate change, as well as actually exacerbate the climate crisis. The stakes for getting carbon credit projects right are only going to keep rising.  

Companies are already under increased pressure from consumers and employees to reverse the trend of injustice towards historically marginalized communities, including low-income and fence line communities, people of color, Indigenous communities, and others across the Global South. Understanding these issues and how to navigate them is the only way carbon credit projects will be able to meaningfully contribute to meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. 

Carolyn Ching is Ceres’ Senior Manager of Food & Forests, and is a member of the U.S. Nature4Climate steering committee.

Grafting the Future of the Ash Tree

This article originally appeared in American Forests Magazine.

Jennifer Koch, a research biologist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station in Delaware, Ohio, carefully peels back the outer layer of the bark of an ash tree with the tip of a grafting knife. The work is slow; she must be gentle or risk severing the tiny, wormlike white larvae that she is trying to find underneath.

These larvae are the offspring of an insect native to Asia called the emerald ash borer (EAB), which is surprisingly beautiful for a pest responsible for the brutal devastation of one of the most common tree species in the United States. The slim, half-inch-long insect’s bright, metallic green wings overlay an orangey-crimson abdomen — a festive combination that belies the destruction these insects are bringing to ash trees from Maryland to Wisconsin.

The pest appeared in the U.S. in 2002, and began decimating Detroit’s tree canopy. Since then, the EAB has destroyed hundreds of millions of trees nationwide. Jeff Hafner, director of municipal consulting for Rainbow Treecare in Minneapolis-St. Paul, and a certified arborist, watched in horror as the pest swept across Michigan and Ohio. In Minnesota, authorities targeted ash trees for removal, but the size of the coming onslaught overwhelmed some cities’ ability to manage.

“A lot of the cities in Minnesota increased their condemnation policies to enforce more rapid tagged tree removal,” he says. “We’ve seen cities that have had to abandon their tree condemnation protocol because they just don’t have enough staff to tag all the trees that need to be removed.”

In the context of such a major threat, Koch’s bioassay is part of an effort to stave off the extinction of this pervasive and important tree species — a project called Roots of Rock on which American Forests is collaborating with a range of partners. The effort aims to change the way we approach tree cultivation in the face of a changing climate and the pest outbreaks and forest fires fueled by it. Ultimately, scientists hope to breed trees that will withstand the EAB assault over time.

The Best Measure of Resistance

Once Koch has peeled the top layer of bark away, it’s clear that the impact of these tiny larvae isn’t tiny at all: Underneath is a network of tunnels etched into the wood — called a gallery — that indicates the pathways that the larvae have taken over for the last year or two since their parents deposited their eggs on the bark. The larvae feed on the tree’s vascular tissue, disrupting its ability to transport water and nutrients to its branches, a process that kills it, usually in as little as 5 to 7 years.

Scientists believe that the emerald ash borer kills nearly all of the ash trees it infests, though it has become clear that some put up a fight and don’t die quite as quickly as others. These trees, referred to as “lingering ash,” are scarce and have managed to survive the fatal attack of EAB. The goal of the research is to identify what defense responses these trees mount against the larvae that allows these rare trees to survive. Such insight will help accelerate the process of breeding, producing trees with even more resilience to EAB.

Scientists believe that the emerald ash borer kills nearly all of the ash trees it infests. But some, referred to as “lingering ash,” don’t die as quickly.

Trees that show some resistance may still die from EAB infestation, but they live longer. If 1 in 4 larvae dies at a young age due to the tree’s natural defenses, that tree sustains 25% less damage from larval feeding and can, thus, potentially live 25% longer than other trees.

The process of the bioassay — one of several techniques the scientists are using — involves putting eggs on the bark of the ash trees, where they hatch within 48 hours and burrow in. After two weeks, scientists mark those that have hatched and circle their entry holes. Eight weeks later, once the larvae have had a chance to feed, the scientists dissect the tree starting at the holes to see the gallery. When they find a larva, they take its weight and examine its development and health. If a larva appears unhealthy or the galleries immediately around the larvae are darkened in color and tissue from the tree is encasing the larvae, it’s a sign that the tree is putting up resistance to the pest.

“The best measure of resistance that is most reproducible is the number of tree-killed larvae,” says Koch. “If they have partial resistance, they live longer than the majority of ash trees in the stand, but they can still be attacked by EAB and may die. Through breeding these select lingering ash trees, we can increase the number of larvae that the seedlings of two lingering ash parents are able to kill and, thus, increase their resistance to EAB.”

This painstaking effort to look at the inner workings of this pest seems to be paying off, providing a way to cultivate trees that are better able to withstand a climate-altered future where pest outbreaks like the EAB are sure to be increasingly common.

“Our program has shown that we can create improved populations that can survive and continue to evolve and save the species,” says Koch. “We’ve developed these techniques and shown that these processes work.”

The Importance of Healthy Ash

As one of the most dominant native genera of trees in North America, ash is essential for environmental benefits, Tree Equity and industry uses. These trees help maintain a healthy environment; the widespread mortality of the species resulting from emerald ash borer infestation is altering the carbon cycle and shifting water resources. The program’s name, Roots of Rock, is a nod to the vital importance of ash trees to the music industry, which makes instruments out of ash wood. And ash’s decline is also affecting urban areas, where this common tree type provides shade and clean air to neighborhoods around the country.

Ash trees in an LED light treatment chamber in which high-intensity & various wavelengths of light are tested to see if they can induce ash seedlings to flower early. Photo Credit: Maddie McGarvey

“Here you have a species that is not only native to North America, but found in almost every state throughout the nation,” says Eboni Hall, senior manager of urban forestry education at American Forests. “Ash is a keystone species that’s invaluable to its surroundings. It’s important in terms of climate change and providing co-benefits. That’s where we’re starting to see some of the negative implications and consequences of losing this species.”

Hafner agrees that ash has tremendous benefits for urban communities, though many of those advantages are taken for granted. “I am always sad to lose big, mature trees from communities because it’s the trees’ proximity to people that gives maximum benefit,” he says. “I think the good news is that this issue is impacting so many people that there is opportunity to highlight tree benefits which may have been invisible to people for a long time.”

As a common tree that can typically thrive in the urban jungle, ash is a critical species for efforts to advance Tree Equity, which is the equitable distribution of trees in urban areas to ensure that all people can benefit from them. American Forests’ work on this front includes using a Tree Equity Score to determine which neighborhoods need more trees and to target those areas for planting.

Once those trees are in the ground, it’s essential that they are able to survive so that the investment pays off and future generations can experience the benefits trees provide. There’s a similar calculus that goes into reforestation efforts after wildfire — the last thing conservationists want is to plant trees to restore fire-ravaged forests only to have them destroyed by pests.

“We’re thinking through every piece of Tree Equity,” says Ian Leahy, vice president of urban forestry at American Forests. “We’re not looking for people to make investments in Tree Equity in a community and then a pest comes through and wipes all the progress out.”

Tree Equity and reforestation work is only as good as the health of the trees being planted, so it’s a worthy goal to find varieties of ash that are as resistant as possible to diseases and pests. Although ash trees can temporarily be protected by applying insecticides — as Hafner works with city leaders to do in Minnesota — the only long-term solution for restoring ash populations internationally is to breed ash trees for resistance to the emerald ash borer.

The Roots of Rock Project Rocks

Accordingly, the work Koch and her team are doing is the initial stage of a multi-part effort to get ash trees with some amount of resistance to the emerald ash borer into the ground in order to identify and cultivate those that are most resilient. Koch’s team selected and bred green ash trees that showed signs of resistance, and some of them were able to kill more than 95% of the emerald ash borer larvae in bioassays.

These ash trees on a plot at the Forest Sciences Laboratory have shown partial resistance to EAB infestation & are used as a source of genetic material for additional experimental plantings. Photo Credit: Maddie McGarvey

The next phase is to see how these EAB-resistant trees perform in urban planting environments, where the trees will be exposed to more realistic conditions than they are in greenhouse tests, where they are grown in a controlled environment. American Forests is partnering with the Forest Service, Holden Forests & Gardens, Washington & Jefferson College, The Greening of Detroit, Wholesale Trees Inc., Wayne State University, and the Detroit Department of Neighborhoods to orchestrate this project.

A first planting of 150 trees, each around 4 or 5 years old and 5 feet tall, went into the ground in spring of 2021 in a nursery in Virginia Park, an urban site in Detroit. A second planting of trees about 2 years old and 2 feet tall occurred at Detroit’s Palmer Park, Eliza Howell Park and The Greening of Detroit’s Meyers Nursery at Rouge Park in late 2021. The trees were planted in pairs — one tree of each pair with genetics that make it susceptible to EAB and the other tree with genetics that show some resistance — providing the first chance to see a direct comparison between the two types.

“They’re urban pilot plantings,” says Mary Mason, a geneticist with the Forest Service who is working on the project. “We know some of them won’t make it, but we hope a few will. We’ll get a little bit of data out of it.”

New Uses for an Established Approach

That data will move forward the work of selecting trees with pest-resistant genetics. The scientists are careful to clarify that there’s no such things as “immune” trees; there are only trees that can kill enough larvae to reduce the threat and prolong the tree’s life.

By selecting these trees and propagating them through grafting, the project can increase the frequency and level of EAB-resistance within the population, and little by little the resistance can grow stronger over time through natural selection. Once the effort produces trees that are clearly more pest-defensive than others, those exemplars can be used to develop regional clonal seed orchards where genetically improved seeds can mass produce the more resilient trees for urban plantings and reforestation work.

This approach is not new; the history of tree improvement programs like this goes back decades at the Forest Service. A program to increase resistance in all white pine species in the U.S. to a disease called white pine blister rust has been running for some 50 years. That work provided proof of concept, and the need for this work has only increased as climate change has become an increasingly dire threat. In a changing climate, diseases are emerging more often and more virulently.

Accordingly, American Forests will also support research efforts, technology transfer projects and downstream restoration activities for other threatened keystone species, such as Eastern hemlock, American beech, American elm and American chestnut in national forests and in urban areas. These future projects will use the knowledge gained from the work on EAB.

“We’re not looking for people to make investments in Tree Equity in a community and then a pest comes through and wipes all the progress out.”

Ian Leahy, Vice President of Urban Forestry, American Forests

One example of such an effort is the Great Lakes Basin Forest Health Collaborative, a network of partners assisting with all the different aspects of resistance breeding. Members of this network are currently taking the activities of Koch’s EAB project and expanding them to develop seed orchards to supply EAB-resistant seed for restoration in various regions of the country. When appropriate, once enough research has been done to map the path forward, similar efforts will be focused on American beech and Eastern hemlock.

Benefiting Future Generations

Roots of Rock and related efforts are serving to accelerate discovery of genetic resistance to pests and diseases, as well as amplifying the story of how climate change is increasing the prevalence and strength of such threats.

By supporting the fight against the emerald ash borer and other damaging pests, American Forests and its partners are bringing solutions to the ground level and finding ways for reforestation efforts to have the greatest possible longevity.

“The benefits of planting trees won’t be realized until later for future generations,” says Leahy. “This way, the trees will actually be able to mature and will be able to deliver on their promise of helping those who need them most.”

That’s a goal worth grafting for.

Katherine Gustafson is a freelance writer specializing in helping mission-driven changemakers like tech disruptors and dynamic nonprofits tell their stories.

For more information about the impact climate-change fueled pest and pathogen outbreaks are having on U.S. forest carbon stocks, read USN4C’s blog article New Research Highlights the Carbon Losses to U.S. Forests Caused by Pests and Pathogens and How We Can Reduce These Threats.