4 Priorities for Managing US Lands in the Face of Climate Change

  • Challenges in Land Management: Policymakers and land managers face the challenge of managing U.S. lands to support various needs like food and timber production, community resilience, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration, amidst unpredictable weather and growing global demands.
  • Role of U.S. Lands in Climate Change Mitigation: U.S. lands can both sequester and emit greenhouse gases. Increasing the land carbon sink while decreasing land-based emissions is essential to meeting climate goals.
  • Potential of U.S. Lands: Investments like the Inflation Reduction Act aim to enhance the resilience and health of U.S. lands. Analysis suggests that ambitious climate-smart forestry and agriculture initiatives could significantly increase the land carbon sink and reduce agricultural emissions.
  • Priorities for Land Managers and Policymakers: Strategies to protect and increase the land carbon sink include limiting land conversion, building ecosystem resilience, planning for economy-wide decarbonization, and promoting green infrastructure. Community involvement, equitable distribution of benefits, and innovative financing mechanisms are crucial for successful land management projects.
© Rory Doyle for TNC

Policymakers and land managers face difficult decisions in an increasingly uncertain climate future. Lands must support food and timber production, help buffer communities from extreme weather, provide space for people to live and recreate, support biodiversity and sequester carbon. Managing land to meet all these needs while confronting unpredictable weather and a growing global demand for food and wood requires thoughtful and proactive action.

The U.S. lands sector, which includes forests, grasslands, wetlands, agricultural lands and agricultural operations, can remove carbon emissions to help curb the impacts of climate change, but it can also be a source of planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. Activities like planting trees or conserving natural ecosystems increase what’s known as the land carbon sink, or the ability of land to sequester carbon. On the other hand, running farm equipment, fertilizing soil and plowing under native grasslands, releases greenhouse gases.

To reduce the most harmful impacts from climate change and support the U.S. target of reducing economy-wide net greenhouse gas emissions by 50% to 52% below 2005 levels by 2030, the land carbon sink needs to be increased and protected from future degradation, while lands-based emissions need to be decreased.

The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, together with existing state forest and agricultural policies, are making critical investments in the resilience and health of the U.S. land base. But new analysis from America Is All In — a coalition of U.S. state and local leaders and organizations, including WRI — finds that the benefits from this investment are not yet secured. Effective implementation of climate-smart federal programs combined with increased state ambition and investment is required to protect and increase the land carbon sink.

In 2021, U.S. lands sequestered approximately 750 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (MtCO2e) per year, and agriculture emitted approximately 600 MtCO2e per year. Based on one set of models of the U.S. land sector, America Is All In finds that full implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act and other current federal and state policies, amounting to $42 billion of planned investment, would reduce agricultural emissions by about 8% or 48 MtCO2e per year over 2021 levels in 2035 and would increase the land carbon sink by about 1.5% or approximately 10 MtCO2e per year over 2021 levels in 2035. While a 1.5% increase is modest, implementation of current policies could help to reverse a projected decline in the land carbon sink.

With increased policy ambition and investment of approximately $160 billion in climate-smart forestry and agriculture the models find that the land carbon sink would increase by approximately 3%, or 24 MtCO2e per year in 2035. This high-climate ambition scenario would see a 13% reduction in agricultural emissions, or approximately 75 MtCO2e per year by 2035.

While America Is All In finds that these levels of land sector mitigation are enough to help the U.S. realize its climate goals alongside emissions reductions in other sectors, they do not realize the full potential of the land carbon sink. Other studies find much higher potential for reforestation, agricultural emissions reductions and other nature-based climate solutions, but maximizing the land carbon sink involves land use trade-offs. For example, planting trees can effectively sequester carbon, but planting new forests on large expanses of agricultural land could displace critical food production. Careful policymaking at the federal, state and local levels is needed to balance land use for food, fiber, biodiversity, climate mitigation and more.

This map of the United States is divided by regions, showing which regions need the most funding based on the most impactful natural climate solutions for the area.

Protecting and increasing the land carbon sink will require an all-society effort. Federal funding like the Inflation Reduction Act can provide the foundation for action, but effective implementation takes place at the state and local level where the needs of ecosystems and communities are considered, while tradeoffs are weighed.

Despite historic levels of land sector funding in the Inflation Reduction Act, funding for many key projects is still limited and state and local leaders and their private sector and NGO partners need to prioritize actions that mitigate greenhouse gasses and increase resilience.

Here are four ways that policymakers, local leaders and land managers can prioritize strategies that will protect the land carbon sink and balance the many requirements for land use in the face of climate change.

While it is important to increase the land carbon sink, it is equally important to protect the carbon already stored in soils and vegetation. U.S. forests alone already contain about 60 gigatons of carbon, and they sequester an additional 700 MtCO2e each year. However, if forest ecosystems are severely damaged by logging or a natural disturbance, carbon stored in trees and soils is released to the atmosphere, and the ability of that forest to sequester carbon into the future may be diminished. This is also true of grassland and agricultural soils: Once carbon is lost, it takes intensive restoration and management to restore the carbon sink to pre-disturbance levels. This dynamic can be thought of as the “carbon cost” of clearing land for agriculture or development and not taking action to restore carbon stocks.

Map of the United States showing land use in all 50 U.S. states. This map is meant to show where natural climate solutions like climate-smart forestry and cover crops can be applied by state based on how the land is currently used.

The factors that drive land use change vary regionally across the U.S. In areas where agriculture is a dominant industry, such as the Midwest, cropland expansion can drive the conversion of natural forest and grassland. Policies like the Renewable Fuel Standard that incentivize farmers to grow corn and soy for biofuels have contributed to the expansion of cropland into areas that are less productive and pose an outsized threat to habitat and biodiversity. Croplands have expanded by approximately 1 million acres per year between 2008 and 2016, leading to carbon emissions from the ecosystems that were converted.

The loss of cropland to commercial and residential development on some of the U.S.’s most productive soils is another driver of forest and grassland conversion. Urban expansion in many areas of the country displaces efficient agricultural production, requiring conversion to agriculture in other, less productive areas to compensate. The U.S. lost approximately 2,000 acres of prime farmland or ranchland every day between 2001 and 2016, and much of this land was converted to low-density urban development.

Forest loss due to land use change is an equally significant threat to natural carbon stores and ecosystem resilience. WRI’s Global Forest Watch finds that forest loss is most significant in the Northwest and Southeast regions of the U.S., and permanent deforestation is primarily driven by urbanization and commercial deforestation to accommodate demand for forest products. The U.S. lost 1.6 million hectares, or approximately 6,000 square miles of forest in 2022.

Policy approaches to curb land use change include:

  • Implementing urban zoning practices that create more dense and livable cities and protect prime farmland. For example, the state of New York has created a Farmland Protection Program that helps farmers maintain agricultural activity.
  • Making sure that biofuels and biomass policies include the true ‘carbon cost’ of biofuels to avoid incentivizing land use change and associated carbon emissions in the U.S. and abroad.

Even though climate change affects all parts of the U.S., the key to managing ecosystems and lands for climate change is to identify the greatest health risks and then help them become resilient to change. Restoring an ecosystem often increases its carbon sink and resilient ecosystems and agricultural systems will reliably sequester carbon into the future.

Forests in Western and Southwestern U.S. states face an increased risk of extreme wildfire due, in part, to climate change, which can damage forests and reduce carbon sequestration capacity in the future. While wildfire mitigation treatments may decrease forest carbon stocks in the short- to medium-term, these treatments can safeguard forests in the long-term. Forests in the Rocky Mountain region are predicted to be a net source of carbon dioxide through 2070 without significant policy intervention, which underscores the urgent need to manage forests for wildfire resilience. Across the U.S., forests also face destruction by pests and pathogens, exacerbated by climate change, which one report has estimated will cost the U.S. 50 MtCO2e every year.

This photo of an airplane dropping fire retardant to battle flames in California is making the point that we need natural climate solutions like wildfire mitigation treatments (i.e. thinning and prescribed burns) to safeguard forests from catastrophic mega fires in the future.
A plane drops a fire retardant to battle flames in Southern California. U.S. Wildfires like those in California threaten ecosystems and impact their ability to sequester carbon. Photo by Randy Miramontez/Shutterstock.

In agricultural areas, climate-related extreme weather like drought, heat and flooding threatens crop production. Practices that build soil health like cover cropping or reduced tillage can increase crop resilience to flooding and drought. Agroforestry, or the practice of incorporating trees and shrubs into agricultural and ranching systems, can protect fields from erosion, improve water quality, provide wildlife habitat and sequester carbon. It is important that policymakers continue to support farmers in adopting these resilience practices as well as in reducing agricultural emissions by using targeted fertilizer application, improving livestock feed and reducing food loss and waste.

Carbon sinks in coastal areas are also under threat due to climate change. Sea level rise can flood wetlands and prevent them from providing water quality benefits and habitat for young fish. In many places, development in coastal areas prevents wetlands from migrating in response to sea level rise, so wetland ecosystems are permanently lost. Coastal development can also lead to draining or fragmenting wetlands which causes them to release carbon and methane.

Policy approaches to increase ecosystem resilience include:

  • Investing in risk mitigation treatments in areas with high risk of wildfires that improve forest health and resilience and reduce the risk of severe fire. For example, Colorado’s HB HB22-1011 created a grant program for local governments to undertake wildfire mitigation projects and education.
  • Providing forest owners in areas where diseases and pests threaten forest health with financial support to increase the health and carbon sequestration potential. For example, New York created a Forestry Cost Share Grant Program.
  • Establishing grant or cost-share programs to support farmers and ranchers in adopting resilience and emissions-reduction practices as the New Mexico Healthy Soils program has done.
  • Planning to protect wetlands in the face of climate change as Oregon has done in its new Climate Resilience Package (HB 3409).

In addition to sequestering carbon in soils and vegetation, lands will physically support economy-wide decarbonization. Building enough renewable power to meet U.S. climate goals will require 115,000 to 250,000 square miles of land to build wind and solar generation as well as new transmission lines to transport energy. But this doesn’t necessarily mean the land devoted to renewable energy can’t continue providing food and habitat.

Agrivoltaics, or the practice of using land for both solar generation and agriculture can provide shade for livestock and crops and provide farmers with an additional source of revenue. Livestock can also graze between wind turbines on rangelands in windy regions.

Local policymakers and land managers need to balance the protection of key wildlife habitat and farmland with the need for infrastructure build-out to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Without immediate and ambitious action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, climate change will continue to threaten the ability of lands to sequester carbon and provide services to communities.

Policy approaches to support responsible clean infrastructure buildout include:

  • Adopting zoning ordinances or other planning methods to facilitate renewable energy buildout that protects and enhances the most productive agricultural areas and protects key habitats. New Hampshire’s Model Solar Zoning Ordinance offers a framework for leaders to consider community goals and impacts of solar siting to support better decision-making.
  • Bringing together diverse interests to address barriers to large-scale solar projects and to balance the needs of nature, communities, and climate, as a group in California has done.

As U.S. cities and towns experience increasing impacts from extreme weather, wildfire and sea level rise, the role of nature as a buffer has never been more important. Investing in nature as infrastructure to protect communities can mitigate the effects of extreme weather and provide water and air quality benefits. Many green infrastructure projects are also restoration and carbon sequestration projects. For example, restoring wetlands in and around cities can increase their ability to sequester carbon, filter water and protect coastal areas from erosion and storm surges.

Green infrastructure can save cities and utilities money by lowering water treatment costs and preventing weather-related damage, so innovative financing mechanisms are often available for these projects. WRI and Blue Forest’s Forest Resilience Bond helps the U.S. Forest Service, local water utilities and other partners secure private finance for forest resilience projects that could save utilities millions of dollars in the long term.

While green infrastructure can provide important services to communities, these services are not equitably distributed. Urban trees and parks can cool city streets, sequester carbon and improve air quality, but many low-income neighborhoods have far fewer trees than wealthier neighborhoods. Improving tree equity in these neighborhoods is critical to creating livable cities for all residents and support local livelihoods. 

This graphic shows how maintaining healthy forests, a natural climate solution, have many benefits including improving water quality, regulating water supply, and lowering water treatment costs.

Policy approaches to support green infrastructure include:

  • Adopting legislation that leverages private capital to fund restoration and environmental benefits like Maryland has done through its Conservation Finance Act.
  • Creating grant programs to support urban tree planting as Wisconsin has done through its Regular Urban Forestry Grants.
  • Accessing funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which delivered $43.3 billion for state water quality projects, and is distributed through the State Clean Water Revolving Loan Funds. Some states, such as Ohio, have had success leveraging these funds for stream restoration projects that improve water quality.

Land management strategies that support local livelihoods and well-being while delivering climate benefits are more likely to have sustained success in the long term. However, securing positive local outcomes for a project can be challenging because opinions about land management can be deeply tied to cultural, spiritual and economic values. Project funders and policymakers may also have expectations about the outcomes of a project that do not align with local desires or expectations. Research suggests that the following strategies can create successful projects and policies:

  • Policy and project design should go beyond consulting local stakeholders — stakeholders should have continuous input starting from the initial stages of project development, as well as participate in project governance with clear dispute-resolution mechanisms in place. Initiatives should also involve all affected groups in designing and executing a project or policy, especially marginalized groups, to create durable and equitable outcomes.
  • Government agencies should create collaborative resource management approaches to managing state and federal protected lands. This allows tribes or local stakeholders to co-manage land with agencies.
  • Establishing Community Benefit Agreements can help guarantee local employment and other benefits to a community in exchange for their participation in a project.
  • Projects that remove carbon can be incorporated into climate resilience and adaptation planning to ensure that projects are beneficial to communities. Resilience, adaptation and climate mitigation projects should include funding for measuring and monitoring carbon and other benefits to make sure projects have impact over time.

This article was originally published by the World Resources Institute. Access the original article here.

The Benefits of Investing in Natural Climate Solutions

Conservation, restoration, and improved stewardship of forests, wetlands, oceans, and farmlands around the world can provide up to a third of the emissions reductions we need to prevent the worst effects of climate change. These actions are frequently also some of the most cost-effective solutions available – and they’re ready for countries to implement today.

Picture of a herd of buffalo in a grassy area surrounded by a lush forest because forest and grassland conservation is an important natural climate solution.
A herd of buffalo in Yellowstone National Park. Photo courtesy: CAJC/Flickr

Improving ecosystem management and restoring degraded habitats both hold huge promise to help us pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Even if increasing carbon storage is the primary goal, making ecosystems healthier and more functional can also increase other essential ecosystem services. For example, improved forest management practices can reduce erosion and support water cycling processes, which can in turn reduce costs for communities who rely on forested watersheds for their drinking water. 

Still, the expert body on climate change – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC – identifies protecting and conserving existing ecosystems as one of the best options we have. In its latest reports, the world’s scientists concluded that only photovoltaic solar and wind energy have more potential for affordable climate mitigation than reducing ecosystem conversion. Many of the world’s ecosystems hold “irrecoverable carbon”, carbon they have captured and stored over decades or even centuries. If it is released because of human activity, these ecosystems could not re-capture that carbon in the next few decades, a critical period to reduce climate change. 

Picture of a coral reef, which host a plethora of biodiversity. Biodiversity conservation, an important component of natural climate solutions, is a benefit of avoiding the conversion of ecosystems to other land uses like farming.
Coral reefs, like this one at Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, host a plethora of biodiversity and support thousands of species. Photo credit: Jim Maragos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Flickr

Biodiversity conservation is another huge benefit of avoiding the conversion of ecosystems to other land uses such as farming or urban development. Keeping ecosystem carbon in plants and soils also preserves valuable habitat for wildlife to forage and raise their young. For example, boreal forests and wetlands in North America, which hold enormous amounts of carbon in their soils, are home to mammals such as the woodland caribou and the snowshoe hare and offer essential breeding habitat to birds such as the whooping crane and the Cape May warbler.

World leaders and decision makers shouldn’t overlook our coasts at COP28, either. Actions to sequester and store “blue carbon” in oceans and coastal areas remain badly underfunded. Today, only 9% of all funding for nature-based solutions targets actions in marine areas. But conservation of carbon-rich coastal ecosystems would be a win for the climate and wildlife alike. 

Take seagrass meadows: these lush underwater ecosystems pull carbon from the atmosphere at an astonishing rate and trap carbon-rich sediments among roots and stems. Although they only cover a fraction of a percentage of the ocean, researchers estimate that seagrass meadows are responsible for about 10% of carbon burial in the ocean. Yet seagrass meadows disappear at alarming rates. Key opportunities include addressing threats to seagrass meadows, such as nutrient pollution from rivers and disturbance of the seafloor related to fishing or mining, and restoring degraded meadows.

Our pathways for success are clear. What we need is to ensure sufficient funding is invested into natural climate solutions such as these for years to come. In part three of this series, we’ll explore how we can use natural climate solutions to adapt to the effects of climate change and increase community resilience. 

This article was originally published in the National Wildlife Federation blog on December 12th, 2023.

A Climate-Smart Farm Bill Provides a Bipartisan Path Forward to Ensuring We Meet Our Climate Goals

In recent years, the United States government has significantly increased its support for the implementation of Natural Climate Solutions on American natural and working lands. This surge in funding has paved the way for a diverse array of programs aimed at expanding the adoption of these innovative strategies across the nation. Natural Climate Solutions encompass land management approaches designed to harness the power of forests, farms, grasslands, coastal ecosystems, and urban environments to either reduce greenhouse gas emissions or capture and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. These solutions not only address climate change, but they also help restore wildlife habitat, improve water quality, increase the productivity of our farms, create jobs, and protect our communities from storms and floods.

The Farm Bill in particular is a vital opportunity to put out our farmers, ranchers, and foresters at the center of the solution and forge a sustainable and productive future by:

  • Providing financial and technical assistance for farmers to adopt climate smart practices that also improve soil health and water quality.
  • Helping communities plant and maintain urban trees.
  • Preserving America’s forests and grasslands for future generations.
  • Preventing catastrophic wildfires and restoring forests impacted by fire.

Additionally, a climate-smart Farm Bill provides a bipartisan path forward to ensuring we meet our climate goals.

Below is a selection of programs successfully implementing Natural Climate Solutions with the assistance of federal funding:

Impactful Programs Supported by Farm Bill Funding:

Other projects funded by federal programs or potential candidates for funding:

Treesilience: Urban Forestry for Communities and Climate

Woman planting a tree in a suburban area with a caption that says "Urban-led Urban Forestry: The Treesilience initiative aims to reduce tree cover disparities by planting, maintaining, and replacing trees in urban neighborhoods, benefiting people, wildlife, and the climate.
  • Urban trees offer numerous benefits, including filtering air and water, conserving energy, providing animal habitat, and reducing energy costs. They can also mitigate carbon dioxide emissions significantly.
  • Disparities in tree cover exist between low- and high-income neighborhoods, as well as between communities of color and white communities. This inequity leads to various negative impacts on health and well-being.
  • The Treesilience initiative, a collaboration involving The Nature Conservancy, USDA Forest Service, and community-based organizations, aims to reduce tree cover disparities by planting, maintaining, and replacing trees in urban neighborhoods. It prioritizes communities with the greatest need.
  • In Chicago, the Imani Green Health Advocates program trains advocates in urban forestry and community health, with a focus on planting trees in high-need areas. The program provides career opportunities and improves community well-being.
  • The St. Louis Treesilience program removes hazardous trees and replants two trees for every one removed, focusing on areas with threatened or lost canopy. It aims to improve respiratory health in communities with high air pollution rates and receives federal funding support for urban reforestation efforts.
  • Federal funding is essential for supporting urban tree canopy projects like Treesilience, utilizing grants from agencies like the USDA Forest Service to address tree cover disparities and promote reforestation, with efforts underway to amend legislation to ensure urban initiatives are integrated into broader reforestation goals.

The benefits of urban trees are well documented. According to the USDA Forest Service, “urban forests help to filter air and water, control storm water, conserve energy, and provide animal habitat and shade.” They also provide tangible financial benefits to communities, with one study finding that urban trees can reduce energy use in residential areas by an average of 7.2%, saving billions of dollars. 

Urban trees also provide benefits for climate. Indeed, research from American Forests and The Nature Conservancy reveals that planting 522 million to 1.2 billion trees in urban areas could mitigate between 8.7 million and 25.8 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year respectively – equivalent to removing between 1.94 million and 5.74 million cars from the road. To realize these benefits, it isn’t enough to just plant trees – it is also necessary to maintain the trees after they are planted to ensure that they survive and thrive. Failure to plan for trees’ long-term survival can lead to the rapid death of newly planted trees. It’s also incredibly important to maintain large, long-lived mature trees currently providing optimal benefits while new trees grow large enough to do the same. 

Unfortunately, the benefits of urban trees are not spread equitably across American communities. A national tree survey conducted by The Nature Conservancy, mapping urban tree canopy in 5,723 U.S. cities and towns reveals widespread inequity in tree cover between low- and high-income neighborhoods in U.S. cities, finding that, on average, there is 15.2% higher-tree cover in higher-income neighborhoods compared to lower-income areas. Furthermore, research by American Forests shows that the majority of communities of color have, on average, 33% less tree cover than the majority of white communities. This leads to higher temperatures, increased energy costs, fewer opportunities for outdoor recreation, and less resilience to storms and flooding in these communities. All these factors contribute to diminished health and well-being, particularly for communities of color, compared to white and/or affluent communities. 

TREE EQUITY Disparities in tree cover exist between low- and high-income neighborhoods, as well as between communities of color and white communities. This inequity leads to various negative impacts on health and well-being. The orange areas in the images above show areas with poor tree equity scores (including low tree canopy). Source: American Forests’ Tree Equity Score tool for south Chicago (left) and St. Louis (right).

Treesilience: Community-Led Efforts To Increase & Maintain Urban Tree Cover

Treesilience, a national initiative administered through a partnership among The Nature Conservancy, the USDA Forest Service, Davey Tree Expert Company, and myriad community-based organizations, agencies, and industry partners, began in Chicago in 2020, and then spread to Orlando and St. Louis. The initiative is aimed at reducing disparities in tree cover and eliminating barriers to healthy tree canopy by removing and replacing dead or dying trees, maintaining and pruning existing trees, and planting new trees in urban neighborhoods where tree canopy has been threatened or lost. Importantly, the Treesilience program does not just focus on planting trees – it also helps maintain existing mature trees to ensure they remain healthy and strong. Efforts are targeted toward communities with the most need using the best available science. The program is administered jointly with community organizations – like Imani Village, Missouri ReLeaf, Beyond Housing, and Pine Hills Community Council – and when possible, young emerging professionals from within the community are engaged in the work, providing new pathways for careers in arboriculture. 

Treesilience is currently active in Chicago, St. Louis, and Orlando, with plans to expand into additional U.S. cities and states. Read on to learn more about two of these programs.

Chicago: Urban Forestry with Imani Green Health Advocates & Treesilience

Rachel Patterson, a lifelong resident of the South Side of Chicago, initially believed that her Environmental Studies degree would not offer many career opportunities in her local area. However, her perspective changed when she discovered the Imani Green Health Advocates internship, the program through which Treesilience is implemented in Chicago.

This initiative, a collaboration between Imani Village, Trinity United Church of Christ, Advocate Health Care, Chicago Region Trees Initiative, The Morton Arboretum, The Nature Conservancy, and the USDA Forest Service, focuses on professional development and career training in three areas: environmental health, community health, and spiritual health. The advocates engage in outreach efforts within various neighborhoods on Chicago’s south and west sides, including Pullman, West Pullman, Cottage Grove Heights, Washington Heights, Roseland, and Chatham, addressing aspects of physical and mental health, landscape health, and spiritual well-being.

The Imani Green Health Advocates program is part of a larger, 23-acre, sustainable mixed-use development known as Imani Village, spearheaded by leaders and parishioners from Trinity United Church of Christ. Imani Village includes an urban farm, organic garden, NCAA sports complex, retail center, health clinic, youth development center, and community housing.

Sustainability and meaningful employment are central to Imani Village’s approach to community health, and this philosophy is reflected in the Imani Green Health Advocates program. The Advocates receive comprehensive training in urban forestry, tree health, and urban landscapes, with guidance from The Nature Conservancy and partners. 

COMMUNITY ACTION The Imani Green Health Advocates program trains advocates in urban forestry and community health, with a focus on planting trees in high-need areas. The program provides career opportunities and improves community well-being. Photos by Joel Zavala/TNC.

Now in its fifth year, more than 20 advocates have been a part of the program, helping survey tree health and canopy in Chicago’s neighborhoods, identifying ideal locations for tree planting, and setting a goal of responsibly planting 50 trees per year in high-need communities. The tree-health findings are incorporated into Advocate Hospital’s community health needs assessment, and today Chicago residents can also request a tree or tree removal through the City’s CHI311 mobile app. 

According to Patricia Eggleston, the Executive Director of Imani Village, the goal is to create a holistic and healthy lifestyle for the community, providing opportunities for meaningful careers and well-paid employment. As the program progresses, more permanent job placements are envisioned for the Advocates. For Rachel, the program expanded her resume through work with organizations like Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium and Audubon Great Lakes. She has also returned to the program as a guest presenter, sharing her story and conducting workshops with new cohorts of Advocates.

The collaborative efforts of Imani Village and its partners not only aim to create career opportunities for local residents but also to empower the community and improve overall health and well-being. With the continued growth of the Imani Green Health Advocates program and the amenities provided by Imani Village, the South Side of Chicago looks forward to becoming a vibrant and sustainable community for its residents.

Treesilience St. Louis: Growing a Resilient Tree Canopy

A healthy urban tree canopy provides a multitude of ecological, economic and social benefits that can enhance the overall quality of life. But threats to these trees – like life-threatening tree insects or pathogens – can weaken and even kill trees over time. These threats are worsening over time, largely due to climate change. In brief, these life-saving organisms go from benefit to burden, sometimes in a matter of a few years as can be the case for ash trees impacted by emerald ash borer. Frustratingly, costs associated with tree removal or mature tree pruning can be prohibitive for many. And, the longer dead or dying trees remain on one’s property, the greater the risk they pose, which can leave residents feeling less favorable toward trees, understandably. Hazardous tree removals or pruning can bring peace of mind to homeowners and communities, and perhaps even begin to restore relationships with trees over time.

That was the case for Dorothy Collins, who lives in the Pine Lawn neighborhood in north St. Louis County. In December 2021, the St. Louis Treesilience program officially kicked off in her front yard with the removal of a large sweetgum tree that had a huge stress fracture and was posing a threat to her house and more importantly, her safety.

For every tree removed in St. Louis, the team replants two trees in its place through a partnership with Forest ReLeaf of Missouri’s tree nursery. 

The initiative focuses on areas where canopy is either threatened or already lost, and prioritizes communities where neighbors stand to gain the most from increased canopy, which is also the case for Collins. Communities in and around north St. Louis County and the City of St. Louis have high rates of air pollution and asthma-related hospitalizations.

“Community trees provide us significant benefits, and we believe that everyone deserves access not only to trees and greenspaces but to healthy trees and greenspaces,” Rachel Holmes, The Nature Conservancy’s urban forestry strategist, says. “Studies have shown that respiratory health can be improved by the expansion of healthy tree cover in areas with higher air pollution.”

The effects of Treesilience are lasting, but they start paying off immediately. At the program kick off, Collins shared her gratitude with the program partners for the removal and also her two new trees

“I’m thankful for everyone here and I’m relieved to get rid of that tree…I really am,” Collins said, adding that she is excited to watch her new trees grow.

Federal Support for Scaling Urban Forestry Program

Treesilience offers an important example of how combined federal funding sources that support both rural and urban forests can help advance the national climate agenda, overall, particularly through comprehensive reforestation. According to research shared by both American Forests and The Nature Conservancy through the Reforestation Hub, approximately 19% of the reforestation potential in the United States is in urban landscapes. Additionally, major tree insects and diseases are often discovered in urban trees and forests first. 

Federal funding sources that support Treesilience – which is, at its core, a reforestation program – include a grant from the USDA Forest Service’s Landscape Scale Restoration (LSR) competitive grants program, which leverages both public and private resources to support collaborative, science-based restoration of forested landscapes, particularly in rural communities. These funds support Treesilience in North St. Louis County, where the population size of the 24 individual municipalities that make up the region qualify as ‘rural.’ Accordingly, Treesilience is an example of how LSR funding can not only support this urban forestry program, but also help meet broader U.S. reforestation goals. 

Efforts are currently underway to revise the 2023 Farm Bill, the Congressional authority for the LSR grant program, to ensure that LSR applications for projects on urban landscapes may be fully considered alongside projects in rural communities, reflecting the need for a more comprehensive reforestation approach.

Programs like Imani Green Health Advocates (and/or organizations like Missouri ReLeaf) are also funded through generous support from the Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry (UCF) Program, which recently received a $1.5 billion boost in funding under the Inflation Reduction Act. The UCF Program provides technical, financial, and educational assistance to help urban communities increase and maintain healthy tree cover, with an emphasis on providing assistance to nature-deprived communities. This program is also authorized through the Farm Bill, making that particular legislation indispensable to nationwide efforts to expand tree cover and ensure the benefits of trees are enjoyed in all communities, while also tapping into the full potential of urban trees to address climate change. 

Additional Resources

Advancing Agroforestry in the Midwest: Hudson Demonstration Farm

  • Agroforestry, which involves integrating trees into agriculture, is a vital solution to climate change. Trees’ deep roots help manage water, sequester carbon, and mitigate the impacts of extreme weather, making them powerful allies in adapting to and mitigating climate change.
  • Demonstration farms play a crucial role in educating farmers and the public about agroforestry. They serve as practical examples, helping people understand how agroforestry works and learn all the benefits of regenerative farming.
  • The are several barriers to agroforestry adoption, including land access, upfront investments, and a lack of experienced practitioners. Addressing these obstacles is essential to encourage more farmers to embrace agroforestry practices.
  • Policy support, particularly through USDA programs and the Farm Bill, is essential for scaling up agroforestry adoption. We need policy changes that recognize agroforestry’s role in addressing climate change and offer financial incentives for its implementation.
  • Despite the challenges posed by climate change, agroforestry is a transformative practice that can positively impact biodiversity, habitat restoration, and rural communities, offering a brighter and more stable future for agriculture and the environment.

Most people have no idea what agroforestry is. And they especially don’t know what it looks like. Displaying agroforestry on demonstration farms allows people to understand how trees fit into farm landscapes.

As the Director of Demonstration Farms at the Savanna Institute, a nonprofit organization working to lay the groundwork for widespread agroforestry in the Midwest, I help people better understand what agroforestry is, as well as the multiple benefits it can provide to farmers. Demonstration farms can serve as a blueprint for how the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s programs and policy initiatives, like the 2023 Farm Bill, could support the expansion of agroforestry plantings.

Agroforestry 101

Agroforestry has a lot of definitions, but simply put, it’s the integration of trees into agriculture. By this definition, agroforestry has been practiced for thousands of years, and in thousands of different ways, across the world. A few key practices are especially promising for the Midwestern United States, such as alley cropping (rows of trees growing within rows of crops) and windbreaks (rows of trees planted along the edges of fields to reduce wind, pesticide drift and soil erosion).

So much of our country’s landscape now is foreign to what it looked like 30 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago, and 300 years ago. All the amazing soil that we have here in the heartland is because of the prairies and savannas that were here. This history is extremely important, because while ‘agroforestry’ can be seen as a set of USDA practices, it’s way more than that. It’s generations of people that have been working with trees up to the present day. So, agroforestry is not only directly related to what happened in the past, but it directly informs what will happen in the future.

Agroforestry’s Role in Preparing for Climate Change

As we’re entering this time of uncertain weather patterns, farmers sometimes have no rain at all. Other times, an incredible amount of water comes onto farm landscapes all at once. Trees can play an important role in navigating this challenge. The amazing thing about trees is they have deep root systems that allow water to spread out and sink in. The perennial roots of tree crops allow them to mitigate the impacts of extreme weather while also sequestering greenhouse gases and reducing climate change directly.

Because of the powerful role that trees can play on farm landscapes, agroforestry has everything to do with climate change. Trees are some of our most powerful allies we have when it comes to adapting and mitigating a changing climate. There’s nothing more efficient than a tree when it comes to storing carbon at deep levels of soil where we need to hold it in place. And what makes trees even more exciting is they can be productive. We can put trees on landscapes in a way that is doing something for climate change, but also adding value to farmlands, either through conservation or through the production of new crops.

Drought and Planning

I have seen first-hand the impacts a changing climate is already having on farmers. Through my work at the Savanna Institute, I manage the Hudson Demonstration Farm, a privately owned, 120-acre farm in central Illinois that serves as an agroforestry demonstration site through an innovative 50-year lease agreement with the landowner. Agroforestry is being established on all of the 120 acres, in combination with corn, soybeans, and other common Midwestern crops. In 2023, a severe drought created challenges for our agroforestry work, as well as for the alley crop farmer’s soybean production. 

Even though farms in Central Illinois are seeing the driest soil we’ve had since the eighties, the trees we planted here are doing just fine, and even trees that were planted as recently as last year seem to be doing reasonably well thanks to deeper roots that can access moisture farther down in the soil. The crops that are struggling most with the drought are annual crops, like the corn and soybeans that are grown across much of Illinois and the Midwest. However, growing trees close to these annual crops can actually help them access water too, by drawing up moisture higher in the soil profile where shorter crop roots can access it. 

While this drought has led to challenges, it has also provided an opportunity to demonstrate how to farm in an increasingly chaotic climate. The future of agriculture is happening right now on these demonstration farms. As the weather gets more extreme, farmers will be forced to do things differently. 

On-Farm Education

For agroforestry to gain broader acceptance, it is important for it to be highly visible. Demonstration farms can play a powerful role in bringing people out to learn more about agroforestry. 

The Savanna Institute utilizes Hudson Farm, along with its broader network of demonstration farms throughout the Midwest, to conduct education and outreach for greater agroforestry adoption. This includes field days, private tours, research, an agroforestry apprenticeship program, and a new video series about the farms.

This education is very important, because agroforestry requires the thoughtful management of multiple systems at once, such as tree crops in combination with grains, vegetables, or livestock. This offers the potential for “overyielding” – achieving productivity above 100% due to multiple crops in the same space – but it also increases the number of things that can go wrong. Our demonstration farms help us find ways to co-exist, while also providing opportunities to document and learn from our mistakes, so others don’t make the same mistakes again. 

One of the reasons why I’m drawn to this work is because we are showing that the corn and soybean production with large tractors guided by GPS and increasingly advanced technology can exist alongside the use of trees. The future of agriculture is to do both. Both of these things CAN happen at the same time. 

Costs and Barriers

Why isn’t agroforestry more common in the Midwest? A number of significant barriers stand in the way. Land access for aspiring agroforesters, either through land ownership or a favorable long-term lease, remains out of reach for many. Because tree crops usually require significant up-front capital and labor investment with no immediate payback, providing financial mechanisms to fund agroforestry establishment is a primary need. A shortage of nursery stock for preferred agroforestry crops, as well as a lack of farmers with sufficient agroforestry management experience, also represent limiting factors. 

For example, if a farmer is planting a chestnut tree, that tree is not going to produce its first chestnuts for around five years, and they’re not going to come into full production until around their twelfth year. This means that farmers are required to make a significant investment of time, labor, and money before those trees start to produce, which can be really hard when operating farms on tight margins. In Midwest agriculture, we’re usually focused on short-term economics instead of long-term economics, and that can be a barrier for some farmers.

Another barrier is that there simply are not a lot of people doing agroforestry. A person might be the only one in their community that’s planting tree crops or doing agroforestry on their farm, and that can get really lonely after a while. Hopefully as we spread the word about agroforestry, this will become less of a barrier for agroforestry adopters. 

USDA Support for Agroforestry

While some of these barriers can be addressed by organizations like the Savanna Institute, others require innovation by policymakers or financial institutions. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) can be a powerful change agent in scaling up widespread implementation of agroforestry, and a number of USDA programs are already supporting its adoption. Through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), landowners can access cost share funding for the cost of planting trees, as well as the loss of income from taking land out of annual production. 

Indeed, at the Hudson Demonstration Farm, the USDA helped pay for every tree that was planted. At Hudson, the NRCS’ Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) supports the establishment and maintenance of the windbreak and pollinator plantings while the Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) supports three different types of alley cropping. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) can also help pay for costs associated with Agroforestry establishment. EQIP is a particularly powerful program for people that may not have commodity crop land, including specialty crop growers or livestock producers who want to establish agroforestry.

SUPPORTING FARMERS The USDA can be a powerful change agent in scaling up widespread implementation of agroforestry, with programs like the Conservation Reserve Program, the Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and the Environmental Quality Incentives Program helping farmers with the establishment and maintenance of practices like alley cropping and windbreaks. Photos by Alita Films.

Another USDA effort, the Partnership for Climate Smart Commodities program, is pulling together people working in agroforestry into regional hubs that allow us to scale agroforestry where they are located and deploy it throughout the United States. Led by The Nature Conservancy in collaboration with multiple partners, this five-year grant establishes six regional hubs in the eastern US and Hawaii. Agroforestry currently represents less than 2% of U.S. agriculture. This project aims to create 30,000 acres of new agroforestry plantings over the next five years.

In 2023, Congress has the opportunity to expand the USDA’s support for agroforestry through the Farm Bill, legislation that touches the life of every single person in the US, whether we know it or not. When it comes to agroforestry, there is a major opportunity to put in place a transformative Farm Bill, providing opportunities to tweak some existing programs to make them more friendly to agroforestry, while also providing additional funding for agroforestry research, technical assistance, and adoption. It is vital that we let policy makers know that agroforestry is important to us, that it is a climate change solution, that it is an economic opportunity, and that historic investment will help accelerate that adoption even faster.

Returning to Agroforestry

Despite dealing with the consequences of climate collapse on a daily basis, I am still hopeful about the future. As a parent, I sometimes feel that having children and planting trees is part of the same work: fostering a better, brighter, more stable future. A few years back, I was out working on an agroforestry farm and heard a bobwhite quail call from the windbreak. I started weeping, right there in the field, because I hadn’t heard that sound since I was a child. Through planting trees, that farm had built a habitat for a bird that no longer existed in the area and they came back.  Being able to watch the land change, regenerate, and diversify thanks to agroforestry fills me with the same emotions as watching my children grow. 

I think that trees have the opportunity to bring people back to the land, to farms, to their communities and rural areas, and to places where they feel like they can be hopeful and that they can build their lives around that. And while planting a tree is simple, it’s the first step in that transformation.

Additional Resources

Download project fact sheet
(includes pathways for scaling)

Learn more about the Savanna Institute

Building a Robust Reforestation Pipeline: Key Takeaways and Recommendations from Interviews with Nursery Managers in the Northeastern United States 

Trees can improve water quality, bolster soil health, create wildlife habitat, strengthen local economics, and sequester carbon. There are a myriad of strategies by which trees can be integrated into diverse landscapes as a natural climate solution, including agroforestry (e.g. riparian buffers, windbreaks, silvopasture, alley cropping, food forests), reforesting and/or restocking forests, and urban tree planting. In the United States, reforesting and restocking forests, in particular, hold considerable climate mitigation and economic development potential: reforesting and restocking 185.4 million acres of non-federal lands could remove 156 MtCO2e per year by 2030 and support nearly seventy thousand jobs annually (Leslie-Bole 2021). 

Projects that support tree planting by national and corporate actors have had variable success globally, as planting and caring for trees long-term can be an involved and complex social and ecological process that requires critical analysis and thoughtful engagement with numerous stakeholders (Pearce 2022). The need for multifaceted collaboration with diverse stakeholders is particularly true in the U.S. where land suitable for growing trees is often situated within a patchwork of privately and publicly owned land. One pervasive challenge that undermines the potential for ecologically resilient tree planting projects in the U.S. is the nation’s weakened reforestation pipeline–the actors, processes, and materials involved in tree planting, including seeds, nurseries, and planting and post-planting actions.

The main challenges undermining the reforestation pipeline in the U.S. include: 

1. Infrastructure (nurseries and seed storage and processing facilities) 

In recent decades, the number of nurseries in the U.S., including state and federal nurseries, and seed storage and processing facilities has declined

2. Demand for trees exceeds supply

The production of trees of various age classes is lagging in the U.S. This imbalance will likely be exacerbated by the demand for trees from growing interest in restoring and reforesting ecosystems across the country. 

3. Workforce 

Job opportunities in the nursery industry can be physically taxing and are often seasonal, which poses significant challenges for job retention. Furthermore, roles are highly specialized, requiring extensive knowledge of reproductive cycles, growth requirements, phenology, and the plasticity of local flora, as well as the unique skills to collect, germinate, and grow trees. Frequent employee turnover can limit the scale and diversity of nurseries’ production.

Fortunately, recent, historic, investments in tree planting/reforestation in the U.S. have the potential to address these barriers and galvanize a robust reforestation pipeline: the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) allocates $450 million for climate-smart forestry and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) removes the cap on the Reforestation Trust Fund. These investments could support healthy and resilient forests, as well as enhance community well-being, including by creating jobs, improving water quality, building resilience to climate change, and more. It is vital that these recent–as well as any future–investments in the reforestation pipeline acknowledge that each region in the U.S. is experiencing a unique permutation of the above challenges. Place-based research, in collaboration with relevant stakeholders, is vital to understanding the unique context and needs of regions across the U.S. to develop and implement sustainable and equitable tree planting/reforestation efforts. 

To elucidate opportunities to bolster the reforestation pipeline and meet the growing demand for trees by tree planting/reforestation projects, we conducted semi-structured interviews with seven nursery managers in the Northeastern U.S. These interviews yielded key insights on the state of the reforestation pipeline in the region and nursery managers shared their unique perspectives on opportunities to improve this vital supply chain. 

The Northeast differs from other regions of the country as both forests and land suitable for NCS (e.g., floodplains, marginal croplands, pasture, abandoned lots) is dominated by private land ownership. Furthermore, natural regeneration is often the most economically viable and ecologically suitable model for reforestation in the region. In fact, the Northeast has a rich history of land use change where much of currently forested areas were once cleared and have since undergone regeneration and succession (Foster, 1992). Still, trees in and outside of forests in the Northeast are facing many challenges. For example, the implications of climate change are amplifying forest health risks (species range shifts, pests, pathogens, drought, temperature shifts) and the persistence of market pressures incentivizing forest conversion (e.g., housing development and renewable energy installations) are commonplace. As such, reforesting and restoring forests in the Northeast amidst these challenges will likely require more input and active management than the forests that returned to the region in the early twentieth century. 

Despite the challenges facing the reforestation pipeline, there is growing interest in planting trees for climate resilience, carbon sequestration, improving air quality, diversifying markets, and more. Among other strategies, current projects are focused on urban tree planting, riparian restoration, and agroforestry. According to recent models, large-scale reforestation has the greatest climate mitigation potential (35 percent) in the Northeastern U.S. (Fargione et al., 2018). Given that recent studies have illustrated that many landowners in tropical and subtropical forests are more interested in the utility trees offer rather than their climate mitigation potential, there may be a greater demand in the Northeast for trees that can enrich landscapes by offering multiple functions (e.g., trees for food, timber, and aesthetics) (Martin et al., 2022). As such, efforts to accelerate the pace and scale of tree planting/reforestation in the region will need to be advanced in close collaboration with landholders and will require a rich understanding of the challenges facing the region’s forests. 

The goal of the semi-structured interviews we conducted with nursery managers in the Northeastern U.S. was to better understand the breadth of nursery operations, nursery managers’ interests in expanding production to meet anticipated higher production, and growers’ recommendations for pivotal investment opportunities to bolster production while also providing ecological, economic, and social benefits. The individuals we spoke with manage operations that vary in size, age, location, infrastructure, objective(s), and end user(s). Interviewees included the managers of private nurseries, a state-run nursery, and a non-profit conservation nursery. The production of each nursery ranges from small shrubs, containers, and bare root. Furthermore, the size of each operation ranges from one acre and three full-time employees to 150 acres and 75 full-time employees. Lastly, the nursery managers we spoke with sell to diverse end users, including farmers interested in establishing agroforestry systems, homeowners, landscaping operations, and large-scale research, conservation, and restoration projects. 

Key takeaways from interviews with nursery managers in the Northeastern U.S.: 

1. Although nursery managers report a notable increase in demand for their products in recent years, many private nurseries noted that this increased demand has not come from tree planting initiatives. Furthermore, nursery managers were not convinced that large-scale projects would source from local nurseries, most of which are smaller and cannot offer competitive prices as compared to larger operations based in the Southeastern and Western U.S. The skepticism of private nurseries stood in contrast with nurseries with an explicit conservation or agroforestry oriented mission, who had started their production and/or were scaling up in anticipation of increased demand for trees.

2. Most nursery managers we spoke with were more interested in increasing on-site efficiencies (e.g., maximizing the number of trees produced with the least amount of external inputs) than expanding operations due to a limited land base, workforce constraints, and personal capacity. Some nursery managers were interested in expanding production through partnerships with smaller nurseries or with new growers of woody plants.

3. Nursery managers emphasized the importance of genetics, producing locally adapted trees that can survive and thrive in changing climatic conditions, and growing productive species. This sentiment is often echoed by those with experience implementing and monitoring tree planting projects.

As evidenced by these three key takeaways, developing a resilient reforestation pipeline in the U.S. can be achieved by supporting and learning from locally-focused operations and building trusted, long-term relationships with growers in distinct regions. As more detailed funding allocations for tree planting/reforestation and forest resilience are made through IRA and IIJA, as well as in the 2023 Farm Bill, the perspectives of nursery managers and other stakeholders must be considered to grow and fortify the reforestation pipeline that can meet the unique needs of regions across the country. 

Initiatives that seek to improve and increase the volume of seed stock for restoration should prioritize support for existing operations. Many private nurseries have persisted and adapted to changing markets amidst the closure of state-run nurseries. These nurseries already possess the infrastructure and skills necessary to adapt to new markets driven by tree planting/reforestation initiatives. However, uncertainty regarding local actors’ commitment to NCS and the consistency of new markets in the coming years pose significant risks for operations that are considering scaling-up production. To better coordinate production to meet anticipated increases in demand, nursery managers will require information from their end users on the species, varieties, and quantity of trees needed, as well as the projects’ timeline. Additionally, many nurseries will need to modify their existing structure to diversify offerings, such as producing younger, bare-root, trees, which are typically bought for restoration projects (versus the larger container or ball and burlap tree that nurseries typically sell at a high price point to homeowners or landscapers). Nursery managers should be involved early, as well as throughout, tree planting/reforestation initiatives’ planning processes. This sustained engagement will not only enable nursery managers to better coordinate their production with projects’ demands, but also offer opportunities for growers to provide invaluable insights on projects’ scope and implementation. Nursery managers already often provide planning guides and offer consultations, drawing on years of regionally relevant experience. This expertise will be invaluable to the long-term success of tree planting/reforestation projects. 

One strategy that could support existing operations is the establishment of local prioritization into NCS criteria. This approach would require tree planting/reforestation initiatives to source trees locally, which may help authenticate the promise of new markets for nursery managers, thus catalyzing greater investment in local supply chains. In the absence of such mechanisms, large-scale tree planting/reforestation initiatives may source stock from large growers based in the Southeastern or Western U.S. that are able to offer lower prices due to an extended growing season and the availability of relatively inexpensive land. Similar strategies that prioritize the hiring of local labor and sub-contractors for stewardship contracts on federal lands have been employed (e.g., Consistent Program of Stewardship work in El Dorado National Forest) to maximize local economic co-benefits. In addition, intentionally selecting locally adapted species for tree planting/reforestation projects can help bolster the capacity of populations to adapt to anticipated phenological changes and consequent range shifts predicted in climate change, and thus enhance the long-term success of tree planting/reforestation projects.

Strategies that prioritize local investment in concert with increased demand will continue to attract new and motivated growers to the industry. Several nursery managers we spoke with expressed interest in aggregating trees from other growers when they reached production limits to meet consistent inquiries for nursery stock. Therefore, in addition to supporting existing operations, clear pathways for new and interested growers to access quality land, infrastructure, markets, and technical support will increase the resilience of a regionally-specific reforestation pipeline. Strengthening the capacity of the reforestation pipeline should thus involve the creation of opportunities for diverse producers that can absorb demand from multiple entities and efforts to increase NCS. New programs, including components of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), that facilitate access to land and markets for underserved producers, will be particularly pivotal to ensure  that newer and historically underserved growers can participate in the growing market for trees. Such investments must also include access to resources that can help producers strengthen their operations, including in-person workshops, site visits from extension agents or other professionals, and online resources. New and existing growers could collaborate through job trainings, cooperative (co-op) marketing models that aggregate available nursery stock on centralized platforms, and/or by sharing storage facilities (e.g., cold rooms) that can hold trees until they are needed. 

Realizing the climate mitigation potential of tree planting/reforestation projects will depend, in part, on the strength of the reforestation pipeline. Although our findings are not conclusive about the attitudes of all nursery managers and growers across the Northeastern U.S., they do showcase the indispensable role of nurseries to the successful implementation of NCS. To fortify the reforestation pipeline, the federal government, alongside key partners such as universities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), must integrate the perspectives and recommendations of key stakeholders, including nursery managers. Ensuring that future policy decisions are informed by landowner and practitioner perspectives will be especially important in national and international policy discussions, including the 2023 Farm Bill. In the absence of place-based research and the inclusion of local communities’ expertise, the potential contribution of NCS to societal well-being and climate goals will not be realized. 

Many experts in the nursery industry that we spoke with have long been interested in addressing the  pervasive challenges facing the reforestation pipeline, including increasing genetic stock, tracking and communicating technical knowledge, and expanding production through collaborating with other growers to meet the demand for trees. The many skilled individuals working at nurseries and across the reforestation pipeline know what it takes for the industry to grow and the diverse actors (e.g., national and state governments, NGOs, and corporations) seeking to galvanize a more robust reforestation pipeline and accelerate the pace and scale of NCS implementation should take note. 

To learn more about the challenges in the reforestation pipeline, read Reforesting Minnesota: Building Capacity in a Changing Climate, Seeing the Forest for the Seedlings: Challenges and Opportunities in the Effort to Reforest America, and Gisel Garza: Seed Hunter.

Sequestering Carbon Through Conversation and Community Burning: Converting Forest Fuels to Biochar 

We all enjoy telling stories around a campfire, but what if that campfire was also a tool to improve timber practices and reduce carbon emissions? The Lands Council partnered with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians and others on a pilot project to reduce forest fuels and transform them to beneficial biochar. These pilot burns were a chance for the forest community to come together and look at the many potentials for biochar on the landscape along with some of the limitations to large scale implementation.

Biochar is created in a process called pyrolysis, a high heat low oxygen environment. Many different materials, or feedstocks, from wood to straw can be used and the end product is light weight, extremely porous, and has high carbon content. Compared to the original feedstock, the carbon in biochar will last for hundreds to thousands of years in the soil. This sequestering of carbon back into the soil can offset some of the traditional practices in timber management including the use of machinery and emissions released from burning timber waste.

Forest thinning is a key component of forest management, particularly for wildland fire fuels reduction. Due to over a hundred years of fire suppression and aggressive logging practices, our western forests are choked with many small, non-commercially viable trees that increase the risk of catastrophic fire. Thinning these trees helps reduce the risk of devastating fires, ensuring that the carbon stored in the remaining trees remains there, rather than being released as smoke into the atmosphere. The focus of many of these thinning projects is in the WUI or Wildland Urban Interface. These are areas near houses and population centers where an uncontrolled fire can have costly and sometimes deadly consequences. 

The common practice for fuels reduction thinning is to have hand crew cut small diameter trees to reduce the ladder fuels that can allow a fire to move from the forest floor to the tree canopy. These small trees and branches, also known as slash, are then stacked in piles where they are allowed to dry before they are burned in the cooler/wetter months of late fall. There are a few issues with this method of removing fuels from the forest. Burning many slash piles at once produces a lot of smoke that can impact local air quality. The burning of these piles also scorches the surrounding soils, essentially sterilizing them. The end product of burning these piles is ash which can change the chemical properties of the soil and has limited beneficial effects.

In contrast, the conversion of slash to biochar has many benefits to the forest landscape and the climate. Amending agricultural soils with biochar created from available agricultural and forest waste could sequester up to 95 million metric tons of cardon dioxide if adopted nationwide. One of the crucial characteristics of biochar is the porosity, or the numerous minute holes which allows biochar to have incredible water holding capacity. In forests, biochar can help decommission logging decks and roads, reducing soil compaction and erosion – greatly improving stream health. It can also be added to the forest floor to increase the survival and growth of saplings. Those porous holes in biochar also create habitat for beneficial soil fugus and insects. The benefits of biochar are increasingly sought after in agricultural practices from the dry land grain production of eastern Washington to the vineyards and orchards of central Washington. Producers see the benefit to their crops with increased yields and improved water holding capacity, which reduces their water needs.

Ray Entz, Director of Wildlife and Terrestrial Resources for the Kalispel Tribe, saw the value in trying out biochar burning with some recent thinning projects. “The Kalispel Tribe sees climate impacts and its effects on forestry and forest management as absolutely critical,” said Entz. “We have been witnessing climate impacts to our forests over the past 10 years or so and we are interested in making sure we are doing the absolute best we can with our management. One of the controversial areas around forestry is post-harvest biomass [referred to as slash] treatment. It has been a longstanding practice to either lop and scatter or pile and burn excess biomass post-harvest. Knowing there may be better ways to treat biomass, we offered up piles on one of our recent harvest treatments as a pilot to demonstrate the use of biochar kilns and panels to reduce biomass to a more useful product while limiting smoke and soil impacts. We worked with The Lands Council, Resource Synergy, and the WSU extension office to create the space to see and learn about biochar production. Now, we have a way to go to bring biochar to the forefront as a viable and economical practice, but this is a great start, and we are supportive of its use in the future over a greater landscape.”

Over several crisp fall mornings, The Lands Council staff used two different techniques to convert slash piles into biochar on lands belonging to the Kalispel Tribe of Indians in Northeast Washington. The Wilson, or Oregon Kilns, are portable kilns that can be moved around the forest and operated by a team of 3-4 four. These are crossed stacked with feedstock to pack in as much wood as possible, and then each kiln is top lit. All of these steps help to reduce the amount of oxygen entering the pyrolysis process. The Polygon, or Ring of Fire kilns, are interlocking panels that can be constructed around existing slash piles and can be made to fit just about any size.

Gathered around the biochar kilns were many members of the community. Connections were made between the local public utility, which manages a biomass plant in the region, and a burgeoning biochar company that seeks to monetize the production of biochar and get it out of the forest and onto agricultural lands. We had seasoned foresters helping kids buck wood and feed it into the kilns. We had discussion with the local conservation district about creating training and a lending library for the biochar equipment so private landowners could have the valuable product of biochar while making their forest less prone to wildfires.

We also talked about some of the limitations of biochar production. These were small scale biochar productions relative to standard thinning practices that large land managers would conduct. There was also additional time and labor to cut feedstock to size and feed the kilns. We had many discussions on how to incorporate machinery to scale up and make the process more efficient. We also discussed the different market avenues for biochar, from carbon credits to landowners to selling to local hay producers. During these discussions, we established a goal of creating a circular economy through the reduction of forest fuels, using biochar as the currency. This will ultimately lead to safer forests, increased carbon sequestration, and numerous environmental benefits for the forest ecosystem.

There is still more research to be done to fully understand the climate change mitigation benefits of biochar, best practices for producing biochar and applying it to the land, and mechanisms for incentivizing the production and use of biochar. Numerous resources are available to fund this kind of research, including federal, state, and private sector support. For example, The Lands Council and Kalispel Tribe’s biochar program was supported by a grant from the Washington Department of Commerce. Federal programs like the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Conservation Innovation Grants (CIG) Program can also help fund research and pilot projects. For example, a recent CIG project in Oregon supported research into different methods for producing biochar. As a result of this research, some participants in the NRCS’s Conservation Stewardship Program are allowed to convert agricultural waste into biochar.

The City of Burlington Goes To The Head of the Class in Implementing Natural Climate Solutions

In Burlington, Vermont, packs of kids from Champlain Elementary School fan out to local parks gathering acorns, ash samaras, and birch seed. They’re taking the problem of climate action into their own hands.

Everyone knows that trees are good for cities and good for our climate, but most cities need good locations to plant trees and sources of nursery trees for urban reforestation projects are in short supply. The solution? Simple, grow the trees yourself right on the elementary school grounds! In addition to oak, ash and birch, the children gather red osier, silk, and gray dogwood berries. This spring they also started growing trees in a “stick garden,” taking cuttings of willow, dogwood, and high bush cranberry and directly propagating them in the ground. Altogether, the students are cultivating 15 species, hundreds of individual trees and bushes—some will grow up on the school grounds and many others will be available for planting at other schools and parks.

This work is happening because of the unanimous passage by Burlington’s city council of a Nature-Based Climate Solutions (NBCS) plan. A huge and growing body of scientific evidence makes it clear that nature protection is not just good for stabilizing the climate —it’s the most cost-effective, important, and inescapable requirement for successfully slowing the heating of our cities and planet. Indeed, one study revealed that we can remove an additional 18% of the nation’s current greenhouse gas emissions, just by restoring and responsibly managing our forests, farms, ranches, grasslands, and wetlands. 

The plan has opened the way for numerous parts of the city government and local non-profit organizations to work together, supporting practical, inclusive actions such as growing much-needed trees while allowing children, from across a racial and socioeconomic spectrum, to have meaningful nature connection and agency around climate action. Of course these hard-working kids have some help—a partnership between Burlington’s school district, the city’s parks department, the Intervale Center (a local non-profit), Burlington Wildways partners, and the Grow Wild initiative is helping to make their tree nursery possible.

The partnership has allowed the tree project to thrive and no one partner could do the work alone. The city’s parks department waters trees over the summer, and provides supplies—while working with the school district’s grounds and maintenance staff to make sure that plans are workable. And, when many of the tree seeds failed in the first season, staff from the Intervale Center, which runs a conservation nursery, stepped in to troubleshoot and teach students and their teachers how to properly collect and start seeds of a variety of local and native species. 

The campus of the school has transformed from a large, mowed grass lot to areas that are in active production of carbon-sequestering native trees. Students also started a wildlife corridor using their campus to connect nearby woods that grow on one edge of the school to a small patch of forest on the other side of the school grounds.

Plus, trees growing in the campus nursery will be transplanted this fall for stream-bank restoration work on an impaired polluted stream that runs along the edge of the school campus before it empties into nearby Lake Champlain. Importantly, these trees are adapted to their place; they have local genetics and were not grown in pots with fertilizer before being trucked halfway across the country. The only transportation needed: strong arms and legs.

This tree work happening at Champlain Elementary School is just one of many areas where Burlington’s Nature-based Climate Solutions Plan aims to have an impact. The NBCS plan is organized into six theme areas: urban forests and tree canopies; water and wetlands; lawns, fields, and small open spaces; agriculture and community gardens; green infrastructure; and an overarching theme of equity, inclusion, and relationships. Burlington’s NBCS plan includes an implementation matrix that emphasizes the importance of community and departmental collaboration to achieve the city’s new climate mitigation, adaptation, and equity goals.

Now the city’s overall climate action efforts can be supported not only through its bold and ambitious Net Zero Energy Roadmap but also through its commitment to natural climate solutions.

To advance this nature-based work, Burlington is drawing on national and local networks, including the Nature-Based Climate Solutions Initiative (NCS), Urban Sustainability Directors Network (USDN), the Trust for Public Land, and the University of Colorado Boulder’s Masters of the Environment (MENV) Program. This network is continuously growing as new allies are identified, bringing together a powerful coalition of dedicated city champions, community leaders, graduate student researchers, climate professionals, and local activists committed to developing best practices for climate action.

With help from these partners and the NBCS plan, leaders in Burlington have started to quantify some of the benefits of the city’s natural assets and plan for the future. For example, according to American Forests’ Tree Equity Score tool, the urban tree canopy across the city stands at 42%. A recent analysis of the city’s tree canopy, using iTree Software, reveals that these trees sequester enough carbon to equal the removal of 450 cars from the road for a year, and these benefits will increase as the canopy increases. Additionally, the canopy is able to remove 26,500 pounds of air pollutants and avoid 43 million gallons of stormwater runoff each year, collectively reducing health incidences for residents and creating a healthier natural environment.

Trees excel at reducing the urban heat island effect, extreme heat mortality, and heat stress. An upcoming urban forest plan for Burlington will start to quantify the benefits of urban cooling provided by the canopy. The city aims to increase tree canopy, with a focus on tree equity. Areas of the city with the least coverage by tree canopy have the highest priority for tree plantings. And with support from the Arbor Day Foundation, a surge in tree plantings took place over the past three years across three city wards. The project focused on planting trees on streets with no greenbelt and in city parks with low shade cover, utilizing large planters to increase tree survival. Over the past three years, this project has planted 360 trees.

There are many more ways that nature-based climate action is at work in Burlington including: extensive regenerative agriculture and community gardening programs; backyard and park native habitat restoration; additional urban tree nurseries beyond the new one at Champlain Elementary; an advanced street tree program; riparian and wetland restoration and regeneration work; neighborhood-based food forests; invasive species removal and pollinator habitat enhancements.

Behind this work can be found a unique mix of nonprofits, an innovative school district, and two local government park entities working side-by-side—all working together to secure the city’s “triple bottom line” of social, economic and ecological thriving in Burlington, in the face of dramatically warming temperatures.

As Burlington embraces nature-based solutions, city leaders are creating a future prioritizing the safety and health of both people and the environment in the face of climate change. Burlington’s Nature-based Climate Solutions Plan serves as an example for municipalities across the country that are interested in tackling local impacts of climate change. With approximately 30,000 incorporated cities in the United States, city governments are a catalyst for continued climate action — with the potential to offset emissions from millions of cars; provide local cooling through evapotranspiration under the shade of trees and urban forests; and giving the next generation tools, motivation, and hope for a livable and bright future.

Zoe Richards is the Director of Burlington Wildways, Chair, Burlington Conservation Board

Melissa Hunter is a Graduate Student Consultant with the Masters of the Environment Program at the University of Colorado Boulder

Taj Schottland is Associate Director of National Climate Program at Trust for Public Land

Showing the Way: Managing the World’s Most Biodiverse Conifer Forests for Climate Resilience

“When I got up to the crest along the trail, I had amazing vistas of forests rolling along the ridges for miles south to Mount Shasta in California and north to Mount McLoughlin in Oregon,” Connie Best remembers. “It really struck me that we will never heal our climate without amping up the power of these forests to capture excess carbon from the atmosphere and lock it up for a long time. It is so critical to sustain healthy, resilient forests so they can help save us from climate catastrophe.”

Connie, the Pacific Forest Trust’s (PFT) co-founder, has been working with private and public partners for 18 years to secure the conservation Southern Oregon’s forests – the most biodiverse forest on earth. This huge landscape, situated at the junction of the Cascade and the Siskiyou mountains along the divide between the Rogue River and Klamath River basins, supports more species of conifers than anywhere else in the world. That diversity — and an array of rare plants — is why the Cascade-Siskiyou area has been designated an Area of Global Botanical Significance according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an organization dedicated to protecting biodiversity. With rugged topography, unique soils, abundant water, and corridors for wildlife migration in every direction, the region, which includes the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, is a critical stronghold for biodiversity as climate change accelerates.

Having conserved more than 10,000 acres in this region, mostly within the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, PFT is now on the verge of purchasing 1,120 acres along the Siskiyou Crest, just west of Interstate 5 and a short ride from the beautiful town of Ashland, Oregon. This is the largest unprotected, privately-owned forest property at the headwaters of Neil Creek, a major tributary to the Rogue River. PFT will be actively managing the Mount Ashland Demonstration Forest as a model of how forestry focused on enhancing climate benefits can meet the moment for people and wildlife. 

We call the property a “super-wildway,” connecting the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument with the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest. It neighbors other forest properties conserved by private landowners with assistance from PFT, creating a nexus of private-public lands managed for imperiled species and biodiversity. Such large, intact landscapes are critical to climate resilience. Threatened wolves, Pacific fisher, marten, and birds like the northern spotted owl all attest to the critical connections provided by the Mount Ashland Forest.

We can see that the climate in which these forests originally flourished has already changed — and the forests are changing, too, as the region is already hotter and drier. It is critical to act now to protect the treasure-house of biodiversity and forest carbon in the Cascade-Siskiyou region. After 100 years of fire suppression, loss of Indigenous management and a focus on commercial wood production, we urgently need to put the best science to work to help sustain this refuge. Every acre of this forest land has more than 100 tons of carbon dioxide stored in its trees — and can add tons more each year with careful management.

PFT is excited to meet the challenge of restoring fire-adapted habitats and protecting forest carbon. With the advice of a team of forest scientists and tribal cultural practitioners, our management will enhance habitats to improve adaptation options for plants and wildlife, restore more resilient forest structure, improve forest health, reduce the threat of catastrophic fire, and increase lasting carbon stores. Our strategy will focus on reducing the density of small trees, conserving, and restoring the dominance of older, larger trees, creating more variety in spacing of the trees so fire can’t spread as easily, and enhancing the property’s significant spring-fed wetlands and stream-side hardwoods. 

“The climate crisis simply won’t be solved without fostering more resilient forests. And the fastest, surest way to pull more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during this critical time is to conserve existing Pacific Northwest forests and restore the big, old trees that used to characterize them,” Dr. Jerry Franklin, Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington, PFT Board member and world-renowned forest ecologist told us. 

This is just one example of the powerful role that non-profit land trusts can play in helping America’s forests and grasslands adapt to climate change, while simultaneously protecting the carbon already stored on our landscapes. Land trusts are poised to use nature to slow climate change, while also helping nature itself adapt. Research indicates that approximately 21 percent of the reductions needed in the United States can occur through “natural climate solutions” — in other words, by working with nature. 

PFT’s acquisition of the Mount Ashland Forest is supported by grants from the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board — funded through lottery proceeds — and the Land Trust Alliance, a national nonprofit working to save land, strengthen communities, and create a healthier planet by supporting land trusts. The Alliance recognizes, as President Andrew Bowman has noted, that “we need to protect a large network of lands to prevent a dramatic loss of biodiversity, and we need to conserve and restore lands at scale to help mitigate climate change.”

To advance this work in the carbon-rich landscapes of the Pacific Northwest, the Alliance partnered with charitable foundations to launch the Pacific Northwest Resilient Landscapes Initiative. The Initiative funds land trust projects that help build and secure this network. PFT’s Mount Ashland Forest fits these goals perfectly, supporting durable carbon storage while stitching together a vital wildlife corridor. 

Land purchases like the Mount Ashland Forest project, and tools like conservation easements that pay private landowners to keep their properties intact and adopt conservation practices, already play a crucial role in both protecting biodiversity and addressing climate change. And they are poised to play an even bigger role moving forward, with $2.1 billion dollars dedicated in the Inflation Reduction Act to the Forest Legacy Program and Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. These programs will help more landowners access financial assistance to keep farms and woodlands intact and manage them for climate benefits.

Connie is thrilled to see this project finally come together after years of work — and not a moment too soon. “When I am hiking through this beautiful place, I am amazed at the biodiversity — and fearful of its loss,” said Connie. “Time is of the essence. It is so important to put the insights from Indigenous traditions and top scientists into action. PFT will work across boundaries with our public and private neighbors, and share lessons with the larger community so our work can advance climate resilience across this special region. The forests do so much for us — now we must help them.”

Owen Wozniak is Land Transactions Program Manager at the Land Trust Alliance.

About Pacific Forest Trust

Since its founding in 1993, the conservation and restoration of private working forests has been at the core of Pacific Forest Trust’s mission to sustain America’s forests for all their public benefits of wood, water, wildlife, and people’s well-being, in cooperation with landowners and communities.  PFT has protected over 250,000 acres of forest and holds conservation easements that guide management for climate benefits, wildlife adaptation and water security on over 110,000 acres in California and Oregon. Learn more about our work:  www.pacificforest.org

About the Land Trust Alliance

The Land Trust Alliance works to empower and mobilize land trusts in communities across America to conserve land — and connect people to the land — for the benefit of all. As the national leader in policy, standards, education and training, the Alliance has supported land trusts for forty years. During that time, land trusts have protected over 60 million acres—more land than is in the entire national park system. To address the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss, and to ensure nature’s benefits touch every American, the Alliance has set a bold goal for land trusts to conserve another 60 million acres by the end of the decade. Learn more: http://www.landtrustalliance.org