Harnessing the Power of Family Forests for Climate and Conservation

Our family has always shared a mutual love of the outdoors. When we purchased an old 187-acre farm on a wooded property in 2020, little did I know that it would ignite a journey of forest stewardship.

My dad wanted to plant and sell Christmas trees and start a vineyard, and my mom wanted to try her hand at maple syrup. Being close to my parents and the property gave me the opportunity to jump in feet first as a co-owner in this operation.  

But starting an agri-business takes more than aspirations. It takes upfront investment and technical assistance – two perks we found in the Family Forest Carbon Program.

We got into forest management by carving out trails and cutting fire breaks, but our knowledge of forestry was introductory at best. So, we reached out to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and connected with a forester who helped us verbalize our visions for the property and craft a forest management plan. I was proud to be a part of this exercise. My family cares about being good stewards, supporting wildlife, and we want our property to be something that contributes to a larger cause like climate change.

Over the next two years, we planted 600 Christmas trees and nearly 500 grapevines for wine in a 30-acre field. Our goal is to plant Christmas trees that can be harvested once every eight years and to tend to about 1,500 grapevines, in addition to producing maple syrup from our forests. But we are just getting started. 

An agri-business like this needs upfront cash with delayed revenue streams, even as we were maintaining and expanding our projects on the property. We needed to explore other ways to generate revenue that we could use to put into the land. Our forester told us about the Family Forest Carbon Program. The Program is a carbon program uniquely designed for owners of small, forested properties. It was developed and is being implemented by the American Forest Foundation (AFF) and The Nature Conservancy (TNC). 

The Family Forest Carbon Program addresses climate change by supporting landowners in caring for their forests to make them healthier and more productive. Landowners receive annual payments to implement forest practices that increase the amount of carbon sequestered and stored in the trees. These practices also create needed habitat for bird and wildlife species. Participants can still conduct harvests, as long as they are in line with sustainable harvesting requirements. The program also offers a chance for participants to connect with a forester and other resources needed to adopt long-term sustainable management.

We were impressed with the program’s dedication to integrity. AFF and TNC have created an innovative new carbon accounting methodology, that is approved by Verra’s Verified Carbon Standard. This new methodology aims to enhance accuracy and transparency to ensure the program is providing a true climate benefit.

We decided to enroll. Our agri-business is not just about the vineyard – it’s about being good stewards of the land and conservation. I hope more landowners are able to connect with market-based opportunities like this that help them fulfill their personal goals too. 

The Family Forest Carbon Program is in the process of scaling to more states. The Program has established itself in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Maryland, enrolling more than 220 small forest holders, who collectively own more than 35,000 acres. Thanks to recent funding from the Inflation Reduction Act, carbon markets for small forest holders are getting a jumpstart, but they will need more partners and backers like the state of Maryland and continued support from the federal government to bring the program to landowners.

As a technology consultant, I think about owning land as a business. Caring for our forests and making them healthier requires investments in time and money, but they are also investments in our planet. The benefits forests produce – clean water, habitat, carbon sequestration and storage –are larger public benefits. Our small piece of nature is incredibly valuable to us, but even more so when one considers the difference we can make from our corner of the world. I hope other citizens and our leaders see opportunities like this and continue to expand the options available to unlock what’s possible across our private forestlands.

For more information on the Family Forest Carbon Program, visit familyforestcarbon.org

MANO Project: Building A Diverse Workforce to Tackle Climate Change

“Eventually, climate change will affect all of us, because climate change doesn’t discriminate. We need to prepare ecosystems. A call to action that is not only driven by our personal gain, but more so for providing a sustainable future for generations to come.

Gabriel Van Praag, Civilian Climate Corp Fellow, MANO Project

The Latino community lives at the heart of the climate crisis– Latinos are twice as likely to be affected by wildfires, three times more likely to die from heat exhaustion on the job, more likely to live in hotter neighborhoods, more likely to live in areas exposed to flood risks, less likely to have their neighborhoods protected from sea level rise, and more likely to suffer health problems after a flood. Moreover, Latinos and other communities of color also face the nature gap– a disproportionate lack of access to parks, waterfronts, and other green and blue spaces. In addition to supporting public health, these spaces provide economic, educational, and climate resilience benefits to the surrounding communities. With 75% of Latinos saying that climate change is either a crisis or a very serious problem, more are willing to take action within their communities.

Impassioned for change, in 2010 Maite Arce created the 501(c)(3) non-profit Hispanic Access Foundation. With a clear vision, her motive was to unite her community and their environmental interests in hopes of creating a more equitable society. Meanwhile, the U.S. Census estimates that the Hispanic population will nearly double by 2050 to more than 100 million Latinos. With the knowledge of changing demographics, there is a growing need to engage the passion that young Hispanics have for environmental advocacy and conservation. As a result, Hispanic Access launched the My Access to Network Opportunities (MANO) Project. The MANO Project strives to connect and build young leaders of color to protect public lands and create equitable and just climate change strategies. 

The MANO Project’s model builds leadership capacity among communities of color and the nation as a whole. We do so by building trusting relationships with organizations and federal agencies to provide professional development and training opportunities for college students and graduates. Our current partnerships include: the Bureau of Reclamation, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Forest Service. A special feature of the MANO Project is that all internships are paid, allowing low-income individuals the opportunity to enjoy a leg up in their careers they otherwise could not afford. In the words of Fernando Lara, a first-generation college student who worked his way through school, “Before learning about the MANO Project, I saw similar internships. However, they were unpaid, and I couldn’t participate because I wouldn’t have had time to do the internship, work, and still go to school. Thankfully, MANO’s paid internship paved the way for me to get into a field I’m passionate about without the burden of wondering if I was going to be able to pay the rent.” 

In addition to advocating for positions with liveable wages, the MANO Project administers a comprehensive framework to support workforce functions where current federal workforces fall short. This includes promoting a pathway of access for minority students and recent graduates to participate in an equitable recruitment and selection process. Once program hours have been completed, many interns qualify for certificates that offer a Direct Hiring Authority (DHA) status. This status opens up access to full-time employment within the federal government, helping America reach climate goals with a stronger, more diverse workforce. To date, more than 450 alumni have participated in our various internship programs. Most recently, the MANO Project has partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife in 2021 to debut the Civilian Climate Corps Fellowship Program (CCC), the first of its kind in providing young professionals an opportunity to be on the leading edge of the climate change fight by aiding the National Wildlife Refuge System’s (NWRS) response to climate mitigation and adaptation. These strategies will yield high impacts, such as ensuring that carbon already sequestered in our National Wildlife Refuges remains locked in trees and other vegetation, while providing an opportunity to explore restoration activities that help draw additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Historically, the decision-making process in the field of conservation has left minorities and vulnerable communities out of the conversation. Despite growing diversity in the United States, the racial composition of environmental institutions has remained between 12% to 16%.  Currently, the demographic makeup of most U.S. environmental organizations does not reflect that of the country as a whole. The MANO Project aims to change that by increasing the representation of historically underrepresented groups within conservation careers by creating a pipeline for them to get hired by environmental agencies and organizations. We are effectively enabling opportunities for substantial professional development within diverse cultural resource projects for students of color who not only overwhelmingly support the preservation of our parks and public lands, but also are capable of engaging their communities. This allows for new ideas and perspectives to become key aspects of an equitable fight against climate change. 

“When we think about conservation and the environment, what first comes to mind are images of sweeping plains and mountains, untouched by people,” says Nina Marti, Program Manager for the MANO Project. “What’s missing from that narrative, and how we respond to climate and environmental crises, are the ways in which people of color have established relationships with nature; how generations of Indigenous peoples have cared for this land, how enslaved and exploited peoples have cultivated this land, and how we integrate green space into urban areas. These narratives offer insights on how we can shape our relationship with nature and the climate for the better, but we can’t learn from them or integrate them until the keepers of those stories and practices are afforded equitable opportunities in their fields.”

As climate change continues to affect the day to day lives of our communities, federal land agencies, with the help of the current administration, have committed to confront the crisis through climate readiness integration in their mission and programs. While each agency has its own speciality and focus, each has a crucial part to play in combating climate changes. 

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s 2021 launch of the 18-month fellowship program for the newly reintroduced Civilian Climate Corp (CCC) program is an exciting example of how government agencies can support climate adaptation efforts. As part of President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan, the CCC program hired young Americans to work on combating the climate crisis within the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS). Such roles are crucial, as one study estimated, 17 gigatons of carbon are currently stored on America’s NWRS. By developing and refining a climate adaptation framework, which utilizes existing plans, data on climate change and other stressors, ecological transformation, and a structured decision-making process, their work informs how Refuges will address climate change. Implementing this framework is a win-win opportunity. It protects existing carbon stores, while also allowing refuge managers to implement strategies, like native vegetation plantings, that help draw additional carbon from the air.

“The NWRS is on the front-lines of climate change,” said Cynthia Martinez, Chief of the NWRS. The CCC enlists the next generation to utilize new ideas and perspectives, ensuring a sustainable future for all. The MANO Project is committed to ensuring these, and future roles remain open to communities of color. “Engaging young people in diverse communities to be at the front and center of addressing the climate crisis is one of the MANO Project’s core goals,” said Michelle Neuenschwander, Director of the MANO Project. “Our work is about the next generation of Latino leaders. This unique experience provides extensive training, mentoring and professional development to ensure students have the tools and knowledge needed to excel in their fellowship.”

“The CCC is unique in its programming, but could be used as an example for other agencies,” says Crystal Strong, Program Associate for the MANO Project. “As needs for climate adaptation continue to take center stage, so do needs for jobs that tackle the larger issues at hand. As programs and positions are created, The MANO Project will continue to advocate for future opportunities to be accessible to diverse students and graduates. These internships and fellowships are monumental to opening pathways for full time employment within these agencies.” In the words of Gabriel Van Praag, a current CCC fellow, “The MANO Project gave me the opportunity to be on the leading edge of the fight for climate change adaptation. I hope to keep working in this field for the rest of my life. I really hope that I can reduce climate change, but also make the process equitable and just.”

In addition to the CCC, the US Forest Service (USFS) and Hispanic Access Foundation have partnered to support the next generation of conservation and environmental stewards through the Resource Assistant Program (RAP). This partnership aims to build a strong community of inspired, skilled, motivated leaders through substantial work experience and building skills required for success in natural resource careers. RAP fellows are placed at USFS national forests and offices throughout the U.S. and support the mission to care for the land and serve the people. Interns are introduced to various tasks and projects such as: lands management, conservation education, resource interpretation, and rehabilitation activities through their assignments on public lands across the country. RAP projects bring fellows in direct contact with climate impact work through assignments in fire management, forest restoration, wildfire prevention and  air quality management. An inspiring example of one of our interns doing so is Valery Serrano. A first-generation Latina, Valery Serrano, is a current MANO Intern with RAP stationed at the San Juan National Forest in Colorado. Through this program, Valery is pursuing the career of her dreams by working with wildlife and assisting wilderness and fire crews in educating the public on fire safety in the National Forest.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), the chief human resources agency for the federal government, has made workforce data for the federal civilian workforce available through a tool called Fedscope. The most  recent diversity data trends for June 2022 demonstrate ample room for growth for minority groups in Science and Engineering occupations within the federal government. In Science occupations (Natural Resource Management, Biological Sciences, Environment Protection, Soil Conservation), 26% of current employees identify as a minority, and in Engineering occupations (Environmental, Civil, Electrical, Nuclear) 28% of current employees identify as a minority. Since its creation in 2015, the MANO Project has grown from offering one program encompassing a handful of internships to about 200 interns across 17 different national programs. At this stage of growth, we would like to expand into private and NGO sectors to diversify our opportunities, broaden access to environmental careers, and influence the field beyond the government sector. The MANO Project will continue to support programs like CCC and RAP that specifically work to target climate mitigation and adaptation. We will continue to encourage climate mitigation organizations to allocate resources to diversifying their own workforces so as to create meaningful dialogue around and solutions to climate crises.

Learn more about Hispanic Access Foundation, the MANO Project, and its fellowship programs at hispanicaccess.org and manoproject.org. Don’t see an internship fit? Get notified when we add new opportunities throughout the year when you sign up for alerts. For inquiries regarding partnerships, please email info@hispanicaccess.org, or fill out our inquiry form.

Article contributors:

MANO Project Program, Hispanic Access Foundation

Conservation Program, Hispanic Access Foundation

Communication Program, Hispanic Access Foundation

Gabriel Van Pragg, Civilian Climate Corp Fellow, MANO Project

City of Trees Challenge: A Tree-Focused Climate Solution  

From filtering the air we breathe to offering shade and serving as habitat for wildlife, trees provide countless benefits to people and nature alike. Scientists have also identified ways trees help address climate change as a part of natural climate solutions through reducing greenhouse gases and sequestering carbon.

“We’ve got to act now if we’re really going to impact climate change. And trees are such an important part of that,” says Elaine Clegg, Boise City Council President, founder of the City of Trees Challenge.

Launched on Arbor Day in 2020, the City of Trees Challenge is an ongoing story of community and collaboration to address climate change. The Challenge aims to plant an urban tree for every household in Boise, Idaho and a forest seedling for every resident by 2030— approximately 100,000 trees in the city and 235,000 seedlings in nearby forests. The Challenge is poised to deliver substantial climate change mitigation benefits. Using the carbon estimator designed by 1t.org US, the project has the potential to sequester 154,124 MTCO2e over a 50-year horizon

To make this vision reality, a coalition was formed to support the tree-planting effort. Along with the City of Boise, partners include local non-profit Treasure Valley Canopy Network (TVCN), The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Idaho, and USDA Forest Service Boise National Forest. Each partner has brought unique expertise and passion to make the Challenge a long-term success. To have lasting climate impact, the right trees must be planted in the right place and for the right reason. The collaborative focuses on the best way to plan for, plant, and care for these trees over the course of their lifespan.

“Our partners are committed to long-term and sustained success through our approach to empowering citizen climate action,” says Treasure Valley Canopy Network President, Lance Davisson. “By working together, we are building a Challenge that offers a better life for all Boiseans.”

Led by The Nature Conservancy in Idaho and USDA Boise National Forest, the effort to plant forest seedlings has been focused on restoration of lands damaged by the 2016 Pioneer Fire. “Along with reducing greenhouse gases and sequestering carbon, as the seedlings grow they will improve wildlife habitat and help the land heal from impacts of the fire,” says Bas Hargrove, Senior Policy Advisor for The Nature Conservancy, who has been on the Challenge planning team since the beginning. “Ensuring these forests recover and grow means they will continue to provide opportunities for current and future generations of Idahoans.” 

Since the inception of the Challenge, 149,000 seedlings have been planted. Species include ponderosa pine and Douglas fir trees which will support improved soil stability and forest health. Arbor Day Foundation has been a key partner and funder of the forest seedling effort, contributing over $75,000 over the course of the Challenge so far. 

In 2020 and 2021, to support the urban tree planting program the City and TVCN hosted community tree distribution events in partnership with Boise Farmers Market. The partnership successfully distributed hundreds of trees to residents and raised awareness about the Challenge. In 2022, the urban program evolved into the Boise Tree Captains, based on a model developed by  Root Nashville in Tennessee. Over 20 Boise residents were recruited and trained in basic tree care and to identify areas within their own neighborhoods that could use more trees. “My job as a tree captain is looking for neighborhoods that don’t have as many trees, knocking on doors and talking to people about their yard,” says Tree Captain Cameron Weller. “I work with the (City of Boise) and the residents to create a plan that will help their tree survive and look great.”

So far, the Captains have located homes for over 100 trees in neighborhoods across Boise that will benefit from increased tree canopy to reduce urban heat and improve health and wellbeing of these neighborhoods. 

Urban forests provide many benefits for communities besides carbon sequestration – reduced urban heat and lower peak season summer energy bills, improved quality of life, resilience to storms, jobs, and air quality benefits. In Boise, maintaining the urban tree canopy  supports thousands of jobs and adds over $600 million into the economy. Additionally, Boise’s trees provide an estimated $500,000 in stormwater benefit, $300,000 in reduced summer energy use and $3.3 million in air quality benefits each year, benefitting the health of the community and saving both residents and the city significant money.

The Challenge is working to ensure equitable distribution of these benefits. Across the country, with few exceptions, trees are more likely to be in wealthier neighborhoods. By using the American Forests Tree Equity Score tool, partners and Boise Tree Captains are able to identify neighborhoods within the city that need more trees and then focus attention on those areas. However, to address tree equity and empower climate action, relationship building with impacted communities is needed. The Boise Tree Captain program begins to address this, but it is an area of growth and learning.

The Challenge’s combination of urban and rural tree planting provides a model for scaling community-driven climate action nationwide. American Forests and 1t.org US are already working on a platform to help other communities take this approach. New federal funding to help cities plant more trees is on the way – the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act provides $1.5 billion for urban and community forest programs. In addition, funds made available through the REPLANT Act and Infrastructure law can support post-fire recovery and climate change mitigation in wildland settings, all components of the overall vision for how the City of Trees Challenge improves the health of urban forests and city residents while also improving the healthy of the region’s forests.

“I hope Boise can model for other cities how to work with nature in the face of climate change to create a great place to live with access to the natural world that we all thrive in,” says Elaine Clegg.

Interested in bringing the Challenge model to your city? Email director@tvcanopy.net.

Updated Tool Can Help US Communities Include Forests and Trees in GHG Inventories

Many communities in the U.S. are developing Climate Action Plans (CAPs) to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and achieve carbon neutrality. While many CAPs focus on the energy, transportation and waste sectors, most do not consider the role forests and trees play in the fight against climate change. This is because planners have lacked the data and clear guidance needed to include them in GHG inventories, which CAPs are based.

To address this gap, experts from WRI, ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI USA) and the Woodwell Climate Research Center published guidance for ICLEI USA’s U.S. Community Protocol as well as the Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventories.

These frameworks outline how to estimate emissions caused by forest and tree cover loss within communities, as well as carbon absorbed by forests and trees that a community maintains and plants.

The accompanying Land Emissions and Removals Navigator (LEARN) tool, developed in collaboration with web developer Blue Raster, makes it even easier for communities to implement this guidance and integrate estimates into their GHG inventories.

Screenshot of the LEARN tool showing the different map layers, including land cover change, US municipalities, and land cover type.
Screenshot of the LEARN tool

What is LEARN?

LEARN is a free online calculation tool that combines methods outlined in the U.S. Community Protocol with the data necessary to perform the calculations. In just a few clicks, users can derive locally tailored estimates of the annual GHG impacts associated with changes to forests and tree cover in their community over time.

After specifying an area and years to analyze, LEARN does the rest by performing automated, spatially explicit analyses of data from the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Geological Survey, including:

  • Land cover change
  • Type and age structure of a communitys forest lands
  • Timing and location of forest disturbances like fire, harvest and insect outbreaks
  • Loss and gain of tree canopy cover in urban and other non-forested lands

(Read more about the history and development of the LEARN tool.)

What’s new with LEARN in 2022?

In early 2022, the LEARN project team collaborated with the Chesapeake Conservancy to implement a suite of updates to LEARN. Beyond land cover change and forest disturbance data updated through the year 2019, LEARN now includes high resolution (1 meter) tree canopy change maps for the Chesapeake Bay watershed derived from the Chesapeake Bay program 1 meter land cover/land use data. These maps span across six eastern states and the District of Columbia and support communities of more than 18 million people.

Map of U.S. highlighting six states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, where the LEARN tool can make calculations with high resolution (1 meter) tree canopy change maps.
LEARN now includes high resolution (1 meter) tree canopy change maps for the Chesapeake Bay program, spanning across six states and supporting communities of over 18 million people.

Previously, the LEARN tool performed analysis only on the NLCD Tree Canopy product. While this dataset provides national coverage, it fails to accurately capture the true extent and change of trees in many highly urbanized communities due to its relatively coarse (30 meter) spatial resolution. Now, counties and cities along the eastern seaboard can view the new high-resolution tree canopy data in 900 -times more detail than before and analyze tree canopy change down to the scale of individual land parcels. This update not only demonstrates the benefits of significantly enhanced analysis capabilities, it reinforces calls to extend this dataset from regional to national coverage.

In July 2022, the project team launched a second training cohort to guide 20 communities in implementing the U.S. Community Protocol methods and using the LEARN tool. This followed a first successful Forests & Trees Carbon Accounting Cohort Training Session in 2021. Participants in the second cohort included municipal governments, tribes and states both within the Chesapeake watershed and across the country.

Next Steps for Community GHG Inventories: Scaling and Impact

The successful launch of the U.S. Community Protocol and LEARN tool spurred the creation of a new internationally applicable protocol for estimating GHG impacts of forests and trees at the local scale. The Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Inventories Supplemental Guidance for Forests and Trees launched in July 2022. The protocol has already been successfully piloted in Jakarta, Mumbai, Salvador and Mexico City, and many more cities and communities across the world plan to incorporate the methods into their emissions inventories. ICLEI USA is also expanding the U.S. Community Protocol with a steering committee to spearhead a more accessible and holistic approach for local and regional governments to view and manage emissions.

Forests and trees play a critical role in carbon sequestration while providing other benefits to communities, including improving air quality, regulating hydrological processes, reducing energy costs and promoting well-being. Accurate monitoring of these resources over time may enable communities to make better land management decisions that benefit both climate and people simultaneously.

WRI and ICLEI USA are continuing to seek input from stakeholders across the U.S. and around the world on how these methods may best be scaled across geographies, governments and technical capacities.

For questions or to learn more, reach out to erin.glen@wri.org or tom.herrod@iclei.org.

This article was originally published by the World Resources Institute.

To learn about other free and publicly available tools that help decision-makers harness the full potential of natural climate solutions, visit our Natural Climate Solutions Toolbox here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This opinion piece originally appeared on the Nature4Climate website.

The State of the Puget Sound Tree Canopy

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

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

Trees grace the urban environment. Photo by Kevin Lee.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graphic courtesy of The Nature Conservancy – Washington

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

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

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

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

Four Steps to Reforest the West for Climate Resilience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Most Effective Carbon Credit Projects Place Communities Front & Center 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grafting the Future of the Ash Tree

This article originally appeared in American Forests Magazine.

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Measure of Resistance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Importance of Healthy Ash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Roots of Rock Project Rocks

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

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

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

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

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

New Uses for an Established Approach

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

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

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

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

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

Ian Leahy, Vice President of Urban Forestry, American Forests

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

Benefiting Future Generations

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

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

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

That’s a goal worth grafting for.

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

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