Gisel Garza: Seed Hunter

Like most hunters in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, Gisel Garza rises early and heads out to the forest in search of prey. But instead of deer, feral hogs or wild turkeys, Garza is looking for species like Barbados cherry, Texas ebony and fiddlewood.

Garza is a seed hunter. And even though the survival of the forests and their wildlife depends on her efforts, few people do what she does, and there are not enough seeds in nurseries. That’s a big problem.

Located where Texas’ Gulf Coast meets the border with Mexico, the Rio Grande Valley is characterized by dense, shrubby thornforests known as Tamaulipan thornscrub. These rugged-looking trees harbor a dazzling array of species — more than 1,200 plants, 530 birds and 300 butterflies, in addition to the United States’ only population of ocelots — an endangered species. The forests are threatened by development and climate change — only 10% of them remain.

“Overall, regardless of the level of difficulty when collecting seeds, it’s a very rewarding process, especially when we see the seeds that we collect planted and grown into seedlings that can be used for restoration of our thornforests.”

Gisel Garza, Project Manager for the Rio Grade Valley, American Forests

Seedlings are desperately needed to restore the 85,000 acres of thornforest in the Valley that have been identified as a high priority for reforestation. It would take 85 million seedlings to reforest that many acres, a number that would take 166 years to grow at the current rate of production among nurseries.

At the national level, the seed shortage is even more dire. A 2021 study co-led by American Forests concluded that meeting national reforestation goals of 64 million acres by 2040 would require increasing the number of seedlings produced each year by 1.7 billion — a 2.3-fold increase from current production levels. For that reason, American Forests sees the Rio Grande Valley seed collection work as a pilot project in what will hopefully be a national model for addressing the seedling shortage.

Gisel Garza (left) Habitat Restoration Specialist for American Forests, helping her reforestation crew load several crates of Turk’s Cap and other plants for planting on Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge tracts near the Rio Grande, south Texas.

So Garza spends her days traveling the Valley’s backroads scouting for seeds ripe for harvesting. She’s looking for about 30 types of flowering trees and shrubs, including Wright’s acacia, Texas persimmon, snake eyes and guayacan (soap bush). She travels among the trees on foot or sometimes — to reach those high branches — uses the back of her trusty Ford pickup.

She usually collects on protected federal lands, helping to meet the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s regional seed-collection goals, but more recently has also begun working with private landowners interested in conservation. She has also teamed up with the State of Texas to collect on state-owned lands. Garza takes the seeds she collects to the Fish and Wildlife Service nursery in Alamo, Texas, where she processes them for storage until the next year’s planting season. It’s essential to remove the pulp, or separate the seeds from their pods, and then store them at the right temperature and moisture conditions. If the collection location is too far away from Alamo, she will sometimes process them at home before transporting them to the nursery.

Before any of that work takes place, Garza seeks out potential collection locations with the goal of finding as many different parent plants as possible to increase genetic diversity. Understanding the phenology — or life cycle — of specific plants in relation to how they are influenced by climate variations over time is critical to this work.

“An essential step before collecting seeds is to scout for plants that we could potentially collect from in the future and document their phenology,” she says. “If we know for example that certain species are producing flowers at a certain time, then we can follow up with these plants to see if they produce fruits.”

Garza’s ties to the Rio Grande Valley are deep — she was born and raised here and is passionate about saving it for future generations. She joined American Forests in June after completing her master’s degree in biology at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, where she researched plant pathology, endangered plant conservation and climate change modeling.

Her connection to the area gives her a passion for the work, even though it can be hard due to harsh weather extremes or thorny species like Wright’s acacia: “Overall, regardless of the level of difficulty when collecting seeds, it’s a very rewarding process, especially when we see the seeds that we collect planted and grown into seedlings that can be used for restoration of our thornforests.”

Freshly picked Guayacan fruits await processing. Guayacan, or soapbush, is native to the Rio Grande Valley. Its root bark is often used as soap in Mexico, hence the nickname. Photo credit: Larry Ditto/American Forests

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley is a partner in the seed-collection project that includes American Forests and the Fish and Wildlife Service. The university hosts a research training component called “Empowering Future Agricultural Scientists” that gives undergraduates field and lab experience related to food security, the environment and climate change.

Brian Kittler, American Forests’ senior director of forest restoration, sees huge potential in scaling up the Rio Grande Valley seed-collection project. He envisions a “Seed Collection Corps” that will deploy seed hunters in priority locations around the country. One of those is the Western U.S., where record-breaking fires and climate change-induced drought have left states, such as California, Oregon and Washington, with vast landscapes needing reforestation and little-to-no seed available to do this.

California, for example, is facing a potentially catastrophic shortage of seeds and collectors. Only a handful of contractors in California collect pine cones, and a recent spatial analysis from CAL FIRE indicates there aren’t nearly enough cone seeds to reforest recent burn scars. To reforest just 25% of private, non-industrial forests that have recently burned, the state needs to collect over 69,000 bushels of cones. At the current rate of collection, it will take almost 200 years for that amount of seed to be gathered. But, as Kittler says, “They don’t have the people to collect the seed, and cone quality is increasingly variable and infrequent.”

Further north in southcentral Oregon’s Fremont-Winema National Forest, the prolonged drought and ongoing climate change have reduced seed production in forests to near zero. The last large cone collection was 35 years ago, and recent fires have burned more than 643,000 acres, which are unlikely to regenerate naturally.

“If you don’t have the seeds, there’s no restoration efforts, so by having Gisel out there doing the seed collection, we’re meeting that challenge head on.”

Brian Kittler, Senior Director of Forest Restoration, American Forests

“We are losing seed sources,” Kittler says. “The scale of these forest fires means they are burning or nearly burning critical seed sources for entire seed zones.”

The good news is that Kittler and his team are working on a long-term strategy to address this shortage — of both seeds and the people to collect them — with a goal of dramatically increasing the awareness and potential solutions around the issue nationwide. Currently, American Forests has six seed-collection agreements in four states — Texas, Idaho, Montana and California — with plans to develop a much broader strategy. And in Texas, Kittler notes, the organization has also partnered with the Fish and Wildlife Service to seek out and boost supplies of climate-resilient seeds.

With only 10% remaining, the Rio Grande Valley’s thornforests are increasingly threatened by development & climate change. Over the past 22 years, American Forests has planted more than 2 million thornforest trees & other native plants across more than 4,000 acres of former agricultural land. Photo Credit: James Foguth, Digital Development Communications / American Forests

Congress has also addressed the shortage, primarily through the REPLANT Act, a part of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that lifts the cap on the Forest Service’s Reforestation Trust Fund. The infrastructure bill also earmarks $200 million in funding to bolster the National Seed Strategy for Rehabilitation and Restoration managed by federal land agencies. One proposed solution to address a shortage of seed collectors is a revival of the Civilian Conservation Corps, which employed 3 million people during the Great Depression to plant trees, build trails and pursue other outdoor vocations.

Kittler sees seed collection as the foundation of the conservation plan in the Rio Grande Valley and anywhere else that restoration is taking place. “If you don’t have the seeds, there’s no restoration efforts, so by having Gisel out there doing the seed collection, we’re meeting that challenge head on,” he says.

Garza agrees, and points out why, even in the face of daunting challenges, her job is so meaningful: “I’ve grown up seeing forested areas torn down, so it means a lot to be able to help conserve the areas that remain and potentially plant areas that have been lost here in the Valley.”

Lee Poston is a communications advisor who works with mission-driven organizations and writes from University Park, MD.

Click here to learn more about American Forests’ efforts to restore thornforest trees to Texas’ Rio Grande Valley.

For more information about the capacity and workforce challenges impacting efforts to reforest America, read U.S. Nature4Climate’s blog article, “Seeing the Forest for the Seedlings: Challenges and Opportunities in the Effort to Reforest America“.

This article was originally published in the Winter/Spring 2022 issue of American Forests Magazine.

Reforesting Minnesota: Building Capacity in a Changing Climate

“Trees do an amazing job of capturing and absorbing carbon… it seems logical that we would look to nature as part of a solution toward climate change.”

Cree Bradley, Chelsea Morning Farm

Climate change is here. Minnesota’s Northwoods are already experiencing the impacts. In this northern landscape, trees are built to withstand the extremes of winter—the coldest temperatures and the deepest snow. But as the region’s climate becomes warmer—and drier during the growing season—these cold-hardy trees are beginning to struggle.

Northern Minnesota is one of the most rapidly warming geographies in the US— with an increase of 2°C to 3°C between 1895 and 2018. Cree Bradley of Chelsea Morning Farm is living through the loss of the Northwoods, saying that these trees are like old friends.

“It’s such a big problem, climate change—and we need big solutions,” says Bradley.

Watch U.S. Nature4Climate’s “Off the Beaten Path” series video to learn more about Cree & Jason Bradley’s story.

The Forest Assisted Migration Project is the kind of big solution needed to adapt to climate change in Minnesota. The premise for the project is deceptively simple. For trees that are already growing in northern Minnesota—think white pine, bur oak and red oak—seeds are collected from their more southerly “cousins.”  The seeds are sourced from the same kinds of trees, but the parent trees may be better adapted to slightly warmer, drier growing conditions.

Scientific evidence supports an assisted migration approach. For example, research from the University of Minnesota’s Dr. Julie Etterson and The Nature Conservancy has demonstrated that seedlings raised from more southerly acorns have better growth and survival rates than their northern counterparts when planted in the Northwoods.

Another challenge to reforestation across the US is seedling supply—and Minnesota is no exception.

Cree Bradley examines seedlings on her Minnesota farm. Photo credit: Alita Films

Not only is very little of the state’s existing planting stock climate-forward, but we lack the numbers of seedlings needed to meet demand for forest restoration projects across the state. This seedling shortfall poses a major barrier to helping northern forests adapt to climate change.

In fact, a new study by American Forests and The Nature Conservancy finds that to successfully reforest America, we need to more than double the production of tree seedlings. In Minnesota, that number may be more like six-to-seven times our current production level.

As part of the Forest Assisted Migration Project, farmers like Cree and Jason Bradley are helping to address both problems–seedling supply and climate-adapted planting stock—by producing “climate-smart” trees that can survive as the climate changes around them.

Growing solutions, such as the Forest Assisted Migration Project, can only succeed if we are all pulling in the same direction. In addition to seedling production on small farms, we need a broader initiative that includes state nurseries, Tribal, and other commercial growers to expand seedling production as well —toward an end goal of ~750 million new trees in the state.

Photo credit: Alita Films

Identifying committed buyers up-front is key. Matching the land managers and landowners who need to buy seedlings with the growers who can produce them is key to achieving large-scale reforestation. As part of the project, TNC and other partners signed on to purchase 40,000 seedlings for use in their restoration efforts. Cree and Jason Bradley note that having committed buyers and contracts for seedling purchase is critical to being able to make an investment in growing seedlings as a small-scale operation. Small farmers are not alone in this. Larger nurseries also need to have committed buyers identified and purchase agreements in place to justify making the investment in growing large numbers of seedlings — especially new species or seed sources that are needed for climate adaptation.

Adaptation solutions for Minnesota’s forests are a wise investment. Helping the Northwoods adapt to climate change is essential to sustaining biodiversity, water resources and the region’s timber-based economy—as well as to sequestering carbon as a natural climate solution.

“If we can all step up our role and do more, it’s going to make a difference. But it’s going to take every one of us.”

Cree Bradley, Chelsea Morning Farm

Meredith Cornett is the Climate Director for the Nature Conservancy in Minnesota; David Abazs is Executive Director of the Northeast Regional Sustainable Development Partnership; Julie Etterson is the Director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota-Duluth.

Building American Wildfire Resiliency

This article was originally published by the Bipartisan Policy Center. Read the original article here.

Last year marked one of the worst wildfire seasons in United States history. More than 10 million acres burned across the country, forcing hundreds of thousands of Americans from their homes and costing the nation $16.5 billion in damages. Climate change contributed to a historically dry period for the Southwest U.S. in recent decades, making devastating wildfire seasons longer and more frequent. Since 2000, wildfires have burned an average of 7 million acres per year, more than double the average annual acres burned in the 1990s. Images of burnt orange skies spanning the Western U.S. are increasingly commonplace, and the costs of catastrophic yearly wildfires are becoming unbearable. While the impact of wildfires is mostly visible—burnt forests and communities, unhealthy air, and mass evacuations—they also have a less obvious effect: carbon dioxide emissions.1

Photo credit: Chris Helzer/TNC

Wildfires and the emissions they release are a natural part of the disturbance regimes of many western forests, aiding in the regeneration of tree species, which in turn sequester more carbon. However, the complex cycle of ecosystem restoration from wildfires is thrown out of balance with catastrophic fire events. Severe burns impact tree survival rates and impede future growth by negatively affecting the soil. The 2020 California wildfires were some of the most catastrophic wildfire events in America’s recent history, releasing 112 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, or the equivalent emissions of 24.2 million cars on the road for a year. While the emissions released by wildfires is a drop in the bucket compared the 6,558 million metric tons of carbon dioxide released nationally in 2019, catastrophic wildfire events contribute to a feedback loop where drier conditions created by climate change further prolong wildfire seasons, increasing the prevalence of wildfires, and therefore increasing carbon emissions. Proper wildfire management is critical to reduce risks for American communities and protect fragile ecosystems.

Fire requires fuel to burn, and in the case of wildfires, trees, leaves, and vegetation are the fuel. Accumulated vegetation cause fires to burn faster, at higher temperatures, and with greater intensity, increasing the risk to communities, structures, and valuable infrastructure. Federal land management agencies along with state and local partners use fuel reduction projects to prevent wildfires from becoming more devastating by thinning vegetation and using prescribed burns. Prescribed burns are considered by many to be “good fires” since they are intentional, low-intensity fires that burn vegetation, reducing the amount of fuel available and mitigating the possibility of a larger, disastrous wildfire event. However, these wildfire management techniques are not being deployed on a wide enough scale. In fiscal year 2018, five federal land management agencies identified more than 100 million acres under their management at high risk from wildfires, yet they only treated approximately 3 million acres, leaving a sizable gap between the deployment of wildfire mitigation techniques and the high-risk acres in need of treatment.

Current Wildfire Management Approaches

Wildfires frequently cross jurisdictional boundaries, requiring strong collaboration among federal and nonfederal stakeholders on both wildfire prevention and wildfire management. At the federal level, five agencies are responsible for wildland fire management: the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service. The federal government devotes significant funding to preventing and managing wildfires. In 2020, $952 million was appropriated for DOI’s Wildland Fire Management Budget and $2.35 billion was appropriated for USFS wildland fire management. An additional $445 million was appropriated for hazardous fuels management through the USFS. Notably, while the budgets for wildfire suppression have risen over the past decade, the budgets for hazardous fuels management have remained relatively constant.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group was established in 1976 to provide “national leadership to enable interoperable wildland fire operations” and currently has 11 members representing federal, state, local, and tribal interests. More recently, the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enforcement Act of 2009 authorized the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy, which was completed by the agencies and their partners in 2014. The Strategy acts as a framework to guide federal and nonfederal collaboration to develop resilient landscapes, create fire-adapted communities, and improve fire response.


The Strategy divides the U.S. into three regions: the Northeast, Southeast, and West. The frequency, size, and risk of wildfires varies geographically leading to regional differences in wildfire management approaches. Perhaps counterintuitive, the West experiences fewer wildfires than the Eastern U.S. But fires in the West burn significantly more acres and are more likely to make national headlines due to the scale of damage they cause. In 2020, only 700,000 acres burned in the East, while almost 9.5 million acres burned in the West. Frequently igniting on vast swaths of public land, Western wildfires often jump from public land to private land. Unique challenges to fire management in the West include changing climate conditions such as drought, invasive species, and steep terrain. Historically, wildfire management focused on suppressing all wildfires and did not consider the important role wildfires play in western ecosystems. After 100 years of fire suppression and changes to forest management, there is a dangerous buildup of surface fuels on western lands. A landscape-level approach that includes cross-jurisdictional collaboration on wildfire management is needed to mitigate and respond to wildfires in this region.

In Alaska, fire plays a critical role in improving ecosystem productivity, removing accumulated organic matter, and maintaining the permafrost table. However, climate change is leading to an increasing number of zombie fires – fires that come back after they appear to be extinguished – across the state. These fires can continue burning due to a thick layer of organic matter common in northern ecosystems. Fire suppression responsibility in Alaska falls to three protecting agencies: USFS, BLM, and the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. Each protecting agency responds to fires within their assigned geographical area as defined in the Alaska Interagency Wildland Fire Management Plan regardless of jurisdictional agency.

Congressional Action

Photo credit: Jasman Mander/TNC

Signed into law in November 2021, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) includes $6.5 billion in new funding for urgently needed wildfire risk reduction efforts underway within USDA and DOI. Of the $6.5 billion, $514 million is provided to the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service and $178 million to DOI to scale up their hazardous fuel reduction and management projects, resulting in more acres at high risk from wildfires being treated with wildfire mitigation techniques. To accomplish this, critical investments have been made in both real-time monitoring equipment to accelerate fire detection and reporting and an increase in wildland firefighters, with funding for at least 1,000 people to join the workforce, efforts to convert seasonal employees to full-time equivalents, and new compensation to recruit and retain wildland firefighters. This funding could more than double the pace of current treatments per year, but it still falls short of meeting the mounting climate threat.

Additionally, by including the bipartisan REPLANT Act and $225 million in new funding for burned area rehabilitation, the IIJA places significant emphasis on reforestation and ecosystem restoration, both of which are vital for a robust wildfire management strategy. Following wildfires, forest restoration efforts are needed to prevent further degradation of the landscape, such as soil erosion and landslides. Restoration has many benefits, including reducing wildfire risk, improved ecological and watershed health, increased carbon sequestration, and rural economic benefits from the use of forest restoration by-products. Passage of the REPLANT Act will reduce the backlog of 1.3 million acres of forests requiring reforestation by removing a $30 million cap placed on the Reforestation Trust Fund. Removing this cap will result in an average of $123 million going to reforestation each year, with priority given to forests degraded by wildfires and other natural disasters. This new demand for reforestation will support the nursery infrastructure and workforce across all land ownership types and advance tree planning as a natural climate solution. For more details on the IIJA’s significant impact on wildfire and carbon management, check out the BPC’s blog, The IIJA is a Big Deal for Carbon Management.

The IIJA’s wildfire mitigation funding is critical, but there’s potential for even greater Congressional action. During the 117th Congress, 143 bills have been introduced that would expand America’s wildfire mitigation and reforestation capabilities, 13 of which have bipartisan support. This is an enormous increase in bills introduced that address wildfires compared to a decade ago when the 112th Congress introduced 32 such bills. As wildfires grow more prevalent and devastating, the increased Congressional attention is vital to ensuring communities and ecosystems are protected. However, new strategies for combating catastrophic fire events and managing reforestation are needed to mitigate wildfires further.

The Future of Wildfire Management

Photo credit: Carlton Ward, Jr./TNC

Although progress is being made to improve federal and non-federal collaboration in wildfire management, current approaches are likely not enough to combat increasingly severe wildfire seasons due to climate change. According to a Government Accountability Office report, surveyed stakeholders stated the Cohesive Strategy encouraged collaboration, although there is room for improvement. New tools, resources, and innovative partnerships on the horizon offer opportunities for greater mitigation.

The All Lands Risk Explorer informs the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy through the use of geographic information system (GIS) maps that show where large fires are likely to occur and the associated impacts and benefits they would likely have. One feature of this web portal is the identification of community firesheds – areas where large fires are likely to start and spread, threatening nearby communities. This identification can support the development of fire-adapted communities by highlighting where the risk will most likely come from and who is responsible. Using this type of tool opens the door to more targeted treatments that can have a greater impact as well as better prioritization of funding. This is especially critical since a small percentage of wildfires account for the majority of the risk to communities and infrastructure.

The Nature Conservancy and the Aspen Institute have also recognized the need for change with the launch of their new partnership to improve wildfire resilience across the U.S. They are hosting a series of convenings with diverse stakeholders to develop recommendations for a comprehensive approach to boosting wildfire resilience. This work builds on previous work by TNC, which found that an additional $5 to $6 billion per year may be needed over the next decade to reduce wildfire risks and prepare communities.

The time is ripe for a paradigm shift in wildland fire management as the influx of federal funding from the IIJA is deployed. Prioritization will be essential for targeting high-risk community firesheds, and collaborative partnerships will be key to implementing new funding effectively. In addition to protecting lives, homes, and wildlife, wildfire management can contribute to climate mitigation. BPC’s Farm and Forest Carbon Solutions Task Force is focused on policy opportunities to scale natural climate solutions, including those related to enhanced wildfire resilience. In a recent statement, the Task Force called on Congress to prioritize landscape-scale climate resilience to wildfires in the current policy discourse, and will release recommendations and policy priorities in early 2022.

End Notes:

1 The specific type of emissions wildfires produce is determined by what they burn and how complete the combustion process is, so determining their net effect on the climate can be complicated. See for more details.

Saving America’s forestlands one community forest at a time

Forests are shrinking and disappearing across the United States.

Wildfires and real estate development have taken their toll. Aggressive harvesting by businesses interested in quick profits is also to blame.

The recent loss of forestland actually represents a reversal of a much longer trend, in which forests cleared for farmland during the colonial era slowly regenerated over many decades. But the pendulum is now swinging the other way. According to a 2017 study by Harvard University, New England alone is losing 65 acres of forest every day.

Over the past two decades, we’ve pioneered a movement to save our forestlands. Our “community forest” model is centered on local ownership, with a town or a nonprofit buying a forest and managing it for conservation, public access, and economic benefits.

Betsy Cook, the Maine state program director at The Trust for Public Land, talks with us about the community forest model and why it holds promise to protect this vital resource.

Q: When people think of forests, they probably imagine a state or federal forest or maybe one owned by a timber company. So what do we mean by “community forest”?

A: Community forests are forests managed by the community for the community. Four pillars define our approach to community forests. First, the community participates in the management decisions around the land. The second is that benefits flow to community. That could mean proceeds from sustainable timber harvesting or less tangible benefits from tourism and the outdoor-recreation economy. The third piece is community ownership—actually having the land owned by the community, which which can be a town, county, nonprofit, or other community entity. It’s a form of ownership that makes sure the community is really involved in the stewardship of the land. The last piece is permanent protection. This will ensure that the forest is conserved and that benefits continue to flow to the community for generations to come.

[Read more: Community forest in Maine expands, ensuring access for generations to come]

Q: How did the community forest model come about?

Exploring the Bethel Community Forest in Bethel, Maine. Photo credit: Jerry and Marcy Monkman

A: The concept of a community forest has been around for centuries or even thousands of years. So, we are building on an idea that is engrained in many cultures. But the modern Trust for Public Land–led movement took off about two decades ago with a group called the Community Forest Collaborative; The Trust for Public Land was a core member. The collaborative helped develop resources for towns to create community forests, laid out best practices, and established a federal funding program. The U.S. Forest Service’s Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program supports local communities that want to create community forests. Our advocacy led to the establishment of that program in 2014.

Q: What kind of progress have you seen in the past 20 years?

A: The first community forest we helped establish was in Randolph, New Hampshire, in 2001. Since then, we have helped to directly support the creation of more than 30 community forests across the country, covering at least 30,000 acres. The size of each forest ranges widely, from a few hundred acres to 13,000 acres. New England is our most active region, and a large part of that has to do with the strong system of town governance. That matches really well with the community forest model. Most communities have a town meeting every year, and often the community forest is voted on at the annual meeting. You get 300 people in these old town halls and everyone gets to see each other. Residents raise a green placard for Yes and red for No. It’s a great example of civic engagement and community participation. There are also community forests we’ve worked on in the Pacific Northwest, so the model has taken hold there as well. And there’s a pocket of activity in the Midwest, in places such as Wisconsin and Minnesota.

[Explore our work: A new community-owned forest keeps outdoor adventure in the lesson plan]

Q: One of the potential economic benefits to the town stems from sustainable forestry. What does that look like, and is it good for the forest?

A woman mountain biking on a trail in autumn on Millstone Hill in Barre, Vermont. Photo credit: Jerry and Marcy Monkman

A: Yes, it absolutely is. The planning for a community forest includes optimizing for wildlife and habitat, recreation, and sustainable forest management. Often there are habitats you’re trying to improve and cutting some trees will benefit a bird or mammal species. When done well, sustainable forest management is beneficial for ecology and wildlife, while also creating revenue for the town. With community forests especially, the forest management plan is written to a high standard. Any cutting of trees is done with the utmost care and concern for the health of the forest. Typically, we are purchasing from industrial forest owners motivated by a quick financial return. That kind of management leads to a heavier timber harvesting. By contrast, community forests are for the long run. In some cases, the town might harvest only what is needed to cover the lost property tax revenue from the previous owner. Other towns might lease a small patch of the forest to a maple syrup producer, which taps the trees.

Q: How does a community go about creating a community forest?

A: Sometimes, the impetus is a piece of land that suddenly comes on the market. It might be a forest that community members were allowed to use and love, and they want it to be protected. Or a community will come to us and say, ‘We don’t have a parcel in mind, but we want a community forest because we love the model and want the benefits.’ In that case, The Trust for Public Land does some mapping and finds a piece of land that is a good fit. If we partner with a town government, we have a process we work through. After identifying forestland for the community to acquire, we negotiate with the landowner to secure the property. Then we raise money through public and private funding sources. But before the land is acquired, there is a robust community planning process and a management plan is developed. Finally, we acquire the land and convey, or transfer, the forest to the town.

[Read more: How community forests chart a path to prosperity and connection]

Q: How do residents use their community forests?

Runners make their way through the Williston Community Forest in Vermont. Photo credit: ©Brian Mohr/ Ember Photography

A: Usually, a governance committee is established to implement the management plan. Some towns host trail races through their forests and organize art festivals. A town in Vermont had a trick-or-treating event in the community forest on Halloween. Another town, in New Hampshire, created new glades for backcountry skiers and also blazed an educational trail with signage about wildflowers and animals. Some towns or nonprofits allow local residents to harvest wood from the forest to heat their homes. These places really come to life with the energy of the community. They also are all about meeting a community’s specific goals and needs.

Q: Besides the obvious conservation and economic benefits, are there other ways a community forest helps local towns and residents?

A: Yes, certainly. Community forests guarantee public access for recreation, which can lead to improvements in both mental and physical health. Studies show that exposure to nature reduces stress and alleviates depression. The forests are also an educational asset, with schools using them for outdoor learning. Then there is the social benefit—the community-building aspect. Community forests are created through a very public process. The local community comes together with a shared goal and makes collaborative decisions. Research shows that community-building creates opportunities for people to become more civically engaged and connected to their neighborhoods. Finally, community forests—like all forests—mitigate climate change since trees absorb and store carbon dioxide. New England is projected to lose 1.2 million acres of forest, along with 19 percent of its carbon-storage capacity, by 2060. A changing climate and deforestation are threatening some of the most biodiverse regions of the United States. Protection of our forested landscapes is one of the best strategies we have to combat climate change.

This article was originally written for The Trust for Public Land’s blog.

Sharing is Caring: How a New Approach to Forest Management is Paying Dividends

Aaron Kimple, a leading proponent of shared stewardship, paddling the Animas River in Colorado. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Aaron Kimple

As a river guide on the Rio Grande in Big Bend Texas in the 1990s, Aaron Kimple’s senses were always on overload as he paddled through the remote landscape among migratory birds, past fields of wildflowers and millions of buzzing insects. One of those senses, however, was fear. His anxiety was constantly triggered during those heady days on the rapids. “We would boat that river, and we always knew that one of the big constraints was the fact that the Rio Grande didn’t flow consistently. And we weren’t guaranteed water,” he says.

Kimple eventually migrated upriver into the Pagosa Springs region of Southwest Colorado, plying the San Juan River, the Colorado River and sometimes returning to the Rio Grande. He and his wife, Kathy, fell in love with the mountains, rivers, snow and skiing, and moved to Durango in 2000. In Colorado, he found his calling.

It was the beginning of a career defined by connections — between land, water and people — and a stark realization about what needs to be done to protect them. Kimple is now the director of the Mountain Studies Institute’s forest health program, where he oversees watershed and forest health initiatives and facilitates community stakeholder groups.

That facilitation is the crux of his life’s mission. His “second job” is coordinator of the Two Watersheds, Three Rivers, Two States (2-3-2) Cohesive Strategy Partnership, a mouthful of a title that belies a simple premise: by working across boundaries, at large scale and with multiple stakeholders, land managers can achieve much more than they could by focusing on individual projects with limited boundaries, size and partners.

“It’s just an intriguing endeavor,” Kimple says of the origins of the 2-3-2. “We were really beginning this idea that we can bring money from the state side and the federal side, incorporate local and foundational investments, and instead of patchworking our work across the landscape, we can really consolidate it and have a true impact.”

This led to working across state lines with New Mexico, on water issues primarily, and on wildfires that burned across borders, including one that jumped the Continental Divide and heavily impacted the Rio Grande watershed.

“When we started recognizing those connections, we said, ‘How do we come together to think about this?’” Kimple adds. “Rather than competing, how can we work together to leverage our efforts and truly have that landscape-scale impact?”

That concept is known as shared stewardship, and it’s revolutionizing wildfire management, forest and watershed protection, drought control, and the ongoing battle with disease and pest outbreaks across the United States. Instead of focusing on disconnected, individual projects working with limited partners or agencies, shared stewardship actively encourages organizations to join forces and work across state, county or jurisdictional lines.

“Any one group, agency or landowner is not able to fix our forest health problems,” says Brian Kittler, senior director of forest restoration at American Forests. “Turning to each other, building trust and building projects together, and then finding ways to co-plan, develop, fund and implement bigger projects at a larger scale together for a greater impact — that, to me, is what shared stewardship is about.”

Working together has become increasingly important, given the growing scope of problems devastating large swaths of forest.

Kittler, for example, points to the Western U.S. as a place where a combination of stressors and disturbance patterns across a much larger scale are pushing ecosystems to a tipping point. Widespread pest outbreaks and long-term drought — both linked to climate change — are creating significant tree die-offs, he says.

“And then a large wildfire comes through and burns at very high severity. There’s essentially no live cone-bearing trees left because of the beetle outbreak and the drought that killed the trees, so you have large, large areas in some of these landscapes that aren’t going to be naturally regenerating.”

All of these stressors, when combined with a legacy of fire suppression and uncoordinated forest management, have led to critical conditions in many forests and watersheds.

Something Old, Something New

Shared stewardship is a relatively new term. A 2018 vision and policy statement by former U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Chief Vicki Christiansen helped brand the term and bring it to a much wider audience. But the idea and practices behind it have been around for decades and practiced in many parts of the world.

In the grasslands of southern Nepal and northern India, the Terai Arc Landscape links 16 protected areas into a contiguous habitat for tigers, rhinos and elephants. Community forest user groups are empowered to help man- age forest corridors between the protected areas while also benefiting from tourism income and livelihood improvement projects.

In the U.S., the USFS has long worked with tribes, states, communities and collaborative groups on reforestation and restoration. New policies, evolving science and strategic shifts toward more robust partnerships with communities and stakeholders have helped push shared stewardship to the forefront.

One of the most important policies is the Good Neighbor Authority, which since 2001 has increasingly allowed the USFS and Bureau of Land Management to work on land management projects with states, counties and Indian tribes, including those that cross boundaries. Equally important are stewardship contracting and agreement authorities, which open the door to a much wider range of local and rural project partners, such as nonprofits, community based organizations, local governments and rural contractors.

Following Christiansen’s 2018 statement and policy release, the USFS began a major push to establish formal Shared Stewardship Agreements and put them into action. The Agency has now signed agreements with 47 states, the District of Columbia and three territories. Some agreements are with individual states while others are with collective entities, such as the Western Governors’ Association and the states of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

The agreements are specific to each state, conditions on the ground and the threats and priorities they face. However, they all focus on a collaborative approach to land management that addresses challenges and opportunities that cross boundaries. Partners share decisions and goal setting, and active management by non-federal partners is encouraged to maximize the scale and impact of the work.

In a May 2019 speech in Silverdale, Wash., Christiansen summarized the reason for the USFS’s commitment to shared stewardship. “The scale of our work has to match the scale of the risks and the problems we face,” she said.

Jacqueline Buchanan is keenly aware of that scale. As the USFS deputy regional forester for the Rocky Mountain Region, she notes that “land management challenges like wildfires, insects and drought recognize no boundaries; they impact all jurisdictions.” Buchanan works closely with the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative, a collaboration between the USFS, the National Wild Turkey Federation and more than 40 natural resource leaders from across Colorado. In its first year, the initiative worked with more than 125 partners to improve forest conditions on over 24,000 acres of public and private lands in Southwest Colorado.

Not Just a Western Issue

Patrick and Katie Banks opened Foolhardy Hill campground thanks to an entrepreneurial challenge grant from the Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. They worked with a startup accelerator called Lever to develop their pitch — an example of the kind of public/private partnerships that thrive because of shared stewardship. Photo Credit: Eric Korenman

In the Eastern U.S., wildfires may be less of a risk, but top of mind are pest outbreaks from invasive moths and hemlock woody adelgid, along with dis- ease outbreaks and climate change impacts. In the rural, heavily forested northwest corner of Massachusetts, the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership is working to create natural resource-based economic development opportunities aligned with the state’s shared stewardship agreement. The Partnership is driven by the residents of Western Franklin and Northern Berkshire Counties, and centered on a shared desire to conserve the region’s forests and rural way of life, while improving the region’s financial sustainability.

This region is among Massachusetts’ most economically distressed, with low wages, population decline and financial instability. However, it has high potential for tourism, sustainable forestry and other development opportunities, says Kurt Gaertner, assistant secretary for environmental policy in the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA). “Part of the reason why we have a shared stewardship agreement with the USFS, why 17 of the 21 communities in the region have now voted to accept the partnership, is they realize the potential benefits of working together on this,” he says.

That’s big in a region that has a degree of skepticism toward government, Gaertner adds. And the vision of the Mohawk Partnership is common to many Eastern U.S. regions facing land conservation, rural economy and forest health challenges. Shared stewardship agreements follow a different model than the Western U.S., since this area has no national forest and very little federal land. For this reason, there is a much greater focus on relationships, investments and technical expertise from other parts of the USFS besides the National Forest System.

Two beneficiaries of the partnership are Patrick and Katie Banks, who worked with a startup accelerator called Lever to win a challenge grant from EEA in order to open a much needed off-the-grid campground, Foolhardy Hill. Whitewater rafting and mountain biking are big here, and there aren’t enough hotels to serve them. The project is built on old logging roads to limit its forest footprint and designed with sustainability in mind for the outdoor community. Elsewhere in the region, conservation easements helped by the Mohawk Partnership allow landowners to protect their forests but also benefit financially from them via tax breaks.

Good Neighbors

New Mexico State Forester Laura McCarthy at an overlook above the Rio Chama River, a critically important watershed in New Mexico. In the background is smoke from a managed natural wildfire that is helping reduce forest fuels close to the river. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Laura McCarthy

Like Aaron Kimple, Laura McCarthy is fixated on water. She has no choice. That’s because, as the state forester for New Mexico, she sees the impact of decreasing water flows. And she is alarmed.

“We just can’t do it by ourselves. Nobody can. And I think in some ways, New Mexico is out front. And that’s because we have no money. I call us a state that does things using duct tape and bubble gum,” McCarthy says.

McCarthy supervises 78 people, half of them focused on fire full time. The other half focus on forest land management. She sees the 2-3-2 as particularly important for New Mexico because of water. The water relationship between Colorado and New Mexico is complex, governed by the Rio Grande Compact, an interstate water agreement that regulates how water is allocated between the two states and Texas. But this compact is seriously outdated, created in a time that did not anticipate today’s overwhelming thirst for a limited water supply, as well as climate-driven drought. The three states are currently in litigation before the Supreme Court, arguing over the Rio Grande Compact.

“The way [the water compacts] are structured is kind of counter to any kind of collaboration or cross-boundary work,” McCarthy says. “What’s been really interesting and helpful about the 2-3-2 in the larger stewardship effort, is that it’s like a whole different arena for talking about cross-boundary work that transcends these historical issues and problems with water management.”

Kimple agrees. “One of the amazing things that we’ve found is how strong a barrier that state line can appear to be. All of our policies, all of our regulations, all of our practices, say that we need to be working within our state boundaries. But our watersheds, our fire sheds, none of those respect those boundaries that we draw.”

He describes working with McCarthy as fantastic and stresses the importance of key partners such as the Forest Stewards Guild and The Nature Conservancy, which helped develop the Rio Grande Water Fund, a public-private collaborative that invests in forest restoration projects to ensure pure, clean water in the Rio Grande Watershed.

McCarthy paints a daunting picture of the future, describing a recent conversation with the deputy regional forester about priorities for the year. “We feel like we’re in kind of a losing battle in terms of climate change. And yet, what we hear as we talk to others is that we’re far ahead when it comes to shared stewardship and our planning and what we’ve already accomplished.”

Is she hopeful? “I think what makes me hopeful is this attitude that I think is shared by many, many New Mexicans, and by pretty much uniformly everybody who’s involved in shared stewardship. The attitude is — well, it may be grim, and the odds are probably against us, but we’re going to give it everything we’ve got.”

A Post-Pandemic Reunion

This part of Jackson Mountain in Colorado is managed by a private company under a contract with USFS that reduces the fire risk in exchange for the right to sell the timber. Photo Credit: Michael Remke Photography

On an early morning in late June, 33 people crammed into trucks, vans and SUVs in Pagosa Springs, Colo., and began the slow climb up Jackson Mountain. They were part of a study tour organized by the San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership, a participant in the 2-3-2 Cohesive Strategy Partnership.

Kimple was there, along with USFS staff, state and local forest leaders, mountain biking advocates, conservation leaders, volunteers, a homeowner’s association and an impact investment expert from Washington, D.C.

As they set off up the mountain, spirits were high for a couple of reasons. First, due to COVID-19, this was the first time many of the participants had seen each other in a year and a half. And secondly, they were witnessing the first steady rainfall in months, offering relief from a brutal, years-long drought that has raised the wildfire risk to alarming levels.

One of those joining was Pagosa Springs resident Austin Rempel, who is American Forests’ senior manager of forest restoration. Rempel notes that 60 to 70% of the traffic in town this summer was from Texas — part of the “Zoom Boom” of people moving to, and often working from, more remote locations. “It’s a place where subdivisions are rapidly expanding into the forest, right alongside USFS land,” Rempel says. “At every stop (during the study tour) we talked about the recreation pressure that the forest is seeing. The number of people in the forest is way higher than it’s ever been.”

The first stop was an active logging site run by The Forest Health Company under a stewardship contract with the USFS that allows a private entity to come in and log. The area is overgrown and at high risk for fire, notes Rempel. “We were standing in a spot that would have been an extremely dangerous place to fight fire, because it was completely overgrown — it would have been one of those uncontrollable blazes near the town.”

The arrangement relieves the USFS of the burden and cost of reducing the fuel load and disposing of excess biomass, while the company benefits from selling the timber it recovers.

At the next stops, they heard from a venture capitalist about bringing innovative finance tools to forest management and looked at how best to manage the explosive growth of mountain biking in the area. They also heard from USFS staff about new opportunities for recreation and resource use, and learned from birdwatchers about the impact of forest management on bird species.

Rempel says this type of event would be much harder without the convening power of a collaborative like 2-3-2 and organizing entities, such as Mountain Studies Institute and San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership. “This is a shining example of the kind of local and regional collaboration that I think they’re trying to enshrine with shared stewardship,” Rempel says. “It’s essentially a diverse group helping the USFS do more, and better work — be it highlighting things that aren’t working; bringing resources like volunteers, outside funding and special expertise from birders, scientists and mountain bike planning teams; or even just constructive engagement and supportive voices.”

The Long View

A thunderstorm looms over Jackson Mountain in Colorado. This area is an important part of the 2-3-2 Cohesive Strategy Partnership that balances multiple interests and stakeholders to sustainably manage the landscape. Photo Credit: Michael Remke Photography

So, what is the long-term outlook for shared stewardship? Two people who have been looking at that question are Courtney Schultz and Chad Kooistra of the Public Lands Policy Group at Colorado State University. Their ongoing five-year study examines the effectiveness of the USFS’s 2018 Shared Stewardship Strategy during its initial implementation. After talking to over 120 people involved in shared stewardship at all levels last year, they found a high level of optimism about the strategy. Those interviewed agreed on the need for partnerships and for work on cross-boundary landscapes to address wild- fires and forest/watershed health.

But they also shared concern about the human and financial resources needed for shared stewardship. Those interviewed wanted to know how to learn from other states and other collaboratives, what works and doesn’t in terms of building relationships. There were questions about how different laws impact cross-boundary work, and how to mix and match funding sources and work with the forest products industry to leverage resources.

“A lot of people talked about shared stewardship as like a state of mind, or an ethos,” Kooistra says. “It was kind of like framing what everybody was already thinking and saying, and giving people something to unite around and just at the very least, start to have that conversation.”

As for Aaron Kimple and his long, strange trip from the Rio Grande to Colorado? He’s excited about the prospects for the 2-3-2. The partnership of 24 organizations and government agencies has helped secure over $5 million in project funding along with new Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Funding from the USFS that will likely bring in around $3 to 4 million per year. They have worked with partners to treat over 10,000 acres through prescribed fire and build wider acceptance of its importance to forest ecology and wildfire reduction. They have also created new networks for timber suppliers and elevated local alliances.

He’s also looking at the future and his hopes for his 11-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter. “We get out on the landscape and play with our kids, and they get out on the rivers, they hike and camp in the forest, they love all these resources. And to me, what I hope for them is to carry a love of this place, a love of what it offers.”

Lee Poston serves as a communications advisor and writes from University Park, Md.

This article was originally written for the American Forests Magazine.

With No Time to Lose, We Must Keep Score

Photo Credit: Eben Dente/American Forests

I am writing this article at a pivotal moment for America. The country is emerging from a global pandemic that has magnified health inequities, especially in terms of income and race. And climate change is moving faster than expected. During one week in June, for example, there were killer heat waves in the cool Pacific Northwest and flooding in the Great Lakes region.

These elevated stakes help explain why American Forests has made a commitment to keeping score — which we hope will lead to more people taking action to advance social equity and slow climate change, in part through the power of trees.

This started with the launch of our Tree Equity Score in June. This tool, the first of its kind, gives a neighborhood-by-neighborhood and municipal-level assessment of tree cover in every urban area across America. It overlays data that shows where the lack of trees most strongly puts people at risk from extreme heat, air pollution and other climate- fueled threats.

Collectively, the scores tell several compelling stories. For instance, on average, the lowest income neighborhoods have 41% less tree cover than high-income neighborhoods, and neighborhoods with a majority of residents of color have 33% less tree cover than majority white neighborhoods. This has life or death consequences, given that neighborhoods with little to no tree cover can be 10 degrees hotter than the city average during the day, and even more at night. In these same places, there is a higher percentage of people with elevated risk factors, such as heat-related illnesses and deaths because of lack of air conditioning.

That’s where Tree Equity Score comes in. By naming and framing this dangerous inequity with data and putting it online for all to see and explore, we have brought unprecedented attention to the importance of trees in advancing social equity. This includes a major feature in the New York Times, co-authored by our own Ian Leahy, vice president of urban forestry.

But this tool does much more than just identify the problem. It is as easy to use as a smart phone, making it simple for anyone, from city leaders to city residents, to calculate how many trees are needed for a city to achieve Tree Equity in every neighborhood. They also can see the economic and environmental benefits that would be generated, such as the tons of air pollution removed annually and number of jobs supported.

As evidence that Tree Equity Score can catalyze meaningful change, the Phoenix City Council voted in April to achieve Tree Equity in every one of the city’s neighborhoods by 2030. Other cities are following suit. And Congressional leaders, such as U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and U.S. Representative Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), are using it to make the case for unprecedented federal investment in urban trees and forests.

This data-driven approach is not limited to our work in cities. The Reforestation Hub, which we developed in partnership with The Nature Conservancy in January, doesn’t generate scores. But it does use cutting-edge scientific analysis of all U.S. land to identify where more trees could be added, from burn scars on national forests to streamside tree buffers on farms. It identifies a total opportunity of 133 million acres, enough land to plant more than 60 billion trees.

This has huge implications for climate change. That many additional trees would increase annual carbon capture in U.S. forests by more than 40%, equivalent to removing the emissions from 72 million cars.

Like Tree Equity Score, the Reforestation Hub is a free and easy-to-use tool meant to catalyze action. It is searchable county-by-county, enabling everyone to explore how our reforestation opportunities overlap with different land ownerships and conservation purposes, such as wildlife habitat and water protection. It also provides a calculation of the additional carbon capture that would be achieved if a given area were reforested. At American Forests, we use it often to advocate for reforestation legislation and make decisions about where to do our reforestation projects.

I encourage you to jump online and check out these powerful new tools. I hope that you will be inspired by our use of data to measurably challenge America and our own organization to meet this moment.

To learn more about Tree Equity Score, visit, and to learn more about the Reforestation Hub, visit

Jad Daley is the President and Chief Executive Officer at American Forests.

This article was originally written for the American Forests website.

New Research Highlights the Carbon Losses to U.S. Forests Caused by Pests and Pathogens and How We Can Reduce These Threats

Diverse forests are more beautiful, and more resilient. Photo Credit: Leigh Greenwood

Forested landscapes across the U.S. have always included insects, diseases, fungus, and other native pests as part of their ecologies. These native pests are just one of many types of natural disturbances that are part of the dynamic balance that makes up each unique type of healthy forest. Historically, these disturbances created opportunities for each type of forest to reach its peak biodiversity and resilience.  Thanks to regional and ecological variation, each forest type supports biodiversity in a variety of different ways. In some forests, the age, species, and variety of the trees are crucial drivers of biodiversity, while in others, patches of other ecosystems, like grasslands, come and go over time. Healthy forests are often made of slowly shifting mosaics of habitats, all supporting their own communities of plants and wildlife.

Invasive pests don’t function as a healthy disturbance in the same way as native pests that co-evolved with the forest. Moreover, in some places, the natural ups and downs that have allowed forests and native pests to thrive in a balance over time and space has been disrupted.

Forest pests that come from overseas or from far away ecosystems way across the continent are termed invasive species if they cause serious damage to the trees they infest or infect. Because they did not evolve in tandem with the trees in their invaded range, they can be extraordinarily damaging or even deadly to the trees they attack. In the 1900’s, invasive forest pests like the chestnut blight and Dutch elm disease practically eradicated American chestnuts and American elms from our landscapes, and the more contemporary threat of the emerald ash borer has wiped out more than 100 million ash trees in just about 20 years.

Invasive shot hole borers are killing California trees Photo Credit B. Nobua-Behrmann/UCCE San Diego

Other large disruptive forces affecting our forests that have grown over the last 200 years – including changes in land use, fire suppression policies, unsustainable logging practices, and ecological shifts driven by climate change – have led to less resilient systems for native forest pests as well. For example, insects that prefer trees of a specific age may attack vast stands of similarly-aged trees that grew in the aftermath of a catastrophic wildfire. As a result, these trees are vulnerable to far higher densities of attacking insects than those in more varied landscapes experiencing a multi-year pattern of smaller, less severe, fires. These disruptions have had significant impacts on U.S. forests – including to their ability to sequester carbon.

To better understand the magnitude of the impact pests have had on carbon sequestration in our forests, a multi-disciplinary group of scientists collaborated to produce a new study, “Insect and Disease Disturbances Correlate With Reduced Carbon Sequestration in Forests of the Contiguous United States.” Our research found that forests damaged by insects sequestered 69% less carbon, and those damaged by disease sequestered 28% less carbon, when compared to forests not impacted by one of these severe disturbances. Put another way- the study found that the damage currently being caused by insects and diseases across the lower 48 states is reducing the carbon sequestration potential of America’s forests by roughly 50 million tons of carbon dioxide each year – a lost opportunity to annually sequester the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide emitted each year by more than 10 million cars.

It’s important to know that our study indicates the majority of US forests continue to sequester more carbon than they release. On a landscape scale, forest insects and diseases have not, on average, converted forests from carbon sinks that remove and store carbon to carbon sources that increase the amount of carbon into the atmosphere. But it is very clear that forests impacted by recent and severe insect and disease disturbance have a greatly reduced capacity to sequester carbon. Fortunately, this is a problem we can do something about.

In my role as The Nature Conservancy’s Forest Health Program Director, it’s my job to figure out how we can work with our partners to reduce the impacts on non-native forest insects and diseases across North America. This includes prevention, early detection of new threats, and management of pests already present, as well as long-term programs like pest-resistant tree breeding and biological control organisms. With the information provided by this study, The Nature Conservancy and its many partners can better advocate for the research, science-driven policies, and impactful action needed to contain this threat.

International shipping is a major pathway for forest pest arrival. Photo Credit: Leigh Greenwood

To address the long-term shifts in forests that have enabled native forest pests to reach unnaturally high levels of damage, locally specific management strategies can be deployed to bring forests back into better function and balance. For instance, practices such as ecological thinning and prescribed fire can increase the resilience of historically fire-dependent forests by promoting biodiversity and variations in tree age and spacing. By supporting the overall resilience of these forests to the natural disturbances they face, their carbon sequestration potential can be maintained over time. The stability of that carbon storage is vital to global efforts to address climate change. While some fluctuations in carbon storage are normal and necessary, we must work together to avoid catastrophic disturbances that can significantly damage our forests.

For those pests that have not yet arrived in North America, preventative strategies are crucial to ensure we don’t face faster and more severe tree loss in the future. The global community needs to strengthen shared policies that prevent new non-native forest pests from accidentally traveling along the international supply chain. Improving and enforcing the existing treatment standards for solid wood packaging materials such as pallets and crates can play a key role in preventing new pests from sneaking into U.S. forests.

Within the U.S., federal policies governing the importation of nursery and cut plant stock (such as cut flowers, and tree saplings) could be refined and better enforced, thereby more effectively preventing invasive species that travel on live plant materials. Together, a stronger preventative approach will allow us to maintain our healthy forests without additional pests- and the yet-unknown threats that they may pose.

North American ash trees often turn brilliant colors in the fall. Photo Credit Leigh Greenwood

When invasive forest pests have become more established in the U.S., it becomes very important to create programs that mitigate those losses, whether through “slow the spread” programs (such as the Don’t Move Firewood campaign), seed banking, tree breeding, biological control research, or a wide variety of other interdisciplinary approaches. Controlling the movement and damage of invasive forest pests can reduce losses for years – or even decades – protecting precious biodiversity and carbon storage in forests across the country. With rapidly advancing science in the field of conservation genetics, the potential for new solutions to be brought to scale to help contain these established pests is very exciting. But without diverse populations of the trees we want to protect, the long-term research and implementation of conservation programs based on new technologies might falter. 

Maintaining forest carbon sequestration rates in the face of insect- and disease-based disturbances also provides powerful co-benefits including cleaner air and water, improved wildlife habitat, reduced risks to people living in fire-adapted forest landscapes, and stronger local and rural economies. This research shows that a very wide variety of actions we can take to protect forests from insect and disease disturbances- whether internationally, regionally, or locally- can result in healthier trees that will ultimately support a healthier climate.

Leigh Greenwood is the Forest Health Program Director at The Nature Conservancy.

3 Ways Federal Investment in Trees and Forests Can Support Economic Growth

This article includes excerpts from a longer article published by World Resources Institute. Read the original article here

Photo Credit: Kent Mason/The Nature Conservancy

To reach the United States’ target of reducing net emissions by 50-52% from 2005 levels by 2030, the federal government and non-federal actors will need to increase the ability of natural and working lands to sequester and store carbon. A recent economy-wide analysis finds that reaching these climate goals will require the United States to enable its lands and forests, or its land carbon sink, to remove at least 913 Mt CO2e annually by 2030, which represents a 13% increase in yearly sequestration over 2019 levels. This increase in sequestration would be equal to the emissions from over 20 million cars every year.

To achieve this, the nation must restore trees to the landscape, increase the adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices and protect landscapes that already store carbon. Federal investment and action from all levels of society can allow the United States to achieve the full potential of these pathways, creating jobs and other economic benefits in the process.

Seizing the United States’ Most Promising Natural Climate Solutions

While action is needed across all land sectors, research shows that three tree-based pathways hold the greatest opportunity for enhancing natural carbon removal in the near-term while supporting jobs and economic vitality. WRI analysis shows that these pathways could offer an attractive return on investment: they require a total federal investment of $126.6 billion over 20 years and would support approximately 3.9 million job-years (or 199,000 jobs each year for 20 years). Put another way, 31.4 jobs would be supported for every million dollars of federal investment. Over 20 years, this investment would also generate $226.8 billion in value added to local economies, including $164.4 billion in employee compensation and $12.2 billion in state, federal and local taxes.

Table 1: Economic Impact of Natural Climate Mitigation Pathways

1. Reforesting and Restocking Trees

Trees are a carbon-removing technology that is ready for deployment today. Although building the infrastructure to plant healthy forests at the necessary scale will require considerable investment and work, there are already professionals working to plant and manage trees and forests every day. Federal investment in reforestation and forest restocking could help to expand employment in these sectors, particularly in rural areas, where 67% of job creation potential exists.

Across federal, state, local and private lands, there is an opportunity to reforest historically forested land that has been cleared, disrupted or burned and has lost the ability to sequester carbon. There is also an opportunity to restock, or increase the density of, existing forests in the eastern and midwestern United States where trees have been lost due to disease or disruption, and where increased forested density would not increase fire risk.

Non-federal lands, which include state, local and private lands, hold the greatest potential for carbon removal and job creation. In these lands, 185.4 million acres are eligible for reforestation and restocking. This could remove 156 MtCO2e per year by 2030, and up to 312 MtCO2e per year in 2040 and beyond. Reforestation and restocking on non-federal land could also support 68,100 jobs across multiple sectors annually.

Federal lands offer an additional 18 million acres suitable for reforestation and restocking. Collectively, these lands could sequester an additional 17 MtCO2e per year by 2030 and up to 35 MtCO2e per year in 2040 and beyond. Investment in reforestation and restocking on federal land could support 11,700 jobs annually.

Across both federal and non-federal lands, an annual federal investment of $3 billion per year for 20 years could support 79,800 jobs annually, or 26.8 jobs per one million dollars of investment. Missouri, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin would see the highest total levels of job creation from reforestation and restocking across all land ownership types.

2. Agroforestry

Agroforestry, or the practice of incorporating trees into agricultural systems, could help expand trees and their climate benefits. This would also benefit farmers and ranchers, as agroforestry can improve soil, crop and animal health, and provide added revenue from forest products and timber. Agroforestry practices with notable climate benefits include silvopasture, or integrating trees into animal agriculture; alley cropping, or interspersing row crops with rows of trees; and planting windbreaks, or strategically placed groups of shrubs and trees that prevent soil erosion and protect crops and livestock. There are approximately 110.9 million acres of U.S. cropland and pastureland that may be eligible for agroforestry and could sequester 156 MMT CO2e per year.

Establishing and maintaining agroforestry systems can be labor-intensive and require specialized expertise, which can further support jobs. However, agroforestry systems can be expensive to establish, which can pose a barrier for farmers. Federal investment can help landowners establish agroforestry systems and support jobs in the process. An annual federal investment of $1.8 billion in agroforestry could support 49,500 jobs annually, or 27.4 jobs per million dollars invested, and provide other economic benefits. Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Texas would see the highest total levels of job creation from expansion of agroforestry.

3. Wildfire Risk Mitigation

Many forests in the United States, particularly in Western states, are at high risk for severe fire due to widespread tree death from drought, disease and historical fire suppression. Severe fires threaten forest-adjacent communities and permanently damage trees and ecosystems, which can turn forests into a source of emissions. Wildfires also produce pollutants that can increase the risk of respiratory and cardiovascular health problems in people who inhale smoke.

Techniques to reduce severe wildfire risk include removing biomass, strategically thinning out overly dense forests and conducting controlled, low-intensity burns to remove fuels that could feed severe blazes. These kinds of treatments — known as fuel load treatments — do not prevent wildfire from occurring, but they lower the risk of massive fires. Prescribed burning alone could reduce wildfire carbon emissions in the western United States by 18–25% and could increase long-term forest carbon storage by 18 MtCO2 per year through avoided tree mortality.

The increasing frequency of catastrophic wildfires across the United States highlights the importance of ambitious and immediate investment to increase ecosystem health and reduce the risk of severe wildfire. There are over 86.7 million acres of forest in the nation that could be eligible for fuel load treatments. Federal investment could help mitigate the risk of wildfire in these forests and would directly employ prescribed burn professionals and forestry professionals. Fuel load treatment also generates biomass and timber that can have downstream uses that generate employment.

Accounting for both fuel load treatment jobs and jobs supporting wood and biomass processing, a yearly federal investment of $1.5 billion in fuel load reduction could support 69,600 jobs, or 45.2 jobs per million dollars invested. The states with most potential to support jobs related to wildfire risk mitigation are California, New Mexico, Wyoming, Oregon and Idaho.

An Opportunity for Society-Wide Action

While federal action is essential to enhance and protect the land carbon sink, reaching the nation’s climate goals will require states, local governments, the private sector and civil society to push forward their own initiatives to reforest and restock forests and to mitigate wildfire risk. For example:

  • States can create or expand programs that incentivize climate-friendly land management and restock and reforest state-owned lands, like states participating in the US Climate Alliance’s Natural and Working Lands Challenge are doing. States can also work with the federal government to further improve greenhouse gas inventories. States with fire danger can also increase budgets for thinning and prescribed burning.
  • Cities and local governments can expand urban forestry efforts to plant trees in parks and open space. For example, Washington, D.C. aims to have 40% of the city covered by a healthy tree canopy by 2032.They can also help community members living in wilderness-urban interface areas to reduce flammable material near structures and build fire-adapted communities.
  • Businesses can ensure that the agricultural and timber products in their supply chain are sourced from farms and forests that use climate-friendly mitigation practices and increase investments in land-based climate mitigation strategies.
  • Tribal communities, schools and faith-based groups can plant trees and enhance land management practices to sequester more carbon and mitigate wildfire risk.

Note: Where not otherwise specified, economic impact, acreage potential and carbon removal potential were derived as part of analysis for WRI’s working paper The Economic Benefits of The New Climate Economy in Rural America. Please refer to this paper’s appendices for information on methodology.

Haley Leslie-Bole, is a Research Analyst with WRI’s U.S. Climate Initiative, where she works on landscape-scale solutions for climate mitigation and adaptation in the U.S. 

Creating Resilient Forests in the Jemez Mountains

New Mexico’s Rio Grande and its tributaries supply water to more than half of New Mexico’s population. Photo Credit: Alan W. Eckert/The Nature Conservancy

Imagine your favorite forested area without big, beautiful pine trees cooling you from the sun or providing fresh air during your hike. That’s what New Mexicans across the Jemez Mountains faced when the region was scorched by the Las Conchas Fire in 2011. The flames burned so hot that thousands of acres were left without trees, or the seed sources for natural forest recovery. Heavy rains that followed the fire sent ash and sediment down the Rio Grande River, the pollution preventing downstream cities from withdrawing water for 40 days.

Water is life and livelihood. Nowhere is that a truer statement than in New Mexico. Each year, large and severe wildfires and post-fire flooding increasingly put our water sources at risk. State and federal agencies spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year responding to these fires. Communities affected by severe wildfire face loss of revenue to local businesses, loss of outdoor cultural opportunities. Without action, New Mexico’s future water security and nature-based culture are at significant risk.

To address this challenge, The Nature Conservancy and a broad network of stakeholders formed the Rio Grande Water Fund (RGWF) to work cooperatively to reduce the risk of megafires, protect precious water supplies and build resilience against climate change threats.

This public-private coalition of 100 signatories – including non-profits, tribes, government agencies, and businesses – are working collaboratively to scale up restoration with a goal of improving the health of 600,000 acres of New Mexico’s forested watersheds to secure water for 1 million people. The RGWF is designed to generate sustainable funding for a 20-year program of large-scale forest restoration treatments which include projects to thin overgrown forests, restore wetlands and streams, engage youth, inform policy makers with our science and generate forestry and wood products jobs.

Surprisingly, thinning forests followed by controlled burns is an important climate solution. On the surface, it seems like a way to lose precious carbon. However, it’s important to understand that fire is a natural process and has always been a part of western forests. Forests need fire to recycle nutrients, reduce competition between trees, and prepare seedbeds for the next generation. Until the early 1900’s Indigenous Peoples used fire to protect their homes, water and cultural traditions. European settlers changed the forest, bringing livestock that ate the grass that carried ground fire and removed large fire resistant trees. In the early and mid-20th century, fire was considered the enemy of forests, and most fires were suppressed, leaving a backlog of dense small, flammable trees.

Now, hotter and drier temperatures, coupled with our overcrowded forests, encourage fire behavior that is much more intense, releasing huge amounts of carbon into the air all at once. By improving the health of our forests, we’re making them more resilient, stabilizing carbon and increasing carbon capture as healthy trees continue to grow. Healthy forests absorb more carbon dioxide, storing it in large trees, helping cool our planet.

Because the Las Conchas Fire left no seed sources across thousands of acres of scorched land, The Nature Conservancy expanded the Rio Grande Water Fund work to include an innovative reforestation effort supported by many partners.

Photo Credit: Collin Haffey/The Nature Conservancy

TNC is working with research scientists to find the most drought resistant “mother trees” for seeds, grow seedlings in a way that makes them more drought hardy , then plant “tree-islands” – small clusters of trees – in the burned areas of the Jemez Mountains. These tree islands will serve as the seed sources for the future.  Using new projections of climate change impacts, and our understanding of what trees need to grow, we identify places where trees have a stronger likelihood to survive in the future. Additionally, our local Indigenous partners from the local Pueblo communities add more value to the work by sharing which tree species locations are culturally important. They also lead the planting operation.

Reducing the risk of damaging wildfires – and planting in areas where natural tree regeneration is unlikely – are forest strategies that together help maintain and increase carbon storage on the landscape. Since 2014, RGWF partners have thinned and conducted controlled burns on nearly 150,000 acres to prevent catastrophic wildfires, while planting in tandem to capture carbon, protect water, and create wildlife habitat.

One reason for the RGWF’s success is its collaboration across boundaries and between organizations working at all scales.  The USDA Forest Service, the New Mexico Dept. of Game and Fish and the Water Utility Authority for Albuquerque and Bernalillo County are some of our larger Water Fund partners. At a more local scale, we work with the Cerro Negro Forest Council, a collaborative of people from traditional Hispanic villages near Taos, New Mexico. Members thin forest plots to reduce fire risk, and then can sell the wood they produce to provide income for their families. The project is managed by a local “Mayordomo”, a governance system modeled on the centuries-old irrigation management system used by these communities.

Through cooperative and coordinated burning we are able to burn more acres with prescribed fire due to safe staffing levels. Here the All Hands All Lands Burn Team organizes representatives from 12 different organizations. Photo Credit: Collin Haffey/The Nature Conservancy

Part of the challenge of large-scale work to mitigate climate impacts is having enough people available and trained to do the needed work. The Rio Grande Water Fund supports the “All Hands All Lands” (AHAL) controlled burning program that builds capacity of forestry workers to use fire well and uses a cooperative burning projects to put more good fire on the ground. Federal fire workers that we depend on to do the burning need to make forests resilient are often called on to fight fires outside New Mexico. Engaging more skilled people to put good fire on the ground is way to help everyone make progress. According to Dave Lasky, the Forest Stewards Guild leader who manages the AHAL Burn Team, “The goal of the AHAL is to get ahead of prescribed fire backlogs on federal, state and tribal lands and support private landowner’s use of prescribed fire.”

Healthy forests lead to healthy livelihoods. Vibrant, resilient forests protect our water, provide wildlife habitat, support the state’s outdoor recreation and forest products economy. Even more importantly – as climate change bears down – healthy forests can store more carbon dioxide to help cool our planet and improve our quality of life.

Portions of this article were adapted from The Rio Grande Water Fund’s 2020 Annual Report

For more information, read about the Rio Grande Water Fund at their website and at Nature.Org.

Anne Bradley is the Forest Program Director at The Nature Conservancy in New Mexico.