Forests: A seemingly simple answer to confronting climate change and biodiversity loss

Nearly every day we’re surrounded by negative news about the accelerating rates of climate change and biodiversity loss.

Today, however, we not only have good news about a path to confronting those twin crises, but we also have a tangible tool to help us navigate that path towards success.

In one sense, it’s a surprisingly simple path – a path of forests.

We’ve always known that forests are a critical part of the climate solution, removing climate-changing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it in their trunks, branches, and roots. When forests are destroyed, that stored carbon not only gets released back into the atmosphere, but the potential for those forests to remove carbon dioxide in future years also disappears. When we lose forests, we lose their climate-protecting powers, forever.

Until now, there was scant data to determine just how much potential for carbon sequestration was lost from deforestation, particularly on small scales at state and municipal levels. And without this data, government agencies, conservation groups, and others lacked information about the value of protecting different lands for carbon sequestration.

The good news is we now have a tool that can provide that data.

Scientists with The Nature Conservancy and Clark University in Massachusetts have worked together to create a forest carbon analysis and online mapping tool that shows the potential of forests across the continental US to capture and store climate-changing carbon emissions for years to come, even on lands as small as one-quarter of an acre.

The carbon potential numbers identified in the analysis are meant to serve as baselines that land managers can use to determine how future actions and disturbances on forests will affect actual carbon sequestration. For example, many forests particularly in the Western US will fall short of their carbon potential because of wildfire or other disturbances. Conversely, ecological thinning and removing competing vegetation can help forests reach their full carbon storage potential.

Numerous states along the East Coast have already heralded the importance of having this data, saying it will help them prioritize landscapes for conservation, improve greenhouse gas accounting, identify opportunities for small landowners to participate in emerging carbon markets, and calculate how forest protection compares to other, sometimes more costly, means of removing and reducing carbon emissions.

Adding to this good news is the fact that the mapping tool shows that many of the forests with the highest potential to capture and store carbon into the future are also among the most important places for diverse species to find refuge from climate impacts.

These carbon “hotspots” are part of a network of lands that have been identified by The Nature Conservancy as having unique geological and topographical features – such as ravines, steep slopes, and diverse soil types – that create “microclimates” where species can find safe places to live as their habitats are altered or destroyed by climate impacts.

We can now identify forests we can’t afford to lose if we want to tackle climate change and the loss of biodiversity. This could be a game changer.

Lands along the Appalachian Mountains and the Pacific Northwest – including Washington state’s Hoh River, the Altamaha River corridor in Georgia, and the Cumberland Forests that span Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia – are among the lands that have been identified to have both high potential for carbon sequestration over the next 30 years, while also providing diverse plant and animal species refuge from floods, drought, and other threats of climate change.

To be sure, forest conservation alone will not stop climate change. The climate emergency requires myriad solutions. We need to dramatically transform the global economy to reduce emissions from all sectors, including energy, transportation, manufacturing, construction, and land use.

Science led by The Nature Conservancy has shown that natural climate solutions – such as conserving forests, improving soil health, protecting grasslands, and restoring coastal wetlands – are an important part of the solution and have the potential to remove 21% of the America’s carbon pollution.

Unfortunately, nearly 1 million acres of forest lands are lost across the continental US each year due to development and other uses. That is equivalent to losing more than 100 acres of forests each hour and, with them, decades of stored carbon as well as their future ability to store more.

This new mapping tool can provide the data we need to stop this trend and allow us to clearly quantify how we can confront two of the greatest threats facing the world today – climate change and biodiversity loss—by taking one seemingly simple yet powerful step: keep our forests as forests.

Dr. Mark Anderson is the Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Center for Resilient Conservation Science.

Climate Resilient Conservation on Atlanta’s West Side

Photo courtesy of HDR 2021 Paul Dingman

When many of us think of conservation and Natural Climate Solutions, cities may not be the first places that come to mind. We might imagine vast spaces like national parks, forest preserves, or coastal ecosystems. But conservation is not only the preservation of wilderness – it can also integrate into urban areas through city parks and thoughtful planning of the entire urban landscape. For some communities where green spaces are common, this comes as no surprise. But many neighborhoods, particularly communities of color, lack the benefits of a nearby greenspace. People of color are three times as likely to live somewhere that is nature-deprived than predominantly white communities. This “nature gap” leads to disproportionate health and economic impacts due to poor air quality, urban heat islands, limited exercise and recreation opportunities, and greater risks from severe weather. 

Cities around the United States are addressing this equity issue by listening at the local level, and the Trust for Public Land is helping communities plan for urban green spaces that provide numerous social, environmental, and climate benefits. One such example of urban conservation has taken place in the middle of west Atlanta’s historic Vine City neighborhood. The area has long been home to African American luminaries like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It sits adjacent to the nation’s oldest and largest association of historically Black colleges. It’s also been a “center of gravity for activism and leadership during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s,” and has been a “home for generations of Black scholars, business owners, and activists.”  

The neighborhood is also in a lower-lying area where Proctor Creek once flowed before it was channelized and buried in the early 1900s. As development expanded, naturally absorbent lands were replaced with pavement and other impervious surfaces that send stormwater into an already stretched stormwater system. All of these factors combined to put the neighborhood at increased risk for flooding during storms. In September 2002, days of heavy rainfall overwhelmed the sewer system and flooded hundreds of homes, many of which became uninhabitable. The cost of rebuilding the homes – and risks of a repeat flooding incident – were deemed too great, and city leaders decided to relocate residents and raze more than 60 properties.  

Photo Credit: Alex Jackson/The Trust for Public Land

The Trust for Public Land partnered with the City of Atlanta, the local community, and a network of generous donors, innovative consultants, and experienced contractors to create a space that will make the site and the surrounding community more resilient as storm events continue to become more significant and frequent. This was accomplished by creating a dynamic park that has the ability to collect and manage 9 million gallons of stormwater from the 160 acres adjacent to the site using innovative green infrastructure solutions. Without the park and its specialized green infrastructure, flooding would have continued to wreak havoc on this neighborhood.

This summer, the neighborhood completed this transformation from tragedy to triumph, as Vine City celebrated the opening of Cook Park. It is now a “gleaming new space of trees sprouting and gardens of native grasses and plants filling in their beds. Walking paths wind past new playground and exercise equipment centering a two-acre pond ringed with wildlife-friendly wetlands.”   

As with any successful conservation initiative, this project relied on partnerships and community engagement. The opportunity to work with Vine City and English Avenue residents, helping address these topics through the creation of a best-in-class park is a perfect example of how the process can be as important as the outcome. Through community festivals, neighborhood association and church gatherings and formal presentations, residents became vital partners to The Trust for Public Land and the City of Atlanta as we strived together to create a space that, in addition to reducing the risk of dangerous flooding, inspires physical activity, calms nerves and draws people together. 

Photo courtesy of HDR 2021 Paul Dingman

We are excited that the design, planning, and construction of the park positioned it well to become a center-point for outcome-based, health-focused recreation services and planned fitness programming when it finally opened. Over the project’s six-year lifespan so far, we have partnered with a number of small, neighborhood-based or neighborhood-focused organizations to provide health-centric programming. Urban Perform, the Arthur M. Blank YMCA, and Chris 180, to name a few, are poised to use climbing boulders, sport courts, and fitness equipment as soon as social distancing restrictions are lifted. The relationships we have formed with neighborhood groups and individual residents have allowed a more efficient and inclusive transition from design to construction to stewardship.  

Lastly, while not the primary goal, the park can also help mitigate climate change by planting trees. Research by University College London has shown that urban forests can store nearly as much carbon per hectare as tropical rainforests. In the U.S., the top 100 largest U.S. cities alone contain approximately 2 million acres of city park space; collectively these conservation efforts add up to make a big difference. And with Cook Park, Atlanta is one step closer to its goal of putting a great park within a 10-minute walk of every resident. 

For more information on Cook Park and the Trust for Public Land:  

Large Landscape Conservation: Pine Mountain Wildlands Corridor

Pine Mountain – Bad Branch – © Scott Hotaling

Conservation of large intact landscapes is essential to protecting biodiversity and maintaining ecosystem functions and resilience. “When we look at protecting high biodiversity regions within landscapes that are considered to be climate resilient, there’s an opportunity to take local action that really transcends to global significance,” says Greg Abernathy of the Kentucky Natural Lands Trust (KNLT). Through the Pine Mountain Wildlands Corridor, KNLT is working to connect existing protected areas along Pine Mountain to form a 125-mile contiguous forested migratory corridor in Central Appalachia from Virginia through Kentucky to Tennessee. The project is part a larger continental scale conservation effort known as the Eastern Wildway.

Large forest tracts are important to safeguarding plant and animal populations and are vital to the overall health of the forest itself. Healthy protected forests serve as natural carbon sinks, storing huge amounts of carbon and keeping it out of the atmosphere. The U.S. Forest Service has found that, on average, American forests store 158,000 pounds per acre of carbon (above and belowground), and each tree continues to sequester additional carbon annually throughout its lifespan. With 180,000 total acres in the Pine Mountain Wildlands Corridor, the EPA’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator estimates that this area alone accounts for the emissions from more than 1.7 million homes for one year. 

Central Appalachia, including Pine Mountain, is a region considered to be one of the most biologically diverse temperate zone forests on the entire planet. This biodiverse forest is home to thousands of species of plants and animals, species that are foundational to the life support system on planet Earth. The region is also considered to be climate resilient – thus the ecosystems, plants and animals found here are better positioned to adapt and persist in the face of climate change. The forests of this region are a globally significant carbon sink, and their protection is critical to addressing the climate crisis.

American black bear – © Marc Evans, KNLT

Central Appalachia has a history of extensive resource extraction, including limestone and coal mining, logging, and natural gas drilling. Forest conversion and fragmentation resulting from these activities impacts overall ecosystem health. The region is also undergoing a generational shift in landowners that is further fragmenting the ownership of these wild places making conservation much more complex. Although free of merchantable coal, extraction remains a threat to Pine Mountain, however, conservation and the resulting public lands are becoming a valued asset as the region transitions to a more diversified and sustainable economy.

Large landscape conservation depends on the power of partnership. Through a public-private partnership, KNLT and its conservation partners have protected over 69,000 acres — nearly 40% of Pine Mountain. The result is a matrix of conservation lands that protect vital habitat and headwater streams while providing outdoor recreation opportunities. The primary conservation tool used on Pine Mountain is direct purchase of land from willing sellers. Acquisition and protection of these wildlands is only possible with funding which has come from a mixture of private philanthropy, foundations, government agencies and mitigation funds. 

Science-driven and Community-minded Conservation

Pine Mountain – Blanton Forest – © Gerry James, Explore Kentucky Initiative

Pine Mountain Wildlands Corridor project is a great example of KNLT’s science-driven and community-minded conservation. The project serves as a natural climate solution that mitigates both local and regional climate threats while providing additional environmental, social, and economic benefits, all of which are foundational to the pillars that drive KNLT’s work:

Biodiversity: The foundation of life on the Planet is dependent upon intact ecologically functioning natural systems. Pine Mountain has some of the most biodiverse forests in the state and is within Central Appalachia, home to one of the most biodiverse temperate zone forests on Earth. These forests are vital carbon sinks.

Climate Resilience: Central Appalachia, including Pine Mountain, is a geography with an extremely varied landscape that is considered to be climate resilient. The plants, animals and intact natural systems found here are better positioned to adapt and persist in the face of climate change.

Just Transition: Protected wild places are important to cultural, human, and economic health. Conservation lands foster outdoor recreation, tourism, and livability for local communities. Wildlands are vital to communities undergoing economic transition, like what is unfolding throughout Central Appalachia.

Watch this video from Kentucky Natural Lands Trust on Biodiversity and Climate Resilience to learn more.

Kentucky Natural Lands Trust is a nationally accredited nonprofit that has protected over 50,000 acres of wildlands from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky to the sloughs of Western Kentucky. Learn more by visiting:

Conservation is Climate Action

Photo Credit: Preston Keres/USDA

For a challenge as great as climate change, there are no silver bullets. Right now, much of the conversation on solutions focuses on curbing greenhouse gas emissions through investment in renewable energy, electric vehicles, and low-carbon construction. These are vital strategies for addressing climate change, but the critical role conservation of natural and working lands plays in mitigating climate change is often left out of this discussion.

There are many benefits associated with land and water conservation. Taking action to protect and restore our forests, grasslands and coastal wetlands provides habitat for wildlife, improves water quality, and makes communities more resilient to extreme weather and storm events – all while creating jobs. At the same time, conservation is an important climate change strategy. Forests, grasslands and coastal wetlands draw in and store carbon from the atmosphere. Conservation actions can increase how much these ecosystems take in and prevent the carbon they already store from being released.

U.S. Nature4Climate is highlighting conservation success stories that illustrate how conservation action is climate action. Conservation is a climate strategy that can take place everywhere – from America’s vast sagebrush steppe to New England’s lush forests. We will highlight the benefits of conserving coastal ecosystems, like salt marshes and forested tidal wetlands. These “blue carbon” ecosystems have the potential to store up to 25 million tons of carbon dioxide a year, while also providing habitat for fish and other marine species, stabilizing shorelines, and supporting recreational and commercial fishing.

Additions to and sustainable management of America’s national parks, forests, monuments, and wildlife refuges are a key part of our conservation and climate action story too. For instance, the Angeles National Forests provides clean water, access to nature, and jobs. At the same time, the area’s shrublands and forests store carbon equivalent to taking 2.5 million cars off the road for a year .

We will also recognize the important role that private landowners can play in our efforts to conserve lands and waters. Farmers and ranchers who sustainably manage their lands provide habitat for wildlife and sequester carbon. For example, rancher John Reed worked with The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to place a conservation easement on his land – protecting important native grassland from development.

We will highlight the leadership provided by Indigenous communities in actualizing the climate benefits of conservation action. For example, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation implemented a climate change strategy on reservation land that helps protect ecologically important whitebark pine trees. In addition to capturing carbon, these trees provide food sources for grizzly bears and help protect water supplies to surrounding communities. Through a combination of tree planting and controlled burns, the Salish and Kootenai Tribes are helping whitebark pines survive and thrive.

Even urban parks have a role to play and can sequester nearly as much carbon per acre as tropical rainforests. Any individual park’s impact may be small, but with more than 20,000 city parks nationwide, the collective benefits add up. Meanwhile, innovative conservation projects – like Atlanta’s recently completed Cook Park – support urban infrastructure to manage water during storm surges, provide shade to cool urban heat islands, and ensure more equitable access to nature and recreation for millions of people

So yes, conservation is climate action.

Please visit our new Conservation IS Climate Action campaign page, and the U.S. Nature4Climate blog to learn more about the powerful role conservation can play in addressing climate change.

Andy Jackson is a Research & Communications Fellow at U.S. Nature4Climate.

Conserving and Restoring Whitebark Pine

Whitebark Pine. Photo Credit: Quinn Lowrey

Whitebark pine is a scraggly tree that few people ever see, given that it only grows upwards of 6,000 feet. But it is one of the most important tree species in the western United States. Grizzly bears, for example, fill up almost exclusively on whitebark pine seeds before going into hibernation. High-elevation trees and plants can’t grow to full size unless there are whitebark pines nearby to block the wind. And the water supply for people in the western U.S. is dependent, in part, on whitebark pine.

Given the value of this tree species, it’s troubling to know there are more dead whitebark pine trees than live ones in this country, according to the U.S. Forest Service. There are so few left that whitebark pine is a candidate species under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and is listed as endangered in Canada. 

Many of the forests where the trees once grew are referred to as “ghost forests,” given the large number of standing dead trees.

They have fallen victim to a non-native fungus, white pine blister rust, that prevents the flow of nutrients within the tree. They also have been hit hard by climate change, which has brought longer periods of dry, warm weather — ideal conditions for intense wildfires and an insect, mountain pine beetle, that attacks mature whitebark pines. Under normal conditions, this tree would live for more than 200 years. Some have lived for more than 1,000 years.

Nowhere is the plight of whitebark pine more evident than the Crown of the Continent, the18 million-acre mountainous region that spans northern Montana, as well as Canada’s southern Alberta and British Columbia provinces, and includes Glacier National Park. Only one in 10 whitebark pine trees in this region is untouched by blister rust.

There are five other “Hi5” tree species — so named because they only grow at high elevations and their needles are attached to branches in groups of five — in the western U.S. that are in decline. But whitebark pine is in the most danger and is the canary in the coal mine for other Hi5s.

Brian Kittler of American Forests and healthy whitebark pine on the Whitefish Mountain Resort. Photo Credit: Jenny Nichols/American Forests

The first-ever whitebark pine restoration plan for the Crown of the Continent is in the final stage of development and already has buy-in from a diverse group that includes tribal members, skiers, federal and state agencies, conservationists (including US Nature4Climate member American Forests), academics and others. The plan will prioritize what parts of the forest need to be restored and the climate-smart practices we need to use to restore them.

A key partner in this undertaking is northern Montana’s Whitefish Mountain Resort, one of the top-rated ski resorts in the country and a popular spot for hiking and mountain biking in the warmer months. The resort might seem like an unusual bedfellow for an endangered forest, but it’s a perfect fit. Scientists, conservationists, U.S Forest Service staff and others use the resort’s chair lifts in the winter to get to the top of the mountain, where they then ski to stands of whitebark pine trees to do their work. In the warmer months, the backcountry roads and trails managed by the resort make it easier for them to drive into the forests. 

In 2016, Whitefish was the first resort in the country to become certified by the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation as a whitebark pine-friendly ski resort. It was recognized for how it helps the U.S. Forest Service and others, as well as what it does to educate the general public about whitebark pine.

“The chairlift is a great opportunity to teach people about whitebark pine,” says former resort Public Relations Manager Riley Polumbus. “They can see it when we are riding up the lift together.”

Skiers enjoy the abundant snows that the whitebark pine forest helps to retain. The Whitefish Mountain Resort works with the U.S. Forest Service on whitebark pine restoration. Photo Credit: Morgan Heim/American Forests

What many people are interested in learning, after hearing about the dire circumstances this tree species faces, is what this means for them. Without whitebark, skiers would be more likely to get lost when skiing in foggy conditions, as whitebark pines — one of the few trees at high elevations — help guide the way. And they would be less likely to quench their thirst, given that whitebark pine holds snow in place in the winter (thanks to its candelabra-shaped wide crown that provides shade, which slows snowmelt) and gradually releases it into rivers in the warmer months. The river water eventually becomes drinking water.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation also is a key player. It manages the 1.3 million-acre Flathead Indian Reservation — 10 percent of which is whitebark pine forest.

The tribal members’ deep and centuries-old connection to the land is what motivates them to invest time and money in caring for the forest.

The tribe created a forest management plan in the 1990s that includes goals for whitebark pine. They have been following the plan ever since it was approved in 2000. But the true relevance and urgency behind the plan did not become apparent until 2013, when people on the reservation started to visibly notice changes in the forest, many of which they attributed to climate change. For example, trees that typically grew at low elevations were moving up the mountain, to cooler climates, where they were outcompeting trees that were already there.

That’s when they decided to create a climate change strategy to supplement the forest management plan.

James Lozeau is part of the team working to restore whitebark pine at the Flathead Reservation in Montana. He stores seeds harvested in the mountains of the Flathead reservation.
Photo Credit: Morgan Heim/American Forests.

The strategy incorporates forestry practices similar to those being used by the U.S. Forest Service, such as caging cones on “plus trees.” Tribal members have collected thousands of seeds from the cones they have caged in the last few years and have already planted more than 2,000 trees from those seeds on 9 acres.

But their work goes beyond planting trees, an approach American Forests refers to as “carbon offense” because the new trees capture carbon. They also play “carbon defense” to prevent forests from degrading and, then, releasing carbon when large and intense wildfires, as well as other events, occur.

For this tribe, the best carbon defense play is purposefully setting fires — called controlled burns — that eliminate trees that naturally would not be in a certain part of the forest. For whitebark pine, a tree that does not grow well in shade, that means removing other types of trees that block the sun. The fires, which are low intensity and only at ground level, also prevent a build-up of vegetation that is essentially fuel for what can become an out of control and intense wildfire.

Controlled burns were common on the reservation until 100 or so years ago, when fire got a bad name and, therefore, suppressing fires became the norm.

“Our elders have been telling us for years to stop putting out fires,” says Tony Incashola, Jr., who oversees the tribe’s forestry agency. “Fire is natural. Back in the day, people did not have tools. Fire was their only tool for managing forests. People knew how to burn, what to burn and when to burn.”

It is forward-thinking forest restoration like this from tribes and companies – as well as others – that will help ensure whitebark pine can provide benefits to people and wildlife well into the future.

Jill Schwartz is the Vice President of Marketing and Communications at American Forests.

How Climate Action Can Reboot Economies in Rural America

Photo Credit: Mark Alexander/iStock

Many rural counties in the United States face the dual challenges of lagging economic growth and increasingly severe effects of climate change. While urban areas are not uniformly prosperous and rural areas are not uniformly poor, rural communities on average lag behind their urban counterparts on most key economic indicators — from poverty rates to labor force participation. Rural areas represent 86% of persistent poverty counties in the U.S., while over 50% of rural Black residents live in economically distressed counties.

These challenges have been intensified by economic losses from the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated existing inequalities and highlighted urgent infrastructure needs. At the same time, catastrophic wildfires, record heatwaves, drought and other severe weather events linked to climate change threaten rural communities and livelihoods.

Addressing both the climate crisis and lagging economic vitality will require federal investment in building a new climate economy for rural America — one that reduces greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero while creating jobs, uplifting economically disadvantaged communities, and enhancing ecosystem services. This opportunity is already being realized in targeted regions (clean energy is a growing economic engine for many rural communities) and federal policymakers now have the opportunity to dramatically expand on this progress.

New WRI analysis finds that an annual federal investment of nearly $15 billion in key areas of the rural new climate economy would create hundreds of thousands of jobs in rural communities, add billions of dollars of value to rural economies, and generate millions in new tax revenues. This investment would help combat the economic stagnation confronting many rural areas and ensure that the benefits of the transition to a net-zero economy are widely distributed.

Understanding Rural Economic Opportunity by Area and Geography

In this new paper, we analyzed the impact of $55 billion per year in federal investment in seven areas of the new climate economy over at least five years. These include investments in renewable energy; energy efficiency; transmission, distribution, and storage (TDS); environmental remediation of abandoned fossil fuel infrastructure; tree restoration on federal and non-federal lands; and wildfire risk management. An estimated $14.9 billion of that investment (27%) would be directed to rural America.

That investment would support nearly 260,000 direct, indirect and induced jobs for at least five years in rural counties (a total of 1.3 million job-years) and 740,000 jobs for five years in the country as a whole (a total of 3.7 million job-years). This equates to 17.5 jobs per $1 million invested in rural counties.

The results also indicate that new climate economy federal investment in rural areas would offer an attractive return on investment by adding $21.7 billion per year to rural economies for the first five years — $1.46 for every dollar invested. This includes $12.9 billion in employee compensation and $1.6 billion in federal, state and local tax revenues. The figure below shows the distribution of economic benefits across the seven investment areas.

Rural Economic Impacts by Investment Area (each year for first five years)

* Results in the table are for rural counties only. For the purposes of this analysis, we use Rural-Urban Continuum Codes developed by the USDA Economic Research Service to delineate rural areas. This geographic-economic classification scheme distinguishes between two broad types of regions: metropolitan counties (codes 1-3) and non-metropolitan counties (codes 4-9). This analysis considers all non-metropolitan counties to be rural. Source: The Economic Benefits of New Climate Economy in Rural America, 2021

Job creation benefits would be widely dispersed across the country’s rural areas and vary by sector depending on regional economic factors. The top five states seeing the most significant impacts in terms of job creation relative to the size of local rural economies would be California, Massachusetts, New Mexico, Wyoming and Nevada.

California, New Mexico and Nevada would benefit most substantially from wildfire risk management investment. Massachusetts and Nevada, by contrast, would benefit largely from investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and grid transmission and distribution.

The analysis shows the geographic distribution of rural job creation potential (measured as jobs created in a rural county per 1,000 private sector workers, aggregated at the state level) from federal investment in each of the seven areas analyzed. Different investment areas naturally impact regions differently depending on local economic factors and where opportunities are located.

For instance, Massachusetts, California, Nevada, Maryland and Illinois would see the most job creation benefits from federal investments in renewable energy, while rural counties in Pennsylvania, Kansas, West Virginia, Kentucky and Wyoming would benefit most from investments in environmental remediation of orphaned oil and gas wells and abandoned coal mines. The latter is particularly important given that these are the same regions that have seen significant job losses due to the phasing out of coal generation. Investment in these regions can therefore help ensure a more just economic transition.

Rural counties in Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and New Mexico are expected to see the highest levels of job creation from investment in tree restoration on federal lands, while those in Missouri, Ohio, South Dakota, Michigan and Wisconsin would benefit most from investment in tree restoration, including agroforestry, on state, local and private lands.

Direct and Indirect Benefits of Rural Investment in the New Climate Economy

Federal investments in the rural new climate economy would also provide benefits beyond job creation. Wind energy can help farmers and landowners earn money, providing additional income support and enhancing financial stability during lean times. Energy efficiency projects can help reduce energy bills for rural households by as much as 25%, representing more than $400 in annual household savings.

Investments in wildfire risk mitigation can help reduce the danger that catastrophic wildfires pose to rural communities and forests — an important point given that western wildfires are becoming more frequent and more destructive. In 2018 alone, wildfires in California cost the U.S. economy 0.7% of the nation’s annual GDP, highlighting the need to invest in measures that can help mitigate fire risks.

Local tax payments generated from these projects also provide much-needed revenue to rural communities for investing in new and improved infrastructure including roads, bridges and schools. In some cases, when a renewable energy project comes to a rural area, it is the largest single taxpayer in the county and accounts for a large share of the county’s budget.

Potential Impact on Economically Disadvantaged Rural Communities

To enable a new climate economy that supports economic wellbeing in all communities, federal investment in the seven areas described above must support the nation’s most economically disadvantaged rural communities.

The new climate economy opportunities described previously could create more than 118,000 jobs for at least five years (a total of 590,000 job-years) in these counties, resulting in over $9.8 billion added to these rural economies annually, including $5.9 billion in employee compensation and $685 million in total taxes.

Economically disadvantaged rural counties in California, Texas, New Mexico, Missouri and Kentucky stand to benefit the most in terms of total jobs supported by federal investment in the seven focus areas of this analysis.

Federal Investment in the New Climate Economy Could Significantly Benefit Economically Disadvantaged Rural Counties

While this job creation is significant, representing approximately 45% of job creation potential from investment in the seven areas of the new climate economy, more needs to be done to ensure economic benefits reach the areas where they are most needed.

Actions on this front could include: workforce training programs in the energy and land sectors with employment guarantees; measures to make clean energy affordable for low-income households; grant programs to support local businesses and nonprofit organizations; and requirements that new program designs be collaborative, inclusive and accessible to all workers.

Federal Policies Can Support a Rural New Climate Economy

The federal government has an opportunity to enact and expand policies that will drive investments in the new climate economy, creating jobs and bolstering rural economies in the process. Fully activating the opportunities analyzed in each of the seven areas would require a suite of federal policies, which could support a larger federal plan for rebuilding infrastructure and mitigating climate change.

The current push by Congress and the Biden administration to invest in the country’s ailing infrastructure and tackle the climate crisis represents the most promising political moment in years to support a new climate economy in rural America.

The proposed American Jobs Plan, representing the administration’s basis for negotiations with Congress on infrastructure, would provide historic levels of federal funding for places that have faced declining economic opportunities.

Several policy provisions of the American Jobs Plan — including investments in transmission lines, rural electric cooperatives to advance low-cost clean energy in rural communities, plugging orphan wells and cleaning up abandoned coal mines, and forest restoration — have the potential to create jobs and spur broad-based economic growth

The investments considered in our analysis, however, will likely not be sufficient on their own to recruit and train the workforce necessary to implement new climate economy pathways.

The policies recommended here will also need to include mechanisms to ensure that jobs created provide minimal barriers to entry, are well-paid, offer opportunities for stable employment and benefits, and support unionization. These components will help ensure that the new climate economy will not just create jobs, but sustain worker and community well-being and create equitable opportunities for all.

Federal policy opportunities by investment area

Renewable energyExtend investment tax credits and production tax credits for renewable energy

Reauthorize tax incentives for clean energy manufacturing facilities through section 48C of the tax code

Expand grant and loan programs that help rural communities finance renewable energy, including the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Energy for America Program (REAP)
Energy efficiencyExtend tax incentives for efficiency upgrades in homes and residential buildings, including the existing homes tax credit (tax code sec. 25C) and new homes tax credit (sec. 45L)

Extend tax incentives for efficiency upgrades in new and existing commercial buildings (sec. 179D)

Boost funding level for block grant programs that channel money directly to state and local agencies for efficiency upgrades, including the Weatherization Assistance Program, State Energy Program, and Energy Efficiency Conservation Block Grants program, and create a comparable program for industrial facilities

Expand grant and loan programs targeted at rural communities, including the USDA REAP program, Energy Efficiency Conservation Loan Program, and Rural Energy Savings Program
Transmission, distribution, and storageCreate tax credits to incentivize the build out of transmission projects that are regionally significant and can enable renewable energy integration on the grid and stand-alone energy storage technologies

Reauthorize tax credits to incentivize domestic clean energy manufacturing facilities (sec. 48C)

Reauthorize the Department of Energy’s Smart Grid Investment Grant program to promote investments in smart grid technologies

Authorize the Department of Transportation to make transmission infrastructure projects, especially those that emphasize the integration of renewable energy, eligible under the Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loan guarantee program

Expand loans and loan guarantees through USDA Electric Infrastructure Loan & Loan Guarantee to help finance transmission and distribution systems in rural areas

Create a program to provide grants and technical assistance to rural electric cooperatives to deploy energy storage and microgrid technologies
Environmental remediation of abandoned fossil fuel infrastructureIncrease federal funding to clean up abandoned coal mine sites

Create a new program for plugging and remediation at orphaned oil and gas well sites
Tree restoration on federal landsRemove the funding cap on the Reforestation Trust Fund

Increase appropriations for programs that fund restoration projects on federal land
Tree restoration on non-federal landsImplement a refundable or transferable tax credit for natural carbon sequestration

Enhance USDA conservation programs to incentivize natural carbon sequestration and reduce transaction costs for landowners, especially underserved landowners

Provide additional funding through state and local grants and the State and Private Forestry programs of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS)
Source: The Economic Benefits of New Climate Economy in Rural America, 2021 

Rural America’s Crucial Role in U.S. Climate Change Policies

Rural America will be indispensable in enabling the country to reach net-zero emissions: rural farmers, ranchers, and forest owners manage large segments of lands that hold enormous opportunities for climate mitigation. Rural areas are also crucial for clean energy development: 99% of all onshore wind capacity in the country is located in rural areas, as is the majority of utility-scale solar capacity.

U.S. climate policy, informed by the unique needs and context of rural America, can not only harness the power of rural communities to address climate change but also generate significant economic opportunities for these communities. This approach will be essential to helping the nation meet ambitious decarbonization goals while creating millions of good jobs across the country.  

This article was originally published by the World Resources Institute.

In the Wake of IPCC Report, U.S. Nature4Climate Supports Bold Climate Action to Address Climate Change

Photo Credit: Karsten Würth

On August 9th, 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its 6th report on climate change, summarizing the most up-to-date science on the impacts of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.  This report serves as a dire warning to humanity should we fail to take immediate action to reduce these emissions. We are already experiencing the consequences of climate change, with record heat, wildfires, historic drought and flooding impacting nearly every part of the United States. As the IPCC report states, these climate-related disasters will only become more common as the planet continues to warm.

According to Katharine Hayhoe, Chief Scientist for The Nature Conservancy, “Scientists have predicted the likelihood of accelerating climate change for more than a century now – yet too often their warnings have been disregarded. My hope is that the rigor, transparency, and unprecedented urgency of this latest IPCC report will make it simply impossible to ignore.”

In order to avoid subjecting future generations to the catastrophic impacts of unabated climate change, we must pursue every mitigation strategy at our disposal. This necessarily begins with massive and sustained investment in renewable energy and carbon-free transportation. It is impossible to stop climate change without first taking action to reduce, and ultimately end, the release of immense quantities of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. 

The U.S. Nature4Climate coalition supports efforts to decarbonize our energy and transportation sectors and eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels. We also believe that America’s natural and working lands can play an important role in helping to achieve our long-term climate goals. Natural Climate Solutions are a critical compliment to economy-wide action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – not a substitute for these efforts.

The science is clear – climate-smart management of America’s public lands, as well as privately owned farms, forests and ranches, can help remove millions of tons of carbon from the atmosphere. As Lucy Almond, the Chair of the Global Nature4Climate coalition states, “If we rapidly reduce emissions in line with the most ambitious IPCC pathways, natural carbon sinks and reduction of sources can do a lot to help take us the rest of the way to net zero.”

Over the past year, U.S. Nature4Climate has worked to highlight the many cross-cutting benefits of these climate-smart land management strategies. In addition to naturally removing carbon from the atmosphere, Natural Climate Solutions create jobs, enhance wildlife habitat and make our coastlines, forests, farms and cities more resilient to fire, flooding and drought. While these solutions are practical, relatively low cost, and available now, widescale adaptation will require both public and private investment in workforce development, training, technical assistance and mechanisms to incentivize action by private landowners.

My hope is that IPCC’s recent report spurs every jurisdiction, company, organization and individual to invest as much as possible in a just, equitable and comprehensive set of strategies for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. Let’s get to work.

Catherine Macdonald is the North America Director of Natural Climate Solutions at The Nature Conservancy and the Chair of the USN4C Steering Committee.

The Interconnections Between Biodiversity and Climate

Photo Credit: Laurie Andrews, Jackson Hole Land Trust.

Climate change intertwined with the alarming loss of biodiversity we are tracking today represent some of the gravest challenges we face as a society.

Land trusts — which often work at the intersection of people and nature — are no strangers to these challenges. They know that climate change exacerbates risks to biodiversity and natural systems. And they know these same ecosystems play a key role in both climate adaptation and the fluctuation of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Now there’s new scientific affirmations of those points.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a collaborative report on biodiversity and climate change. This work represents a hopeful step toward recognizing that only by considering climate and biodiversity as parts of the same complex problem will we be able to maximize beneficial outcomes.

In short, the report warns that actions narrowly focused to fight climate change can harm nature and vice versa. But many measures exist that can make significant positive contributions in both areas. Among the most important actions identified in the report are:

  • stopping the loss and degradation of carbon- and species-rich ecosystems on land and in the ocean, especially forests, wetlands, peatlands, grasslands and savannahs, along with coastal ecosystems;
  • restoring carbon- and species-rich ecosystems, especially since restoration is among the cheapest and quickest nature-based climate mitigation measures to implement;
  • increasing sustainable agricultural and forestry practices to improve the land’s capacity to adapt to climate change, enhance biodiversity, increase carbon storage and reduce emissions; and
  • eliminating subsidies that support local and national activities harmful to biodiversity.

As a community, land conservationists have an opportunity and an obligation to highlight the interconnections between biodiversity and climate, along with their joint relationship with human activities and well-being. The importance of this work cannot be overstated.

If your organization is ready to use your voice to shine a light on this issue, check out the Land Trust Alliance’s new online climate communications guidance. This resource is designed to help your organization create and refine a climate change communication strategy that is right for you and your community. If you have and questions about it, please don’t hesitate to email me.

Kelly Watkinson is land and climate program manager at the Land Trust Alliance.

Originally published as a part of the Land Trust Alliance’s quarterly Re: Climate blog.

The Economic Lifeblood of Trees

Photo Credit: Michael Mardon/American Forests.

Suzanne Radford knows the power of forests to help heal the sick and stressed. Those incredible capabilities enabled her to turn a passion for nature into a career. She now guides and coaches people in ways to use the sights, sounds and smells of the woods to create a sense of calm — something referred to as “forest bathing.”

Radford is one of many people starting to realize that trees and, more broadly, forests are an engine for job creation. More than 106,000 people in the United States work directly with forests in jobs, such as conservation scientist, forest manager and logger, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But many more have jobs that are linked to forests in less obvious ways. From science teachers to whiskey barrel makers to artists, people in myriad professions need forests and trees. In cities, park planners design urban oases that revolve around trees and the benefits they provide people. Sculptors carve wood reclaimed from old buildings into beautiful items that can be sold. And what would wildlife photographers do without forests that provide habitat for countless animals and birds?

Forests aren’t just something pretty to look at or walk through. They are the economic lifeblood for an increasing number of people in the United States.

Forest Bathing Guide

Lying on the trunk of an oak tree, Radford listens to a soundscape of birdsong and insects humming. A growing body of research shows that time spent in nature helps boost people’s moods and reduces anxiety and stress. Companies hire her as a nature coach to help their employees manage stress through time spent outdoors.

Photo Credit: Michael Mardon.

Suzanne Radford is a certified forest bathing guide and forest therapy practitioner. She helps people connect to nature through excursions in the Serra de Monchique mountain range of the Iberian Peninsula in Southern Portugal. Years ago, Radford discovered a secret waterfall in a forest she frequently visits. Now she offers her clients a chance to sit beside water, watch its movement and flow and listen as it cascades over the rocks. She encourages forest bathers to imagine the role the waterfall plays in feeding the mountain and surrounding forest, and to let the water wash over their hands and feet.

Production Arborist

Benyah Andressohn was 6 when he started climbing trees. Little did he know he would find his calling up in those branches. In high school he wanted a job that would pose a daily challenge, change the environment and allow him to use his brain. Becoming an arborist made perfect sense.

Photo Credit: Day’s Edge Productions / American Forests.
Photo Credit: Day’s Edge Productions / American Forests

Andressohn works for True Tree Service in Miami, where he is a production arborist, trained to safely ascend and descend trees in order to care for them. Our cities need many more like him. Urban forestry is expected to see a 10% increase in job openings for entry-level positions by 2028.

Park Planner

Once they have identified a site for a park, planners like Clement Lau create a vision for the space. Here is his rendering of a pocket park proposed for Walnut Park, a community in Los Angeles County with very few trees and parks compared to other communities. Once grown, the trees included here will help improve air quality and cool down the neighborhood on hot days. Credit: Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation.

Photo Credit: Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation.

As a park planner for the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation, Clement Lau analyzes data, such as demographics, existing parkland, trees and transportation, to determine which unincorporated areas need parks the most. In places like Los Angeles County, parks are considered key infrastructure for quality of life, and trees are a major component of park planning.

 Here, Lau enjoys an afternoon at Arcadia County Park, which he frequents with his family. Photo Credit: Susan Lau.

Wood Sculptor

Canadian-based sculptor Patricia Aitkenhead’s carved animals make popular pendants and totems. But her business started with a classic debate: cats or dogs? As a way to settle the issue, she crafted a chess set comprised of a team of cats and a team of dogs. She chose breeds with traits she thought might fit their position on the board. Here, these pugs are the pawns.

Photo Credit: Patrick L. Whalen.

Barrel Makers

Securing top and bottom barrel heads is one of the last touches in barrel production. Here, an employee at Kentucky Cooperage is placing the head hoop on a barrel.

Photo Credit: Independent Stave Company.

Oak barrels being charred at Kentucky Cooperage in Lebanon, Ky. The charred American oak barrel is a cornerstone of American whiskey, and white oaks specifically are used in the aging of bourbon. Barrel makers char spirit barrels to create flavor, color, aroma, a char layer that acts as a filter, and to break down the wood cell walls so the spirit can extract flavors from the oak.

Wildlife Photographer

Richard Cronberg has been photographing wildlife for 40 years and sells his photos commercially in art shows, fundraising events, retail stores and online. Perhaps best known for his bird photos, Cronberg here is capturing a group of Snow and Ross’s Geese taking flight at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge in California.

Photo Credit: Russell Cronberg.

Here, Cronberg has photographed a northern pygmy owl, which make their homes in dense forests near streams in Canada, the United States and Mexico. Songbirds are the northern pygmy owl’s favorite meal, so it can often be found near a group of agitated songbirds that gather to scold it. Photo Credit: Richard Cronberg.

The tree swallow, found throughout much of North America, makes its nests in the cavities of trees. But when it emerges, this beautiful acrobatic bird chases flying insects through fields and wetlands. Photo Credit: Richard Cronberg.

This article was originally written for American Forests Magazine.