Biden's Infrastructure Bill Will Try and Rebuild America's Forests

Biden administration makes room for regrowth after years of forest fires but some groups say this isn’t enough.

Aug 5 2021, 1:00pm

Wildfires have destroyed an average of 7 -million acres of American forest every year since 2000. This fragments ecosystems, kills off wildlife, and shrinks our best natural weapon against greenhouse gas emissions: trees. The latest version of the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill (HR 3684), released on Sunday, is taking aim at growing some of this back.

The 2,700-page document, which is headed to a vote in the Senate this week, proposes allocating several billion in funding for reforestation, community-based wildfire mitigation, native species protection and the study of opportunities to regrow vegetation in abandoned mines. It also includes the Repairing Existing Public Land by Adding Necessary Trees (REPLANT) Act, which frees up federal funding for reforestation efforts.

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At least $5.75 billion of the bill is devoted to restoring trees, plants, and ecosystems following what E&E News reported Tuesday has been a tense debate over the definition of “infrastructure.” At various points in the talks over the bipartisan package, Republicans weighed removing childcare and electric vehicles from consideration in the legislation, for example. The published bill draft reflects collective agreement that trees are infrastructure and vital to the functioning of American society.

“This bipartisan infrastructure bill is really unprecedented in the way it has embraced America's forests, including our national forests, as part of the nation's infrastructure,” said Jad Daley, president and CEO of American Forests, a nonprofit conservation organization. “At this moment in time, we have never needed that infrastructure more.” 

Beyond the allocation of funding, the bill also makes strides in restoration through policy steps, including the REPLANT) Act, which removes a 1980 cap on how much funding from wood import tariffs the US Forest Service (USFS) can use for regrowing trees. As per a limit on the Reforestation Trust Fund—which was established “when a carton of eggs cost 84 cents,” Daly said—the USFS is only permitted to use $30 million from wood import tariffs for reforestation in the US, leaving an estimated $93 million untouched. 

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Lifting this cap to release additional funds for reforestation would open up 4 million backlogged acres of national forest that are sitting ready for reforestation, according to American Forests, which has pushed for the passage of the REPLANT Act since its inception in March. The group estimates that passing the Act via the Infrastructure Package would generate nearly 49,000 jobs and capture enough carbon dioxide to offset 85.3 billion gallons of gasoline. 

The current draft also breaks down millions in funding for wildfire mitigation and prevention, including $20 million for research on satellite-based fire detection; $600 million in salaries for federal wildland firefighters; $500 million in developing and installing fuel breaks (strips of vegetation that have been altered to slow fire spread); and $500 million in funding to establish a Community Wildfire Defense Grant Program, which will offer financial gifts to communities facing significant wildfire risk for prevention and response plans.

The bill also allocates $2.1 billion to ecosystem restoration and resilience between 2022 and 2026, with the goal of restoring at least 10,000 acres of federal land. $200 million of this is devoted to restoration efforts led by Indigenous communities on Federal lands; $200 million is dedicated to the detection and eradication of invasive species that can overtake an ecosystem; while the same amount has been allocated for restoring native species. 

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Trees are Earth’s first defense against carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. America’s carbon sinks, including its forests, offset an estimated 12 percent of greenhouse gas emissions through the process of photosynthesis, which requires carbon dioxide and water to generate glucose (used for plant energy) and oxygen. This carbon is then stored in soil and forest biomass, like branches, roots, and leaves.

But record wildfires and decades of megadrought conditions across the western US have threatened the country’s tree stock, leaving us increasingly vulnerable to the effects of climate change without a natural sink to chip away at the emissions that contribute to global warming. Stretches of burned down forest then increase the risk of further climate disaster, as empty swaths of land are likely victims of flash floods and mudslides

“We have national forests that have become national burn scars, where the land is sitting there, damage is unrepaired,” Daly said. “We [want to] get all the good stuff back from those damaged lands so that they start sequestering carbon again, and they become active filtration again for our water supplies and wildlife habitat.” 

Critics have said the infrastructure bill, as a whole, doesn’t do enough to protect the planet. Championed by a bipartisan group of Senators including Kyrsten Sinema (D - AZ) and Rob Portman (D - OH), the bipartisan proposal is soon to be followed by a $3.5-trillion spending plan from Democrats predicted to have more in the way of meaningful climate policy, like emissions reduction requirements.  

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The Infrastructure bill also allocates several billion dollars to non-biological forms of carbon capture, like facilities that remove and distill carbon dioxide directly from power plants and pump it back into the ground for storage or oil and gas drilling. In recent months, this technology has come under intense scrutiny by a growing faction of progressive environmentalists for its unknown efficacy and risks. 

Many of the companies behind carbon capture technologies, slated to receive public funding for its research and development, are fossil fuel interests. The Center for Environmental Law calculated at least $25-billion across the bill devoted to subsidies for the oil and gas sector. This funding is split between projects like carbon capture and hydrogen fuel, which opponents believe are false solutions for climate change.

“Throwing away money is not going to reduce emissions. We need massive investments in proven renewable solutions, not carbon capture fantasies,” said Mitch Jones, policy director of environmental watchdog non-profit Food and Water Watch in a statement released Tuesday. 

“If the Senate cannot manage to get this right, climate champions in the House will need to strip out these wasteful dirty energy subsidies.” 

The bill has also come under fire for lacking a Clean Energy Standard (an accepted definition of renewable energy that would require the country to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources) and failing to implement a Civilian Climate Corps, a government jobs program President Joe Biden proposed that would put thousands of young people to work fighting climate change. 

But groups like American Forests believe the bill’s investment in forestry is a step in the right direction. Daly believes forests are a “climate change solution,” noting that the USFS is a global leader in reforestation innovation. Failing to invest in trees, like any other climate innovation in the Package, would be a missed opportunity. 

“Reforestation is the single broadest pathway, the most direct line to increase the scale of that carbon sink,” Daly said. “There are amazing things for transportation and electric vehicles, but forests are here, too.”

Tagged:

Forest, biden

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