One major tool in slowing warming is allowing our forest and their ecosystems to thrive by being protected from us. Reforestation is one way to do just that, and there is good evidence that if we can just get out of our planet’s way, it might just help us survive ourselves.
Most people understand reforestation as the process of protecting an area of land and replanting trees, taking care of those trees, and letting them regrow. This is indeed one of the ways reforestation is practiced globally, though not the only way.
The benefit of reforestation as an important tool in the work that needs to be done is that trees en masse can act to capture atmospheric carbon, which is something our planet needs badly. A study published in July of 2019 showed that, even with our cities and agricultural interests, there are billions of hectares of forest and still more area that can be reforested.
The study team analyzed almost 80,000 satellite photo measurements of tree cover worldwide and combined them with enormous global databases about soil and climate conditions, evaluating one hectare at a time. The exercise generated a detailed map of how many trees the earth could naturally support—where forests grow now and where they could grow, outside of areas such as deserts and savannahs that support very few or no trees. The team then subtracted existing forests and also urban areas and land used for agriculture. That left 0.9 billion hectares that could be forested but have not been. If those spaces were filled with trees that already flourish nearby, the new growth could store 205 gigatons of carbon by the time the forests mature.
Another recent study says that the United States has about 127 million acres of “former forestland” that could be reforested. Once again, there is no silver bullet solution, and the study, while optimistic, might promise a little more in the way of instant results than can be expected. As any environmentalist worth their salt will tell you, everything affects everything else, and there are all kinds of ecological considerations that might not make the planting of trees everywhere work—different communities with different levels of water access, local ecosystems, etc.
There is also proof that reforesting works when we actually do it. Since 2000, reforesting projects have been very successful in accomplishing what they set out to do. Getting everyone on board with slowing down and ending deforestation will need to be a part of global political decisions as we move forward. In May, William Baldwin-Cantello of WWF told the BBC that “[d]eforestation still claims millions of hectares every year, vastly more than is regenerated. To realize the potential of forests as a climate solution, we need support for regeneration in climate delivery plans and must tackle the drivers of deforestation, which in the U.K. means strong domestic laws to prevent our food causing deforestation overseas.”
The Washington Post reports that the Biden administration is set to reinstate Clinton-era rules that “ban logging and road-building in more than half of North America’s largest temperate rainforest.” This is good news, but like a lot of good news out of the Biden administration, it is really just a reversal of the abject sociopathy present in the previous administration.
Republicans are decrying the move to save some of our natural habitats, pretending that their interest in allowing a few people to profit off of pillaging public lands is somehow good for everyone. Considering that the tourist industry in Alaska employs more than 15 times the logging industry, it’s a crass and obvious play on the part of Republicans like Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan to get some big corporate donor money at the expense of … the goddamn Earth.
There are also reforestation plans that do not include starting with replanting forests. There is evidence that “rewilding,” allowing existing ecosystems to fix themselves, while humans lay back and work to mitigate our own invasiveness into areas that people do not heavily inhabit, can be a truly effective way in allowing the reforestation of areas. The belief is that humans can better supplement the reforestation once the process has moved forward under nature’s direction by allowing ecosystems to find their new footing.
With the passing of the Build Back Better (BBB) infrastructure bill, billions of dollars will be going toward climate change infrastructure. As with everything in Congress, more money needs to be invested, but what has been invested through the passage of the BBB is good.
Collin O’Mara, CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, told Vox that the purported $27 billion in spending in the BBB is historic. “It’s the most significant investment ever in our national forests. It’s an astonishingly big deal.” Over 50% of the money in the BBB is set to go towards preventing wildfires. This makes sense as it is a very obvious and tangible symptom of climate change. It is also one of the things that needs a stop-gap to prevent the acceleration of climate change as forests on fire release enormous amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere.
One of the ways to do both rewilding projects and reforestation projects is to incentivize private farm- and landowners to dedicate some of their lands to this project. The U.K. has started programs for financially incentivizing both kinds of reforestation: planting trees and allowing forests to re-establish themselves.
There is also money toward urban forestry projects. These projects are important not simply because they are trying to figure out ways to add forests and this kind of greenery to the highly populated urban landscapes, but because they also bolster the evolutionary and cultural connections humans have with nature. Working to create more equitable tree coverage across all urban communities also lifts everyone’s standard of living. There is a growing body of scientific research that shows human proximity to trees and time spent amongst trees can lead to better health—mental and physical—outcomes.
Added to this is the passing of the REPLANT Act, along with the new Infrastructure bill just passed, and there is a lot for environmentalists to be happy about. The REPLANT Act removed one of the old caps on how much funding the US Forest Service could use from tariffs, releasing funds that would open up millions of acres of public land backlogged for reforestation. The funds going towards this reforestation will purportedly create close to 49,000 jobs every decade, “primarily in rural communities hard hit by COVID-19.”
A bonus to all of this, beyond the diverse ecosystems and the carbon trapping that forests can offer are other little things like “Protection of drinking water sources,” since more than half the country depends on forests for their drinking water. This is in part because forests capture fresh water and help to naturally cleanse the water supply. The better our environment, the healthier our forest coverage, the less we need to spend on chemicals and the like to sanitize our water supply. Most of our sanitizing costs are the result of impurities humans have created in and around our water supply.
It is important for all of us to do our small parts. Being mindful and doing what you can around the home is important in creating good habits and a personal culture going forward. More important, however, even more important and effective is actively pressuring lawmakers to take steps to help insure our futures.