Opinion: Mr. Secretary, start with woodland owners in rural America to fight climate change | 2021-02-24
President Biden’s recent climate decree calls for tackling climate change in partnership with farmers, ranchers and forest owners in rural America – key groups that have often been overlooked in the past. Now it is the job of Secretary Vilsack and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to figure out how to do this.
A good starting point to consider is family forests.
Currently, US forests and forest products sequester and store approximately 15% of the country’s annual carbon emissions, which is our largest natural carbon sink. More importantly, studies suggest it could be almost doubled with the right actions.
Much of America’s forests fall into the hands of families and individuals, making them the most critical demographic for both maintaining this existing carbon sink and developing it.
Family forest owners represent 1 in 4 rural Americans. Already, their forests provide vital benefits in addition to carbon sequestration and storage, including clean water infrastructure, habitat for our wildlife, and wood supply that is used in our homes and everyday products.
In addition, the owners of rural family forests care about the environment and want to do just for the land. This can be difficult to grasp after years of rural Americans’ opposition to environmental policy. But one recent study by Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions suggests that this opposition is not due to values or a lack of knowledge, but rather to concerns about regulation.
Likewise, surveys by the American Forest Foundation have found that the values of family forest owners align with the needs of our environment and climate. They want their land to remain a forest in the future and to improve their health today, two key climate change mitigation strategies.
Despite the alignment of these forces, forest owners face obstacles when it comes to doing more to address climate change. The first is technical assistance – understanding good practices for capturing and storing more carbon and improving forest health can be complex.
Second, acting in the woods doesn’t come cheap. Like many rural Americans, homeowners have been significantly affected by the recent economic downturn. Even in times of growth, 1 in 3 family forest owners have a family income of less than $ 50,000. This can make it virtually impossible to afford the labor necessary to maintain the land, let alone improve it for carbon or other benefits.
This is where Secretary Vilsack and the USDA can help.
While additional funding is both beneficial and necessary to help landowners cover the costs, USDA doesn’t have to pay for everything. Rather, the Ministry can help small family forest owners access carbon markets, which would leverage billions of private funds to help finance climate action.
Carbon markets offer small forest owners a way to generate income from their land that they can reinvest in trees. Carbon markets also encourage landowners to create forest plans and work with professional foresters – essential steps for the long-term maintenance of our forests. And they appeal to landowners because they offer an option of voluntary action rather than a regulatory approach – which, as the Duke study reports, can discourage landowners or be viewed negatively.
Currently, carbon markets are inaccessible to small forest owners. In fact, 98% of the properties of existing carbon projects are large industrial tracts of 5,000 acres or more. Less than 1% is on areas between 20 and 1,000, the size of the majority of family properties in the United States. This is due to the complexity, high initial costs and the length of the contract.
Helping family forest owners access markets can help the Department meet its climate goals, as well as improve forest health and channel much-needed economic stimuli to important rural constituents.
Already credible private sector solutions are taking shape, such as the family forest carbon program, a program developed by the American Forest Foundation and The Nature Conservancy. Once at scale, the goal of this program is to sequester and store an additional 2 gigatons of verifiable CO2 by the end of the century – that is as much as over 400,000 wind turbines operating for a year would avoid. .
As Secretary Vilsack embarks on his new tenure as the head of the USDA, he is expected to consider his first order of business to help expand forest carbon programs across the country. A first victory would be to provide loans, loan guarantees and bond guarantees to help finance these efforts, either through existing USDA authorities or by supporting the bipartisan project. Rural Forest Markets Act.
The family forest owners are ready to work with you, Mr. Secretary. Partnering with these owners has the power to produce real carbon reductions to help the United States fight climate change, expand the community of people actively engaged in the fight against climate change, and provide much needed economic stimulus. to rural America.
Tom Martin, President and CEO of the American Forest Foundation, the only national forest conservation organization that works exclusively to empower family forest owners to have a meaningful impact on conservation.
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