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Biden’s $27 billion bet on forests

The president’s Build Back Better proposal could be a game changer for US forests.

President Biden stands and speaks from a lectern set up near a red emergency vehicle.
President Joe Biden visited Mather Airport in Sacramento, California, in September to survey recent wildfire damage.
Nina Riggio/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

As the White House revealed Thursday, President Joe Biden has stripped a lot from his Build Back Better framework to placate moderate Democrats. Free community college is out, as is Medicare coverage of dental and vision services, among several other priorities.

But there is one surprising area that’s so far survived the congressional gauntlet as part of a big climate spending proposal: forest management and conservation. The bill — which Democrats are trying to pass with a simple Senate majority using the reconciliation process — allocates roughly $27 billion for spending related to federal, state, and tribal forests.

While that’s just a sliver of the roughly $1.75 trillion spending package, it’s an enormous and historic number, said Collin O’Mara, CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. “It’s the most significant investment ever in our national forests,” O’Mara told Vox. “It’s an astonishingly big deal.”

A large chunk of those funds would go toward preventing wildfires — which release huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and have devastated Western towns — and toward more equitable access to green spaces. The bill would also set aside billions of dollars for ecosystem restoration and more environmentally friendly farming practices.

Biden’s framework reveals that conserving forests and biodiversity is a core component of the nation’s plan to tackle climate change, as many scientists say it should be: Trees and soil are a natural sink for carbon dioxide, making forests a key solution for cutting climate pollution. Yet for decades, biodiversity conservation and climate change have largely been considered separate issues. The bill also shows that the US government has recognized the growing threat of climate-fueled wildfires and is willing to fund the Forest Service to do something about it.

But a few big questions remain, including whether the bill will pass. And some forest advocates fear that the boost in spending could actually increase commercial logging — which, in turn, fuels climate change.

The bulk of the money would go toward preventing wildfires

More than half of the $27 billion for forests would go toward reducing the risk of wildfires, such as through prescribed burns, largely within the wildland-urban interface. That’s where forests meet human developments and wildfires tend to do the most damage.

Putting billions into fire prevention isn’t a huge surprise. Climate change is making forest fires worse, and they spew a huge amount of carbon dioxide into the air. This summer, for example, fires in the American West belched 130 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere — that’s equivalent to the annual emissions of more than 28 million passenger cars.

The past decade — and especially this past year — has made the risk of wildfires hard for Congress to ignore, O’Mara said. “There are so many members of the Senate that have been affected by these massive fires,” he said. “The lack of care and restoration [of forests] has had devastating consequences.”

A firefighter clears a tree and branches in a forest in California Hot Springs, California, in anticipation of fire conditions in September 2021.
David McNew/Getty Images

In the past, the US Forest Service’s wildfire budget hasn’t matched the challenges posed by climate change. Biden’s framework would dramatically boost spending, according to Brett Hartl, the government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity, an advocacy organization. “It’s a huge investment,” he said.

It also allocates $2.5 billion for urban forestry projects that seek to provide more equal access to forests and parks — roughly six times more than the government spends on those projects today, according to Joel Pannell, the vice president of urban forest policy at the nonprofit American Forests. “We’ve never seen this sort of investment in urban and community forestry,” Pannell said.

But while many conservation groups have responded positively, key questions remain about whether the Forest Service will spend the money for fire prevention effectively, Hartl said. The growing threat of wildfires is linked to both climate change and years of mismanagement of the nation’s forests, he said. Historically, the Forest Service has tried to manage forests and reduce wildlife risk partly through commercial logging, he added, which environmental advocates say increases carbon emissions.

According to Dominick DellaSala, the chief scientist at Wild Heritage, a forest advocacy organization, the Forest Service often uses fire prevention as an excuse to sell timber. “By putting more logging on the landscape, you are not going to reduce fire intensity,” he said.

The Forest Service told Vox it does not comment on pending legislation. A spokesperson for the agency said it “is committed to the thoughtful stewardship of our national forests and their carbon storage potential.” The spokesperson continued, “Our nation faces a forest health crisis due, in part, to the effects of a changing climate, including drought, unprecedented wildfires, and other stresses and disturbances.”

If the bill passes, the agency should instead direct that money toward hiring and training a new generation of forest stewards who will focus on restoring public land with ecological and climate goals in mind, Hartl said. (The bill does include funding for the Civilian Climate Corps, which would hire young workers for restoration, among other conservation activities.)

“It’s promising, but I think Congress has to have a laser-like focus on the implementation of this money in the years to come,” Hartl said. “It’s an enormous investment in these public lands. One would hope that there are no more excuses for doing a bad job.”

A lifeline for threatened plants and animals

President Biden’s framework would also provide billions of dollars for conserving biodiversity. The bill allocates $50 million for protecting old-growth trees and another $50 million for conserving and restoring habitats for threatened species in public forests. It would put another $50 million toward reducing human-wildlife conflict on these lands, such as between ranchers and wolves.

Remarkably, the framework also includes a huge and historic sum for conservation activities on US farmland, O’Mara said — another $27 billion or so. “We think it’s the biggest investment in climate-smart agricultural practices ever,” O’Mara said (meaning, farming practices that help reduce greenhouse gas emissions or make crops more resilient to climate change).

It includes $9 billion for the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which helps farmers make their land more sustainable, such as by improving soil health, and $4 billion for the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), the largest conservation program in the US, according to the government. The CSP helps farmers make habitats for wildlife, reduce the need for synthetic fertilizer and pesticides, and make their crops more resilient to extreme weather.

“This support can increase a farm’s adaptive capacity in the face of extreme weather events and other climate-related impacts,” the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said in a statement Thursday.

Efforts like these to make working lands including farms more sustainable are part of Biden’s push to conserve at least 30 percent of US land by 2030. The administration will have a hard time hitting that figure without including sustainably run farms and ranches.

The bill also includes several provisions that directly target the conservation of wildlife. It would allocate roughly $200 million for the Endangered Species Act — largely considered the most important law for wildlife in the US — and another $250 million for wildlife refuges and state wildlife management areas, according to the US nonprofit Defenders of Wildlife. It even provides some money for conserving and managing wildlife corridors.

“We were worried that a diminished bill might cut imperative funding for endangered species recovery, but we are thrilled to see these provisions and many more have made it through,” Robert Dewey, vice president of government relations at Defenders of Wildlife, said in a statement on Thursday. “This bill, as it stands now, would be a historic investment.”

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