Trump must put rural America to work
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Many rural communities, especially forest-dependent communities, have yet to recover from the economic downturn. In fact, some areas like northern Maine or parts of the South are still losing forestry and manufacturing jobs as we speak.

These communities have taught us difficult lessons that if rural America is not working, then rural lands, both public and privately owned, aren't working either. Without strong rural economies, landowners and land managers struggle to care for our forests to provide clean air and water, wildlife habitat, and the wood products all Americans depend on.

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We need look no further than the West. As the forest industry has disappeared across this landscape, so have the mills, rural jobs for foresters, and private and public land owners’ capacity to manage forests. The result is overgrown and dying forests with over 100 million dead trees. These forests are just waiting to burn at catastrophic levels, wildfires which are not just devastating for landowners, but also destroy drinking water supplies for urban and rural areas, and wildlife habitat. 

Yet, this problem can be solved. When rural economies thrive, so do our rural lands.

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpCould Donald Trump and Boris Johnson be this generation's Reagan-Thatcher? Merkel backs Democratic congresswomen over Trump How China's currency manipulation cheats America on trade MORE’s administration has the chance to deliver on both the economy and the environment. To get this job done, Trump must focus on an agenda that puts rural Americans and rural lands to work. While there are many strategies that can be pursued, a few can be deployed today with significant results.

Tackle the wildfire problem

There is no one solution to this challenge but there are steps we can take right now. First, we need to change how we pay for wildfire fighting in the federal agencies and treat wildfires like the natural disasters they truly are. If we don't do this, the federal agencies will have less ability to get ahead of this problem with proactive forest management as the costs of wildfires grow.

Second, we need to change our forest management and restoration model to get rural economies and rural lands working. Right now, there are no cost-effective outlets for the byproducts of reducing wildfire risk because most areas in the West have lost markets for wood. This in turn means we are spending as much as $5,000 per acre for treating the land to reduce fuel loads.

A different model should be tested. Trump must invest in infrastructure, including mills, contractors and loggers, that can provide sustained solutions and market-based funding options. Other creative financing mechanisms, such as Forest Resilience Bonds, should be explored to bring private capital to tackle this immense challenge. 

Third, we need to better utilize existing resources to tackle wildfire. Because wildfires know no boundaries, more strategic, targeted landscape based treatments are needed to adequately reduce risk and protect communities, clean water and other resources. Working cross boundary on public lands and private lands and with landowners will help make efforts more effective. Tools like good neighbor authority, stewardship contracting and cost-sharing programs for landowners should be deployed simultaneously in order to make a difference on the mosaic of land ownerships across the west.

Revitalize the forest products sector 

Without strong and diverse markets that use both high and low quality wood, our rural forested lands and rural economies will continue to suffer. New developments in building taller buildings with wood, which can be cheaper, faster, and more environmentally friendly, should be pursued. The federal government can pave the way for this by encouraging innovation and exploration of this market.

The use of other forest-based products, such as paper, lumber and energy from biomass should be encouraged. The Trump administration should remove regulatory barriers, such as exclusive preferences set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that ban the use of certain types of U.S. grown lumber.

Be smarter about wildlife conservation

Too many wildlife remain threatened, endangered or at risk. Public lands alone can't address all these species. Rather than use regulation on private land and limit working lands, we need to harness the passion that private landowners have for wildlife by making it easier and less risky for them to help and by recognizing that working rural lands will provide more benefit to species in the long run. The government should provide regulatory assurance for landowners, and provide targeted cost-share and technical assistance tools to help landowners address these issues across a landscape.

We can also change how we manage at-risk wildlife. Currently, the Endangered Species Act takes a species by species approach to managing for threatened and endangered species. By taking a habitat approach that allows landowners to manage for multiple species at once, we can speed recovery and provide landowners with more flexibility.

Smart approaches to rural lands will help revitalize these communities. It’s up to Trump and his administration to implement policies to put rural America back to work.

Tom Martin is the President and CEO of the American Forest Foundation, a forest conservation organization that helps private and family forest landowners keep their forests productive to provide the clean water, wildlife habitat and wood supplies that Americans count on.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.