Forests must stand tall in any Green New Deal

A “Green New Deal” is a breath of fresh air for the climate change conversation. Scaling up climate action that creates jobs for people in need offers something for everyone, from struggling rural communities to disadvantaged urban areas.

Just one problem: many of its champions are overlooking the huge potential of forests to contribute to climate action and related green jobs. The Green New Deal cannot meet its goals for climate action nor diversity, equity and inclusion without a major role for forests and other natural climate solutions.

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My organization, American Forests, has experience putting the “green” into the original New Deal. The inspiration for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) included American Forests’ leadership in putting Americans to work creating war gardens and planting trees during and after World War I. In honor of our group’s contributions, I have a pen in my office used by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933 to sign the bill creating the CCC. 

While many people know the CCC built bridges, dams and recreational facilities, fewer know that its original focus was actually forestry and other natural resources management. The CCC employed more than 3 million people in the national forests and planted more than 3 billion trees. This is exactly the kind of action we need today to make forests part of a Green New Deal. 

Understanding why forests are key to solving climate change is complicated and deserves some explanation. Thanks to the way all trees and forests naturally pull carbon dioxide from the air, a process known as “carbon sequestration,” our forests and forest products here in America already capture 15 percent of our carbon emissions each year.

Trees and forests also slow climate change by cooling our communities in the summer and insulating them in the winter. The U.S. Forest Service estimates urban and community forests reduce energy use for heating and cooling by 7.2 percent, reducing carbon emissions and saving more than $7 billion for consumers each year. 

But this natural climate solution is at grave risk, because climate change is also killing our forests with drought and extreme storms, forest pests, disease and rampant wildfire. Trees killed by climate change are emitting increasing volumes of carbon emissions — almost 5 percent of our national emissions, and rising fast.

That’s where the Green New Deal comes in. We can play “carbon offense” by expanding forests with tree planting and adjusting forest management to increase carbon capture. 

This must be matched with equally vigorous “carbon defense” through actions such as thinning fire-prone forests and fighting pest outbreaks to help avert human disasters such as the California wildfires. Scaling up this hands-on work, guided by the latest climate science, can create a huge wave of green jobs that can’t be computerized or outsourced, in urban forests and rural landscapes alike. 

To provide a sense of scale, forests in the U.S. already directly employ almost 1 million people and indirectly support another 1.7 million jobs.  One of the key growth opportunities is in urban forestry: City governments and private tree care companies have tens of thousands of open positions across the country. Investing in urban forests will require even more workers than today — exactly the kind of “green jobs” and climate justice sought in the Green New Deal. 

Urgent action will also open up opportunities for rural residents, who can find work thinning overstocked forests, generating wood products that store carbon and replanting forests lost to drought and fire. The University of Oregon found that for every $1 million dollars invested in critical forest restoration activities, 30 people can be employed.

Across the country, private forest landowners and manufacturers are already hungry for workers, as demand for wood products grows and the rural workforce shrinks due to larger demographic trends.

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The path forward is clear. First, Green New Deal champions need to talk about forests and other land-based green jobs with the same urgency and enthusiasm that they show for technology-based climate solutions.

Second, with political consensus around the work ahead, and replanting trees, thinning and other active management of our public lands, we can create new incentives for private forest owners to manage for carbon capture and wood products.

Then, we need to go to work linking people with these forest career paths, addressing the rural workforce shortage and bringing new opportunities to distressed communities. The people who most need these green jobs may not always be the easiest to find, and might bring barriers to overcome like criminal records or struggles with addiction. These barriers can be overcome, if we are willing to create the right ladder of opportunity into forest sector employment. 

A powerful bipartisan base of forest supporters awaits. As the wildfires taught us, we have no choice. For a Green New Deal to be the “real deal,” it must embrace forests.

Jad Daley is president and CEO of American Forests, the oldest national conservation organization.