Record heat and wildfire in the western United States. Plummeting biodiversity. A nation struggling for equity and justice. In times like these, we desperately need federal initiatives that can solve multiple problems in one fell swoop. President Joe BidenJoe BidenTexas announces election audit in four counties after Trump demand Pennsylvania AG sues to block GOP subpoenas in election probe House passes sweeping defense policy bill MORE’s America the Beautiful initiative might, at first glance, seem like a skin-deep response to these profound issues. But it is perfectly crafted to turn land into green infrastructure for a more sustainable and equitable America.
Understandably, many have focused on the stunning top-line goal in America the Beautiful: To protect 30 percent of U.S. land and water by 2030. This priority aligns with the broad-based and bipartisan support for increased land conservation, demonstrated by the passage of the historic Great American Outdoors Act last summer.
But this initiative would fail to meet this moment if it stopped there. In complicated times like these, what we do with our protected land is what really counts. With diverse and hefty investments in land restoration and stewardship, America the Beautiful is fully up to this challenge.
Let’s start with America’s forests, which annually capture and store nearly 15 percent of our nation’s carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. Research from The Nature Conservancy suggests we could nearly double this climate change benefit, but only through a comprehensive national effort to protect, restore and manage our forests for their full climate-solving potential.
Step one is to keep our existing forests intact. Just consider that, from 1990 to 2010, our urbanized areas expanded from 47 million acres to 68 million acres. America the Beautiful would ramp up permanent forest protection from encroaching development and other threats through public acquisitions and conservation easements.
But the growing climate crisis means we can’t stop there. We must turn our protected forests into the most powerful sponge possible to naturally absorb carbon dioxide and keep it there.
This starts with growing more trees. The average tree will capture roughly 1,200 pounds of carbon dioxide from the air over its lifespan. An online Reforestation Hub launched by The Nature Conservancy and American Forests earlier this year provides a searchable database of 133 million acres across America where we could plant more than 60 billion trees. That alone would be enough to increase annual carbon capture in America’s forests by more than 40 percent — equal to the emissions from 72 million cars.
We can also use land protection as a catalyst to change how we manage existing forests, so they capture and store more carbon. This includes actions such as stretching out the time between cutting, reducing disturbance of carbon-rich forest soils and tailoring forest management to favor climate-resilient tree species. My organization partnered with the U.S. Forest Service to synthesize a peer-reviewed menu of climate-smart forestry practices that can help guide America the Beautiful.
So, what about our biodiversity crisis? Fortunately, these same actions that are good for natural carbon capture are also good for wildlife habitat. One exciting example is in Texas’ Lower Rio Grande Valley, where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service uses national wildlife refuge land as the anchor for a regional partnership to replant native Thornforest that is home to more than 500 species of birds, 300 species of butterflies and 11 threatened and endangered species.
But the problems we face cannot be solved by rural land alone. Our cities cry out for nature-based solutions to climate threats, such as extreme heat. The health equity crisis in our cities is driven in significant part by the grossly inequitable distribution of trees, parks and other urgently desired green assets along income and racial lines.
America the Beautiful is on this one, too, with a massive proposed investment in park equity via the U.S. Department of Interior’s Outdoor Recreation Legacy Partnership Program, and new capacity to plant Tree Equity in cities through a Civilian Climate Corps. This federal investment will help match powerful local efforts in places such as Phoenix, Miami-Dade, Detroit and a statewide initiative in Rhode Island.
And there’s one cross-cutting benefit that makes this initiative a real beauty: massive job creation. For each million dollars invested in actions like planting trees and restoring forests, we can support nearly 40 jobs in rural communities and nearly 26 jobs in urban areas.
So, if you are not already on board for America the Beautiful, make sure to investigate its deeper layers of investment and partnership that would turn land protection into the many different solutions we need. Let’s start our national healing on this fertile common ground.
Jad Daley is the president and chief executive officer of American Forests, the nation’s oldest forest conservation organization.