Future of Farming

Legislators, lobbyists look to farm bill to save American forests

Photo illustration of construction worker working on wood paneling, in black and white and from above, with green-toned profile view of forest trees underneath spacing in the paneling.
Madeline Monroe/Adobe Stock

Congress and the U.S. Forest Service are looking to the farm bill to pour new life into the nation’s fire-plagued forests.

Against the backdrop of looming threats such as wildfires, legislators and lobbyists alike want to use the mammoth bill, worth more than a trillion dollars, to garner federal funding and create markets to pay for efforts to conserve and restore woodlands.

With the 2018 Agriculture Improvement Act expiring in September, negotiations over the next farm bill — a massive grab-bag of programs that helps pay for virtually every aspect of American food — will likely peak in late summer.

That timing means that hearings will likely be backlit by worsening Western wildfires, a continuing catastrophe that will help keep a focus on forestry front and center amid the larger, sprawling negotiations.

For the U.S. Forest Service, the final legislation could empower — or constrain — the agency’s efforts to reverse more than a century of mismanagement of the country’s forests in just a decade.

For industry, it could enable the creation of lucrative new markets and, if its boosters’ biggest dreams come true, lay the groundwork for the triumphant return of wood products to the American home.

And for millions of acres of American woodlands, it could mean a new golden age — or at least a path to survival.

Reducing America’s fire risk

Over the next 10 years, the Biden administration plans to double the level of “fuel treatments” — tree-clearing and prescribed burns — carried out in wildfire-prone Western forests. Loggers and firefighters will traipse across 20 million acres of American forest (the approximate size of Kansas), using fire and saws to clear out brush, shrubs and small trees in an effort to mitigate fire risk.

The Forest Service needs money or support from the farm bill for those efforts. In the past, funds from the bill have gone toward everything from paying for large-scale fuel reduction (the Landscape-scale Restoration Program) to giving the agency authority to make independent forest-management deals with state forestry agencies (the Good Neighbor Authority).

Congress can also pass legislation directing the secretary of Agriculture to prioritize certain conservation ends — carbon storage, fuel reduction, water quality — over others, and make it easier (or more difficult) for landowners to use techniques like prescribed burns, or to integrate forestlands with farms.

The need for risk reduction is urgent. Thanks to decades of “mismanagement,” in Western forests where trees had historically been “in the tens per acre, densities reached hundreds, thousands per acre,” said Marcos Robles, a forest ecologist with the Arizona Nature Conservancy.

These forests are in a race against time, Robles told The Hill: not only are their close-packed ranks extremely vulnerable to sudden wildfire, but a study he co-authored showed that the often-harsh climate of the West is growing ever less hospitable to young conifers.

That study found that by midcentury, 7 million acres of Western forests — three times the size of Yellowstone — are in danger of transforming into something else: shrubland, grassland or savannah.

Getting out ahead of that crisis will require land management on a staggering scale, according to the Forest Service, as the agency seeks to correct in just one decade the damage of the past century.

In testimony before the Senate Agriculture committee early this month, Associate Chief Angela Coleman of the U.S. Forest Service made the case that a wide range of tools would be necessary to help pay for this work — including the creation of new markets.

Setting up new supply chains

The Forest Service’s efforts will mean lots of extra timber. The wood industry wants to use it, but needs farm bill programs to help set up the new production lines and markets it says are needed to help fund that logging long term.

Imagine that California could “snap their fingers” and log their backlog of overgrown timber, said Will Layden of the American Wood Council (AWC).

“Well, that fiber would just sit there because there aren’t any markets,” Layden said.

The AWC is part of a broad alliance of wood-industry trade groups that see the Forest Service’s colossal trim job as a potential bonanza.

This year, the AWC will be among the groups pushing for funding for farm bill programs that could help build a complete supply chain of advanced wood products and markets — and the university departments and promotional bureaus needed to research and promote them.

Conservation and forestry groups are also calling for the farm bill to build out the agro-industrial infrastructure that other commodities enjoy. They want funding for public and private seed repositories and tree nurseries; incentives to develop markets for new wood products; and new research and technical assistance into wood products at universities and agricultural extension offices — all initiatives that could make it into the final omnibus.

One major point of interest for these groups is a federal tech incubator for forestry businesses: the Forest Service’s Wood Innovation Grant program, which funds research into new products made from the kinds of small trees that fuel treatments are removing from forests.

Forestry groups want to see these investments increased — and for the federal government to pick up a bigger share of the tab.

Layden argues that this would achieve climate and fire reduction benefits while also restoring a measure of prosperity in former logging towns from North Carolina for the Arkansas Ozarks to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula — creating new centers of manufacturing for forest products like biochar or cross-laminated timber, which can be used to build all-wooden skyscrapers.

In this, he is likely to get a sympathetic and bipartisan hearing from leadership on the Senate Agricultural Committee: both Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and ranking member John Boozman (R-Ark.) hail from states with big timber industries.

“Markets for wood projects are critical,” Boozman told the committee in March.

Environmental groups, in particular, want to see a climate component added to these programs — which would make grant recipients account for how much carbon their programs were pulling out of the atmosphere.

Having your carbon and selling it too

In addition to markets for physical wood, many forest owners and environmentalists want farm bill support and funding to build up markets for another potentially lucrative product: carbon credits. Businesses can earn such credits by storing a certain amount of carbon from the atmosphere — for example, in the form of new trees — and in return, the credits grant their holders the right to emit a certain amount of greenhouse gases.

As a first step, The Nature Conservancy wants to see expanded farm bill funding for the Forest Stewardship Program, which helps private landowners manage — or create — forests on their lands. “That alone changes things — that’s when people start to think about what options are and what they see as possible,” said Alix Murdoch of The Nature Conservancy.

The farm bill could help such projects enter carbon markets, selling the carbon from their growing woodlands and adding a potential new revenue stream without requiring the production of new mills or physical products.

Proponents see this as a growing opportunity. As world governments and major corporations plan to continue burning fossil fuels through midcentury, they are pouring resources into setting up new markets to exchange carbon credits in an effort to balance those emissions out.

The use of such voluntary offsets is brutally controversial in environmental circles — they are sometimes called “carbon indulgences.” But groups like The Nature Conservancy nonetheless hope they can help fund forest restoration on a vast scale.

Reforesting urban parks, abandoned pasture, declining croplands or vulnerable floodplains could provide vast water and air quality benefits — and marketable resources, as billions of new trees suck down continually rising emissions that companies pay to offset.

Lawmakers have previously supported efforts to build up carbon markets. In last year’s Inflation Reduction Act, congressional Democrats — without a single Republican vote — approved $450 million in grants to help American foresters and landowners figure out how to sell the carbon from their growing trees into such markets.

Like many federal pilot programs, that one is “an incredible infusion of funds — and then they go to zero,” Murdoch said.

She wants the farm bill to give the program a permanent home and line of funding. 

“It would be unfortunate to have it just go away,” she added, which is what will happen if it isn’t authorized in this bill.

Addressing the need for seeds

But all these visions — from the growth of a new American woodshed to a Texas-sized restoration of the country’s woodlands — are pipe dreams if the foresters don’t have the seeds to plant. 

“We can’t reforest at the rate of what is being lost to fire,” Cristel Zoebisch, deputy director of policy for environmental nonprofit Carbon180, told The Hill.

As fires scour the West of trees, Zoebisch said, the U.S.’s tree supply chains can’t keep up. “Without the infrastructure to support more seeds, saplings, and nurseries, there will not be enough mature trees to introduce back into these charred and vulnerable environments,“ she wrote to The Hill.

To even reforest 64 million acres — less than half The Nature Conservancy’s goal — by 2040 would require a doubling of America’s nursery capacity, according to a study by the National Science Foundation.

That also means funding for labor-intensive practices, like collecting seeds from vulnerable forests before they burn — so that seeds adapted to that ecosystem can be replanted on the bare slopes that remain.

To that end, forestry groups want to see more funding for public seed sourcing, cultivation of seedlings that can be planted — and broader investment in managing the genetics of the nation’s trees to breed more heat or drought-resistant strains. “Through farm bill investments, we can maximize their impact and address the national seedling shortage,” Zoebisch said.

Checking the climate bona fides

Environmentalists have one overriding demand for the farm bill, which crosses out of forestry into the wider debates over the role of climate and carbon policy in agriculture.

Their demand: show your work.

At the March farm bill hearings at the Senate Subcommittee on Conservation, senators from both parties rose to extol the climate-saving virtues of the American industrial forest.

“When it comes to sequestering carbon, there’s no better place to do that than the forestry titles, through active forest management,” Sen. Boozman said, citing those measures as a means of avoiding massive carbon emissions, like those released from the California forest fires in 2020.

But environmentalists and climate scientists argue that there are plenty of ways to do forestry that are bad for both ecosystem and climate — and that lawmakers need to be careful before giving farm bill funding and imprimatur to ones without clear climate benefits.

“There’s a lot of — well,  I won’t call it greenwashing exactly,” Haley Leslie-Bole of the World Resource Institute told The Hill. “But there is maybe a dearth of data when we’re just assuming forest products are carbon neutral or environmentally friendly.”

Above all, Leslie-Bole wants any new farm bill climate incentives coupled to a clear-eyed reckoning of what constitutes every part of an effective fuel treatment — arguing that such effectiveness “had to go beyond simply considering carbon, to weighing other goals like protecting old growth and preserving the health of watersheds.”

“It can’t just be about removing biomass but about increasing the resiliency of the forest. Because vast fuel load reduction is needed in Western forests, and I think it can be fudged a bit to take more trees than you need,” she said.

Tags 2023 Farm Bill Debbie Stabenow Joe Biden John Boozman

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