The Green New Deal is the shiny new thing in the 116th Congress. This an unalloyed good thing. We need to be talking about the big ideas that can move this country forward instead of always arguing about small ball politics.
However, I fear that something is missing from every discussion about the contents of the Green New Deal. Trees. Rather, forests. Forests? You know, those mass groupings of trees.
What about forests?
Forests are the unsung hero of our fight against climate change. Decidedly analog, forests do not get any of the hype afforded to electric vehicles, solar panels, wind turbines, or even god damned nuclear fusion. Why? It is probably because people’s eyes glaze over when someone talks about forests and stereotypes of treehugging hippies run through their minds.
However, before we can deploy enough renewable energy or replace enough automobiles with EVs forests can help us combat the coming climate apocalypse. Trees absorb carbon dioxide and capture it in their wood fibers. Trees help to slow down the rainfall preventing erosion, top soil runoff, and even filter rainwater as it falls from the sky through the canopy to the ground. Trees help to cool the surrounding area. Trees provide habitat for animals. Unless you are the most Trumpian right wing reactionary there is no denying the enviable service record of trees.
The key is not to just save the forests that we currently have, but to recover the forests that we have lost. I propose a nationwide effort to recover as many acres of forest covered land as possible. There are literally tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, of acres of land that were once covered with forests that could become verdant again.
In the region known as Appalachia it is estimated that more than 1.5 million acres of mountain top land has been reduced to bare earth and rubble by coal mining over the last fifty years. Reforestation of these degraded lands is an opportunity to provide much needed jobs in the region, improve the environment, and build a legacy for future generations. All by planting some trees.
In 2018 California saw almost 1.9 million acres burned in wildfires. Reforestation of these lands is an opportunity to reduce the ecological impact of wildfires in that state and ameliorate some of the secondary impacts like mudslides in subsequent years.
In Colorado, as a result of the invasive mountain pine beetle, one in 14 trees in the state is dead and almost three quarters of the state’s lodgepole pine stands are impacted. In the end the infestation and resulting tree die off may leave an area the size of Rhode Island deforested. Reforestation is an opportunity to reverse some of this damage and restore Colorado’s forests to their majestic beauty.
These are just a few examples, but I could have chosen examples in the Pacific Northwest or northern Minnesota or Arizona. Almost every state in the United States could benefit from reforestation.
Here is the best part. Reforestation does not require any new technology or industries to be created. Reforestation does not require any new government agencies to be created. We possess the knowledge, organizations, and infrastructure to implement a nationwide reforestation plan. We just lack the money.
Ahhhh, money. How much money exactly? Who knows? How much land do you want to cover in trees? Piedmont Land and Timber, a timber management company in Georgia, publishes a very concise breakdown of the costs to reforest an acre:
- Herbicide application: $125/acre
- Controlled burn: $60/acre
- Planting @ 500 seedlings per acre: $74/acre
- Landowner cost: $45/acre
The total to plant an acre of trees, albeit for timber production, is ~$300 according to a private company. The largest part of that expense is the application of herbicides which could be eliminated in many cases where the goal is not to develop a stand for logging at a later date. Regardless, I will use $300 per acre as a baseline for cost.
Let’s use the lands degraded by coal mining in Appalachia as a model. So, we are working with ~1.5 million acres over several years. Total cost, assuming $300 per acre, would be $450 million. Over five years the annual cost would be $90 million. That is about the cost of a single F-35A fighter plane per year. Imagine what restoring 1.5 million acres of land would look like from an environmental standpoint.
The money is large when it is looked at in isolation, but it is paltry when compared with so many things in Washington D.C. Just consider our current president’s pet border wall. Each mile is estimated to cost $25 million dollars. We could trade four miles of border wall per year for a restoration of Appalachian forests. I am willing to make that trade.
Will anyone in Washington D.C. speak for the trees?