Rebuilding America’s infrastructure has been a bipartisan priority for years. Now it is Joe Biden’s turn. The president has unveiled a $2.3 trillion infrastructure plan that will fuel plenty of debate in the months ahead. We hope both Republicans and Democrats can agree on the need to invest in two key priorities for our forests: reforestation and forest roads.
Reforestation Wildfires have battered U.S. Forest Service lands, resulting in an estimated 7.3-million-acre reforestation backlog that continues to grow every year. Timber harvests once provided sufficient funding to meet reforestation needs. Today the Forest Service has fallen behind as harvest levels dropped and wildfire suppression costs have consumed larger shares of its budget.
While Congress often bickers on how to proactively reduce the risks of severe fires, they enthusiastically agree on the need to plant more trees. Though the Trillion Trees Act has attracted most of the attention, bipartisan members of the House and Senate have introduced the REPLANT Act. This bill would increase the funding directed to the Reforestation Trust Fund from $30 million up to $123 million. The Reforestation Trust Fund receives revenues from wood products import duties, all of which would be directed to the Trust Fund under the legislation.
Reforestation, combined with active forest management, can help forests recover, sequester carbon, provide species diversity, wildlife habitat, clean water, and sustainable timber for our communities. To be successful, efforts to plant more trees needs to be supplemented by treatments such as removing competing vegetation to allow seedlings to survive.
Forest Roads The Forest Service’s 380,000-mile road system is critical to assuring safe public access and supporting firefighting and forest management efforts. Timber receipts along with discretionary and dedicated funds once provided adequate funding. Today the road system has a maintenance backlog of at least $4 billion and is one reason why thousands of miles of forest roads have been closed in recent years.
Last year President Trump signed the Great American Outdoors Act to provide an additional $1.4 billion over five years for Forest Service needs, however only $500 million can actually be directed to roads. The Forest Service is often forced to compete with the National Park Service and other land management agencies for funding. During the last infrastructure debate, a key Democratic Congress proposed a 150 percent increase under the Federal Lands Transportation program to the Forest Service road program. We are optimistic more support for this essential American infrastructure will be included in future spending packages.
The need for proactive forest management remains. Biden Administration officials are out working to sell the president’s infrastructure plan. In particular USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack is touting increased investment in “wildland maintenance” and “fire maintenance” as well as other provisions to promote a “green” economy. But in recent comments to Colorado Public Radio, Secretary Vilsack correctly identified a real need:
“Look, we can do everything possible that the president wants done to get to zero-emission agriculture by the year 2050, but all of that could be wiped out by not properly maintaining our forests and having these fires continue at the rate and the intensity that we’ve seen recently. So it is time for us to get serious about this.”
Congress has steadily increased funding for hazardous fuels reduction, the Administration is seeking to spend hundreds of millions more. But money alone cannot fix the problem. If the federal government is truly serious about tackling the wildfire problem, it must also address the red tape, bureaucracy and litigation that is stymying efforts to accelerate needed forest management, restoration and wildfire mitigation work on federal lands.