WASHINGTON (CN) — Lawmakers clashed Tuesday over a bill that would plant millions of trees to aid in reforestation efforts, despite the bill’s origin as a bipartisan effort to counter deforestation caused by extreme wildfires.
“It’s not solving a problem, it's simply trying to put a Band-Aid on a symptom,” said Bruce Westerman, ranking member of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands at the Tuesday hearing.
The Replant Act, short for Repairing Existing Public Land by Adding Necessary Trees, would take a $30 million funding cap off of the 1980 Reforestation Trust Fund, quadrupling the amount of funding available for use from tariffs on wood products.
“Over the last four decades, the frequency and intensity of wildfires has increased, but the cap has not, creating a huge reforestation backlog,” said Representative Jimmy Panetta of California, who introduced the bill.
The $3 million cap doesn’t even allow the Forest Service to address the new acres that need to be reforested every year, let alone chip at the 4 million of acres that the agency has identified in need of restoration, Panetta said.
“Today, our national forests are being overwhelmed by the effects of climate change,” Jad Dayle of the American Forest Association told lawmakers at the hearing. “And when we leave them unrepaired after events like intensive wildfires, we are turning national forests into national burn scars.”
With the increase in funding, the Forest Service would be able to plant 1.2 billion trees over 4.1 million acres, which would prevent erosion, revitalize forests and even sequester atmospheric carbon. About 15% of the country’s carbon emissions are absorbed into by America’s forests — robust reforestation could increase that by nearly 8%.
But, some lawmakers are worried that planting millions of trees without an active forest management plan is a recipe for disaster.
“If we think of replanting in these areas where we aren’t going to do management, we should call it the ‘Refuel Act.’ We are putting more trees out there that aren’t going to be managed, and we are just creating a circular problem,” Westerman said.
Westerman noted that with 10.3 million acres burned across the country last year, and a record-breaking 850,000 acres already this year, overstocking the forests with more trees is just going to lead to more catastrophic wildfires. The bill won’t ensure that new trees aren’t lost to worsening wildfires.
“Replanting without management is a losing strategy,” Westerman said. “The only ones who are going to benefit off of this are people who are making money off of government contracts.”
Elaine O’Neil, director of science and sustainability at the Consortium for Research on Renewable Industrial Materials, said that previous tree planting efforts have resulted in forests that were too dense, too uniform and too old to sync with weather and climate changes.
“Planting more forests will not address the climate problem unless we also think about how we are going to manage them in the face of our current and future climate challenges,” O’Neil said. “The Replant Act is based on an extremely limited, small-scale vision that puts a Band-Aid on the problems facing our national forest system.”
O’Neil said that with management, not just tree planting, we will attain carbon benefits faster and with fewer risks of loss than if the Forest Service just plants the trees and leaves them alone.
Panetta argued that we have to start somewhere.
“We can work on these solutions, while we continue to negotiate about management,” Panetta said. “We have to make sure that our disagreements don’t blow up our agreements.”
In the hearing, lawmakers also discussed several other bills centered around restoring public lands, including a bill that would authorize the Legacy Roads and Remediation Program through 2030 — which would restore or decommissioning deteriorating forest roads and trails, and one that would establish a Joint Chiefs Landscape Restoration Partnership — which would the amount of funding for forest restoration projects.
Another bill would give military service members a lifetime pass to the national parks.
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