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The Trillion Trees Act: a help for climate change?

Enthusiastic about a proposal he heard at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, President Trump said that the United States would join a global effort called the One Trillion Trees Initiative which aims to reduce global warming through reforestation. Concurrently, Congressman Bruce Westerman (R-Ark), has introduced a bill entitled The Trillion Trees Act with nine other Republican co-sponsors. 

Unfortunately, in addition to Westerman, the other sponsors of the bill all have poor environmental records. Westerman himself, although a graduate of the Yale Forestry School, has a zero out of 100 voting record from the League of Conservation Voters. The bill is currently sitting in committee in the House, but with no Democratic co-sponsors.

Many Republicans are beginning to realize that climate change is an issue they can no longer ignore and a massive planting of trees throughout the U.S. and all over the world is an idea supported by almost everyone. Various environmental groups have estimated that the world is losing more than 10 billion trees a year because of human activities, way more than what might be added through new tree planting campaigns. 

There are so many places that could be significantly improved with lots of additional trees and a trillion new trees could tie up an enormous amount of carbon dioxide (CO2), the major driver of climate change. But critics say that the Trillion Trees Act is ineffectual in combating the climate problem and is being used by the Republicans as a public relations campaign to make it appear that they are actually addressing the climate change problem, which is fossil fuel emissions; and the Republicans are wedded to continuing their support for burning coal, oil and gas. As one critic of the bill observed, planting trees without cutting emissions is like trying to clean up a major oil spill without first stopping the leak.  

President Trump could do much more for the environment by persuading several of his fellow climate-change-denying heads of state in Brazil, Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, etc., to greatly reduce the massive destruction of trees taking place in their respective countries. In Brazil, for instance, the government looks the other way as hundreds of acres of Amazon jungle full of giant trees are being illegally cut down each day to make way for farm fields.

As currently drawn, the bill lacks specifics, particularly with regard to funding. It calls for $30 million additional money for the Healthy Reforestration Trust Fund and $25 million explicitly for carbon sequestration activities to the Cooperative Forest Assistance Act. Also mentioned is an unspecified tax credit for carbon sequestration for using wood as a building material (although wood is currently being used more and more, again, as a building material without any additional federal subsidies). An intelligent bill for massive tree planting to combat climate change would require a generous, well thought out budget. The Westerman Bill earmarks only a minuscule fraction of what would be required to plant a billion trees, much less a trillion.

Where might these trees be planted? Would it be just in the U.S. or all over the world? The bill vaguely suggests both. Where in the United States should these tree plantings best be located? 

In American towns and cities, millions of street trees could reduce ambient summer temperatures while making a huge improvement in aesthetics and livability. 

The “grasslands” in the middle of our country, where livestock graze and enormous acreages of corn and soybeans (mostly for animal feed) are widely grown, could be more effectively managed for the long term were the giant fields divided up more, and surrounded by hedgerows of trees and shrubs, as is common in Europe. Combined with a comprehensive program of more sustainable farming, soil improvement and conservation, this could reduce flooding, wind, erosion and summer heat and make the country’s heartland much more beautiful and productive while helping to reduce climate change.

Another location for massive tree planting would be Appalachia, where more than 32,000 sq. mi. of forested mountain land, an area larger than South Carolina, have been effectively destroyed by “mountaintop removal” strip mining of coal and left unrestored. The derelict landscape left behind needs very extensive regrading and covering with fertile soil, a major operation in itself, before any serious tree planting can begin. 

Similarly, vast areas of the Pacific Northwest devastated by logging could be restored as forest land.

In all cases, maintenance and follow up are necessary if these tree plantings are to survive and flourish. And many decades are required for these trees to become mature enough to effectively fight climate change. 

The Trillion Trees Act is thus a long way from being ready for implementation.

Architect and landscape designer Mac Gordon lives in Lakeville and writes frequently about environmental matters.

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