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Saving our forests, one seedling at a time

Catastrophic wildfires have become so common in the United States that we now refer to the months of August through November as “wildfire season.” Wildfires destroyed more than 68 million acres in the United States in the last decade, with more than 10 million acres burning in 2020 alone.

It’s undeniable that we need better forest management to address this issue, but what is often underreported is the reforestation that also needs to occur after the fires have run their course. The U.S. Forest Service is left to pick up the pieces on federal land and attempt to revitalize the forests, a herculean task given the ever-expanding reach of wildfires in Oregon and other parts of the country. Studies have shown that our supply of tree seedlings will need to more than double to meet our domestic reforestation needs.

This is why we’ve introduced the Solving Our Shortages for Seedlings Act. This legislation will address the significant U.S. seedling shortage by providing critical direction to the USFS to develop a comprehensive seedling strategy and increasing resources for federal, state, tribal, local and private nurseries.

The SOS for Seedlings Act is also part of the larger Trillion Trees Act, bipartisan legislation that codifies the U.S. commitment to the global One Trillion Trees Initiative. Studies show that planting 1 trillion trees globally by 2050 would dramatically reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. This initiative is a practical, pragmatic way to address the climate and environmental challenges we are facing. The Trillion Trees Act provides a blueprint to achieve these objectives domestically by responsibly growing more trees, ensuring better management of our forests, and incentivizing carbon sequestration efforts and innovations. While many of these new trees will grow naturally through the regeneration cycle, many more will require an investment in aggressive reforestation.

In fact, in order to dramatically scale up reforestation on a level to meet the U.S. share of the One Trillion Tree Initiative, domestic nurseries will need to grow an additional 1.7 billion seedlings annually. This will require investments in nurseries at all levels, from federal, to state, to private. These investments are not only beneficial to ensuring that we have healthy forests in the future, but they will also create much-needed economic opportunities in rural areas. According to American Forests, for every $1 million we invest in nurseries, it supports anywhere from 14 to 48 jobs.

The SOS for Seedlings Act is a multi-faceted bill that addresses the challenges facing nurseries across the country to meet the unprecedented demand for new seedlings. This bill will enable us to better use trees as a powerful tool to capture more carbon and make our environment cleaner and healthier. It directs the USFS chief to develop a national seedling strategy that assesses regional reforestation opportunities and the nursery capacity needed to meet those opportunities. It provides vital funding for federal nurseries, which are the main supplier of seedlings for reforestation on federal lands. It creates a new $1 billion loan program to address nursery infrastructure and build new state, tribal, local and private nurseries.

Above all, the SOS for Seedlings Act provides both public and private officials across the U.S. with vital resources to ramp up our national seedling production, which in turn will boost reforestation efforts and make our forests more resilient. It’s an issue that hits particularly close to home, as 25 percent of all federal nurseries and extractories are situated in Oregon’s 2nd Congressional District. This makes Oregon an ideal model for the rest of the country to follow.

It’s our hope that the SOS for Seedlings Act will result in nurseries nationwide growing seedlings that are native to that part of the country, from shortleaf pines in Arkansas to bigleaf maples in Oregon and everything in between. These kinds of market-based solutions to climate issues are the ones we can implement right now and see immediate, tangible results, solutions that don’t require radical changes to life as we know it.

Our journey toward a greener, more sustainably focused future starts right here as we invest in healthy forests that will thrive for generations to come.

Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., is ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources. Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ore., represent’s Oregon’s 2nd Congressional District.