The worsening impacts of climate change pose an imminent threat to our lives and the health and well-being of future generations.
As communities experience record heat waves, drought, coastal and inland flooding, and more intense and destructive wildfires, the impacts are far reaching – threatening water supplies, homes and businesses, important wildlife habitat, and economic and subsistence resources for Tribal communities.
To commemorate Earth Day, we want to highlight some regenerative, resilience-enhancing new actions the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) are taking to address the climate and biodiversity crises and safeguard people, land and water.
The USDA and DOI recently announced actions to foster forest restoration, enhance forest resilience to climate change, and inform policymaking on ensuring healthy forests on federally managed lands administered by the USDA Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
To support these actions, USDA and DOI worked together to develop several reports, as directed by President Joe Biden’s Executive Order on Strengthening the Nation’s Forests, Communities, and Local Economies (E.O. 14072), which he signed on Earth Day 2022.
The Executive Order calls for inventorying mature and old-growth forests, setting reforestation targets on federally managed lands, and analyzing reforestation opportunities on state, Tribal and private lands.
“Our forest ecosystems and communities are struggling to keep up with the stresses of climate change, whether it’s fire, drought, or insect infestations, it is clear that we must adapt quickly,” said USDA Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment Homer Wilkes.
“The USDA and our federal, tribal, state, local and community partners are working together to meet these challenges, pooling knowledge, sharing resources and discovering new ways to conserve resources, protect communities and ensure future generations can enjoy the countless benefits our forests provide,” he added.
In addition, the Forest Service is releasing a new tool that illustrates the risks and vulnerabilities of climate change across the landscape along with a call for public input on how national forests and grasslands should be managed for climate resilience.
These actions represent concrete progress on the goals and priorities outlined one year ago in President Biden’s Executive Order, Secretary Vilsack’s Memorandum on Climate Resilience and Carbon Stewardship, as well as in the USDA Forest Service’s Wildfire Crisis Strategy, Climate Adaptation Plan (PDF, 26.1 MB), and Reforestation Strategy (PDF, 7 MB).
“Healthy, resilient forests are critical to helping us respond to the climate impacts being felt by communities across the country, because they store carbon, provide clean air and water, and sustain biodiversity,” said BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning.
“The reports released today will help enhance our work to protect and grow forests by creating a scientific framework for further study and public engagement for effective forest management and protection,” she continued.
Newly Released Joint Reports on Forest Restoration and Conservation
The Mature and Old-Growth Forest report defines what mature and old growth forests are, establishes the first-ever initial inventory of those forests, and shows their distribution across lands managed by the USDA Forest Service and the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management. The initial inventory identified more than 32 million acres of old-growth and around 80 million acres of mature forest across 200 types of forests.
The initial inventory found that old-growth forest represents 18% and mature forest another 45% of all forested land managed by the two agencies. Recognizing the many values of mature and old-growth forests, both agencies conducted significant outreach to gather public input from communities, tribes, scientists, and agency professionals in the report’s development.
Like all the nation’s forests, mature and old-growth forests are threatened by climate change and associated stressors. The initial inventory and definitions for mature and old-growth forests are part of an overarching climate-informed strategy to help retain carbon, reduce wildfire risk, and address climate-related impacts, including increased insects and disease.
As directed in President Biden’s Executive Order and laid out in the report, the USDA Forest Service and the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management will use these definitions and initial inventory to continue to refine results, assess threats to old growth and mature forest stands, and conduct public engagement.
In the near future, the USDA and BLM also plan to incorporate information gathered from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation mission, which will provide forest inventory and analysis plots using space-based laser measurements. These efforts will help the agencies meet the science-based approach required in the executive order as well as develop management policy and strategies to recruit, sustain, and restore mature and old-growth forests.
Pinyon and juniper woodlands are the most abundant forest type in the federally managed inventory of mature and old-growth forests, with nine million acres of old-growth pinyon-juniper across BLM and Forest Service lands and an additional 14 million acres of mature pinyon-juniper.
This summer, the Forest Service and the BLM will be co-hosting public workshops focused on sustaining resilient pinyon-juniper ecosystems. The workshops are intended to ensure robust public engagement and scientific expertise and knowledge are underpinning the approaches taken to fulfill the Executive Order and other management strategies for ensuring healthy, resilient pinyon and juniper woodlands.
USDA and DOI are also releasing a joint reforestation report (PDF, 471 KB) which includes reforestation targets, assessments and recommendations for increased capacity for seeds and nurseries.
In response to feedback from stakeholder engagement, the report offers recommendations to conduct seed and nursery operations, improve coordination with non-federal partners, leverage opportunities for innovation with the private sector, and build a reforestation workforce with partners like the Conservation Corps.
To develop targets for reforestation on public lands by 2030, USDA and DOI evaluated recent peer-reviewed assessments and datasets conducted on public lands and identified more than 2.3 million acres in need of reforestation. This report also includes an assessment of more than 70 million acres of possible reforestation opportunities with state, tribal and private landowners, providing valuable insight on how existing partnerships and programs could be focused where they are needed most.
Advanced Notice of Public Rulemaking to Build Climate Resilience
With climate change and related stressors causing rapid, variable change on national forests and grasslands, the Forest Service is asking for public input on how the agency should adapt current policies to protect, conserve, and manage national forests and grasslands for climate resilience.
This Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking for National Forest and Grassland Climate Resilience will be published in the Federal Register and publication will begin a 60-day public comment period. The Forest Service is also consulting with tribes and requesting feedback on current issues and considerations related to relying on the best available science including indigenous knowledge, as well as climate adaptation, mature and old-growth forests, and considerations for social and economic resilience.
Climate Risk Viewer
As part of today’s announcement, the USDA Forest Service is sharing the beta version of a new tool to assess climate risks and vulnerabilities called the Forest Service Climate Risk Viewer. Developed with 28 high-quality datasets, it shows how resources overlap with climate exposure and vulnerability. This allows for more localized analysis of how climate adaptation can maintain, restore and expand forest ecosystems and watersheds. The viewer includes the new mature and old-growth forest inventory data for the Forest Service as well as datasets to identify gaps between current management and potential conservation and adaptation practices.
Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Field Guidance
In keeping with the spirit of President Biden’s Executive Order, earlier this week Forest Service Deputy Chief Chris French sent a letter to Forest Service Regional Foresters outlining leadership direction related to implementation of section 40803(g) of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law regarding, which requires the consideration of how to manage for among other things, large trees and old growth stands in forest health projects.
Through a newly unveiled restoration and resilience framework and historic investments from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act, the Department is putting people to work on locally led landscape restoration projects driven by collaborative partnerships.
Through the framework, the Department will focus investments around three goals in key geographies to advance climate resilience and provide for maximum impact.
To prepare communities for and protect them from the worsening impacts of the climate crisis, the Department is investing resources in restoration and nature-based solutions – including targeted investments in the Klamath Basin and throughout Western sagebrush ecosystems.
Over the past 20 years, the Klamath Basin has met unprecedented challenges due to ongoing drought conditions.
Working with its partners, the Interior Department is working on collaborative solutions to help minimize the impacts of the drought and to provide coordinated investments in the basin for restoration of lands and waters that support people and salmon and other wildlife.
Through the Sagebrush Conservation Design strategy, the Department is working with partners to defend and grow core sagebrush ecosystems by reducing invasive plants that fuel wildfires and protecting communities and wildlife that depend on these landscapes.
Additionally, to support resilient coastlines, the Department is working with partners to restore existing and proactively manage for new salt marshes along the east coast. Salt marshes provide an important natural buffer from coastal flooding, filter and protect water quality, and trap and stores climate change-causing gasses, all while providing critical wildlife habitat.
America’s people, economy and wildlife rely on healthy lands and waters, and our open spaces are woven into our nation’s identity. Investments in conservation and restoration can reverse trends stemming from the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. In coordination with the America the Beautiful initiative, the Department is working toward a national goal for the stewardship of these resources.
In Alaska’s Yukon, Kuskokwim and Norton Sound region, the Department is committing to a collaborative effort with Tribal partners to assess, monitor and restore physical and biological processes in the basin to benefit salmon habitat and subsistence fishing rights.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland recently signed a Secretary’s Order to enhance co-stewarded, healthy, bison herds in the great plains as well as a commitment of over $25 million from the Inflation Reduction Act to use the best available science and Indigenous Knowledge to help restore bison as part of a larger effort to restore the vast grassland habitats on which they depend.
The Department is also working in partnership with the Native Hawaiian Community to prevent imminent extinction of Hawaiian forest birds through a multiagency strategy that employs a multi-pronged approach for native bird conservation and avian malaria control.
Millions of Americans across the country live within just one mile from an abandoned coal mine or an orphaned oil and gas well. These legacy pollution sites are environmental hazards and jeopardize public health and safety by contaminating groundwater, emitting methane, littering the landscape with rusted and dangerous equipment, creating flooding and sinkhole risks, and harming wildlife.
To improve human and environmental health in Appalachia and nationwide, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law provides $16 billion for the cleanup of orphaned oil and gas wells and abandoned mine lands, and nearly $10 million for environmental remediation around legacy pollution sites and to address pollution in riparian zones.
These funds are being used to remediate these toxic sites, create good paying jobs and revitalize economies, in coordination with the Appalachia Landscape Partnership.
To support these initiatives, the Department is also advancing a National Early Detection and Rapid Response Framework, which proactively addresses invasive species before they become too costly to control, and is working to implement the National Seed Strategy, ensuring seed supplies for restoration of native plant communities and the many species that depend upon them.
Photo of bighorn sheep is by Natalie Faulk from Pixabay.