The Truth Behind Big, Beautiful Reforestation Initiatives

Trump’s “Trillion Trees” promise—and its potential under Biden

By Elizabeth Miller

December 21, 2020


Photo by xeipe/iStock

The rhetoric around tree-planting has grown abundant. Reforestation is pitched as the forgotten solution; an economic lifeblood for rural communities; a boost for wildlife, water and soil; a chance for the US to lead; and, increasingly, as a cure to the despair shadowing climate change predictions. It’s no wonder the appeal has crossed party lines, with new bipartisan legislation joining calls from the White House to plant more trees. Logistical hurdles, however, call into question the magnitude of American policymakers’ buzzy, ambitious orders to restore forests.

How exactly do reforestation initiatives work? The first, labor-intensive task is to start growing new trees. Take ponderosa pines, a popular reforestation option. To collect ponderosa seeds, you first have to catch the tree on a year it’s produced a plentiful crop of cones and then harvest them from its branches. Collectors often climb into the trees to cut cones off by hand, or use extendable pruners to snip them loose, or sometimes resort to using a shotgun blast to knock them down. Those collected seeds then need to be stored in controlled conditions, grown in nurseries, and planted where they’re likely to thrive. To boost survival rates, which can drop as low as 10 or even zero percent, seedlings need to be carefully tended to. Otherwise, they’ll likely succumb to drought or get eaten by animals. 

Nurseries, however, have increasingly lost government funding (largely because of the growing costs of wildfire-fighting, among other factors). They also face a short supply of skilled workers. Already, the number of seedlings required to repopulate forests lost to wildfire, disease, and drought outpaces the fields and greenhouse space to grow them, as well as the trained workers necessary to ensure they’re watered, then pruned, packed, and planted. All of it jeopardizes reforestation efforts aimed at curbing the climate crisis, like the global One Trillion Trees Initiative, which outgoing President Donald Trump signed onto earlier this year.

This is according to Joe Fargione, science director for the Nature Conservancy’s North America region. To truly pursue the Trillion Trees Initiative, Fargione says, “would mean tens of millions of acres of additional reforestation and doubling or quadrupling the number of seedlings planted every year.”

Trump has described the global effort to plant, grow, and conserve a trillion trees by 2030 as “a very big deal,” and one that fits in with the United States’ historic conservation efforts. The Trillion Trees initiative’s multipronged approach counts trees saved through anti-deforestation efforts as well as new seedlings planted worldwide, and America’s share of either has not yet been determined. But recent years’ seedling counts put federal agencies on track to plant a billion trees in the next eight years—which will get us a mere one-thousandth of the way toward the trillion-tree goal.

“It’s a very, very ambitious number,” says Diane Haase, western nursery specialist for the US Forest Service, who works on an annual, nationwide tally of public and private seedling production. “Nothing is in place right now to be growing at that scale.”

“It’s a very, very ambitious number. Nothing is in place right now to be growing at that scale.”

Upping our current pace of tree production will require major investment in every step of the process, as well as massive grassroots action, says Jad Daley, CEO of American Forests, which co-leads the US chapter of the One Trillion Trees Initiative. Because little has been done to address widespread forest loss, he adds, “relatively small fixes could lead to great progress.”

Federal leadership, policy changes, and funding could unlock additional financial support and kickstart action. Some fixes require far-reaching policy changes. For instance, Fargione says tightened immigration rules have cut into a workforce that often depends on migrant farm laborers. He adds that the federal class on how to climb trees to collect seeds is a pinch point—only one is offered annually. Nurseries, and their investors, may also be reluctant to sink money into added capacity for a short-term project.

Labor shortages manifest in all manner of ways. When well-meaning volunteers plant the wrong tree (for instance, a Douglas fir that isn’t a local variety) or aren’t well-trained on how to plant a  tree, or simply put them in the ground and walk away, the work could be forfeit. Raising a forest, rather than a field of sticks, often also requires building shade structures, ensuring protection from herbivores, and regularly watering trees.

“If you put 100 trees in the ground and 90 of them die, then it’s nothing to be excited about,” Haase says. “You’ve just wasted all your resources, from the seed to the nursery to the out-planting, and then you just have a dead tree.”

“If you put 100 trees in the ground and 90 of them die, then it’s nothing to be excited about—you’ve just wasted all your resources, from the seed to the nursery to the out-planting, and then you just have a dead tree.”

Justin Adams, head of and director of nature-based solutions with the World Economic Forum, says, “the practicalities of getting the trees in the ground—that’s actually relatively easy at a very local level. What’s much harder is, how can we generate the deeper level of change and the policy support and the commercial support?”

Daley adds that, for grassroots groups and entrepreneurs, finding spare earth in which to plant new trees will take a “shake the couch cushions” approach. “The idea of a trillion trees can either be inspiring, or it can be daunting,” he says. “This is really something that’s meant to say, ‘Let’s dream big. Let’s dream in a way that challenges us all.’”

Under Trump, progress toward the initiative has been mixed. On the plus side, the administration has been tackling questions of the right numbers of trees to plant, conserve, and grow on US soil from a science-based approach. In October, an executive order established an interagency council to determine how federal agencies could contribute to the goal—a framework the Biden administration could potentially continue, under new appointees. 

“The administration deserves a lot of credit for what they’ve done on this, and that might surprise a lot of people,” Daley says. But at the same time, he adds, “there have been some actions the administration has taken, even while pursuing One Trillion Trees, that have felt at odds with pursuing that initiative.”

After all, the critical objective here is to end deforestation while addressing climate change and the biodiversity crisis. But just this past fall, Trump’s staff has finalized policies to fast-track logging and development in national forests and to open roadless areas in the Tongass National Forest to logging.

The good news is, Biden’s leadership in the Agriculture and Interior Departments could accelerate and improve upon this effort. Congress also still has time to pass the REPLANT Act, which would lift a cap on the US Forest Service’s Reforestation Trust Fund and potentially triple the number of trees planted in national forests. For its part, the Sierra Club has not taken a position on the REPLANT Act.

“If [the One Trillion Trees Initiative] can get momentum and have sustained support, it could make a big impact,” says Haase, adding that sustained support is the crucial part, “because seedlings aren’t something we just crank out in three months. Things tend to run that way—there’s a lot of interest in something and a lot of money and attention; then, people realize how much work it’s going to take, how much time it’s going to take, and the interest kind of wanes, and then they move on to something else. I hope that doesn’t happen with this. I hope this is going to be something, because it’s much needed.”

This article has been updated since publication.