Rooting a green recovery in America’s lands

The next federal stimulus package must center rural communities and leverage environmental co-benefits

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Photo: Unsplash

Rooted in Resilience

The impacts of the coronavirus pandemic will reverberate through US communities for years to come. Lockdown orders and heightened safety risks have stunted trade, impeded workforces, and disrupted supply chains. At the same time, rural communities face another challenge — their livelihoods are inextricably linked with the climate, and the increase in severe weather like floods, fires, and droughts as a result of climate change have combined disastrously with COVID-19.

My hometown, Turlock, CA, lies at the nexus of these impacts. Known to few, Turlock is an agricultural powerhouse — it is located in a top ag producing county in the country’s top ag producing state (California’s agriculture industry grossed over $50B in revenue in 2019). And yet despite these strengths, California’s agriculture economy and the communities connected to it have been under threat for years. Increased temperatures and long-lasting droughts have left many farmers high and dry, forced to switch the type of crops they produce, pull dead almond trees from their orchards, or pay exorbitant prices for water. Farmworkers pick our food under record summer temperatures and smoke from nearby wildfires exacerbates already poor air quality and poses significant health risks to an area with already high asthma rates. COVID-19 has sped up a reckoning on its way to California’s Central Valley and so many other rural communities across the country.

While the gravity of the challenges facing the Valley is not lost on me, my hope remains. There lies a significant opportunity to address the dual threats facing rural communities across the country today. Building back the strength of our rural communities after COVID-19 will require us to strategically invest not only in immediate economic relief but also in the long-term resilience of these communities to the impacts of climate change. Climate action starts on the ground — storing carbon in our forests and agricultural soils can help build that resilience and reduce the near-term impact of extreme weather on land managers’ bottom lines while also helping to reduce this climate risk in the future.

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A red sun hangs in the sky in Hilmar, CA, where nearby wildfires have exacerbated poor air quality. Photo: Giana Amador

Federal economic stimulus packages are uniquely positioned to leverage US lands to recover and rebuild while also driving climate action. In we offer six policies (summarized below) for a future stimulus package that would support the hard-hit agriculture and forestry sectors while elevating co-benefits for climate.

The best climate policies reinforce and center economic development, social and environmental justice, and public health. As we move into new wildfire, hurricane, and drought seasons, it will be critical for the federal government to provide immediate support to land managers and rural communities to protect against further impacts.

Expand USDA conservation programs to improve soil health and carbon storage.

It is estimated that the US can store 250 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year through agricultural practices, but insufficient technical and financial assistance significantly hinders the implementation of these practices. The federal government should increase funding for these programs to allow more farmers and ranchers to receive financial support to adopt new conservation practices that bolster soil health.

Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP), NRCS Conservation Technical Assistance

Create a network of soil carbon demonstration trials

Many producers are not widely familiar with soil health practices and/or do not have enough confidence in the benefits of soil health practices to make long-term decisions about their operations. Demonstration trials provide “seeing is believing” credibility, help farmers become comfortable with new practices, and decrease the potential operational and economic risks of implementation.

: Conservation Innovation Grant (CIG)

Establish a national on-farm monitoring system

To fully realize the scale potential of soil carbon practices, we need to significantly improve current soil carbon quantification methods and improve our knowledge of carbon sequestration baselines across the US. By investing in soil carbon data collection today, we can pave the way for farmers to unlock a new source of productivity and source of revenue in years to come.

: National Resource Inventory

Bolster forest restoration and hazardous fuels management efforts

A key component missing in addressing US wildfires today is a concerted effort to rebalance natural fire regimes. Forest restoration and hazardous fuels management protects watersheds, helps combat invasive species, minimizes risk to nearby communities and firefighters, creates jobs, and could save millions of dollars over the long term from damaging wildfires.

: Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, USDA Hazardous Fuels Program, Vegetation and Watershed Management Program, Burned Area Emergency Response Program, Hazardous Fuels Management Program, Burned Area Rehabilitation Program

Expand reforestation efforts on public lands

The US has significant potential to boost reforestation efforts, with over 20 million acres of public lands currently in need of reforestation that could sequester over 16 million Mg CO2e year. A similar coordinated push for large-scale reforestation, incentivized and supported by the federal government, can help meet immediate and long-term job creation needs in both rural and urban areas.

: US Forest Service Urban and Community Forestry Program

Invest in innovative wood technologies

Leveraging government procurement to expand research and increase demand for mass timber can support economic diversification efforts in rural areas and incentivize carbon forest management practices. However, incentivizing hard wood products must be tied with robust environmental safeguards that ensure forest management practices and environmental sustainability are not compromised.

: Forest Service Wood Innovation Grant

Read the full white paper.

Learn more about our Leading with Soil work.

Get in touch to discuss these policy recommendations.

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A new breed of climate-focused NGO working to build a world that removes more carbon than it emits. Newsletters 👉 http://bit.ly/3gjXhgR

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