The Reforestation Trust Fund: Building capacity for transformative Forest Service spending
by Adriana DiSilvestro
September 27, 2023
The Reforestation Trust Fund-- a primary funding mechanism for forest health and improvement on federal lands-- currently holds and unprecedented 513 million dollars. These funds could be used to accelerate reforestation and provide livelihoods and green industrial pathways in deindustrialized communities in the Rural West.
Years of austerity in the US Forest Service have gutted the agency. These funds could be used to rebuild the agency, providing permanent project management positions and develop accessible training programs to local communities.
RTF funds should be deployed and evaluated using a metric of forest health. Instead of number of trees planted, the mandate should also include forest restoration in order to maximize benefits for ecosystems, carbon drawdown, and local communities.
In November of 2021 Congress passed the REPLANT Act to remove a 30 million dollar funding cap on the Reforestation Trust Fund (RTF), a primary funding mechanism for reforestation and forest health improvement efforts across federal lands. Unlike other US Forest Service (USFS) administered funds which are replenished via timber sales or tax revenue, the RTF is derived solely from tariffs on imported forest products. Without the cap the RTF has quickly ballooned alongside tariff revenue, and now stands at an unprecedented 513 million dollars, all of which appeared without the sticky trade offs or delays that often accompany traditional federal funding reallocations. This money has arrived at a critical juncture: US public forests are currently facing stressors that threaten their ability to regenerate naturally, such as intense wildfires, increased drought, pine bark beetle infestations, and legacies of government mismanagement that have left many public forests in dangerous and derelict conditions. Preventing mass deforestation is a necessity, especially in an era of ecological crisis, because healthy forests function as carbon sinks, improve watershed health, and provide critical biodiversity habitat. Accelerated reforestation under the RTF is an opportunity to protect these ecological benefits while also providing livelihoods and green industrial pathways for deindustrialized communities in the rural West.
The USFS typically faces a deficit of money for reforestation activities, but the RTF now provides a new “firehose” of funding that the agency must urgently decide how to spend. The REPLANT Act clearly directs federal actors use the money to plant 1 billion trees on federal lands in the next 10 years, a measure that it’s authors argue will close the gap between the USFS’s stated reforestation goals and its backlog in implementation, which as of 2022 stood at 4 million acres, but how exactly to make this happen is up for debate. The USFS’s ten year “Reforestation Strategy'' for the national forest system proposes that the first step is to invest in scaling up critical reforestation infrastructure such as seed orchards, nursery facilities, and maintenance technology in hopes that removing “pipeline” barriers to reforestation will speed the process and clear the way for the net benefits of tree planting to take effect. The Biden-Harris administration affirms this expectation, stating that accelerated reforestation via the RTF will “help mitigate the impacts of climate change, rebuild in the aftermath of devastating wildfires and strengthen America’s forestlands.”
The most recent government spending data shows that thus far the newly authorized RTF funds are indeed being used to fulfill the goals of the Restoration Strategy. Since the start of FY 2022 to August 2023 the RTF has been used to support 910 unique reforestation contracts in 36 different states, 368 of which were started in FY 2022 or later. As of August 2023, however, only 5.9% of the total FY 513 million dollar budget has been allocated. Much of the FY 2023 budget was already carried over from the year before and it’s likely that the vast majority of currently unobligated funds will be carried into 2024. These numbers suggest that while the USFS no longer faces a deficit of reforestation money, the agency lacks the capacity and organizational direction necessary to spend the influx of RTF funds. Though the RTF is only a piece of forest service funding available for reforestation and restoration activities, the amount of money that currently sits unused is emblematic of the fact that after years of forced austerity the USFS will need to leverage new strategies to spend money for the greatest, and most equitable, impact. The piece highlights how the RTF is an opportunity to build capacity for transformative spending and outlines 3 key areas of consideration for USFS RTF investment: building a sustainable reforestation workforce, developing transparent and equitable priorities, and expanding the reforestation mandate.
Laying the groundwork for a reforestation workforce
Before building out material reforestation infrastructure, RTF funds must be spent to build out a reforestation workforce to provide the labor for said infrastructure. Decades of budget cuts have gutted the number of funded, and well-paying positions within the US Forest Service. The agency has ramped up its reliance on contracting in order to fill labor gaps, but the success of contract deals still requires administrative coordination and assumes that the workers supplied by contracted organizations have adequate technical knowledge. This slows down implementation because different stages of reforestation labor require highly specialized training with reforestation equipment and knowledge about soil chemistry, and forest ecology. RTF funding must be used to develop to recruit, train, and retain a permanent reforestation workforce that goes above and beyond the historical baseline for USFS employment. This sort of expenditure is well within the boundaries of permitted spending via the RTF, which allows for “properly allocable administrative expenses.” RTF funds to achieve these goals can be immediately, and reasonably spent in the following two ways:
Invest in Permanent Project Management Positions: It’s unlikely that reliance on contract labor in the US Forest Service will cease entirely. Even though the nature of some reforestation work will remain seasonal or contract-based (cone collecting, growing season restrictions, etc.) there needs to be investment in permanent project management positions to both ease the administrative burden of contracting and to create institutional memory of specialized reforestation and restoration knowledge. The RTF can and should be used to fund USFS region-based coordinators to take on the organizational labor associated with contracting, hiring, and retaining reforestation labor. While the Reforestation Strategy suggests that some of these shortages can be addressed via “innovative partnerships,” these collaborations should not be developed at the expense of re-investment in the USFS itself.
Develop and Promote Accessible Training Programs: Reforestation requires extremely specialized training; harvesting seeds, growing seedlings, and prepping planting sites all require pre-existing technical knowledge. While USFS offices often do provide some degree of orientation for contract-based workers this is not possible with reforestation activities given the specialized nature of the tasks involved. The scale of USFS reforestation goals will therefore require a baseline supply of reforestation trained workers that can be recruited and hired within a reasonable timeline. To build this ready-made workforce, a portion of RTF money should go to investing in partnerships with local community colleges, unions, and NGOs to develop reforestation training programs, curriculum, and certifications. These training programs must remain financially accessible to all and should either be developed as a pay-as-you learn model that prevents participants from incurring debt, or as a work and learn program where students are paid a living wage while earning certifications. RTF money should immediately go towards implementing a selected pilot training program sited in a community that is both adjacent to public forest land and is covered under the Justice40 framework.
Creating transparent and equitable prioritization frameworks
The USDA Reforestation Strategy recognizes that “developing shared priorities internally and with partners is critical to address current and future reforestation needs on NFS lands.” But there is currently no transparent, publicly available protocol for the distribution of RTF funds. Though RTF funding “will go directly to National Forest System landscapes through planting and site prep of regional projects” it's unclear which landscapes will receive funding first, or if there is an already ranked backlog of projects. There needs to be clearly articulated criteria to effectively triage RTF funding for maximum impact. Clear priorities will allow for more efficient distribution that is transparent to the public, practitioners, and USFS employees alike. The RTF presents an excellent opportunity to develop a comprehensive prioritization framework which can be applied to expedite the distribution of future funding. This framework should take the following two principles into account:
Likely Success: Reforestation is an expensive, and intensive, intervention that requires a strict set of conditions in order to be successful. Funding reforestation projects that are unlikely to succeed by applying reforestation as a blanket solution is a waste of RTF funding. Sites in need of RTF funding should be ranked in accordance with criteria that equate to likely success, while simultaneously acknowledging that “success” in terms of forest health can mean a multitude of different things, such as achieving maximum carbon capture, a diversity of tree species, fire resiliency, etc. Forests landscapes where reforestation is most likely to contribute to achieving these markers have likely already been subject to significant site prep, fuel management, or other restoration actions. Prioritizing reforestation in pre-prepped landscapes where the underlying driver of deforestation is at least partially controlled will at least temporarily help narrow the range of top-priority sites, and concentrate resources for maximum long-term impact. Likely success criteria does not ignore the fact that many landscapes are in need of reforestation, but will help to establish implicit benchmarks for pre-planting site prep measures.
Alignment with Justice40 and associated legislation: The RTF funds reforestation as an ecological intervention on federal lands, but these activities still have significant social, political, and economic impacts. Because RTF funded reforestation is expected to provide additional benefits by re-establishing healthy forests, such as watershed restoration, climate resilience, and increased recreation income, spending should be prioritized in accordance with ecological need and the potential to remediate historical environmental injustice. One clear way to do this would be to follow the Biden administration’s Justice40 Initiative and ensure that 40% of RTF funds are directed to areas that are at least adjacent to communities disproportionately impacted by environmental degradation. This would involve extensive cooperation with, and prioritization of tribal communities who are often located within the proximity of public lands, and still facing the social and economic consequences of initial dispossession from forest land.
Expanding the mandate beyond reforestation
Reforestation comes with inherent physical and temporal limits. There are limits to the amount of seed that can be harvested, the time it takes said seeds to germinate and mature, and the number of seedlings that will survive into maturity. There is no amount of money that can speed these processes along, or fully guarantee their success. Additionally, reforestation alone cannot will not achieve forest health and resiliency unless additional restoration measures are taken to ensure optimal conditions for sustained tree growth (i.e fire prevention, soil health, pest control, diversity of undergrowth). Therefore, in order to accelerate investment for maximum impact, there is a need to expand the mandate of the RTF beyond growing and planting seedlings. This is permitted under law, which states that the fund can be spent on anything related to achieving forest health or revegetation, but is currently underemphasized, in part because tree-planting is politically overemphasized as a fix-all for solution. This is demonstrated in policies such as the Trump administration’s agreement to the “Trillion Tree” initiative, which equates a massive number of trees with a massive net benefit while understating the drivers of deforestation in the first place, such as intense forest fire. There are effective and readily investable forest restoration interventions that the RTF should be applied to while reforestation efforts are scaled up in order to achieve maximum benefit. All RTF spending should therefore be enacted in tandem with other forest restoration efforts; this will also provide another spending avenue for RTF investment while reforestation infrastructure is scaled up.
Tandem Solution Implementation: Even though the RTF is explicitly reforestation oriented, funding guidelines should mandate restoration actions on top of reforestation. It’s true that there is a time-sensitive need for replanting in severely burned landscapes to prevent transition to grassland or shrubland, but planting without other underlying restoration actions is not a long-term solution. Areas undergoing reforestation should simultaneously be subject to fire prevention measures and all reforestation in fire-prone areas must be accompanied by equal investment in forest resiliency treatments such as hand and mechanical thinning, selective logging, and invasives/pest management. To build capacity for these restoration activities, the USFS can use RTF money to leverage cooperative agreements with tribes, states, and private landowners on lands adjacent to National Forest systems. Implementing these actions prior to or in conjunction with reforestation will likely increase regeneration success.
Conclusion: Building future spending capacity now
Newfound RTF funding is undoubtedly a benefit for the USFS, which has struggled with budget cuts and funding deficits for forest health activities amidst rapidly growing costs of forest fire suppression. The massive growth in the fund however, has made clear that the agency will need to build spending capacity in order to scale up reforestation (and restoration) infrastructure in a timely and intentional manner. Though 500 million dollars alone is not sufficient to reverse decades of austerity, the RTF provides a useful case for thinking through how green spending can not only be intensified, but be used to transform institutions in preparation for spending that is equitable, efficient, and beneficial in both an ecological and social sense.