President Biden’s recent Executive Order on Climate calls for tackling climate change in partnership with rural America’s farmers, ranchers and forest owners – key constituencies that have often been left on the sidelines in the past. Now it is the job of Secretary Vilsack and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to figure out how to do this.

A strong starting point to consider is with family-owned forests.

Currently, U.S. forests and forest products sequester and store roughly 15% of the country's annual carbon emissions, representing our single largest natural carbon sink. More importantly, studies suggest this could be nearly doubled with the right actions.

The largest portion of America’s forests fall in the hands of families and individuals, making them the most critical demographic to both maintaining this existing carbon sink, and growing it. 

Family forest owners represent 1 in 4 rural Americans. Already, their forests provide vital benefits in addition to carbon sequestration and storage, including clean water infrastructure, habitat for our wildlife and the wood supply that goes towards our homes and everyday products.

What’s more, rural family forest owners care about the environment and want to do right by the land. This can be hard to grasp after years of opposition from rural Americans to environmental policy. But a recent study from Duke’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions suggests that this opposition is not due to values or lack of knowledge, rather it comes from concerns about regulation.

Similarly, surveys from the American Forest Foundation have found that family forest owners’ values align with the needs of our environment and climate. They want their land to remain as a forest into the future and improve its health today, both key climate mitigation strategies.

Despite the alignment of these forces, forest owners are running into roadblocks when it comes to doing more to address our changing climate. The first is technical assistance – understanding the right practices to capture and store more carbon and improve forest health can be complex.

Second, taking action in one’s woods is not cheap. Like many rural Americans, landowners have been significantly affected by the recent economic downturn. Even in times of growth, 1 out of 3 family forest owners have a household income of less than $50,000. This can make it virtually impossible to afford the necessary work to maintain the land, let alone improve it for carbon or other benefits.

This is where Secretary Vilsack and USDA can help.

While more funding is both beneficial and necessary to help landowners cover costs, USDA doesn’t have to pay for it all. Rather, the Department can help small family forest owners access carbon markets, which would leverage billions in private funding to help finance climate action.

Carbon markets provide small forest owners with an avenue for generating income from their land that they can put back into the trees. Carbon markets also encourage landowners to create forest plans and work with professional foresters – critical steps to long-term care of our forests. And they appeal to landowners because they offer a voluntary option for action rather than a regulatory approach — which, as reported by the Duke study, can turn off landowners or be viewed negatively.

Presently, carbon markets are inaccessible to small forest owners. In fact, 98% of the properties in existing carbon projects are large industrial tracts of 5,000 acres or more. Less than 1% are on acreages between 20 and 1,000— the size range of the majority of family-owned properties in the U.S. This is due to complexity, high upfront costs and contract length.

Supporting family forest owners in accessing markets can help the Department achieve its climate goals, as well as improve forest health and funnel much needed economic stimulus to important rural constituents.

Already, credible private sector solutions are taking shape, such as the Family Forest Carbon Program, a program developed by the American Forest Foundation and The Nature Conservancy. When fully scaled, this program’s goal is to sequester and store roughly 2 gigatons of additional, verifiable CO2 by the end of the century – that’s as much as would be avoided by more than 400,000 wind turbines running for a year.

As Secretary Vilsack launches into his new tenure leading the USDA, he should consider his first order of business to help scale forest carbon programs across the country. An early win would be to provide loans, loan guarantees and bond guarantees to help finance these efforts, either through existing USDA authorities or by supporting the bipartisan Rural Forests Markets Act.

Family forest owners stand ready to work with you, Mr. Secretary. Partnering with these owners has the power to produce real carbon reductions to help the U.S. tackle climate change, expand the community of people actively engaged in addressing climate change and bring much needed economic stimulus to rural America.

Tom Martin, President and CEO of the American Forest Foundation, the only national forest conservation organization that exclusively works to empower family forest landowners to deliver meaningful conservation impact.

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