A silhouette of a man standing in front of a blazing forest fire.
Image Credit: Adam Wilson on unsplash.com

This is the fifth article from A Green New Deal on the Ground, a series produced with Climate and Community Project, a progressive climate policy think tank developing cutting-edge research at the climate and inequality nexus. The series examines how Green New Deal initiatives aim to create climate policy that positively impacts everyday life, explores the political coalitions and campaigns centering environmental justice and equity in decarbonization across the US, and champions both broad-based movement building and institutional power to harness resources and push for change.

The catastrophic 2020 wildfires in California burned nearly 4.4 million acres and killed 33 people. Carbon emissions from the fires exceeded reductions in emissions from the first year of COVID restrictions and economic slowdown.  

Wildfires contribute significantly to the 24 percent of US emissions coming from forestry, agriculture, and land use. They create a suite of environmental problems: from high carbon emissions as trees and soils burn; to public health emergencies when wildfires hit towns and smoke affects distant cities; to water contamination compounding regional drought. Investing in forests, their managing agencies, and communities that care for and depend on them is vital to handling climate change and its attendant health and economic crises. 

After decades of neglect, federal and state governments are making substantial investments to combat the wildfire crisis. 

Scientific research shows that past and current forest management approaches have created the West’s wildfire crisis. Modern land management practices such as fire suppression and logging make forests likelier to burn. These strategies were executed after the attempted genocide of Indigenous people, erasing traditional methods and replacing them with extractive systems.  

Better forest management is unlikely to become a private-sector priority any time soon because it does not produce a direct return on investment—especially as many problem areas are located on publicly owned lands. After decades of neglect, federal and state governments are making substantial investments to combat the wildfire crisis. In California, state funding for fire prevention and forest restoration has risen almost five-fold since 2005 to around $3 billion. Emergent workforce models use these funds to benefit communities historically harmed by dispossession and mass incarceration. A Green New Deal approach to public lands management offers a policy roadmap to contend with this sprawling set of social and environmental problems. 

The Big Forest Problem 

Between the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century and the increase of environmental protections in the 1970s, the US forest management mantra was to “get the cut out”—that is, to log forests as profitably as possible, including by putting out fires that threatened future logging. By the time changes to environmental policy and the global economy depressed demand for US logging production beginning in the 1970s, forests across the West had been radically transformed from the conditions in which settlers found them—less diverse, more susceptible to disease, and less resilient to fire.  

The subsequent 40 years of land management made a bad situation worse through neglect. As the climate got warmer and drier, overgrown forests turned into tinderboxes. Foresters and federal agencies have known these problems for decades, but scaling up restoration has been challenging for a thorny set of reasons, especially because the Forest Service’s restoration budget has been eaten away by rising costs of fighting fires as the worsening climate narrows the window within which to conduct controlled burns.  

Forest restoration is both an environmental and economic justice initiative. 

To reduce fire damage, forests must be restored through small, controlled burns and selective thinning of overgrowth. However, the task of managing forests is as vast as the West itself. The US Forest Service alone tallies a restoration backlog of 80 million acres, with tens of millions more on other federal, state, and private lands needing treatment. In California alone, the US Forest Service manages about 20 million acres of land, with at least nine million acres needing restoration.  

In the first decade of the 2000s, land management agencies treated around 200,000 acres of forest per year in California; new funding and policy initiatives aim to raise that figure to nearly a million acres per year by 2025. To tackle the massive backlog and prevent another, federal and state governments need a robust forest restoration industry—which will, in turn, create plentiful and durable jobs. A recent study demonstrated that US forests disturbed by wildfires would not become more resilient on their own. Active management—modeled on traditional Indigenous management practices—is the only way to save them. 

Working at the Wildland-Urban Interface 

Forest restoration is both an environmental and economic justice initiative. Environmentally, it would benefit frontline communities at direct risk of fires, downstream communities that depend on the water supplies regulated by distant forests, and communities that suffer from poor air quality due to wildfire smoke.  

Economically, restoration could uplift communities suffering from deindustrialization and disinvestment over the last 50 years. Across the country, such disinvestment has produced social problems, including housing insecurity, economic precarity, an addiction epidemic, and increased and disproportionate exposure to the carceral system, all of which are now being compounded by other pressures. Vast swathes of the West are now uninsurable because of wildfire risk. Real estate prices are skyrocketing in relatively safer places as land ownership is consolidated. Middle-class people are moving further away from cities as urban home prices rise, driving Indigenous communities into high-risk and divested zones.  

In California alone, more than 11 million people now live at the wildland-urban interface, the area where built and natural environments meet and where forest fires are likelier to ignite. This means that nearly one in three people in the Golden State live with moderately high fire risks. The socioeconomic problems of rural forest communities are particularly pronounced for many Indigenous Californians, who bear the brunt of these risks due to centuries of dispossession and displacement. 

Fortunately, more funds are now flowing to achieve these restoration goals. Indeed, newly allocated funding in the Inflation Reduction Act is part of a positive trend to put more resources toward forest management. This funding primarily consists of $1.8 billion for treating forests at the wildland-urban interface and $700 million for staff hiring and retention at public-land management agencies—an important investment that begins to reverse decades of austerity that has led to diminished administrative capacity.  

The IRA funding is part of the Biden Administration’s plan to spend around $50 billion on wildfire risk reduction over the next 10 years, including treatments on 20 million acres of National Forest System land and 30 million acres of other federal, state, tribal, and private land. While more resources are being allocated for forests, the Climate and Community Project’s research shows that without additional, substantial investments in rural communities and forest workers, these new resources won’t achieve their full potential 

Equitable Forestry in Central Sierra 

In California and across the West, the effectiveness of new funding for forest management is hampered by labor and skills shortages. Low wages, difficult working conditions, loss of forestry knowledge resulting from the decline of logging, and competition with low-wage employers in other sectors have left forest management companies and agencies bereft of workers. Structural problems rural communities face, including prohibitive housing costs and limited public transportation, healthcare, and home insurance, also impede regional workforce development and retention.  

However, some organizations are already getting ready to reap the benefits of ramped up forest-management funding. For example, since 2004, Calaveras Healthy Impact Products Solutions, a nonprofit based in California’s Central Sierra region, has formed Indigenous-led and staffed forest restoration crews. On a shoestring budget, CHIPS helps Indigenous Californians get into forest restoration work. They also push for funding and industrial development for rural communities to use small-diameter wood that is removed from forests during restoration, increase the use of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, and obtain more resources for rural—and especially Indigenous—economic development to reverse centuries of racist dispossession and disinvestment. As more money is directed to forest restoration and the need for skilled labor rises, Indigenous workers and tribal government initiatives are poised to achieve restoration objectives.  

Indigenous communities across the West are among the poorest in the United States. But at the same time, Indigenous land management practices created the spacious, thriving landscapes that form most peoples’ ideal of Western landscapes. Recognizing the effectiveness of Indigenous land management practices, the Forest Service and other agencies have begun to incorporate TEK into their restoration strategies, but this uptake in knowledge must be accompanied by increased compensation for the Native practitioners who train federal workers in TEK implementation and more direct hiring for Native crews to perform forest management techniques, including cultural burning.

These initiatives can work through existing mechanisms like the Good Neighbor Authority that give landholders adjacent to federal lands, including tribes, the ability to undertake projects on those properties. However, it will be important to ramp up other existing channels and create new ones—such as direct, nation-to-nation negotiations with tribes for forest restoration contracting.  

Investing in forests also builds on equity improvements that have slowly been materializing for another marginalized group—formerly incarcerated firefighters. Much has been written about incarcerated people fighting fires in California, but many formerly incarcerated firefighters remain unable to join the forest restoration workforce after release. Given the urgent need to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration and the lack of trained workers to achieve that goal—and given that secure employment substantially reduces rates of recidivism—it is unreasonable to bar thousands of formerly incarcerated workers from this work because of past convictions or burdensome licensing requirements.  

To tackle these challenges, the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Project helps formerly incarcerated firefighters join fire or restoration contractors after release. The nonprofit runs its own crews that bid for public- and private-land restoration contracts, assists with job placement, and pushes for legislative and regulatory changes improving access to employment for formerly incarcerated people.  

By ensuring that groups like the Forestry and Fire Recruitment Project have access to private, state, and federal contracts for land management and fire response, land management agencies are slowly improving some of the equity dimensions of climate mitigation and adaptation. Policy reform and increased funding for forest management enable more formerly incarcerated BIPOC workers to do critical work on the front lines of climate change.       

While it is undoubtedly positive that formerly incarcerated workers are accessing employment to scale up restoration, ecological and social revitalization can only be realized by policy interventions to address the low wages, poor job security, and broader economic headwinds plaguing the forestry industry and rural West communities. Logging and related forest management work are widely described in labor market data as among the most hazardous occupations, but wages are often equivalent to those of warehouse or fast food employment. Not surprisingly, workers gravitate to safer industries, particularly given that forest work—whether conventional logging or restoration—entails long hours traveling to and from work sites and overnight stays in challenging conditions.

Stronger labor provisions and enforcement of labor laws, like those offered in the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, are necessary to improve forest restoration work and create a viable and effective industry. California is poised to make strides in this regard, as a bill subjecting land management contracts to prevailing wage requirements passed both chambers of the state legislature last year before being vetoed by Governor Newsom. Proponents of the bill, particularly unions, are planning to reintroduce it this legislative session with the goal of driving up labor standards and increasing funding for forest management.  

Growing Sustainability Industries 

Going forward, a Green New Deal approach to forest management will require investment in sustainable industries that reuse nontimber forest products. In many forest thinning projects, small-diameter trees and brush are cleared out and left behind, creating slash piles that can grow to the size of a two-story football field. This debris is either burned or left to become fuel for future fires. We need to invest in industries that can both make productive use of this biomass and prevent it from adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.   

But compared to renewable energy, little is being invested in the industries—like advanced wood products, biomass power (with environmental justice safeguards), or rural housing construction—needed to drive climate-friendly economic investment in the rural West. Creative financing mechanisms like the federal Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, which acts as a federal public bank that can lend to state, county, municipal, or tribal financial financing authorities, could make this possible. With this mechanism, counties could invest in affordable housing made with sustainable products. This is increasingly plausible in California, which recently passed robust public banking laws making it easier for local, county, and tribal governments to establish their own investment authorities.  

To scale up their forest restoration work, CHIPS and other small community nonprofits throughout Central California have been planning similar projects while waiting for increased funding. These investments are necessary to make living closer to forest restoration work possible and attractive for many workers.However, a paltry $100 million of Inflation Reduction Act funding is being set aside for pilot projects exploring how to use the millions of tons of small-diameter biomass removed from forests during restoration.  

While more funding is increasing the pace and scale of forest restoration in California, labor, housing, and forest-products markets are unlikely to adjust on their own to solve the entrenched social problems—from low wages for forestry workers to rural housing insecurity, to exposure to the carceral system, to addiction and other public health problems—that plague communities across the West. To put forest communities on a high road to resilience, state and federal governments must reckon with the often-ignored economic and social dimensions of environmental change.  

We are starting to see what a Green New Deal approach to forest management might include and how forest restoration can benefit the land, workers, and communities harmed by hundreds of years of bad forest management, but we still have growing to do.