Funding forests to forestall fire

California’s wildfires – and those throughout the West – are tragedies that are part of a new “normal” in the country, exacerbated by climate change. In this op-ed in Washington’s Daily Herald, we talk about what $12 billion in private investment in forest management could do to reset the condition of the riskiest of our forests.

Private investment? Yes.

It’s routine, to the point of invisibility, that local, county, state and federal government borrow money to pay for infrastructure today that has a long-term payback. A new library serves as a community resource for decades. A new water treatment plant can provide 100-years of cleaner water to downstream communities. When projects provide a return on investment for many, many years it just makes sense to have future generations as well as this one pay for them. To do that, we borrow money, as bonds, and pay a low interest rate to lenders for the purpose of doing so.

Local communities, counties, states and the federal government can work with the private sector to finance dramatically more forest management than is happening today. For example, Blue Forest Conservation, LLC, the Rockefeller Foundation and Calvert Impact Capital just announced a $4 million deal, to be repaid by a public water utility and the State of California. But this is tiny compared to the need on Western landscapes.

The U.S. Congress (and state legislatures) could make it a lot easier to scale up this work to achieve billions in forest investment. Right now, its difficult for public agencies to obligate money for more than 5 years or to do so in large amounts. To change this, Congress would need to give agencies like the Forest Service the ability to obligate federal or state funds in public private partnerships structured to pay investors back once forest management is complete and predetermined metrics of success are realized. And they need to create simpler, faster authority for agencies to enter those partnerships. Or work directly through the U.S. Treasury Department. And local government needs to be a partner in those investments, just like they are when roads, bridges and schools are financed.

Wildfires are not going to disappear as long as the biosphere is made up of flammable material. Climate change is going to keep raising the risks from those fires, their frequency and severity. But, the U.S. can get much farther ahead of the problem by building strong, green, forest infrastructure and building it at a speed that only private investment can provide.

Why don’t we take the same approach to financing management of our forests. A fire-resistant landscape – one that is less likely to ignite and less susceptible to conflagration – is infrastructure, without the concrete. Forests enhance property values and quality of life and support local economies and jobs, just like bridges, libraries, courthouses and roads. But just like our concrete infrastructure, they need maintenance. The right mix of “how” varies from place to place across the, but through a combination of thinning the density of trees, managing the understory, prescribed burning, and fire breaks its possible to change the fire future of our forests and nearby communities. Outside Magazine’s Adventures in Audio Podcast interviewed me and many others to paint a national picture of some of our options going forward if we are going to change the risks from catastrophic wildfires.

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