COLUMNIST: Reforest forests, not farms

Climate change legislation misguided

When Congress reconvenes next month, lawmakers will consider costly climate change legislation that includes a massive tree planting program. The plan, developed by the Environmental Protection Agency, calls for reforesting 18 million acres of farmland, an area about the size of West Virginia.

The theory is correct – the trees absorb carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, and produce oxygen. And, because trees require less fertilizer and pesticides, proponents say water quality would improve as well. The only problem is where they plant the trees.

Congress would pay people to plant trees and farmers could sell pollution credits to industry under the government’s cap-and-trade program.

The scheme sounds reasonable until you consider the consequences of taking 18 million acres of farmland out of production. Less food will be produced leading to higher food prices. The last thing American families need in this tough economy is to pay more for groceries.

Proponents claim food prices wouldn’t be affected, but in 2007 the price of meat, poultry and vegetables shot up 8 percent in one year when the government urged farmers to process corn and soybeans into biodiesel instead of food for people and animals.

In fact, if leading nations stopped biofuel use this year, it would lead to a 20 percent price decline in corn and about 10 percent in wheat by 2009-10, writes Joachim von Braun, who heads the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C.

The trees would cover farmland in 13 states, including the breadbasket states of Illinois, Iowa and Ohio. Brian Murray of Duke University says the plan makes sense because “forests once grew there.”

Well, forests once grew in New York City and Washington, D.C. Reforesting Washington, D.C., for example, would return it to its natural state and eliminate enormous amounts of carbon emissions produced by the 500,000 government workers who commute to the District every weekday.

Crazy? Sure. But so is removing 18 million acres of valuable farmland from production – especially when there’s a better way that Congress seems to be ignoring.

Instead of reforesting farmland, Congress should replant public forests denuded by wildfires. Millions of acres of forestland across the West are starving for a new crop of trees. Private forest landowners learned long ago to quickly replant after a fire or natural disaster, but federal officials prefer to let nature take its course.

For example, after the massive Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980 devastated almost 150,000 acres of privately owned, state and national forests, the Weyerhaeuser Co. replanted its land and today, a healthy forest thrives there. The federal forests were not replanted, and today those lands are still scarred and devastated.

When President Bush developed his healthy forests initiative to salvage logs from forests razed by wildfires, to thin lands susceptible to those infernos and to quickly replant scorched forests with young trees, Congress promptly killed the idea. But salvaging scarred timber and replanting blackened forestland would produce oxygen, reduce erosion and create jobs.

An earlier version of healthY forests worked in western Montana on the skirts of the Anaconda-Pintlar Wilderness Area. The U.S. Forest Service created a series of fire breaks in the 1950-60s by allowing loggers to remove beetle-stricken lodgepole pine. Money from the logging paid for replanting the new healthy forest. Foresters knew that once a wildfire started in that area it would devastate more than a million acres, which it did in the 1988 Yellowstone National Park wildfire.

Congress is on the right track with tree planting; the only question is where they are planted.

Improving our forests and reducing greenhouse gases is a good strategy but so is keeping valuable farm land in production. It would provide jobs, reduce fire suppression costs and keep grocery bills down for American families.

Don Brunell is the president of the Association of Washington Business.

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