Forests nourish communities with a unique suite of benefits at the intersection of environmental and public health, economic prosperity, and climate. Across rural and urban landscapes, forests have the power to remove toxins from surrounding air and water, stabilize land from erosion and storms, and provide mental health benefits for the communities they serve. Forest management and wood product industries can boost local economies and employment while also facilitating community relationships with their land. And alongside these benefits, US forests could remove nearly 700 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere per year if expanded and restored at scale.

However, to keep our forests healthy and resilient and meet ambitious restoration targets, we’ll need significant investments and expanded labor capacity. At the same time, many of these sites are home to rural communities facing underemployment and poor environmental health — creating a well-matched opportunity for local residents to become leaders in ramping up key forestry management practices.

Federal policy can begin to connect these converging interests by positioning forests as a tool to support both the prosperity of underserved communities and large-scale carbon removal. This notion is already gaining momentum on the Hill: In the recently-passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), Congress quadrupled funding for reforestation on US public lands to create nearly 50,000 jobs over the next 10 years. The IIJA also authorizes a new Healthy Streets program to couple urban tree planting with other technologies like porous pavements to reduce the urban heat island effect. Meanwhile, current inclusions in the House-passed Build Back Better package could establish a collective $1.25 billion in competitive grants for small, underserved, and other private forest landowners to carry out climate mitigation and forest resilience projects.

Now is the time to build upon this momentum and create equitable and ambitious forestry policy, applying the framework of a just transition to guide our priorities.

Steering forest policy toward a just transition

Over the past year, we’ve expanded our policy work to ensure that carbon removal solutions distribute benefits equitably, align with community interests, and support environmental justice (EJ) overall. We developed five principles to guide just carbon removal processes, projects, and policies as solutions scale.

Learn more in our report Removing Forward.

Central to broader EJ discourse is the idea of a “just transition” — a term originally coined by the US labor movement and later adopted by climate activists to guide our transition away from a fossil-dependent economy into one that is socially, economically, and environmentally just. The Just Transition Alliance defines a just transition as a principle, a process, and a set of practices, outlined below.

Content adapted from the Just Transition Alliance.

We can combine our own EJ principles with the just transition framework to craft federal policy on the following three priorities: workforce development, worker protections, and collaborative restoration initiatives. Several of these provisions are already laid out in the BBB package, and implementation on the ground will be key if signed into law.

Recommendations to support forest carbon removal and community prosperity

1. Expand and establish new federal workforce development programs

Guiding EJ principle 1: The benefits of carbon removal solutions must be equitably distributed.
Just transition principle: A healthy economy and a clean environment can and should coexist.

To maximize their role in a just transition, federal workforce development programs like the Public Land Corps, AmeriCorps, and Job Corps should expand and prioritize land carbon removal initiatives. These programs should adjust matching requirements (i.e. requiring organizations to match federal funding with funding from other sources) for projects in underserved and underemployed communities, which could enhance their enrollment and ensure that benefits flow equitably. Expanded programs should fund both local corps climate projects and direct employment resembling the Job Corps’ residential model. All federally-supported corps projects must pull from local workforces to build long-term career pathways for enrollees and develop local capacity for resilience work. Ultimately, these investments in growing the forestry workforce can support the economic, environmental, and climate needs of communities.

2. Establish robust guestworker protections

Guiding EJ principle 3: Safeguards are needed to ensure adverse impacts are not borne by disadvantaged communities.
Just Transition process: Achieving a healthy economy and clean environment should not cost workers or communities their health, environment, jobs, or economic assets.

As we expand the role of this growing forestry workforce, it’s crucial that these workers are safe, protected, and prosperous — a just transition requires that climate solutions not come at the cost of communities’ physical or financial well-being. Federal forestry policy must create fair-paying and safe work opportunities for all foresters, including specific provisions to both protect guestworkers under the H-2B visa program and safeguard BIPOC foresters from labor displacement.

Seasonal H-2B guestworkers are integral to meeting reforestation goals, from seed collection to fuels management to planting activities on public and private lands. Yet these workers are too often underpaid, separated from their families, and bound to abusive employers. These conditions are unacceptable for workers in any industry, and to truly center environmental justice in the field of carbon removal, we must overhaul the H-2B program to reflect the invaluable services that these workers provide. The H-2B program should center migrant worker protection through guaranteed wages and overtime pay, access to legal services, pathways to citizenship for workers and their families, and employer accountability for recruitment and labor abuses. Updates and improvements to the H-2B program should aim to prevent the displacement of longstanding workforces with deep connections to their lands, as has been the case for Black farming families in the Mississippi Delta.

3. Support family forest owners and community-based partnerships

Guiding EJ principle 2: Public engagement must be robust and involve seeking input from groups throughout the development and deployment of carbon removal solutions.
Guiding EJ principle 4: The socioeconomic consequences and distributional impacts of carbon removal solutions need to be evaluated alongside their technological and economic attributes.
Just Transition practice: The people who are most affected by pollution — the frontline workers and fenceline communities — should be part of the leadership crafting policy solutions.

The federal government should increase support for collaborative restoration programs to ensure that forestry projects incorporate community needs and priorities. After all, a just transition requires that frontline communities most affected by climate and environmental harms are leaders in crafting policy and on-the-ground solutions.

Programs such as Urban and Community Forestry (UCF), the Community Forestry Program (CFP), and the USDA Socially Disadvantaged Groups Grant (SDGG) are instrumental in facilitating community-based partnerships. Increased funding, updated matching requirements, and adjustments to decision criteria can help prioritize resilience projects in underserved communities and maximize the impact of these programs.

Financial incentive programs like the Forest Stewardship Program need to be adjusted to ensure support for small and socially disadvantaged landowners. The government should also create new revenue streams for landowners as they transition to holistic land management practices for carbon sequestration; this can be accomplished through new mechanisms like transferable tax credits or direct payments. Incentives should be practice-based and aligned with regionally-developed standards that meet unique ecosystem needs.

Forests are invaluable resources across community health, economic vitality, environmental resilience, and climate mitigation. Investing in forests for their carbon removal potential means investing in the communities and stewards that rely on the myriad benefits forests provide.

Image: Markus Spiske