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Trillion Trees Act Wins Johnson’s Support But Divides Climate Activists

Global Forest Watch
Tree cover loss (in pink)

It seems like a simple idea: Plant a trillion trees around the world.  


It would help with the fight against climate change, because trees pull carbon dioxide – a heat-trapping greenhouse gas – out of the air.  




The United Nations already supports a Trillion Trees Initiative, and a bill in the House of Representatives proposes a way for the United States to help. 


It’s called the Trillion Trees Act, and it would encourage tree-planting with national wood-growth targets, a reforestation task force, an award for forest restoration, and other measures. 


The bill has 37 cosponsors – three Democrats and 34 Republicans. The latest Republican to join the list is South Dakota’s Dusty Johnson.  


“It really avoids the petty squabbling that so often leads us to inaction,” Johnson said of the bill, “and instead gives us an opportunity to take meaningful steps toward something that I think the left and the right can agree on, which is, let’s plant some trees.” 


But almost 100 conservation and climate-change groups have signed a letter opposing the bill. They describe the legislation as a Trojan horse, because it includes higher logging targets on public land to manage the additional trees. There’s also a tax credit in the bill for sustainable building practices with products including wood.  


Those and other provisions led the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity to label the bill “greenwashing” and “a gift to the logging industry.” 


Yale expert: ‘Too good to be true’ 


Carla Staver, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale, testified on the bill during a" rel="noreferrer noopener" style="margin: 0px; padding: 0px; user-select: text; -webkit-user-drag: none; -webkit-tap-highlight-color: transparent; color: inherit;" target="_blank">House Natural Resources Committee hearing in February.  


“On a professional level, it’s immensely cheering to see the climate crisis receiving the bipartisan attention that it has long deserved,” she said. 


And Staver said she understands the bill's appeal as a way to fight climate change. 


“According to proponents of tree-planting, forests supposedly offer a win-win-win,” she said, “combining carbon drawdown, conservation and forestry-sector productivity while also sparing us the necessity of difficult changes in our lifestyles and economy.” 


But she said stopping climate change won’t be that easy, and it can’t be accomplished without a drastic reduction in emissions from fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas. 


Numbers disputed 


The bill’s main sponsor, Rep. Bruce Westerland, R-Arkansas, has cited a 2019 study saying that 1 trillion trees could sequester 205 gigatons of carbon – an amount equivalent to two-thirds of all manmade carbon ever emitted, or 20 years’ worth of emissions at current rates.  


Staver disputed that data. 


“Unfortunately, like most things that seem too good to be true, it is,” she said. 


In reality, according to Staver, 1 trillion new trees could sequester 42 gigatons of carbon, which is equivalent to 7 percent of historical manmade emissions, or four years’ worth of emissions at current rates. 


Johnson said he knows the Trillion Trees Act is not a silver bullet. 

“But certainly I think we can very easily build a broad coalition around the idea that this, at the very least, is a critically important part of the solution,” he said. 


Separate Senate bill 


Meanwhile, in the Senate, there’s a separate but related bill called the Trillion Trees and Natural Carbon Storage Act.  


The co-chairs of the Senate Climate Solutions Caucus, Republican Mike Braun of Indiana and Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware, introduced the bill earlier this month. Neither of South Dakota’s senators are currently listed as cosponsors. 


The Senate bill's provisions include a proposed International Forest Foundation, $10 million in funding to revive Forest Service tree nurseries, and incentives for private landowners to participate in carbon-credit markets.  


The Senate bill has support from some conservation and environmental groups, including The Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund and the National Audubon Society.  


-Contact reporter Seth Tupper by email

Seth supervises SDPB's beat reporters and newscast team. He works at SDPB's Black Hills Studio in Rapid City.