Forest Service Budget Cuts Will Deprive US Communities of Forestry Science that Improves Climate Resilience

February 28, 2020 | 12:31 pm
Forest Service photo by Grizelle González
Juan Declet-Barreto
Senior Social Scientist for Climate Vulnerability

“Trees are the answer.” The maxim was on a sticker on my PhD mentor’s office door at Arizona State University (ASU). But what was the question? Turns out, there were a lot of them.

  • How to reduce extreme heat in cities? More trees can provide shading and absorb humidity, contributing to lowering the heat index.
  • How to improve urban air quality? More trees that can breathe in more air pollutants.
  • How to stabilize coastal areas from erosion and reduce flooding from hurricanes? Protect mangrove trees and the ecosystems that sustain them, nurture them to grow strong roots, and they will act as barriers against storm surge and even tsunamis.

That sticker, that door, and that office are no longer there (it was all remodeled some time ago and Dr. Harlan went on a different adventure). But the message constantly reminds me of how valuable trees and forests are. The U.S. Forest Service knows this well, and has been “caring for the land and serving the people” by sustaining the health, diversity, and productivity of forests in the United States since 1876 (originally it was a congressionally-mandated Office of the Special Agent in the U.S. Department of Agriculture).

The Forest Service’s research stations provide critical science to communities facing climate impacts

For the Trump administration, it seems that “cutting funding for trees” is the answer, but the question isn’t clear.

The administration’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2020 is requesting the elimination of $52 million to close or consolidate facilities and terminate certain research activities. Two key research stations would be shut down: the Pacific Southwest Research Station (PSW), and the International Institute of Tropical Forestry (IITF). The PSW and IITF research would be folded under the Pacific Northwest Research Station and the Southern Research Station, respectively. These closures would require reductions-in-force (i.e. layoffs), and voluntary early retirement and separation. At the national level, recreation research would be cut by $8.5 million, and wildlife and fish research by $22.5 million.

The Forest Service supports prestigious and internationally known offices that provide valuable forestry science and knowledge to communities that otherwise would not have access to it. For example, the IITF in San Juan, Puerto Rico is a vital link between forestry experts and communities. The IITF contributes to enhancing population and infrastructure resilience in a territory facing climate change-augmented impacts from more and more devastating hurricanes, regional drought, and sea-level rise. In the aftermath of Hurricane María, the IITF held workshops to help local farmers innovate and rebuild after the hurricane’s devastation. In Mayagüez in the west part of the US territory, the IITF collaborated with community members to establish a community forest oriented towards eco-tourism.

The San Juan metropolitan area—where I grew up—is a sprawling urban expanse of 2.6 million people, with many infrastructure challenges such as flooding, air and water stream pollution, urban heat islands, and loss of tree canopy and natural land covers from urban development, among others.

The San Juan Urban Long-Term Research Area (ULTRA), a Forest Service and National Science Foundation (NSF) project, helps produce knowledge on San Juan’s urban areas to support community education, policy, and local efforts in Puerto Rico to address San Juan’s existing challenges now magnified under a changing climate. Other projects like the Caribbean Climate Hub and TRACE (Tropical Responses to Altered Climate Experiment) provide actionable research useful to forest and agricultural land managers to deal with pests, heat stress, flooding, and other climate-augmented impacts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

A collaboration between the University of Puerto Rico, ASU, and IITF after Hurricane María, for example, put decisionmakers, community members, and scientists in the same room to work together to enhance resilience.

Hydrological technician Carlos Estrada downloading data on soil moisture and temperature to determine the effects of ground covers in a field of plantains after the passage of hurricane Maria through Puerto Rico. UPR Gurabo Agricultural Experimental Station, PR. Forest Service photo by Maria M. Rivera.

Puerto Rico, like many other Caribbean islands, has long been growing coffee (since 1736 in the island!), and this is an industry that puts food on the table for many Puerto Ricans, as well as delicious cups of coffee on breakfast tables all over the island and the world. Hurricane María devastated the Puerto Rican coffee industry, which lost 80 percent of coffee-producing shrubs after the hurricane. The Forest Service, together with the Farm Service Agency, and the Natural Resources Agency, have been assisting coffee farmers in obtaining disaster aid. And IITF is running workshops on climate and disaster-adaptive conservation practices to help coffee production bounce back.

Specifically, three of the funding streams that make possible these and other valuable IITF science and community services are under threat:  Research & Development (R&D) is facing a 25 percent cut; the International Program’s proposed budget cut is 100 percent; and the State and Private Forestry is looking at a 46% cut from last fiscal year’s budget.

So clearly, it’s not just R&D that will be impacted. IITF provides science funding for municipalities in Puerto Rico, and many IITF grants go to the Universidad de Puerto Rico (UPR) and National Science Foundation’s (NSF) long-standing programs like the Luquillo Experimental Forest Long-Term Ecological Research (LEF-LTER).

I know how vital LTERs are – the funding that made my PhD training possible came from NSF funds leveraged through interdisciplinary grants to the Phoenix, Arizona LTER research network at ASU. The link between IITF researchers and communities cannot be overstated, as Forest Service researchers create a vital link by writing and obtaining the grants that make community science possible.

The PSW, based in Albany, California, is a world leader in natural resources research, and is the research and development arm of the Forest Service for California, Hawaii, and Pacific Islands affiliated to the U.S. PSW researchers study, among other things, the interactive effects of air pollution and climate change on forests, how air pollutants like particulate matter and ozone are impacted by smoke emissions, and also how to live with fire as part of the California wildlands. These are critical areas of research that can help deal with recent devastating wildfires that can be expected to become worse by climate change.

To the National Association of State Foresters, the proposed budget cuts are an about-face from the president’s late 2018 Executive Order supporting forestry, praised at the time for its commitment to address the country’s most pressing forest threats.

Solution: Funding for the Forest Service that addresses both climate resilience across the US and historical underfunding of US territories

Clearly, Congress must provide robust or increased funding for Forest Service programs that service climate-ravaged regions. There is, in fact, bipartisan recognition that trees are part of the solution to reduce carbon emissions, in for example, the House of Representative’s Trillion Trees Act. And there is also a bi-partisan bill introduced by Delegate Stacey Plaskett (D-USVI) and Delegate Jennifer González-Colón (R-PR) to increase resilience and housing relief in the US Caribbean by making public housing, waste management, and transportation projects there eligible to obtain disaster resilience funds.

This is all the more necessary, because as Del. Plaskett recently said in Congress, one of the reasons why there has been so much damage in Puerto Rico and the USVI after Hurricane María is because the federal government has a long history of underfunding US territories.

Investing in science-based management of forest resources pays for itself through many benefits to human and environmental health, climate resilience, and economic development. But the Forest Service, foresters, and forestry researchers need adequate federal funding to be able to create and disseminate their very valuable research to the communities they serve.

About the author

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Dr. Declet-Barreto earned a Ph.D. in environmental social sciences, M.A. and B.S. degrees in geography, and an associate’s degree in geographic information systems, from Arizona State University. At UCS, his research maps, analyzes, and finds solutions to the unequal human health and livelihood impacts of environmental hazards, particularly those exacerbated by climate change.