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Who is going to plant all those trees? Thune’s bill addresses multi-year tree planting backlog

Trees have been getting a lot of attention as a natural carbon storage solution, and rightfully so. Trees are truly amazing; they act as sponges pulling in carbon dioxide from the air, absorbing the carbon, and then releasing oxygen back into the atmosphere. The carbon is then stored in the trees and forest soils. Even sustainable harvesting of trees converted to wood products like lumber, engineered wood products, and paper continue to store carbon. And trees are a renewable and sustainable resource — through growth, carbon storage, and harvest, the cycle of forest renewal can continue indefinitely for centuries.

Congress has recognized the value of planting trees to mitigate and reverse the effects of a changing climate. Several bills introduced in this Congress call for increased tree planting and tree seedling production. These include the Trillion Trees Act (H.R.2693), the REPLANT Act (S.866), and most recently, America’s Revegetation and Carbon Sequestration Act (S.2836). The REPLANT Act provisions are included within the Senate Bipartisan Infrastructure bill that passed in August 2021. 

Each of these bills recognize the need to produce more tree seedlings and plant trees. But what is missing is a way to ensure there is labor available to plant the trees. In a typical year, forestry employers advertise more than 11,000 seasonal forestry jobs, but due to persistent labor shortages, only 2 percent of those positions are filled by American workers. As a result, most reforestation work in the U.S. is performed by nonimmigrant workers with temporary H-2B visas. 

H-2B forestry workers ordinarily work for about six months, traveling from state to state, replanting our forests, and then returning to their home country. Each year, H-2B forestry workers plant more than 1.5 billion seedlings on more than two million acres — about 85 percent of the total acres reforested each year. 

Many sectors of the economy rely on the H-2B visa program to help meet their labor shortages, and demand is more than three times the legislatively mandated annual allotment of 66,000 visas. Last year, more than one-third of forestry employers were unable to secure enough U.S. or H-2B labor to meet their needs. FRA worked with member company Rayonier to produce a short video that shows the importance of the H-2B visa program, which you can CLICK HERE to view.

This shortage of forestry workers could not come at a worse time. There is currently a five-year backlog of tree planting due to increased wildfires, hurricanes, and the additional challenge of recruiting workers during the pandemic. The National Forest Service alone has a backlog of four million acres to be planted. Without access to additional workers, this backlog will continue to increase, jeopardizing the sustainability of America’s forests. 

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) has introduced legislation (S. 2207) to accomplish what other proposals do not: recognize that we need to plant more trees and ensure there is enough labor to do the planting. Thune’s bill will help restore our forests by providing a five-year exemption from the annual H-2B visa cap for forestry workers to address our massive tree planting backlog. 

We must restore the health of America’s forests that have been devastated by wildfire, drought, and disease. Trees provide timber, stabilize soils, improve water quality, sequester carbon, and provide habitat for wildlife.

FRA encourages members of Congress to support Thune’s legislation to ensure America’s forests remain healthy and productive for future generations.

Deb Hawkinson is president of the Forest Resources Association, which represents the interests of more than 300 organizations and businesses in the forest products industry.

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