Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Greg Heilers headshot

Is the 'Trillion Trees Act' Remotely Possible?

Some question the motives behind the Trillion Trees Act, but a larger question is whether planting billions of trees across the U.S. is even feasible.
By Greg Heilers
Trillion Trees Act

Republican lawmakers recently introduced and sponsored a bill to plant a trillion trees around the world by 2050. U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman (R-Arkansas) introduced the Trillion Trees Act on Feb. 12, touting trees as the “ultimate carbon sequestration device.”

Even U.S. President Donald Trump, a notorious climate change skeptic, came out in support of the initiative, saying it demonstrates his “strong leadership in restoring, growing and better managing our trees and our forests.” Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff has echoed such sentiments, stating during the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, “Trees are a bipartisan issue — everyone's pro-trees.”

What are the motives behind the One Trillion Trees Act?

Yet the reasons for focusing on forests go beyond doing good. As Westerman’s co-sponsors noted, the legislation will support increased logging. Rep. Pete Stauber (R-Minnesota) announced that part of his support was because he was, “proud to stand with our loggers in introducing this legislation, as the forest and paper industry is a cornerstone of northern Minnesota’s economy.”

Regardless of lawmakers’ motives, is the initiative even feasible?

Rep. Don Bacon (R-Nebraska) believes it is possible. Invoking the American can-do spirit, Bacon cited a historic event, when “An estimated one million trees were planted in Nebraska on April 10, 1872.”

If American settlers using nineteenth century technology in remote Nebraska could accomplish such a feat, what would it take for a globalized twenty-first century society to multiply that effort by 1 million?

Is planting one trillion trees even possible?

At first glance, it isn’t a pretty picture. The U.S. part of the plan is 24 billion trees in 30 years, or 800 million trees per year. Meanwhile, world population growth demands an increasing amount of land to be used for agriculture, all while we’re rapidly losing topsoil.

But, let’s not lose the forest for the trees.

A recent World Resources Institute (WRI) article found that the United States has room for an additional 60 billion trees.

Reforesting the U.S.

For starters, suburban and rural areas have a lot of open space that could house up to 21 billion trees. An additional 24 billion trees could be restored to the 50 percent of U.S. forests that the Forest Service deems “understocked.” U.S. cities, meanwhile, could have enough space for up to 400,000 trees.

Silvopasture, which integrates pastureland, forage crops and trees, could play another viable means for increasing America’s tree stock, with pastures hosting a further 13 billion trees. Even some row crops could tolerate interplanting with canopies, or at least yield the edges of fields to windbreaks and soil retention, adding another 2 billion trees.

How would the U.S. fund these managed forests?

WRI concluded that American landholders would need a collective $4 billion to $4.5 billion annual subsidy to offset tree planting costs. While that is less than the U.S. spends on the fossil fuel industry, it’s certainly not small change.

Chief among their suggestions was to make third parties eligible to receive the subsidies. This would remove the burden of management from farmers who are often already too overworked to consider small subsidy programs that, while they would enhance their bottom line, are not a top priority.

By passing subsidies through third parties, efficiencies could be unlocked, such as pooling landowners together and having one consultant provide technical knowledge to a range of practitioners.

As a means to pass public funds on to third parties, WRI recommended tapping into the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s current program to compensate landowners for conservation measures in both forested and agricultural lands. Local and state smart growth plans could also incorporate “tree restoration targets,” serving as an additional facilitator for federal grants to reach local landowners.

There is space in the American landscape for more trees. As the Trillion Trees Act makes its way through Congress, will the political landscape demonstrate adequate public support for a massive, sustained tree planting campaign?

Image credit: Charlie Wollborg/Unsplash

Greg Heilers headshot

Greg Heilers writes on green business and sustainability for private clients and top publications. After graduating from university, he had the privilege to learn from opportunities in France, Palestine, Scotland, Guatemala and the USA. Today, he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, and enjoys any chance he gets to garden or hike.

Read more stories by Greg Heilers