The Hill | By Heidi Heitkamp and Saxby Chambliss | April 22, 2021
America’s farmers, ranchers and forest managers work with the earth every day, not on just Earth Day. And natural and working lands underpin our national economy — sustaining our food supply, generating timber and providing wildlife habitat, recreation resources and environmental benefits. But we also believe these stewards of our lands and forests can — and must — find better, more productive ways to address the risks that climate change poses to our future. More innovative federal farm, forest and climate policies must help in that process.
Right now, climate change poses significant risks for farmers and our forests. These include warmer temperatures and extreme weather events that can directly increase the frequency and severity of many types of disturbances, including drought, wildfire and blowdowns, as well as exacerbate pests, diseases and other agents that further increase stress on ecosystems.
Farmers, ranchers and forest landowners can attest to the fact that changing climatic conditions — including earlier start of spring, earlier snowmelt, hotter summer temperatures and prolonged drought — are reducing moisture levels in soil and forest vegetation.
Meanwhile, the spread of pest species like bark beetle, often facilitated by the changing climate, is weakening the resilience of natural ecosystems such as overgrown forests, which themselves are the result of years of fire suppression, coupled with inadequate proactive forest management and restoration. In turn, this leads to more wildfires, more acres burned and longer, more intense fire seasons.
To address these risks, more and more elected officials, corporations and leading electric utilities across the country agree on the importance of achieving “net-zero emissions” by 2050 to safeguard our climate for future generations. We helped form and co chair the farm and forest carbon solutions task force, a coalition of 18 recognized leaders from government, agriculture, forestry, conservation and rural communities committed to fostering open policy dialogue and recommending solutions.
Our group believes that agriculture and forestry stakeholders must be at the table and part of the decision-making for how our nation’s lands can further deliver natural climate solutions, including carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emissions reductions in agriculture and forests. Our goal is to help shape federal policy with recommendations later this year to expand farm and forest carbon solutions as part of broader economic and environmental strategies.
Some of the most feasible and cost-effective ways of reaching a “net-zero emissions” U.S. climate goal involve natural climate solutions from agriculture and forestry that pull and store carbon from the atmosphere. Already, soils, plants and trees absorb about a quarter of man-made carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions around the world and land management activities influence the ability to absorb and sequester that carbon. Research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that managers adopting the right soil carbon storage practices will enable these landscapes to sequester even more emissions at low costs.
Farm and forest natural carbon solutions can also boost farm incomes and improve broader environmental outcomes in agriculture and forestry. In fact, these soil carbon practices can strengthen U.S. agricultural production by building resilience to climate impacts, reducing input costs, increasing yields and improving water quality.
Natural solutions also provide many spinoff environmental benefits. Removing carbon from the atmosphere is only one of many services provided by forests, grasslands and agricultural landscapes. Other benefits include cleaner water, cleaner air, biodiversity, wood products, wildlife habitat, food and recreation opportunities.
The United States Congress should take advantage of ways to invest in farm and forest policies that use natural solutions to address climate change. Next year’s farm bill will be a key opportunity to identify smart policies that work for producers and for the climate. The recommendations from our task force are intended to provide members of Congress, agency officials and other policymakers with a roadmap for scaling public and private investments in carbon storage and emissions reductions as well as reducing barriers to voluntary stewardship practices.
Already, we have identified a common set of guiding principles for our work that include pursuing strategies that are voluntary and incentive-based, align with the economic and environmental goals of working lands, are flexible to the needs of diverse production systems and producers, foster partnerships with the private sector and are based on a commitment to delivering measurable results.
We know our nation’s lands can help deliver many new natural climate solutions. These include removing carbon from the atmosphere and sequestering it, making greenhouse gas emissions reductions through agriculture and forestry and improving the profitability of producer operations while helping rural economies. We look forward to working with America’s farmers, ranchers, foresters, businesses, environmental advocates and all interested parties so that together we can make our lands more productive and an even bigger part of the climate solution.