FDR’s Great Wall of Trees and the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022
A month ago, Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which was the culmination of years of lobbying to get funding to reduce extreme weather events. Formerly known as the Green New Deal, the Inflation Reduction Act provides funding for tree planting and other activities that increase carbon sequestration. Whatever its name, the bill has a double benefit, by combining job development and climate change solutions in a way that provides opportunities the underserved.
The bill uses (and allows us to relearn) the lessons of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s time, where work opportunities were created while the while critical infrastructure for the nation was built or restored. The climate crisis of the time was the severe dust storms of the Dust Bowl which resulted in significant soil erosion and drought.
In 1934, the dual goals were to reduce unemployment through planting trees throughout the Midwest as windbreaks. FDR pushed hard for this program, which planted trees on the perimeters of farms. Members of the Civilian Conservation Corp. (CCC) were paid to plant the trees and farmers were paid to tend them, thus stimulating the local economy, addressing high unemployment and a climate crisis. Trees reduce wind velocity and lessen evaporation of water from the soil.
Despite all the efforts of the Environmental Protection Agency to date, including river cleanup projects, the planting of the Great Plains Shelterbelt remains the largest and most-focused effort of the U.S. government to address an environmental problem.
Most of us think of FDR’s programs as Keynesian, but President Roosevelt and John Maynard Keynes met only once, and Keynes reported that they had little to say to each other. Say’s Law, a popular economic theory of the time, although largely forgotten now, may have had more influence over these programs than Keynes’ theories.
Say’s Law simplified: For a consumer to purchase something, the consumer needs an income, which comes from producing something that can be sold. Demand and production drive each other, not money supply, velocity, or the multiplier (debt).
The Nation that Destroys its Soil, Destroys Itself
In permaculture circles, The Nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself is frequently invoked as a reminder that Living Soil is a carbon sponge that literally holds society together. Trees and plants, need Living Soil, as opposed to Dead Dirt, to provide food, clean air and making life possible on land. The oft used quote comes from a letter by President Roosevelt, where he called the program “Great Wall of Trees.”
Unless you live in Nebraska, or near one of the Shelterbelts, you’ve probably never heard of this ever heard of this program. It was formally known as the Prairie States Forestry Project and it kicked off on March 18, 1935 with the planting of a single Austrian pine, in Southwestern Oklahoma.
Seven years later, 30,233 shelterbelts had been planted which included 220 million new trees, covering 18,600 square miles in a 100-mile-wide zone from Canada to the northern Texas.
Native trees, such as red cedar and green ash, were planted along fence rows separating properties, and farmers were paid cultivate them. The project was estimated to cost $75 million. FDR was aggressive in protecting the program. When disputes arose over funding sources (the project was a long-term strategy and, therefore, ineligible for emergency relief funds), President Roosevelt transferred the program to the WPA.
Roosevelt was passionate about trees. He had planted trees to improve his Hyde Park estate and, as a state legislator and New York governor, enacted forestry policies to push unsuitable farmland out of production. While he recognized that private property has a part to play in social welfare, Roosevelt took a pragmatic approach to the environmental crisis in the Great Plains, which he saw as a national security issue, as well as an economic challenge.
According to Professors Sarah Thomas Karle and David Karle, in their book Conserving the Dust Bowl: The New Deal’s Prairie States Forestry Project, Roosevelt was a visionary who saw the environmental crisis of the 1930's as opportunity for crucial, comprehensive and long-term engagement with the underlying conditions that caused the problem. He rejected the notion that the problem needed a short-term fix.
Fast forward 80 years
Today, foresters throughout the Midwest responsible for monitoring the shelterbelts throughout the central Great Plains have been reporting that these programs have lost their effectiveness. The trees are old, or have grown too close, or been supplanted with undesirable, short-lived trees.
In 2010, federal grants were made available for shelterbelt maintenance and restoration in Kansas, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska as part of the Central Great Plains Shelterbelt Renovation and the Central Great Plains Forested Riparian Buffer Cooperative Conservation Partnership Initiative (CCPI) proposals. Funding was provided as a project of the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
The Inflation Reduction Act includes numerous provisions to address climate change, including managing forest and urban trees. These include:
$1.5 billion for grants to cities and non-profits, with a focus on trees and vegetation that benefits underserved populations and areas.
$700 million for the US Forest Service’s (USFS) Forest Legacy Program, for the protection of privately owned forest lands through conservation easements or land purchases.
$450 million to the USFS for providing forest-carbon grants.
$18 billion for “Climate-Smart Agriculture” via Natural Resources Conservation Service programs that often include tree and forest-related practices.
$100 million for wood products research, under the USFS Research and Development division’s Wood Innovation Grant Program.
Additionally, Inflation Reduction Act funds a $2 billion investment in the Forest Service’s work on National Forest System lands, including wildfire reduction projects within wildland-urban interface zones, which covers 60,000 American communities.
Call it a revisitation of FDR’s Great Wall of Trees or a Green New Deal, the bottom line is federal funding for trees to address the climate crisis. Trees provide dozens of ecosystem benefits.
Trees Provide 25 Eco-Services
Trees provide more than a dozen valuable eco-services, I made a list for linking to in future articles
“The Act recognizes the important role of sustainably managed forests in advancing climate solutions,” said Nadine Block of Sustainable Forestry Initiative® (SFI). “The important investments included in the Inflation Reduction Act will benefit forest health on both private and public lands. It will help ensure our forests are resilient to wildfire and contribute to solving our climate crisis.”
It is not enough to protest for change. Similarly, it is not enough to expect the government to plant all the trees needed to respond to climate change.
Today is Friday. I encourage you participate in Fridays for the Future (FFF) by going outside and planting or protect one more tree today.
Why does SymSoil care? We focus on solutions to environmental issues, with a focus on soil biology. Trees and plants feed, and are fed by, the soil microbiome. Healthy soil influences water, carbon sequestration and human health. SymSoil holds a patent on the first scalable approach to manufacturing Soil Food Web products as an alternative to agrochemicals. SymSoil is a supporter of 100KTrees4Humanity, an urban tree planting project focused on action that moves us towards solutions to climate change with equity and inclusion.