Photo of young aspen trees in Colorado.
Carbon-holding trees New tool shows huge opportunities for reforestation. © Kimball "Kim" Schmidt

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New Tool: Most Comprehensive Analysis of Reforestation Potential in the United States

Reforesting 133 Million Acres Could Absorb Carbon Emissions equivalent to 72 Million Cars

A new tool provides the most comprehensive look to date at the potential to reforest the contiguous United States, focusing on the most cost-effective and feasible options.  This online, interactive “Reforestation Hub” identifies up to 133 million acres of formerly forested lands in the United States that could be reforested to boost carbon storage. 

Besides providing clean air and water, shade, and wildlife habitat, trees remove carbon pollution from the air and store it in their wood.  This ability to store carbon is a major tool to fight climate change.  All told, the Reforestation Hub reveals how reforesting the United States could absorb an additional 333 million metric tons of carbon per year — equivalent to the carbon emissions from all of the passenger vehicles in California, Texas, and New York combined (72 million vehicles)

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The Reforestation Hub allows users to explore the study’s findings. It identifies the number of acres — down to the county level — potentially available for different types of reforestation. The Reforestation Hub is a collaboration of The Nature Conservancy and American Forests.

Lead scientist Susan Cook-Patton, Senior Forest Restoration Scientist at The Nature Conservancy, hopes this granular analysis will help land managers and policymakers find the options that best meet local, state, and national goals around growing trees for public and private benefit. 

“People are excited about reforestation for good reason. New trees represent a powerful natural solution to global warming,” Cook-Patton explained. “But until our analysis, there was no quick and easy way to figure out where exactly we might put all those new trees.  This work provides a menu of possibilities to get it done.”

The Reforestation Hub uses several filters for isolating the most promising places for new forests: where forests grew in the past; current land ownership; land type; benefits to wildlife and watersheds; and cost. In sum, the study highlights the potential for 68 billion new trees to be grown across the country. Currently, 1.3 billion trees are planted each year in the United States.

Until our analysis, there was no quick and easy way to figure out where exactly we might put all those new trees.

Susan Cook-Patton Senior Forest Restoration Scientist

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Among a “menu” of 10 different reforestation options, the Reforestation Hub shows three provide the most potential: formerly forested lands now used for pasture (49% of potential); floodplains (17%); and urban open space (14%). But the top results change by county, so the the Reforestation Hub allow users to find the places with the most potential in their area.

Opportunities for reforestation over different land ownerships emerged, as well. 

“Over one third of the total potential for reforestation within existing forestland is on federal lands,” said Jad Daley, President and CEO of American Forests. “That means we have a massive lever for climate action right in our hands, because we have the power to reforest these lands if the federal government simply allocates sufficient staff and funding.”

There are several existing reforestation programs that could be scaled up to put the new Reforestation Hub’s information to work. On public lands this includes the Reforestation Trust Fund, which can be enhanced via the soon-to-be introduced federal REPLANT Act to fully fund reforestation of America’s national forests. On private lands, they include the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), as well as state conservation agency cost-share programs. Given the large opportunity for reforestation across the country, more funding will be needed, particularly for federal agencies that lack a stable, dedicated funding source for reforestation, such as the Department of the Interior. 

Foresters, land managers, and private landowners are encouraged to visit the Reforestation Hub to identify the best places, county by county, to grow new trees.  Questions about the study and Reforestation Hub can be directed to ReforestationHub@tnc.org

American Forests is the first national non-profit conservation organization created in the US. Since its founding in 1875, the organization has been the pathfinders for the forest conservation movement. Its mission is to create healthy and resilient forests, from cities to wilderness, that deliver essential benefits for climate, people, water and wildlife. The organization advances its mission through forestry innovation, place-based partnerships to plant and restore forests, and movement building.

The Nature Conservancy is a global conservation organization dedicated to conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends. Guided by science, we create innovative, on-the-ground solutions to our world's toughest challenges so that nature and people can thrive together. We are tackling climate change, conserving lands, waters and oceans at an unprecedented scale, providing food and water sustainably and helping make cities more sustainable. Working in 72 countries and territories: 38 by direct conservation impact and 34 through partners, we use a collaborative approach that engages local communities, governments, the private sector, and other partners. To learn more, visit www.nature.org or follow @nature_press on Twitter.