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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Rep. Bruce Westerman and Rep. Russ Fulcher: How a skilled workforce will improve the environment

By House Committee on Natural Resources Ranking Member Bruce Westerman (R-Ark.) and U.S. Rep. Russ Fulcher (R-Idaho)

By House Committee on Natural Resources Ranking Member Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., and U.S. Rep. Russ Fulcher, R-Idaho

The two main benchmarks of environmental health are clean air and clean water. Healthy forests are critical for both. Unfortunately, years of catastrophic wildfires across the western United States have decimated many of our forests, turning critical wildlife habitats into ash and making it more difficult for trees to regenerate naturally.

To solve this problem – and prevent severe wildfires from happening in the first place – requires scientific forest management, coupled with aggressive reforestation goals. In turn, these efforts require a reliable, skilled workforce.

This is why we’ve introduced The Forestry Education and Workforce Development Act. Workforce expansion is critically important all across the reforestation spectrum, from seed collection and nursery production, to designing new reforestation projects, site preparation, tree planting and postplanting activities.

The Forest Education and Workforce Development Act will provide a steady supply of skilled and reliable workers to meet the enormous reforestation challenges facing America. By making it easier to hire workers for reforestation projects in the short term and investing in forestry education and technical training reforestation hiring for lasting growth and stability into the future, we can implement a multi-generational approach to scientific forest management.

How does our legislation practically accomplish these goals? First, it gives the U.S. Forest Service direct hire authority to quickly hire employees focused on reforestation activities. This streamlines much of the bureaucratic backlog currently surrounding these hires. Second, the Forestry Education and Workforce Development Act creates a competitive grant program for job corps programs and U.S. institutions of higher education. These grants will place an emphasis on land grant universities, like the University of Idaho, to advance and enhance forestry education. These are places where forestry workforce development has historically been lacking, yet they offer incredible opportunities for growth. Finally, this bill authorizes competitive grants for community colleges to offer certificates for high school and college students in forest technical training.

This legislation is also a part of the broader Trillion Trees Act, a bipartisan bill that promotes reforestation efforts with the end goal of planting and conserving 1 trillion trees worldwide. Studies show such an initiative could sequester the equivalent of nearly two-thirds of all man-made carbon emissions remaining in the atmosphere. Of course, in order to plant more trees, store more carbon and manage forests properly, skilled labor is essential. Enter the Forestry Education and Workforce Development Act.

We absolutely need young people to become interested in forestry in order to keep our environment healthy and thriving for generations to come. Existing reforestation efforts are simply not enough to meaningfully address the massive backlog of lands in need of reforestation. The USFS, for instance, is treating less than 5% of the wildfire-caused planting needs on national forests.

Our bill aims to change that. By incentivizing forestry as a career choice, we can ensure everyone has an opportunity to invest in our nation’s forests. That won’t happen automatically; it requires a long-term plan. Our hope is that the Forestry Education and Workforce Development Act serves as a springboard for people to learn about the benefits of forest management, offering them a chance to give back to the environment through a career of service in forestry. It’s a win-win setup that is good for the environment and good for Americans.

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