Restoration and Reforestation Jobs: Two Birds, One Stone?

Job creation and security is probably the biggest priority for the American public today. Environmentalists understandably argue that tackling the looming threat of climate change should be the main priority of the federal government.  The public, however, is very anxious about a weak economy and the lack of sustained job growth.  So why can’t we combine these two?

This photograph is from a Tennessee newspaper in the mid-1930’s, applauding the Lebanon State Forest for supporting a huge number of jobs in the surrounding county, especially during a time of need. At the time the forest had employed 307 people, with a payroll of about $3,500 per week, which made the forest “the biggest enterprise in Wilson Country.” The article also reported that the number of people employed by the project exceeded that of any manufacturer in Lebanon by 50%. The picture featured in the article shows the attorney for the Department of Justice paying a landowner $926 for 118 acres of land which was then reforested with cedars. These individual land purchases and the subsequent reforestation resulted in the creation of the Cedars of Lebanon State Forest, which is currently 9,420 acres.

Reforestation was a major job creator during the depression; it could be today as well. You don’t need to buy land to create reforestation jobs – the backlog of reforestation and restoration work needed on our public lands is immense. Tens of thousands of jobs could be created to restore the land and accomplish important conservation goals if we had the same commitment that was found in Tennessee in the 1930’s.

It is not as if this old idea isn’t getting new attention at all.

Since the early 2000’s, China has invested huge sums in reforestation. From the 1950’s to the 1990’s China developed and cleared a huge portion of its forestland to make way for agriculture and industry. As China lost its forestland, severe erosion took its toll on the country in the form of deadly floods along the Yangtze, forest fires, spreading deserts and increasing sandstorms. In 2002, China began a massive effort to reforest its degraded land.  The Chinese government invested $2.4 billion in a 10-year program to reforest 170,000 square miles.

How about in America, in 2011?  When President Obama held a series of public listening sessions last summer on America’s Great Outdoors, many participants recommended building on existing conservation service corps programs and promoted the idea for a 21st- Century Conservation Service Corps (21CSC) to provide job training and to maintain and preserve public lands. The foundation for such an initiative is still solid within our government.  The Department of Interior alone supports youth employment topping 20,000 in 2009, and has projects ready to go to increase that number by more than 50 percent in 2012.  The Forest Service needs the help as well.

Jobs and environmental security go hand in hand -  Our ancestors figured it out.  Why can’t we?