California’s trees are stressed, dying, and burning — here’s what you can do

By Kathy Connell and Jad Daley

Trees will take a turn on the red carpet at this month’s 25th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards®, spotlighting what’s at stake not just for California’s natural beauty but for people’s coexistence with nature. While many people think of city trees and forested mountain landscapes as beautiful scenery, they are in fact critical supporting actors essential to life on earth. Forests can even help solve our greatest environmental challenge — climate change.

American Forests, the nation’s first forest conservation organization, founded in 1875, has partnered with show organizers to plant 25,000 trees in honor of SAG Awards’ 25th Anniversary, an event that takes “being green” very seriously. We hope the SAG Awards spotlight will remind viewers of the critical role trees play in our lives, and our ability to help.

There is no more important role for forests than slowing climate change. American forests and forest products already capture nearly 15 percent of our carbon emissions each year — an amount equal to half of the emissions reductions America pledged under the Paris Climate Accord. Our forests could capture even more carbon with additional tree planting, and will release less of that carbon back into the air with better forest management to prevent wildfires driven by climate change.

To help raise awareness of forests as part of the SAG Awards, we have organized this story in three acts of tree planting:

Our story opens in the San Bernardino Mountains not far from Los Angeles, where Jeffrey pine and ponderosa pine forests capture water and filter it for drinking. In fact, 65 percent of California’s drinking water originates from these and other mountain forests like the Sierra Nevada.

But California’s mega-drought and infestations of pine beetles, supercharged by climate change, have devastated rural and urban forests alike. More than 130 million trees have died in California since 2010, making California’s forests prone to destructive wildfires and that put people and mountain-fed drinking water supplies at risk. These wildfires sometimes burn so hot they effectively sterilize the soil and prevent regrowth of forests without human intervention like tree planting.

Part of our anniversary planting will help the local Mountain Communities Wildfire ReLeaf project continue its decade-long goal of replanting replant Jeffrey pine and ponderosa pine on lands that have still not recovered from the wildfires in 2008 and prior. New tree cover will help restore these lands as a “green sponge” for collecting drinking water, while renewing recreation sites and wildlife habitat.

Another act of this drama is unfolding in the Lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Texas thornscrub forests help conserve water in the arid region and shelter more than 500 species of birds as well as 13 threatened and endangered species like the ocelot, a rare spotted wildcat.

Agriculture and development cleared over 90 percent of Texas thornscrub forests, which is why we continue to help the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in its long-term effort to replant where these forests can best connect fragmented wildlife habitat and recharge the Rio Grande River with clean water.

Another act we want to share from this celebratory planting is in the Northern Rockies. There, trees called whitebark pine are disappearing due to pest outbreaks, a disease called blister rust, and the stresses of climate change. These trees provide the favored food for the grizzly bear, hold snowpack, and enhance the wilderness experience for hikers and skiers. We’re helping the U.S. Forest Service replant disease-resistant varieties of whitebark pine in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in Montana, equally loved by grizzly bears and people.

These hopeful forest stories share one important theme — all of these replanted forests will help to slow climate change by helping to capture and store carbon emissions. If we want to keep forests in the critical role they are playing now to slow climate change, we will need to redouble our efforts on actions like replanting trees to replace forests where they have been lost.

Forests are supporting us, and there is a lot we can do to support them. As citizens, we can plant trees ourselves and encourage city, state, and federal officials to prioritize investment in trees and forests. Non-profit organizations like American Forests will do our part to raise funds for tree planting, push for forest policies that use forests as a climate solution, and work to raise national awareness. In this way, each of us can contribute to supporting our forests and acting on climate change.

Kathy Connell is Executive Producer of the Screen Actors Guild Awards®. Jad Daley is CEO of American Forests.