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U.S. triples reforestation spending for wildfire devastation

(Reuters) – The United States on Monday said it had tripled annual reforestation spending to tackle a four million acre replanting backlog driven by intense, climate-driven wildfires.

U.S. Forest Service reforestation funding rose to over $100 million this year as part of moves to plant more than a billion trees in a decade under President Joe Biden’s infrastructure package, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) said in a statement.

U.S. wildfires are now so ferocious they incinerate entire stands and their seeds, leaving forests unable to regenerate without replanting, U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Chief Randy Moore said.

“We’re no longer having trees come back, we’re having brush come back,” Moore said. “We have an opportunity to address what we’ve seen taking place for quite a while.”

The reforestation drive is the largest in the United States since the 1930s when billions of trees were planted under New Deal work programs, USDA Director of Forest and Rangeland Management & Vegetation Ecology David Lytle said.

Average annual U.S. wildfire acreage has about tripled since the 1980s when the USFS reforestation budget was capped at $30 million. Before this year the agency met around 6% of replanting needs, 80 percent of which are driven by wildfire, USDA data shows.

Forest biologists say the new reforestation budget, set under the infrastructure bill’s REPLANT Act, needs to grow further to address the backlog and new blazes.

The USDA said it expected spending to “significantly increase” in coming years, without giving further details.

“You will need maybe another REPLANT Act or amendment that increases that value another fourfold or tenfold so we can do this right and not be doing it as a catch up game,” said Owen Burney, head of the Southwest’s largest tree nursery in New Mexico.

The Forest Service is counting on partner nurseries like Burney’s to scale up seedling production, agency officials said. USFS nurseries produce around 30 million seedlings a year.

(Reporting By Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)

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