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How technology can forever alter our forests

Reps. Blake Moore, R-Utah, and Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., make the case for Forest TECH, a modernized way to manage forests.

Officials with the Bureau of Land Management, the Utah Department of Natural Resources, the Utah Division of Wildlife and the Forest Service tour areas affected by the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires in Utah County on Tuesday, July 16, 2019.
Officials with the Bureau of Land Management, the Utah Department of Natural Resources, the Utah Division of Wildlife and the Forest Service tour areas affected by the Pole Creek and Bald Mountain fires in Utah County on Tuesday, July 16, 2019.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

We don’t often think about modernizing the way that we plant trees. For generations, the process has remained the same: A seed falls to the ground, germinates, grows, sprouts branches and leaves, pulls carbon from the atmosphere, and releases oxygen.

But things are changing. Today, we have a much deeper understanding of the critical role trees play in our environment. We are also better than ever at managing our forests properly and keeping them healthy.

Innovative technologies are essential to these efforts. Aerial and ground surveys allow us to track and measure changing conditions in forests, and a myriad of sensors make it possible for us to track growth rates, soil moisture and more. One of the most promising new technologies is the use of drones that are capable of planting hundreds of thousands of trees per day at a fraction of the cost of other reforestation efforts.

A desire to embrace these new technologies and their benefits is the impetus behind the Forest Technology Enhancements for Conservation and Habitat (TECH) Improvement Act. This bill aligns the way we care for our forests with cutting-edge technology, giving land managers the resources they need to modernize forestry practices.

Here’s why this is so important: Years of catastrophic wildfires have left the U.S. Forest Service with a massive reforestation backlog. Conservative estimates report more than 1 million acres of land need reforesting. What’s most shocking is the fact that this figure does not include the 2020 wildfire season, which burned through millions of acres nationwide.

Reforesting these decimated lands is a constant uphill battle. On an annual basis, the Forest Service is only able to address 6% of its annual replanting needs. Overcoming this backlog will require innovation and creativity, which are the foundations of the Forest TECH Improvement Act.

Allowing the Forest Service to use new technologies like Geographic Image System (GIS) and Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) will not only help them get a better sense of the reforestation needs, but it will also improve the way that we account for carbon in our forests. In addition, drones are cost-effective ways to replant areas that are hard to reach or are unlikely to naturally regenerate, such as steep slopes. In one day, a single person piloting 15 drones can offset 360 manual labor hours of spraying and seeding. Unfortunately, use of these technologies is still relatively rare. But it’s time to change that.

By incentivizing the use of these technologies on our lands, we can better mitigate catastrophic wildfires, improve wildlife habitats, and purify air and water. But these technologies will also enable us to better utilize trees as the powerful carbon sequestration devices they are. This is why the Forest TECH Improvement Act is also included in the Trillion Trees Act, a bipartisan bill that promotes reforestation efforts with the end goal of planting and conserving one trillion trees worldwide. Studies show such an initiative could sequester the equivalent of nearly two-thirds of all manmade carbon emissions remaining in the atmosphere. As we reach for that goal, the Forest TECH Improvement Act will play an essential role in helping us succeed.

Utahns are no strangers to the dangers of mismanaged resources, particularly when it relates to forest management. It’s imperative that we modernize our reforestation equipment and update existing forestry infrastructure for both short-term forest health and long-term carbon sequestration capabilities. America’s forests will benefit as a result, enabling them to thrive for generations to come.

Bruce Westerman, R-Arkansas, is the ranking member of the House Committee on Natural Resources. Rep. Blake Moore, R-Utah, is a member of the House Committee on Natural Resources.