The USDA Forest Service is charged with caring for 193 million acres of the nation’s forests and grasslands and solving some of the most complex land management challenges. Across the country, forests densely packed with trees are at high risk of catastrophic wildfire as well as insect and disease outbreaks that could impact ecosystem health for generations to come.
There is also a backlog of aging infrastructure, trails and facilities in need of repair, collectively called deferred maintenance, that continues to increase across national forests and grasslands.
Contending with these challenges will require upwards of $65 billion to restore forest health and $5 billion to address deferred maintenance nationwide. Over the last 10 years however, wildfire suppression costs have grown dramatically, sapping funds from the escalating backlogs of work to improve forest health and tackle deferred maintenance, compounding the problem over time.
The National Partnership Office Conservation Finance Program leads the agency’s work to build public-private partnerships to take on these and other land management challenges. This year the National Partnership Office launched the Innovative Finance for National Forests Grant Program with the goal of accelerating work with partners to pioneer partnership models that leverage new sources of funding and financing to support work on the ground.
“The program was really born out of necessity,” said Nathalie Woolworth, conservation finance program manager at the Forest Service. “This new grant program is exploring innovative finance solutions to leverage new sources of funding while also building relationships with partners.”
The Innovative Finance for National Forests Grant Program is a public-private collaboration with the National Forest Foundation and U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities. So far, the program has awarded $1.8 million to 10 grantees to create new finance models that leveraging private capital in addressing some of the biggest land management challenges.
The program’s main purpose is to promote creativity in partnership models that tap into new sources of funding and financing.
“Private capital is a sector of largely untapped opportunity for conservation,” said Woolworth. “Private investors are increasingly interested in putting their capital towards projects that yield social and environmental as well as financial returns.”
The grant program helps finance projects that restore forests and reduce wildfire by thinning thick, unhealthy stands of trees. Similarly, the grants have funded construction of facilities that can use the trees removed in restoration operations as biomass energy. The grants also fund cost sharing partnership models for campgrounds, among other programs with environmental, recreation and infrastructure benefits.
The Forest Service and its funding partners selected grantees with projects that can be scaled up and replicated with the end goal to support models with potential to address the agency’s land management challenges at scale.
The outcome of the grant program isn’t just to expand the organization’s toolbox of innovative and effective financial models but also to expand the agency’s network of partners.
“We couldn't do our work without our partners,” said Woolworth. “In the future, these grantees and their innovative ideas may also become long-term partners, assisting us with the important work of stewarding our national forests.”