The New ‘Woods Work’: Re-valuing Forests, Fire, and Finance
Across the US West, forests on public lands are marked by an incendiary mix of historical fire suppression, climate change, and underinvestment that has left them susceptible to catastrophic megafires like those that tore through California in 2017. Despite widespread agreement in the scientific and policy communities that wholesale fire suppression has created problems for forest health and resilience, questions of whether and how forests should be actively managed to reintroduce ‘good’ fire remain controversial. But even where government agencies and stakeholders are in agreement about management goals, significant obstacles remain: as fire seasons grow longer, hotter, and more intense, already-stretched public budgets for forest restoration are further depleted as operating funds are shifted to cover emergency costs. In this context, novel experiments are emerging to re-invest in forests and other public lands.
Our research investigates one such experiment – the Forest Resilience Bond (FRB) – a financial product developed by Blue Forest Conservation to mobilize private, return-seeking capital to finance forest restoration at scale. The FRB works by structuring a cost-share agreement among utilities and the Forest Service that reflects the environmental benefits that forest restoration provides to utilities, including hydrological regulation for water or hydropower. By facilitating investment in forests based on their infrastructural functions, the FRB proposes an ambitious re-valuation of forests as ‘green infrastructure’ that regulates hydrological cycles and water quality, mitigates wildfire risk to communities and critical infrastructure systems, and in the process generates returns to investors. Essential for these goals is re-valuing the role of fire on Western landscapes, moving away from a longstanding focus on fire suppression toward more frequent and lower-intensity burning in fire-adapted ecosystems. Like other forms of impact investing, the FRB also seeks to transform the social role of finance by positioning it as the solution to social and ecological problems.
We are following the FRB pilot project in California’s Tahoe National Forest to see whether and how the FRB will succeed in raising private investments for forest restoration on public lands, and the implications for how forests are valued and managed. We ask:
- What does it take to make forests investable as resilient ‘green infrastructure’?
- How do utilities, investors (including insurance companies and pension funds), and funders (including philanthropic foundations) perceive the value of forests and the role of private capital in realizing that value?
- What forms of ‘woods work’ – including the human labor of ecological restoration, burning, and thinning, as well as the ecological ‘work’ performed by forests themselves – are involved in producing and maintaining forests as ‘green infrastructure’?
- Will the FRB change the way that forest restoration is planned and executed, and where these restorations take place?
- What new institutional relationships, partnerships, and contracting arrangements are taking shape through and alongside the FRB?
- How are current efforts to re-value forests shaped, and hindered, by longer histories of capitalist valuation of forests – principally as timber resources – and the management practices that these entailed (such as fire suppression)?
- Who defines what a healthy or resilient forest looks like, and on the basis of what kinds of knowledge?
- What (political, financial, social, and cultural) obstacles stand in the way of USFS forest restoration goals, and to what extent can financial solutions like the FRB overcome these obstacles?
- What does the current re-valuation of forests imply for the future of rural, resource-dependent communities?
- What other social and economic benefits (such as jobs in restoration and bioenergy) are motivating re-investment in forests, and how does the FRB fit into other efforts to reinvest in rural communities?
Sara Nelson, Killam Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, firstname.lastname@example.org
Patrick Bigger, Lecturer, Lancaster Environment Centre, University of Lancaster, email@example.com
Publications and outputs to date:
‘Fighting Fire with Finance’? Reproducing forests as rent-bearing infrastructure. Keynote presentation, The Infrastructures of Climate Crisis Workshop, Manchester University, Manchester, UK, May 30-31 2019.
Bankable resilience: Reproducing forests as rent-bearing infrastructure. Presentation at the American Association of Geographers Annual Meeting, April 3-7, 2019.
Bankable resilience: Reproducing forests as rent-bearing infrastructure. Presentation at Infrastructural Futures Across Cities of the Global North Workshop, Manchester Urban Institute, Manchester, UK, September 19-20 2019.