Three billion dollars is a lot of money, especially when a political appointee is given only the skimpiest of legislative direction on how or where to spend it, as just happened in the House version of the Build Back Better bill. That measure directs the secretary of agriculture to spend $3 billion in pursuit of “tree equity.”

What does it mean, this “tree equity?” Tree equity is about, mostly, trees for cities. Specifically, the money is designed to advance “community tree canopy and associated societal and climate co-benefits, with a priority for projects that increase tree equity.”

The Ecologist quotes Amelia Rose, executive director of Groundwork Rhode Island, who asserts that “Racism and other forms of discrimination [continue to play] a role in where trees are located, [which] impacts the health and well-being of communities along racial and economic lines.”

American Forests, a conservation group founded in 1875 and still going strong, has championed “tree equity,” claims credit for coining the term and helped invent a “Tree Equity Score.” The Winter/Spring 2020 issue of its eponymous magazine is devoted to “tree equity,” including a road map of big forest moments such as Ohio’s first Arbor Day in 1882 and 1905’s establishment of the U.S. Forest Service. Tree planting has been a cause for decades, but “tree equity” is a new demand, and one that has hit the legislative jackpot — at least in the House of Representatives.

In a news release from two years before BBB’s passage in the House, American Forests’ Jad Daley cited an “intensive push with Congress” in 2019 as having obtained “the first major increase in Urban and Community Forestry Program Funding in more than a decade.” That was an appropriation of — wait for it — $32 million. If $32 million was a “major increase,” it is hard to imagine the adjectives Daley might employ to describe a $3 billion upgrade, should it survive in the Senate version of a BBB.

The concept of a tree equity “score” tries to measure the presence or absence of trees in different places, and the politicization of the country’s tree distribution has followed quickly: “Due to a history of racist housing practices, predominantly BIPOC communities have 20% fewer trees on average than white communities,” concludes Tazo, a tea company that is deeply invested in climate justice.

Tracking down the roots of tree justice requires exploring a virtual wilderness of conservation and environmental activist groups. “Shade is an equity issue,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti declared in the fall of 2019. If Garcetti ever gets a hearing on President Biden’s nomination to be the U.S. ambassador to India, perhaps some questions on the concept can come his way?

It is impossible to say whether communities that want better schools, police reform and affordable housing from Washington will be happy to learn about trees, but there it is: $3 billion for the asking.

Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, clearly has vast discretion in determining who would receive these billions. When I asked Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and James Lankford of Oklahoma about “tree equity,” both were quick to note that eastern Arkansas and western Oklahoma are without many trees and would surely qualify for any fair redistribution of tree equity relief.

If partisanship drives the tree dollars, Vilsack, a two-term former governor of Iowa and onetime candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, will likely not be throwing saplings at reddish places where the winds come sweeping down the plains. Mississippi County, which hugs the river by the same name, is the least forested part of Arkansas. Is “tree equity” for those places or just for deep blue states and cities? Mississippi County is 40,000 strong, votes about 3-to-2 Republican and is now something of a steel manufacturing hub. Where on the tree equity scale does that county fall?

Vilsack at age 70 is a relative ingenue in today’s era of geriatric politicians. The Democratic field for 2024 is already taking vague form on the assumption the current president will not seek reelection. Who knows? Why not the canny Vilsack, especially with $3 billion in grants at his disposal? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) probably didn’t intend to empower Vilsack with the means to sprinkle seed money around the country, but if tree grants start falling like rain on the woody hills of New Hampshire and in the low country of South Carolina or even bone-dry Las Vegas — all home to early contests in 2024 — we will know.

Pork, even the kind that comes with branches, is a terrible thing to waste.