The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack shook up the negotiations on REDD Wednesday when he announced that the United States would release $1 billion over the next 3 years to help tropical countries slow the rate of deforestation.

The move, he told us, was intended to signal a new American commitment to forests and climate change. “The United States and the Obama administration is very interested in sending a clear message that we are engaged aggressively in climate change,” Vilsack said.

We caught up with the secretary at a private dinner sponsored by Avoided Deforestation Partners, a consortium of business and environmental interests looking to the carbon market to finance forest preservation.

The move came just as tensions were mounting in negotiations over who would provide the funds to “make forests worth more alive than dead,” a phrase often used by forest advocates to highlight their aims.

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) estimates that $25 billion will be needed over the next 5 years to significantly slow the rate of deforestation, which contributes as much as 20 percent of all greenhouse gases.

Vilsack said that his actions also reflected a new commitment at the USDA to deal with climate change and to help stimulate a new green economy in U.S. agriculture.

This includes a move toward more unorthodox carbon offsets such as as no-till farming — a practice that releases less nitrogen into the atmosphere. It is one example, Vilsack said, of “revitalizing rural America.”

A former Iowa governor, Vilsack said the funding could not only help reduce forest clearing to plant crops such as soy, but could be an advantage to U.S farmers. “If we can avoid people deforesting acres and acres of forests to plant new crops,” he said, “then we avoid competition with our own agriculture.”

The administration’s move is by far the most serious commitment the U.S. has made to preserve forests. The money is intended to spur the ability of countries like Indonesia, Brazil, Guyana and other tropical forest nations to develop alternative industries to forest degradation, and to do the measurements that are critical to determining how much carbon their forests contain.

In the long run, these measurements are essential if forest-based credits are going to be used with any legitimacy by U.S. industries seeking to offset their emissions.

Other tensions remain. Industry analysts Point Carbon called a recent draft of the REDD agreement “remarkably void of any references to tradable credits or offsets from forest-related activities.” Indeed, the latest draft seems to rely heavily on government aid to fund projects, whereas the United States wants a more market-driven solution, whereby companies will ultimately pay for forest preservation schemes as an offset for exceeding their emissions limits at home.

Vilsack’s announcement suggests that the U.S. may use its $1 billion to change the power dynamic and push for more market-based approaches worldwide.

Over the next year, FRONTLINE/World and CIR will report on key issues of climate change in a joint project—Carbon Watch—focusing on the multi-billion-dollar carbon trading market. We’ll look at which proposals to reduce emissions by 2020 really add up; at the hidden interests behind these solutions; and the new industry players. This week, our reporters blog from the Copenhagen climate change summit.

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Mark Schapiro specializes in international and environmental stories. His award-winning work appears in all media: in publications such as Harpers, The Atlantic, Mother Jones and Yale 360; on television, including PBS FRONTLINE/World and KQED; on public radio including Marketplace; and on the web. He is currently writing a book for Wiley & Co. investigating the backstory to our carbon footprints. His previous book, "EXPOSED: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products and What’s at Stake for American Power," reveals the health and economic implications of the tightening of environmental standards by the European Union.