The US is taking action to protect old-growth forests as climate change threatens their survival

By | December 19, 2023

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) – The Biden administration is moving to conserve old-growth stands on federal land by revising management plans for U.S. national forests and grasslands as climate change increases the threats they face from wildfires, insects and disease increases.

Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack said the goal was to provide an “ecologically driven” approach to older forests – an arena where logging interests have historically predominated. It would be the first nationwide change to the U.S. Forest Service’s management plans in the agency’s 118-year history, he said.

Details were obtained by The Associated Press ahead of the proposal’s public release Tuesday.

It follows long-standing calls from environmentalists to preserve older forests that provide crucial wildlife habitat and other environmental benefits. The timber industry has fought against logging restrictions on government-owned lands.

President Joseph Biden’s administration appears to be aiming for a middle ground: It would sharply limit commercial timber harvesting in old-growth forests, while continuing logging in “mature forests” that have not yet reached the old-growth stage.

“This creates a commitment to resilience, a commitment to restore the existing old growth that we have and protect it from the threats that we see,” Vilsack said in an interview.

Old-growth forests, like Northern California’s legendary giant sequoias, have layer upon layer of undisturbed trees and vegetation.

There is broad consensus on the importance of preserving the oldest and largest trees – both symbolic as wonders of nature, and more practically because their trunks and branches store large amounts of carbon that can be released when forests burn, contributing to climate change.

The urgency of this problem is underscored by California’s wildfires, which have killed thousands of giant sequoias in recent years. The towering giants are concentrated in about 70 groves scattered along the western side of the Sierra Nevada.

“This is a step in the right direction,” said Chris Wood, president of Trout Unlimited and former Forest Service policy chief. “This is the first time the Forest Service has said it will be its national policy to protect old growth.”

Still, experts say there is no simple formula for determining what is old. Growth rates vary greatly between different tree species – and even within species, depending on their access to water and sunlight and soil conditions.

Aspen forests can reach maturity within half a century. For Douglas fir stands, this can take 100 years. The frequency of wildfires also plays a role: Ponderosa pine forests are adapted to withstand fires as often as once every ten years, compared to pine forests that can burn down every few hundred years.

Results earlier this year from the first-ever national inventory of mature and old-growth forests on federal lands revealed more expanses of older trees than outside researchers had recently estimated. According to the inventory, the Forest Service and the federal Bureau of Land Management together oversee more than 49,000 square miles of old-growth forests and about 324,000 square miles of mature forests.

Most are in western states such as Idaho, California, Montana and Oregon. According to the Forest Service, they are also in New England, around the Great Lakes and in southern states such as Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia.

But timber industry representatives and some members of Congress were skeptical of Biden’s ambitions to protect older forests, which the Democrat launched on Earth Day in 2021. They have urged the government to focus instead on reducing the dangers of wildfires by thinning trees where decades of firefighting have allowed undergrowth to develop, which could be a recipe for disaster if a fire occurs breaks out.

“Let’s be honest about who the groups are that are calling for this: they have always been against commercial timber harvesting on the national forest system,” said Bill Imbergamo of the Federal Forest Resource Coalition, a timber industry group. “Is that the right emphasis right now, when most of the old growth losses are coming from the combination of insects, fire and climate change?”

The proposal to revise management plans for 128 national forests and national grasslands is expected to be completed by early 2025. However, it is uncertain whether the change will hold if Biden loses his 2024 re-election bid.

Under former President Donald Trump, federal officials sought to open millions of acres of West Coast forests to possible logging. Federal wildlife officials reversed the move in 2021 after determining that political appointees under Trump had relied on flawed science to justify drastically shrinking forest areas considered critical habitat for the endangered northern spotted owl.

Asked about the sustainability of Tuesday’s proposal, Vilsack said it would be “a serious mistake if the country were to take a step backward now that we have taken significant steps forward.”

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