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The U.S. has cataloged its forests. Now comes the hard part: Protecting them

Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist with Oregon-based NGO Wild Heritage walks on a trail.

Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist with Oregon-based NGO Wild Heritage walks on a trail. Image by Justin Catanoso.

  • In April 2022, President Biden instructed the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to do a thorough inventory of forested public lands as a part of his climate mitigation strategies to reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 50% by 2030.
  • The new study, released April 20, identifies a total of 112.8 million acres of mature and old-growth forests on federal lands across all 50 states, an area larger than the state of California.
  • Forest advocates largely heralded the new inventory, so long as it serves as a road map for putting those millions of acres off-limits to logging so the forests and their biodiversity can remain intact to fight climate change.
  • The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have long supported logging for timber and other wood products on the majority of lands they oversee. During a 60-day public comment period, forest advocates will argue that all forests in the inventory be fully protected from logging.

Environmental groups doled out general praise, with caveats, for a new inventory by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that identified 112.8 million acres (45.6 million hectares) of old-growth and mature forest on their lands – bigger than the size of California.

“[This is] a pathway to protecting mature and old-growth trees and forests … to improve the climate resilience of federally managed forests,” a coalition of environmental NGOs wrote in a press release.

The Forest Service and BLM released the inventory on April 20 in connection with President Joe Biden’s 2022 Earth Day executive order as part of his multi-pronged climate strategy to halve U.S. carbon emissions by 2030.

Many of the nation’s most productive, biodiverse and even some of its oldest forests remain a prime target for wood products and wood pellet industries across the country.

“This is hopeful news for our country’s magnificent old trees, our climate and the wildlife that depends on these crucial ecosystems,” Randi Spivak, public lands policy director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “The Forest Service routinely targets mature and old-growth tree for logging. I hope this [inventory] signals desperately needed change at the agency.”

But it’s not clear how much of that 112.8 million acres of federal land will be fully protected until the U.S. develops official rules following a 60-day public comment period.

Meanwhile, a word search of the detailed, 63-page old-growth forest report by the Forest Service and BLM doesn’t reveal the words “protect” or “protections,” as in adding more forest to fully protected lands. Nor is there any reference to reducing or eliminating logging on any of the inventoried lands from coast to coast, including Alaska.

Canopy of an old-groeth cedar tree.
Canopy of an old-growth western red cedar in Olympic National Park. Image by Justin Catanoso.

BLM director Tracy Stone-Manning said in a statement, “The [inventory] will help enhance our work to protect and grow forests by creating a scientific framework for further study and public engagement for effective forest management and protection.”

Forest management, a term that appears frequently in the report, is generally understood to mean managed logging for a variety of purposes described by the two agencies in the report, such as “[reducing] wildfires, insects and disease, drought, invasive species, and other 21st century stressors.”

Such references raise red flags for future destruction of the U.S.’s older forests.

“The U.S. Forest Service claims that mature and old-growth trees and forests are no longer being logged on national forest lands, but this is simply not true,” a report late last year called “America’s Vanishing Forests” by a coalition of top forest advocacy NGOs noted. “Numerous mature and old-growth logging projects are removing some of our best natural climate solutions from the landscape.”

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Acknowledging mature trees

Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist with Oregon-based NGO Wild Heritage, led a team of scientists last year in producing the first-ever inventory of mature and old-growth forests in the contiguous United States. His study’s findings are largely in line with the newly released federal inventory. The study also found that just 24% of Forest Service and BLM lands are protected; for maximum climate action, it recommended that the federal government protect all such lands.

DellaSala praised the agencies for including mature forests — trees typically younger than 100 years old — as part of their inventory.

“It is so great that the agencies and the president had the wherewithal to not just focus on old growth; there’s just not much left in the lower 48,” he told Mongabay. “The fact that they are considering mature forests is unbelievably groundbreaking — especially if they gain full protection.”

The inventory found that old-growth forests, typically seen as trees older than 150 years, represent just 18% of Forest Service and BLM lands, but mature forests make up 45%. A stated goal of the agencies cited in the report is to “develop management policy and strategies to recruit, sustain and restore mature and old-growth forests.”

However, a potential problem in both Biden’s executive order, and a supporting memo by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack a year ago, is that neither mentions logging as a threat to federal forests and thus the president’s climate goals, according to DellaSala.

“The threats they describe are all natural processes,” said DellaSala, who has voiced these concerns to White House policymakers. “What is a 21st-century threat? They don’t want to say logging. But that’s the threat. It’s not fire or insects. Why don’t they call out logging? Clear-cutting is still allowed in some places. So how much will we really achieve?”

DellaSala examining a nurse log.
DellaSala examining a nurse log. Image by Justin Catanoso.

Protection vs. managing

Clues to that answer may be in five “next steps” near the end of the old-growth forest report, which will likely spark intense debate during the public comment period.

One of next steps calls for “[developing] strategies to recruit, sustain, and restore old-growth and mature forests that are at risk from acute and chronic disturbances, often amplified by climate change.”

A second says to “develop guidance on how old-growth and mature forests can be managed to conserve biodiversity, provide recreational opportunities, promote and sustain local economic development, and enable subsistence and cultural uses.”

Given the political influence of the timber industry, DellaSala said that such language may provide “loopholes large enough to drive a logging through.”

He added, “The science is very clear on this. There is very little ambiguity on what needs to happen. But I’m afraid decisions will come down to politics and optics.”

The concern is that despite the inventory and upcoming rules — and despite the rising threat of climate change worldwide — the federal government will continue to allow corporations to destroy old-growth and mature forests.

“Mature forests are among the most potent tools we have to fight climate change. As the agencies’ groundbreaking inventorying effort clearly shows, federal lands remain a key stronghold. But time is not on our side,” Garret Rose, a senior attorney with the NGO the National Resources Defense Council, added in a statement. “The Forest Service must promptly pursue robust regulatory protections of these essential forests and trees, including the one threat wholly under agency control: logging.”

Banner image: Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist with Oregon-based NGO Wild Heritage walks on a trail. Image by Justin Catanoso.

Justin Catanoso, a regular contributor to Mongabay, is a professor of journalism at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

President Biden signs order aimed at protecting old-growth forests across U.S.

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