Biden moves to ban most old-growth logging in national forests

The most ancient trees still standing in America’s national forests would get new protections under a proposal the Biden administration announced Tuesday that would ban most logging in groves that play a vital role in fighting climate change.

In a phone interview, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the effort is the first time the U.S. Forest Service has proposed simultaneously revising all 128 of its forest plans, which dictate how all 193 million acres of forests and grasslands are managed. The plan would prohibit cutting down old-growth trees for economic reasons, preventing carbon-rich forests from being clear-cut at a time when scientists say they are most needed. These trees, most of which are well over 100 years old, store vast amounts of carbon. They also provide an essential habitat for hundreds of species of wildlife and are more likely to survive wildfires.

“We think this will allow us to respond effectively and strategically to the biggest threats that face old growth,” Vilsack said, listing wildfire, disease and pests as challenges. “At the end of the day it will protect not just the forests, but also the culture and heritage connected to the forests.”

The proposal also requires the Forest Service to monitor how old growth is changing across the country and track its efforts to protect it.

The announcement stems from an executive order President Biden signed a year and a half ago directing the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to inventory mature and old-growth forests across the nation and craft policies that protect them. They found that more than 32 million acres of old-growth forests remain on public lands in the United States, representing about 18 percent of all forested land the two agencies manage.

Forest Service officials say the proposal would benefit the nearly 25 million acres of old growth they oversee, 45 percent of which is not protected from logging.

But it leaves open the possibility of continued cutting under certain conditions.

Forest Service Deputy Chief Chris French said forest treatments the agency uses to reduce wildfire risk, such as thinning understory trees, would still be allowed in old-growth stands to protect them from out-of-control fire. In the Southeast, where the Forest Service is trying to restore the longleaf pine forests that used to blanket coastal areas, the agency could still cut down large, old loblolly pines, the main tree grown for the timber industry.

Conservation groups applauded the agency’s proposal. They have warned that without more old growth protections, climate change, wildfire and logging would steadily diminish the oldest stands until little is left.

But advocates did not get everything they wanted, such as permanent safeguards for mature trees, which could eventually turn into old growth. Although the proposal left open the possibility of future protections for these trees, agency officials said they are probably years away from drafting them.

“Protecting our old growth trees from logging is an important first step to ensure these giants continue to store vast amounts of carbon,” Randi Spivak, public lands policy director with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “The Forest Service also needs to protect our mature forests, which if allowed to grow will become the old growth of tomorrow.”

The timber industry has pushed back against the administration’s efforts to protect old growth, arguing that logging creates jobs in economically distressed areas and helps reduce fire danger.
Bill Imbergamo with the Federal Forest Resource Coalition, a timber industry group, called the Forest Service’s plan “baffling” and said it would do little to preserve old growth.

“Congress has made it clear that job one is reducing the threat of catastrophic fires by thinning our National Forests, something our industry is more than capable of doing,” he said in a statement. “Instead, the same staff who should be planning fuels treatments are going to be engaged in a rushed, top-down effort to amend every forest plan to restrict management options on even more acres of National Forests.”

Some environmental advocates also questioned whether the policy will last, as a future administration could easily undo it. The new language about protecting old growth won’t be finalized until the agency has completed an environmental-impact statement, which it expects to finish in early 2025.

“I wish they’d initiated this earlier. I wish they were doing a rulemaking,” said Chris Wood, president of the conservation group Trout Unlimited. Still, he said: “This is a big deal. This is a different agency than it was 20 years ago. The Forest Service’s appetite for going in and liquidating old growth is pretty much retired.”

It’s unclear how the new proposal will affect the agency’s planned timber sales, some of which include forest lands dotted with mature and old-growth trees.

In a letter sent to forest managers on Monday, French informed them of the agency’s plans and wrote that “effective immediately” any management activities planned for old-growth stands in national forests would need to be reviewed and approved.

By: Anna Phillips

Source: Biden moves to ban most old-growth logging in national forests