In Seattle’s Seward Park, President Biden on Friday signed an executive order to inventory mature and old-growth trees that reflects a high profile and intensifying global focus on the role that forests can play in combating climate change.
The order states that American forests absorb more than 10% of annual U.S. economy-wide greenhouse gas emissions, and calls conserving old-growth and mature forests on federal lands “critical to protecting these and other ecosystem services provided by these forests.”
The order put a spotlight on climate change and catastrophic wildfires — not logging — as threats to these trees, and does not prescribe how these forests should be managed once the inventory is finished. In the executive order, the inventory is part of a broader suite of actions that include reforestation, seed collection and developing “climate smart” strategies to address the threats to the mature and old-growth forests.
Some environmentalists are praising the action as an important step forward in forest protections that will protect some critical biodiversity hot spots. “I can’t emphasize enough that this is a starting point, and an encouraging one,” said Lauren McCain of Defenders of Wildlife. “And we understand that they need to put one foot in front of the other. There is an expectation, though, that this will lead to a real policy outcome.”
Other champions of preserving mature and old growth-stands say the order is too timid.
“I’m disappointed … I was hoping the Administration would take mature and old forest off the table,” said Jerry Franklin, a forest ecologist retired from the University of Washington and the U.S. Forest Service. Franklin helped to develop the federal Northwest Forest Plan, which took effect in 1994 to protect old growth — and the species that depend on it — across an expanse of Washington and Oregon and a small portion of Northern California.
“It looked to me like it was an easy opportunity for him. I was expecting more from him.”
Meanwhile, officials of a Northwest timber industry group are wary of the executive order. A spokesperson says that flexibility is needed as efforts are made to thin out forests in dry regions where there is an increased risk of runaway wildfires. And after an initial review, they are concerned the inventory could lead to new prescriptions putting certain trees off-limits.
“It just seems to add more bureaucracy to an already broken system of federal forest management and will divert resources from work that needs to be done on the ground,” said Nick Smith, public affairs director of the American Forest Resource Council, which represents wood-processing companies and harvesters involved in public lands’ timber sales.
The executive order does not define a mature tree’s age.
In some forests of the West, Franklin proposed that mature trees should be considered those naturally regenerated that are 100 years or older. In forests that frequently see fire, he would protect trees of at least 150 years of age, while still allowing work to reduce the risk of future blazes.
The massive Western blazes of recent years have increased efforts to find ways to reduce the risk of runaway fires that torch forests and sometimes communities.
The executive order speaks of wildfire as a “pressing threat” to mature and old-growth forests, and notes actions already underway on federal lands to reduce the threats. In Washington state, the infrastructure legislation passed by Congress last year will bring more than $100 million to the Okanogan Wenatchee Forest to improve forest health, according to Mike Stevens, Washington state director of The Nature Conservancy who attended the executive order signing.
“This is a time for people to work across many differences and find common ground of how we sustain our forests into the future,” Steven said.
The executive order comes two years after a group of natural resource and conservation scientists sent a letter to Biden asking him to direct land managers to develop regulations to end “the avoidable logging of mature forests and large trees.”
Dominick DellaSala, chief scientist of the Wild Heritage Project and Earth Institute, helped organize that appeal to Biden, and is now involved in forest mapping aided by satellite imagery to track mature forests. He said they exist on federal lands in the Southern and Eastern states as well as in the West and hopes they gain protection from timber harvests once the inventory is completed.
“This needs to be a national rule-making. It can’t just be looked at regionally,” DellaSala said. “We still have high concentrations of biodiversity coast to coast.”
Smith, of the American Forest Resource Council, said local land managers should be given the flexibility “to do the right treatment at the right places at the right time. In some cases that may involve removing some large trees in areas that have been impacted by decades of fire suppression.
Federal logging on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management acreage has dropped dramatically from peak levels in the late 20th century, and many areas already have protections that make trees off-limits. In Oregon and Washington, most timber comes from private and state lands.
A 2019 Congressional Research Service report noted that federal timber harvests escalated from the 1950s to the 1980s, when in some years they exceeded 10 billion board feet annually. They declined in the 1990s, and between 2003 and 2019 have ranged from 1.8 billion to 2.8 billion board feet.
Court battles continue to flare in the Northwest, and other parts of the nation, about what trees should be cut on federal lands.
One flash point is western Oregon, where the Western Environmental Law Center is involved in court challenges to three federal timber sales and considering challenges to several others.
Susan Jane Brown, a law center staff attorney, said one of the cases involves a Willamette National Forest timber sale called Flat County Project that included clear cutting and thinning of trees up to 250 years old. Other cases involve Bureau of Land Management timber thinning in an attempt to reduce fire risk. The law center argues the science does not justify such logging in that western forest.
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