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Why Anti-forestry’s Fight over Old Growth Won’t Work this Time

By Nick Smith

As if the old Timber Wars never ended, anti-forestry groups are waging a new well-funded and organized campaign to ban logging of “old-growth” forests. What’s different this time? For one, they are no longer rallying to save the Northern Spotted Owl, a vulnerable species that is now losing more habitat to catastrophic wildfire.

This is 2022, not 1990. The science and politics are increasingly trending toward more active forest management and more wood products as solutions to today’s environmental challenges, including climate change.

As before, anti-forestry groups want the public to believe the timber industry is logging the last of the old-growth trees on public lands. They also claim we can reverse climate change by simply locking up our public lands, “letting trees grow,” and walking away. While their messages are simple and potent, their claims deserve closer scrutiny.

The U.S. Forest Service manages about 193 million acres of National Forest System (NFS) lands. Less than half of these lands (45 percent) are unreserved and available for forest management and timber harvest. The majority of the forests are either permanently set aside as congressionally designated wilderness areas or national monuments, or they are “inventoried roadless areas” where management is prohibitive.

For anti-forestry groups, that 45 percent is too much. Since President Biden took office, they have pressured his administration to effectively ban logging on NFS lands under the guise of protecting “old and mature forests” even though there are not any universally or scientifically accepted definitions of what “old” or “mature” trees are.

Those of us who work in the woods understand that forests are dynamic—not static—ecosystems. Such a policy means we would walk away from our national forests and hope insects, disease, mortality, and catastrophic wildfires don’t destroy the resources, wildlife, and communities we are trying to protect.

Forests on NFS lands tend to be older, and often lack the diversity of age classes that are found on other forests, which is problematic for wildlife species that depend on young and mixed-age forests. Forests on these lands are also dying at much higher rates, and some are failing to regenerate on their own after a major disturbance such as severe fire. Between 1952 and 2016, a period when timber harvests decreased 80 percent, net growth decreased 46 percent, and tree mortality has increased more than 223 percent!

Perhaps the Biden Administration understood this situation when, on Earth Day 2022, the president signed an executive order recognizing the role that federal forests play “in combating climate change and the importance of maintaining their resilience.”

The national media coverage largely focused on provisions aimed at “protecting old growth forests,” and the executive order was likely intended to appease anti-forestry groups, yet the executive order does not ban timber harvesting, and it does not even identify logging as a threat to old and mature trees. Rather it identifies “climate impacts, catastrophic wildfires, insect infestation, and disease” as the primary threats to all forests, including older forests.

There are some troubling provisions in President Biden’s Executive Order, which could eventually add more bureaucracy and red tape to our broken system of federal land management. However, it recognizes the role of forestry in mitigating impacts to old and mature trees. It also comes at a time when the Administration is spending billions of dollars on a 10-year strategy to double the rate of forest treatments on federal lands.

When it comes to climate change, scientific researchers are also finding that simply walking away from the forest is not so clear cut.

California has lost 1.1 million metric tons of stored carbon to drought, wildfires, and invasive pests between 2018 and 2019 alone. Researchers at UC Berkeley found that current climate projections will require a significant reduction in tree density for forests to be considered “resilient” to intense disturbances such as droughts and wildfires. They say California may need to revise its forest carbon policy because forests in the future likely will not serve as major carbon sinks without human intervention.

Simply letting trees grow does not necessarily help wildlife either. Researchers at the University of Vermont recently found that managing only for mature stands of trees fails to provide critical habitat for sensitive wildlife species.

There is also science to suggest that although large trees sequester carbon at a faster rate than small trees on an individual basis, their contribution to carbon sequestration rates is smaller on an area basis. In other words, an acre of young, fast-growing trees is capable of sequestering more carbon than an acre of old, slow-growing trees in any given timeframe.

Given the science, if the solution to climate change is to maximize the carbon sequestration capacity of our nation’s forests, we should pursue policies that encourage the sustainable harvest of trees, the storage of their carbon in wood products, and the replanting of young trees in their place.

We don’t have to stand by as tree mortality, wildfires, and carbon emissions increase. Rather than setting aside more public land from forest management, a better option is to maintain the cycle of forestry—the continuous planting, growing, and harvesting—that results in net zero carbon emissions and discourages the conversion of forests to non-forests.

While anti-forestry groups have found some political success in their latest push to save “old- growth” forests, they will find that most of the public and policymakers have moved on from the old Timber Wars and are looking for solutions that are effective. For this reason, forestry and wood products are essential for the future.

Nick Smith is Executive Director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities and provides public affairs services to the American Forest Resource Council in Portland, Oregon.

TimberWest November/December 2013
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