Guest Column: In December the Biden Administration announced a new policy to conserve old growth forests on lands managed by the federal government. To carry out the president’s directive, the U.S. Forest Service has initiated a costly and redundant process to amend all 128 forest land management plans to “conserve and steward” old-growth forest conditions on national forests and grasslands nationwide.
Everyone loves big, old trees. However, the policy fails to take meaningful steps to address the actual, real-world risks to older forests on National Forest System (NFS) lands – specifically, severe wildfire, insect infestation, and disease that have already destroyed nearly 700,000 acres of old growth forests on federal lands over the past 20 years.
The Forest Service’s data confirms that logging poses a negligible threat to old growth forests. Yet the agency is being directed by the White House to embark on a new, massive bureaucratic process – during a wildfire and forest health crisis – that will likely make forest management more complex, costly, and contentious.
According to the Forest Service, the policy is intended to provide “consistent” and “adaptive” direction to all national forests. Although it’s supposed to advance “place-based” strategies to conserve old growth, the policy imposes a top-down approach where some forests will be managed from Washington, D.C., thousands of miles away from fire-prone forests in the West. It prohibits commercial logging of old-growth stands and will subject some forest projects to approval from agency leadership.
Biden’s policy is more about election year politics than science. There is no scientific or universally-accepted definition of old growth, especially one that can be uniformly applied to forests from Washington state to Florida. As forest professionals, TimberWest readers understand old growth characteristics can vary widely across different forest types and tree species. They are geographically and ecologically unique and require different approaches to management based on local conditions.
That’s why the management of old growth is typically determined at the local level, under individual forest plans that govern each national forest in the country. Each forest plan contains its own direction for conserving old growth, and as a result these old trees are seldom harvested.
Under the Northwest Forest Plan, for example, three-quarters of national forest land in Northern California, Oregon and Washington is largely off-limits to routine active forest management. This does not count the millions of acres of designated Wilderness, National Parks, wildlife refuges, and other areas that are permanently “protected” and instead are burning up in wildfire.
Amending 128 forest plans only serves as one more distraction for valuable public resources that could otherwise be working to take real steps toward protecting and developing more old growth stands. Rather than giving our public lands managers the policy tools and support they need to sustain our forests and all the values they provide, this policy forces them to focus limited time and resources on more process, and that will do nothing to address the real risks on the ground.
Protecting old growth requires intentional, thoughtful action on the ground – not more political soundbites and definitely not more paperwork for our public lands managers. It’s also not clear how this policy will help the Forest Service implement the Biden Administration’s own 10-year wildfire strategy that calls for a three-fold increase in forest health treatments.
Notably, the Forest Service aims to provide an exception for active management in old growth forests to “reduce fuel hazards on National Forest System land within the wildland-urban interface to protect a community or infrastructure from wildfire.” Hazardous fuels reduction should be a goal across the NFS, not just within the wildland-urban interface, as most wildfires initiate in the backcountry. The Forest Service should expand this exception accordingly to include the entire NFS.
Forests are dynamic systems, not static. In many forest types, regeneration of old growth forests through timber harvest or other disturbance is essential to creating new healthy forests. Regeneration may be the only tool to address deteriorating health of certain old growth forests in order to enable a new, healthy forest to succeed it.
The Biden Administration is primarily selling its old growth policy as a solution to climate change. Yet mere “paperwork protection” of old growth forests is not a solution, especially as unmanaged Western forests owned by the federal government are quickly converting into carbon emitters, according to Forest Service data.
The forest products industry shares concerns about climate change and how it is contributing to larger and severe wildfires that emit massive amounts of carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and threaten communities. At the American Forest Resource Council, we believe any national forest amendment process for old growth should be razor-focused on increasing science-based, active forest management to address our wildfire crisis and to make our forests healthier and more resilient.
Scientists at the local and international level, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), recognize the climate benefits of forest management, timber harvest, and wood products. Recently at COP28, the global climate summit, the U.S. joined an international coalition committing to, by 2030, advancing policies and approaches that support low carbon construction and increase the use of wood products from sustainably managed forests to construct our homes, offices, and other buildings. Implementing such policies and approaches would result in reduced greenhouse gas emissions, an increase in stored carbon in forests and the built environment, and ultimately more old growth and healthier forests of all ages.
In the West, this can be achieved by actively managing national forests and providing sustainable wood fiber to meet these goals. It would also be a more effective policy for conserving all forest resources than adding more bureaucracy to our broken system of federal lands management.
(Nick Smith is public affairs director for the American Forest Resource Council, a trade association representing the logging and milling sector in six Western states. He is also executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Community, a grassroots organization supporting active management on public forests.)