Biden admin eyes carbon capture boost from old-growth forests

By Marc Heller | 12/19/2023 01:35 PM EST

Proposed updates to national forest plans aim to further the administration’s policies on climate change and conservation.

Christopher Mock, 24, walks through old-growth forest in the Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon.

Christopher Mock walks through old-growth forest on June 25, 2004, in the Mount Hood National Forest in Oregon. Rick Bowmer/AP

The Biden administration will seek to limit — but not eliminate — logging in old-growth areas as it looks to forests to help tame climate change.

In a notice to be published Wednesday in the Federal Register, the Agriculture Department said it will direct national forests across the country to adopt an “adaptive strategy” to protect old-growth forests, which would include new restrictions on timber harvesting and other policies to encourage the evolution of mature forests into old-growth characteristics.

Officials said in a news release that the proposed amendment to national forest plans — the guiding documents that set management policies for each forest across the 193-million-acre system — furthers the administration’s policies on climate change and conservation. Mature and old-growth forests are the world’s leading carbons sinks, researchers say, but face an array of dangers.


“Old-growth forests are a vital part of our ecosystems and a special cultural resource. This proposed nationwide forest plan amendment — the first in the agency’s history — is an important step in conserving these national treasures,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a news release, adding that climate is raising threats such as drought and wildfire.

The timeline for the move reflects the administration’s election year squeeze: The department said it aims to publish a draft environmental impact statement next May, followed by a 90-day public comment period and a final EIS in January 2025.

After that, adaptive strategies would have to be in place within two years, the department said, and forests would need to show measurable progress in old-growth areas within a decade.

Vegetation management

But officials said the proposal would also have one immediate impact: Deputy Forest Service Chief Chris French told forest supervisors in a memo that, effective immediately, “vegetation management” projects in old-growth areas will have to be run through his office, although the standards for approving such projects are unchanged.

The proposal, for which the department requested public comment by Feb. 2, would allow cutting of trees in old-growth areas to allow for “proactive stewardship,” or as part of a broader plan to conserve such areas.

“Vegetation management within old-growth forest conditions may not be for the primary purpose of growing, tending, harvesting or regeneration of trees for economic reasons,” the notice said.

However, the proposal also contains a carve-out for Alaska. where old-growth logging could continue if it’s part of the “Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy” the Biden administration adopted to make up for some of the economic hit from reimposing limits on development, such as logging roads, in designated roadless areas.

That provision acknowledges the outsize role old-growth timber has played on the country’s biggest national forest, the Tongass, and the extended effort to transition to younger growth.

And while the proposal directs all forest plans to contain provisions on saving old growth, USDA said it gives regional foresters and forest supervisors flexibility to adapt their plans to local conditions. Management schemes for old growth in the Pacific Northwest, for instance, can differ from those for trees that grow in the East, where such conditions still exist in small patches.

USDA, which oversees the Forest Service, said the proposal is “intended to create a consistent approach to manage for old-growth conditions with sufficient distribution, abundance and ecological integrity” across various landscapes.

Timber interests raise questions about the idea of consistency, since management approaches vary as much as forests themselves. The Federal Forest Resource Coalition, representing companies that harvest on federal lands, said the proposal seems aimed at reducing management in national forests “even though it is well established that timber harvest is not a threat to these forests.”

The organization added: “The Forest Service’s approach here is baffling. 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. 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.”

Diverting staff to that mission, the FFRC said, “is a massive misallocation of resources.”

‘Mature’ forest protections

Organizations that have called for protection of old-growth forests praised the move, although some lamented the administration’s decision to leave “mature” forests mainly out of the proposal.

“It think this is an incredibly positive step,” said Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited. The proposal appears to be the first directive for a forest plan amendment throughout the entire forest system at once, he said.

And while advocates for timber harvesting won’t like the prospect of further limits, Wood said, “This isn’t wilderness designation. They’re not saying there can’t be any management in these forests.”

Earthjustice called the proposal “an important milestone for forest conservation” but, along with other environmental groups, said other older forests need protection as well.

Measures to protect “mature” forests may prove more complicated, as the term remains open to interpretation and encompasses a greater debate about how to balance conservation and the wood product industry’s need for such trees. But both mature and old-growth forests were part of President Joe Biden’s April 2022 executive order directing an inventory and measures to protect those areas.

Mature forests, however they’re defined, comprise a much greater share of both public and privately owned forests and are on the way to becoming old growth if not devoured by wildfire or otherwise put in jeopardy. In an inventory published earlier this year, The Wilderness Society said 6.3 percent of forestland throughout the contiguous 48 states is old growth, and almost one-third is mature.

Of the old-growth forest remaining in the U.S., the analysis showed 46 percent is on federal lands.

In the notice, USDA said it’s looking to supplement, not necessarily revise, forest plans to include the new provisions. In forests that have more restrictive language on cutting of old growth, those policies would prevail, the department said.

The department also sought to dispel the notion that it doesn’t have protections already in place. Some 2,700 components of all the 128 land management plans across the forest system provide directions on conserving old growth, the department said.

As they have in previous documents related to old-growth protections, officials highlighted disturbances such as drought and wildfire as the main threats to forests, not logging. The Forest Service also released a new web page for reviewing climate change risks on national forests.

Past logging practices and near-total suppression of wildfires contributed to the dangerous conditions that now exist in some areas, USDA said, citing the Forest Service’s assessments of the lands it manages following the executive order.

“The initial analysis found that mortality from wildfires is currently the leading threat to mature and old growth forest conditions, followed by insects and disease,” the department said. “The analysis found that tree cutting is now a relatively minor threat compared to climate amplified disturbances such as wildfire, insects and disease.”