BILLINGS The Biden administration moved Tuesday to conserve old-growth forests in national forests across the US and limit logging as climate change increases the threats they face from wildfires, insects and diseases.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the agency is adopting an ecologically-driven approach to old-growth forests, an arena in which the interests of the timber industry have historically come first. That will include the first national amendment to the US Forest Service management plans of the agencies in their 118-year history, he said.
The proposal follows long-standing calls from environmentalists to preserve ancient forests that offer vital wildlife habitat and other environmental benefits. Logging companies are fighting restrictions on logging on government-owned lands.
President Joseph Biden’s administration appears to be aiming for a middle ground: It would severely limit commercial timber harvests in old-growth forests while allowing logging to continue in mature forests. which has not yet reached the primitive stage of growth.
It makes a commitment to resilience, a commitment to restore and protect the existing old growth that we have from the threats that we see, Vilsack said in an interview.
Logging industry representatives said Tuesday’s proposal would give opponents new leverage to file legal challenges against logging projects intended to reduce wildfire risks for residents. community near the forest. But environmental groups are calling for logging restrictions to be expanded to include mature forests, which cover more than 100,000 square miles (275,000 square km) of forest service land, about three times the area of old growth.
Old-growth forests, such as the giant sequoia stands of northern California, have layer upon layer of undisturbed trees and plants. There is broad consensus on the importance of preserving them symbolically as natural wonders, and more practically because their trunks and branches store a lot of carbon that can be released when forests burn, furthering regeneration. in the climate.
Underscoring the urgency of the issue are the wildfires that have killed thousands of giant sequoias in recent years. The towering giants are concentrated in about 70 groves scattered in the western part of the Sierra Nevada range.
Many old-growth forests fell in the second half of the 20th century during the aggressive logging of national forests. Some were cut earlier as the US developed.
The amount of felling has decreased significantly in the past decades, but the loss of old trees due to fire, insects and diseases has accelerated. More than 5,100 square miles (13,300 square kilometers) of old-growth and mature forest have burned since 2000.
About 350 square miles (900 square kilometers) of old-growth forests were logged on federal lands during the period, according to a recent government analysis.
There is no simple formula to determine what is old. The growth rates of different types of trees vary and even within species, depending on their access to water and sunlight, and soil conditions. Aspen groves can mature for half a century. A Douglas fir stand can last 100 years. The frequency of wildfires also factors in: Ponderosa pine forests are adapted to withstand fires once a decade, compared to lodgepole pine stands that can burn every few hundred years.
Previous protections for old-growth trees have come indirectly, such as the 2001 no-road rule adopted under former President Bill Clinton that effectively blocked the logging of about a quarter of all federal forests.
Chris Wood, president of Trout Unlimited and a former Forest Service policy chief who worked on the no-road rule, said the Biden administration’s proposal is a step in the right direction to protect remaining old growth.
This is the first time the Forest Service has said its national policy is to protect old growth, he said.
Log companies and some members of Congress are skeptical about Bidens ambitions to protect old-growth forests, which the Democrat launched in 2021 on Earth Day. They urged the administration to concentrate instead on reducing wildfire risk by thinning tree trunks where decades of wildfire suppression have allowed undergrowth to flourish, which can be a recipe for disaster when a fire breaks out.
Let’s be honest about who the groups are asking for this: They have always opposed commercial timber harvesting in the national forest system, said Bill Imbergamo Executive Director Federal Forest Resource Coalition. Is that the right emphasis now when most ancient growth losses are from insects, fire and climate change factors working together?
Results earlier this year from the government’s first-ever national inventory of mature and old-growth forests on federal land revealed more expanses of old-growth trees than outside researchers had previously reported. or just approx. The Forest Service and the federal Bureau of Land Management jointly manage more than 50,000 square miles (129,000 square kilometers) of old-growth forests and about 125,000 square miles (324,000 square kilometers) of mature forests, according to inventory.
Most Western states like Idaho, California, Montana and Oregon. They are also found in New England, around the Great Lakes and in Southern states such as Arkansas, Kentucky and West Virginia, according to the Forest Service.
The proposal to revise the management plans for 128 national forests and national grasslands is expected to be finalized in early 2025. However, it is uncertain whether the change will survive if Biden loses his 2024 re-election. re-election bid.
Under former President Donald Trump, federal officials are looking to open up millions of acres of West Coast forests for potential logging. Federal wildlife officials reversed the move in 2021 after determining political appointees under Trump relied on flawed science to justify further reductions in forested areas considered critical habitats. for the endangered northern spotted owl.
Asked about the strength of the proposal Tuesday, Vilsack said it would be a serious mistake for the country to take a step backward now that we’ve taken significant steps forward.
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