Climate-smart idea: Don’t cut down older forests
A new initiative to plant 1 billion trees on public lands is welcome news. Forests play a huge role in our lives — as sources of clean water, wood for our homes, fish and wildlife habitat, as well as awe-inspiring recreational settings. Forests are also vital to stemming climate change, absorbing significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. The trees we plant today will yield big dividends in decades to come.
Another climate smart idea would be to stop cutting old-growth forests. The White House recognized the importance of old-growth forests and committed to “conserve America’s mature and old-growth forests on federal lands.” This was a wise move as old-growth forests store large amounts of carbon.
President Biden should now direct the United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to develop a rule that will protect America’s last remaining publicly owned old-growth forests.
Twenty years ago, at the direction of the White House, we led the development of a similar regulation that stopped the construction of roads and most forms of timber harvest into pristine roadless areas. The Roadless Area Conservation Rule took approximately 18 months to develop, and it has stood as the law of the land for the past two decades.
As a nation, we have logged the great majority of our old-growth forests. We need to protect those that remain, and more wisely manage older forests to create more old-growth forests in the future. Old-growth forests are not typically cut down to reduce fire threats. In fact, they are often the most fire-resistant part of our forested landscapes.
The new regulation should make clear that the United States will only allow for the cutting of old growth only when there is an over-riding imperative such as public safety, legal or treaty obligations.
As we did 20 years ago, the Forest Service should allow for a robust public discussion. We are confident most Americans do not wish to see their old-growth forests converted into two-by-fours or other wood products.
Opponents of this common-sense approach will argue that old growth is difficult to define. The Forest Service has more forest research capacity than any other organization in the world. They can certainly determine what constitutes old growth.
Noted plant ecologist Frank Edwin Egler, who assisted Rachel Carson with Silent Spring, famously cautioned, “nature is not more complicated than you think, it is more complicated than you CAN think.” We would do well to heed the conservative precautionary principle and allow mature and old trees do their job of sustaining our life on this planet.
Regional and/or species-specific guidelines can and should be developed based on state-of-the art science. For example, the Northwest Forest Plan of 1994 defined that in Douglas fir forests of the Pacific Northwest, the “mature phase of stand development begins around 80 years.”
People have spent many decades fighting the cutting of publicly owned old-growth forests. Equally important to protecting old growth and roadless areas, is the recent passage of infrastructure law and the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act. These laws allocated to the Forest Service and tens of millions of dollars to focus on reducing hazardous fuels where forests and communities meet. As global warming continues to accelerate and becomes more dangerous, leaving big trees growing provides obvious benefits.
The policy of the United States should be to allow mature and old trees continue to sustain our life on this planet. Let the big old trees do their work. As the first chief of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, said, this would provide “the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.”
Mike Dombeck is the former Chief of the US Forest Service.
Chris Wood is the president and CEO of Trout Unlimited.
Both Dombeck and Wood helped to develop the Roadless Area Conservation Rule in 2001.
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