In the Northwest and beyond, mature and ancient trees remain under threat despite Biden’s move to protect them

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On Earth Day this year, President Joe Biden visited Seattle’s Seward Park – home to stands of bigleaf maple and 200-year-old western red cedar covered in moss and licorice fern – where he delivered a speech and signed an executive order aimed at strengthening the country’s forests, communities and local economies.

Article 2 of the decree recognizes the value of mature and ancient forests as natural tools against climate change and the biodiversity crisis. After all, tall trees store a lot of carbon, and protecting older forests helps maintain healthy ecosystems and critical habitat. The order also directs the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, to inventory these forests on federal lands and develop policies that conserve them as the backbone of U.S. climate policy.

By the time all of this comes to fruition, however, many of these forests may be gone.

Logging continues to pose a significant and immediate threat to mature and old-growth forests, according to a new ‘Worth More Standing’ report from the Climate Forests coalition. This initiative aims to conserve remaining forests and ancient trees on federal lands, viewing them as “one of the nation’s simplest, most effective and cost-effective climate solutions,” according to the coalition’s website. The group is made up of more than 100 organizations, including EarthJustice and the Center for Biological Diversity.

The report highlights 10 mature and legacy logging projects currently planned or underway on federal lands, from Oregon and California to North Carolina and Vermont.

Currently, a process is underway to define mature and old trees – which the report authors consider to be trees that are at least 80 years old.

Still, while the report’s authors see the executive order as a victory for old trees, they recognize that more needs to be done to fully protect them. That’s why the Climate Forests Coalition is calling on the Biden administration to enact a lasting rule to protect mature and old-growth forests from logging on federal lands as a cornerstone of US climate policy.

“Without a federal rule in place to restrict harvesting of these critical forests,” said Blaine Miller-McFeeley, senior legislative representative at Earthjustice and member of the Climate Forest coalition, “those trees could be lost, along with the possibility of make significant progress towards tackling climate change.

Cut old trees

About 300 miles south of Seward Park in Oregon’s Willamette National Forest, 2,000 acres of older forest stands ready for logging as part of the Forest Service’s Flat Country Timber Sale.

Drive south another 200 miles, and an additional 4,573 acres of mature and ancient trees are set to be logged as part of the Poor Windy Project, in forests managed by the BLM’s Medford District that connect the habitat of the Oregon’s Coast Range to the Cascade Mountains. In the 800,000-acre project area that covers the entire BLM Medford district, up to 20,000 acres of trees 36 inches in diameter and over 150 years old are set aside for commercial harvesting as part of integrated vegetation management for resilient lands. That includes about 17,000 acres in late-successional reserves or old-growth forest — habitat established to protect endangered species like the northern spotted owl, according to the report.

These examples from the Climate Forests Coalition report “are not outliers but part of a widespread pattern of mismanagement of federal forests that routinely circumvents science to turn carbon storage giants into timber,” indicates the report.

Oregon has a long and controversial history of lumber production. For one thing, the Oregon and California Land Act of 1937 essentially paved the way for logging in the region, according to Joseph Vaile, director of climate at the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center. Additionally, the BLM has a strong hold over much of the state’s public forest land.

“In Oregon, about 2.5 million acres of forest are managed by the Department of the Interior’s BLM, which is separate from the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service,” Vaile said. “It’s a unique and historic relic that these BLM forests tend to be where there’s quite a bit of mature and old-growth forest at risk, and where they’re emphasizing this type of logging.”

Oregon’s trees are unique, according to Miller-McFeeley, because they are part of a temperate rainforest. “That means these trees are some of the most important from a climate perspective, and they’re some of the oldest and biggest that exist. If you look at a map showing where the carbon storage is in our forests, a huge percentage is in Oregon,” he said.

A study by researchers at Oregon State University illustrates how forests in the Pacific Northwest are less vulnerable to drought and fire and have high carbon storage potential.

Not only are these forests excellent carbon sinks that sequester billions of tons of carbon, but they are also critical habitat for species like the northern spotted owl and help keep rivers healthy, maintaining the quality of water for all who depend on it.

reasoning and rebuttal

The rationale behind these logging projects, according to the BLM and the Forest Service, is to increase forest resilience, reduce hazardous fuels and reduce wildfire risk.

“There’s a lot of rhetoric around forest restoration and resilience built into the language of these projects,” said Luke Ruediger, executive director of the Applegate-Siskiyou Alliance and director of conservation for the Klamath Forest Alliance. “But we are seeing another sale of timber to cut down mature and old-growth forests and to commodify conservation land use allocations, turning them into timber production areas,” he said.

When it comes to wildfire risk prevention, “we can’t downplay the importance of wildfires, especially in the West,” said Randi Spivak, director of the public lands program at the Center for Biological Diversity and lead author of the Climate Forests Coalition report. “But these are climate-related wildfires. To say that cutting down big old trees will help is not scientifically justified.

Indeed, mature and ancient forests are extremely resistant to fire. “Tall, old trees have high canopies that allow fires to burn below. They have a thick bark that insulates the tree itself and the cambium layer (the growing part of the tree trunk just below the bark) that deals water and nutrients against fire damage. forest,” Ruediger said.

According to the report, “removing tall trees and reducing the canopy opens up the forest to more sunlight, hot, dry winds, and higher temperatures, which can increase the risk of wildfires.” .

Spivak also notes that the executive order only mentions combating illegal logging and that a memorandum following the executive order signed by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack does not include logging as a primary threat to trees. mature and old.

The memorandum lists drought, forest fires, type conversion (or removal of forests for other uses, such as agriculture) and insect outbreaks as the main threats to older trees. “And that’s just plain wrong,” Spivak said, noting that less than 10% of mature and old-growth forests remain in the United States.

In a joint press release, the BLM and Forest Service said, “This work will help inform how departments are responding to President Biden’s executive order.”

In the meantime, the BLM and the Forest Service, which have not responded to repeated requests to speak with InvestigateWest, are continuing their logging projects as part of the restoration, resilience, and disaster risk reduction. ‘Forest fire.

Currently, neither the executive order nor the law authorizes the Forest Service and the BLM to prohibit logging after awarding a timber sale, according to Spivak. “The (Forest Service) and BLM have long had the authority to reverse a sale after it has been awarded, but are extremely reluctant to do so,” Steve Pedery, conservation manager at Oregon Wild, said in an email. at InvestigateWest.

To stop logging of mature and old-growth forests, Spivak and Miller-McFeeley agree, these trees need permanent federal protection. “The Biden administration can help curb climate change by permanently protecting mature, old-growth trees. It takes centuries to make up for the carbon lost when these trees are cut down and we don’t have that kind of time,” Spivak said in a press release.

“Fortunately, the Biden administration has the power to permanently end outdated forest management practices that promote destructive logging,” the report said. “Most of the forests in this report are still standing, so there is still time to ensure that these and future logging projects are consistent with the best available science and comply with the presidential decree.”

InvestigateWest (invw.org) is an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. Visit invw.org/newsletters to sign up for weekly updates.

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