Federal plan to protect climate-critical old-growth forests is a historic step for conservation, but it can go further

Federal plan to protect climate-critical old-growth forests is a historic step for conservation, but it can go further

Conservation Northwest / Jul 03, 2024 /

On June 20, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement for its nationwide forest plan amendment to conserve old-growth trees in national forests. This significant step, in line with President Biden’s Executive Order 14072, initiates a 90-day comment period that will conclude on Sept. 20, 2024.

President Biden’s executive order directs federal land managers to conserve mature and old-growth forests across America. The USDA has also produced an older forest inventory (revised), threats analysis, and climate risk viewer as part of this directive.

Last December, the USDA published its Notice of Intent to amend all 128 national forest land management plans to include consistent direction to foster ecologically appropriate management of existing old-growth forests and recruit old-growth to improve and expand their abundance and distribution.

“President Biden’s historic proposal to conserve the nation’s old-growth forests is an important step toward securing our best natural climate solution and valuable wildlife habitat,” said Dave Werntz, Senior Science and Conservation Director, “However, only a small fraction of old-growth forests remain, and the proposal must go further to ensure these critical forests are restored to their historical distribution and abundance.”

Old-growth forests play a crucial role in sequestering and storing significant amounts of carbon, providing habitat for at-risk fish and wildlife, and offering a wealth of ecosystem services. Other benefits include clean drinking water, cultural significance to Tribes, and outdoor recreation opportunities critical to communities’ health, prosperity and resilience.

The DEIS proposes important reforms to national forest management:

  • Increased protections for old-growth forests
  • Commitment to increase the amount of old-growth
  • Includes Tongass National Forest (no longer exempted)
  • Elevates Tribes’ role in forest management through co-stewardship agreements
  • Provides a framework to promote a collaborative, localized approach to old-growth conservation
  • Aligns well with Wildfire Crisis Strategy and other initiatives

Although we’re still reviewing the DEIS, we will be pressing for improvements:

  • Provide explicit directions to protect and steward sufficient quality mature forests to restore old-growth forest distribution and abundance
  • Add an anti-degradation standard (maintain and improve) to prevent treatments that degrade old-growth conditions
  • Provide quantitative, science-based targets for recovery, such as ecologically based Historic Range of Variability, rather than just enough old-growth to provide “resilience”
  • Likely other things as we further review the proposal