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February 26, 2024 6:30 am

Biden administration acts to let old-growth forests stand for climate, other benefits

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by Bill Berry, Wisconsin Examiner
January 2, 2024

A couple of days before Christmas, the Biden administration took a modest but significant step toward protecting old-growth areas in the national forest system. The administration announced it plans a nationwide amendment to forest management plans to prevent the further loss of old-growth forests, which are considered vital for an array of ecological, cultural and social values. Mike Dombeck (photo courtesy of Mike Dombeck)

The move was praised by three former chiefs of the U.S.D.A. Forest Service, including Wisconsin native Mike Dombeck, who served during the Clinton administration from 1997-2001. Dombeck, who lives near Stevens Point these days and remains active in national conservation circles, spearheaded the 2001 “roadless rule” on Forest Service lands, which may be the nation’s most significant and most underappreciated conservation accomplishment in this century. 

In many ways, the roadless rule helped set in motion the latest action. It protected 58 million acres of the most remote national forest lands from roads and other incursions. It was controversial, but endures to this day. Watershed protection was a major motivator when Dombeck introduced it. He also correctly portrayed the rule as conservative, given the cost of constructing and maintaining roads, which far exceeded revenue from timber sales.

What has become clearer in the intervening two decades is that mature forests capture and hold great quantities of carbon, considered crucial to mitigating climate change. By some estimates, forest lands absorb carbon dioxide equivalent to more than 10% of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions. 

Dombeck and others have called for protecting old-growth forests worldwide, an effort that has gained traction in recent years. Many conservation and civic groups have also begun planting  millions of trees to address climate change, and there’s a federal initiative to do so.  They include The Nature Conservancy’s Plant a Billion Trees initiative. But it will take many decades for the young ones to catch up to their elders. Science clearly shows saving the big ones will have a comparative outsized impact.

That’s what makes the latest step important. Unfortunately, it will have less impact than a full-blown rule. In effect, the action could be canceled  by a different administration as soon as 2025, while a rule  is more durable. 

Dombeck hopes formal rulemaking will follow in 2025, but he was pleased with the administration’s action. The Forest Service will take rapid action to put the new plan in place. “I’m delighted to see the Forest Service take a major step to protect and enhance old-growth forests — our biggest and oldest trees,” he said. “Values associated with mature- and old-growth forests ranging from carbon sequestration and watershed health to cultural and social values are immeasurable.”

In a recent interview, Dombeck added, “The roadless rule provides an example of how this could be done.” The new step “could apply to the roadless rule areas almost immediately.” 

National forests cover more than 193  million acres in the U.S., of which about 1.5 million are in Wisconsin. The roadless rule applies to about 58 million acres, much of that forest cover in remote, difficult to reach areas. Only a minuscule percentage of Wisconsin’s national forest land, possibly as little as 1%, could be considered old growth. 

In the past, Dombeck has suggested that the Forest Service manage forests in the eastern U.S. toward a future goal of 50% percent.  “If we are to reverse the decline in old growth forests, the Forest Service has to step up and do it.  It won’t happen on private or county land and likely not on state forests,” Dombeck said — lands that are often managed for different forest goals. 

The Biden proposal wouldn’t ban logging in old-growth forests, but it would limit cutting of old growth. It would also allow thinning to reduce impacts of catastrophic wildfire. It would rely on best-available science to manage forestlands, including knowledge gleaned from indigenous people.

Defining old-growth and mature forests isn’t as simple as pointing to big trees and calling them old growth. Timber interests have argued that the lack of a clear definition opens the door to continued logging. But the picture has become clearer as science has evolved. Also, a Biden administration executive order in 2022 directed the Forest Service to take action to conserve and restore old and mature forests, including defining and conducting an inventory of old-growth and mature forests across national forests and grasslands. The initial inventory shows that the Forest Service manages nearly 25 million acres of old growth and 68 million acres of mature forests.

The latest proposal to amend forest plans drew praise from two other former chiefs, Dale Bosworth, who served in the George W. Bush administration, and Tom Tidwell, who served in the Obama administration. 

Bosworth told E&E News he doesn’t see the administration’s action locking up land away from timber companies, since it allows for forest management that includes thinning to stave off wildfires.  Some scientists question that approach in light of  research that suggests old-growth forests are more resilient to fire if allowed to stay in their current conditions.

Tidwell noted there’s little old growth being harvested compared to decades ago anyway, and that sawmills for the most part aren’t equipped anymore to handle big logs. “From my perspective, it’s going to have little impact on harvest,” he said.

Republican Rep. Tom Tiffany, who represents the 7th congressional district in Wisconsin, where most of the state’s national forest land is located, said at a Dec. 5 hearing, “We’re seeing some large diameter trees that really should be taken out to end up with a forest that’s not too mature that ends up in many cases being a dead zone, especially for game species.”  

That may be true for deer, but forest ecologists note that old-growth forests are rich in biologic diversity and more resilient to disease and human-caused impacts than younger stands. 

Tiffany has been a climate change denier over the course of his political career.  In any case, no amount of forest thinning short of clear-cutting in northern Wisconsin will produce the kind of deer habitat that the corn and soybean fields elsewhere in the state provide.

Dombeck sees the latest effort as a balanced approach that will continue to allow some logging of older trees but will factor in carbon capture and other important ecological, cultural and social goals into forest planning.  As he noted, from a big-picture standpoint, the question is, “What is the greatest good now?”

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