Equilibrium & Sustainability

Feds target Indianapolis-sized area of old-growth for logging

Environmental groups are calling on the Biden Administration to halt the logging of mature and old-growth forests that they say are essential to slowing climate change.

More than 240,000 acres of big, carbon-trapping trees are on the chopping block, according to a report issued on Tuesday by a coalition of nonprofits like Earthjustice, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity.

That’s an area of 100-plus year old trees approximately the size of Indianapolis.

The organizations argue that the planned cuts are in contradiction with an April executive order by the Biden administration to restore and conserve the nation’s mature and old-growth forests — which is running into a historic mandate that demands for national land-management agencies provide lumber companies with a steady supply of timber.

“The best way to protect these carbon-storing giants is to let them grow, but our federal agencies keep turning them into lumber,” Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.

In the Black Hills National Forest of South Dakota, for example — which at 180,000 acres holds the largest targeted tract —  mature ponderosa pine trees are targeted for removal.

In Oregon’s Willamette National Forest, 1,000 acres of mature and old growth trees are set to be cut, while another planned clearcut on state forest administered by the Bureau of Land Management would cut down 4,573 acres.

Spivak argued that the administration could slow climate change by “permanently protecting mature and old-growth trees,” noting that it would take centuries to re-capture the carbon lost when those trees were cut down.

“We don’t have that kind of time,” he added. 

The Center and its partner argue that the cuts are, above all, unnecessary. More than 95 percent of the nation’s tree products come from relatively small, young conifers grown on privately-owned plantations in the Southeast and Pacific Northwest.

Unlike the mature trees scheduled to be cut, these plantations store little carbon — meaning there is far less climate cost to cutting them as compared to large trees on federal land.

The organizations warn that without specific guidelines to protect mature trees, these largest fire-resistant trees risk being cut down — often in the name of fire-reducing forest-thinning campaigns aimed at protecting forest stands.

Young trees are far more vulnerable to fire than large old trees, according to a study by the United State Forest Service.

And a fire-reduction guide from Oregon State University specifically encourages leaving the largest trees, which “have thicker bark, which insulates the cambium,” the plant tissue that contains the living core of a tree.

“Although a fire may scorch the foliage, the cambium is protected” by an old tree’s thick bark — while old trees’ high canopies puts them at less danger from highly destructive “crown fires,” according to Oregon State.

“Without a federal rule in place to restrict logging of these critical forest tracts, these mature and old-growth trees could be lost,” Blaine Miller-McFeeley, senior legislative representative at Earthjustice, said in a statement.

Miller-McFeeley charged that the loss of such forests would go in tandem with losing “the opportunity to make significant progress toward addressing climate change.”

What’s to be done instead? The solution favored by these organizations is known as “proforestation.” 

In this method,  mature forests are tended in place to aid their continued growth — and their ability to pull down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. 

Proforestation offers significant advantages over competing methods, Nobel laureate and Tufts University ecologist Bill Moomaw wrote in a 2019 paper in Frontiers in Forests and Global Change, which coined the term.

That’s as opposed to “reforestation” — which is replanting trees where they have already been cleared — or afforestation, in which new lands are planted with trees. 

Proforestation offers benefits both of those lack, Moomaw and others have argued.

Both afforestation and reforestation suffer from a significant delay between when young trees are planted and when they begin to suck down significant amount of carbon — as well as being highly vulnerable to drought and fire for decades after their planting.

Afforestation specifically often requires removing arable land from cultivation, Moomaw noted.

Widespread tree planting in dry areas — which is practiced on the borders of China to hold back the Gobi Desert, for example — can also lead to worsening drought and deteriorating landscapes, a 2020 Chinese study found.

“It’s not that we shouldn’t do afforestation [planting new trees] and we shouldn’t do reforestation. We should,” Moomaw told Yale Environment 360 in 2019. “But recognize that their contribution will be farther in the future, which is important.”

“In order to meet our climate goals, we have to have greater sequestration by natural systems now,” he added.

The Forest Service pushed back, arguing that the distinction of old-growth versus new growth is obsolete in the age of climate change.

“No longer is it enough to draw a line on a map around our old growth stands and think they will be protected against drought, wildfire, insect and disease,” USDA spokesperson Larry Moore told Equilibrium.

Moore said that the Administration is launching a public comment process later this week “to ensure we are appropriately defining old growth and mature trees.”

Updated July 13, 1:11 p.m.

Tags Climate change Deforestation Randi Spivak

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