Biden to unveil order to protect ancient forests on Earth Day

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President Biden will sign an executive order in Seattle on Friday laying the groundwork for protecting some of the tallest and oldest trees in America’s forests, according to five people briefed on the plan who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not not yet finalized.

Biden will have the Forest Service and Office of Land Management define and inventory mature and old-growth forests across the country within a year, three of the people said. It will also ask agencies to identify threats to these trees, such as wildfires and climate change, and use this information to develop policies that protect them.

The president’s order, however, will not prohibit the logging of mature and old-growth trees, they added, and the administration does not envision a nationwide ban.

It will include initiatives to restore US forests ravaged by forest fires, drought and insects, requiring federal agencies to establish a reforestation target by 2030. It will also address the major problems facing efforts tree planting in the West – insufficient seeds and seedlings – by directing agencies to develop plans to increase cone and seed collection and nursery capacity.

Other pieces of the order aim to curb deforestation overseas, promoting economic development in areas with large timber industries and calculating the economic value of other natural resources such as wetlands.

While Democrats and environmentalists will likely welcome the order, it doesn’t have the same force as legislation and could be reversed under a future president. The new order would not go as far as a bill drafted by Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz (Hawaii) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (Oregon) that would restrict trade in products related to forest clearing, such as oil of palm and beef.

White House officials declined to comment on the order.

The move reflects the administration’s broader strategy to fight climate change by conserving more land in the United States — and more carbon-storing trees. A 2020 study of six national forests in the Pacific Northwest, for example, found that just 3% of the tallest trees contained about 42% of the carbon.

Collin O’Mara, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, said the order could also be “an incredibly smart fire resistance strategy.”

“We know old growth forests are less prone to megafires, especially when well managed,” he said. “And besides the benefits to wildlife and water quality and carbon sequestration, it could also be something that mitigates a lot of the fire risk if we do it right.”

This year, more than 70 environmental groups launched a campaign calling on Biden to adopt new protections for mature and old trees — generally, those over 80 — that aren’t banned from being turned into wood. Advocates said that while the Forest Service has largely stopped cutting older trees, the Bureau of Land Management still allows the sale of timber from Oregon’s old-growth forests.

In November, Democratic members of Congress wrote to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, urging him to protect older forests and warning that allowing harvesting of these trees would undermine the president’s climate goals because it would free up a massive amount of pollutants that would warm the planet.

“Allowing logging of mature and old-growth federal forests should become a thing of the past,” they wrote.

Scientists consider forests to be critical carbon sinks, meaning they absorb more carbon dioxide than they release into the atmosphere. Ancient trees, such as the redwoods and giant redwoods of California or the gigantic Sitka spruces and red cedars of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, collectively store billions of tons of carbon dioxide in their trunks, branches and their roots. Protecting them could help avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Placing guards on older trees could be extremely controversial.

Logging companies will likely oppose any further limitations on their access to trees in federal forests, and experts will debate what counts as a mature tree. A loblolly pine in the southeast and a ponderosa pine in the west grow at very different rates, complicating efforts to define maturity as a set number of years for multiple species.

In writing new policies, the administration will also have to walk a line between preserving older trees on federal lands and giving managers enough flexibility to keep those forests healthy.

While scientists agree forests are important for slowing climate change, many say years of wildfire suppression policies have led to dense forests that fuel more extreme fires. Some of the strategies for solving this problem include thinning small trees, removing dry brush, and intentionally lighting beneficial fires. But federal agencies have also contracted with logging companies to clear land for firebreaks and cut down larger trees they say threaten homes and communities.

“A climate solution we should prioritize is to sustainably manage our forests, on the basis of science, to improve the health and resilience of forests,” said Travis Joseph, head of the American Forest Resource Council, which represents the factories, manufacturers and buyers of timber from public lands. California and other western states.

Critics have argued that this approach amounts to a giveaway for logging companies, which they say have helped overcrowd America’s forests by cutting down the tallest and oldest trees. The many younger trees that have grown in their place burn more easily and often do not survive the more destructive wind-driven wildfires that have ravaged the West in recent years.

The struggle for ancient forests has been going on for decades. In 1991, a federal judge blocked all logging of ancient trees in the Pacific Northwest National Forests to protect the declining habitat of the northern spotted owl. Since then, Republican and Democratic administrations have implemented dueling logging rules, and environmentalists have filed lawsuits that have curtailed several timber sales.

By 2020, the spotted owl had lost about 70% of its habitat, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service said it could be extinct. The Trump administration removed protections from more than a third of the bird’s total protected habitat, but Biden officials reversed that decision, writing a Federal Register notice saying the rollback had “considerable shortcomings and shortcomings”.

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