Biden administration old growth forest proposal doesn’t ban logging, but still angers industry


BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The Biden administration is advancing its plan to restrict logging within old growth forests that are increasingly threatened by climate change, with exceptions that include cutting trees to make forests less susceptible to wildfires, according to a U.S. government analysis obtained by The Associated Press.

The analysis — expected to be published Friday — shows that officials intend to reject a blanket prohibition on old growth logging that’s long been sought by some environmentalists. Officials concluded that such a sweeping ban would make it harder to thin forests to better protect communities against wildfires that have grown more severe as the planet warms.

“To ensure the longevity of old growth forests, we’re going to have to take proactive management to protect against wildfire and insects and disease,” Forest Service Deputy Chief Chris French told AP in an interview. Without some thinning allowed on these forests, he said there is a risk of losing more trees.

The exceptions under which logging would be allowed are unlikely to placate timber industry representatives and Republicans in Congress. They’ve pushed back against any new restrictions. French asserted the impacts on timber companies would be minimal.

“There’s so little timber sales that occur right now in old growth…that the overall effects are very small,” French said.

The proposed changes mark a shift within an agency that historically promoted logging. They’re expected to be finalized before President Joe Biden’s first term ends in January and come after the Democrat issued a 2022 executive order that directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to identify old growth forests across the nation and devise ways to conserve them.

That order touched off a flurry of disagreement over what fits under the definition of old growth and how those trees should be managed.

Old-growth forests, such as the storied giant sequoia stands of northern California, have layer upon layer of undisturbed trees and vegetation. There’s wide consensus on the importance of preserving them — both symbolically as marvels of nature, and more practically because their trunks and branches store large amounts of carbon that can be released when forests burn, adding to climate change.

Underlining the urgency of the issue are wildfires that killed thousands of giant sequoias in recent years. The towering giants are concentrated in about 70 groves scattered along the western side of the Sierra Nevada range.

Most old growth forests across the U.S. were lost to logging as the nation developed over the past few centuries. Yet pockets of ancient trees remain, scattered across the U.S. including in California, the Pacific Northwest and areas of the Rocky Mountains. Larger expanses of old growth survive in Alaska, such as within the Tongass National Forest.

Old growth timber harvests in the Tongass were limited in 2021 to small commercial sales. Those would no longer occur under the administration’s proposal.

The new analysis follows a separate report on threats to old growth forests that was finalized last week. It concluded wildfire, insects and disease have been the main killers of old growth trees since 2000, accounting for almost 1,400 square miles losses (3,600 square kilometers).

By contrast, logging on federal lands cut down about about 14 square miles of old growth (36 square kilometers). That figure has been seized on by timber industry representatives who argue further restrictions aren’t needed.

“A binding restriction on timber harvest is not where their priority ought to be,” said Bill Imbergamo with the Federal Forest Resource Coalition, an industry group. He added that exceptions by federal officials to allow some logging could be challenged in court, which could tie up even small logging projects that are focused on reducing wildfire risks.

Environmentalists have urged the administration to go even further as they seek to stop logging projects on federal lands in Oregon, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho and other states.

Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society, said the proposal was “a step in the right direction.”

“But it must go further to protect and restore resilient old-growth forests in a way that meets the challenges of the changing climate,” he added.

The Forest Service inventory identified about 39,000 square miles (100,000 square kilometers) of old growth across the U.S. and 100,000 square miles (275,000 square kilometers) of mature forests that have not yet reached old growth status.

Environmentalists lobbied unsuccessfully for logging restrictions to be extended to those mature forests.

Under former President Donald Trump, federal officials sought to open up millions of acres of West Coast forests to potential logging. Federal wildlife officials reversed the move in 2021 after determining political appointees under Trump relied on faulty science to justify drastically shrinking areas of forest that are considered crucial habitats for the imperiled northern spotted owl.

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