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We can’t wait to protect old forests

On Earth Day 2022, President Biden signed an Executive Order for actions to capitalize on the ability of forests — especially mature and old-growth forests — to combat climate change. We applaud this action, but the Biden administration now needs to follow through and adopt durable, science-based forest conservation measures.    

Biden’s executive order seeks to conserve mature and old-growth forests on federal lands, curb global deforestation and deploy nature-based solutions that reduce emissions and build resilience to a rapidly warming planet. More specifically, the order directs the Departments of Agriculture and Interior to inventory existing mature and old-growth forests nationwide, identify threats and develop climate-smart conservation policies to address those threats. 

As scientists who have spent decades studying forests, we have come to appreciate the many remarkable attributes and benefits of mature and old-growth forests. Through the miracle of photosynthesis, mature and old forests are carbon storage powerhouses — with trees not only storing carbon in their own bark, leaves and needles, but also enhancing critical carbon storage in the forest soils. They are extraordinarily adept at keeping climate-warming greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Mature and old-growth forests store more carbon per unit area than any other land cover in the U.S in both the living trees and the large dead and down trees, which undergo only very slow decay.  

Old-growth forests contain a complex variety of trees, including dead trees that many wildlife species rely on. A recent Wilderness Society report found that forests protected from logging and road construction are especially important as habitat for threatened species. Old-growth forests also lower the water temperature of nearby streams, providing a refuge during the global warming era for many fish and amphibian species that need cold water habitat.   

Human communities benefit directly from our healthy forest systems, too, such as providing for well-regulated and high-quality flows of water. More than 60 million people in the U.S. get their drinking water from national forests, with many big cities relying on watersheds in largely undeveloped “roadless” forests (the forests least affected by human activity). Additionally, forests also help people breathe easier, both by directly intercepting particulate air pollution and absorbing dangerous gases like nitrogen dioxide and ozone. Because they provide habitat away from human communities, intact and conserved forests also help slow the spread of wildlife transmitted infectious diseases. 

During most of the 20th century, federal land managers routinely clearcut the natural mature and old forests and replaced them with young plantations designed to maximize wood production. As society came to realize the ecological values of older forests and the harmful consequences of converting them to tree farms, many — but not all — of the remaining older forests have been set aside as habitat reserves for imperiled wildlife species like the northern spotted owl. These unreserved older forests remain at high risk of timber harvest, like more than 2000 acres of mature forests in Oregon currently slated for sale as part of the Willamette National Forest’s Flat Country Project.  

Biden’s executive order correctly recognizes another major threat to mature and old-growth forests — increasingly large and intense wildfires driven by decades of fire suppression and climate change. In many places, particularly the dry, fire-adapted forests of the Interior West, we need to restore more naturally resilient forest conditions using prescribed fire, managed wildfire and thinning where appropriate.  

The president’s order was an encouraging promise — one that recognizes a healthy forest ecosystem will lend itself to supporting healthy communities. But, as the old adage goes, actions speak louder than words. The administration must act quickly to put policies in place that will safeguard our oldest forests from logging, wildfire and climate change for generations to come.  

Specifically, the Biden administration should act quickly to complete the forest inventory and risk analysis and move forward with an agency-level rulemaking that ensures the long-term conservation and restoration of old-growth and mature forests. This durable policy should also prioritize other climate-related issues including watershed protections, wildlife corridors as well as new administrative protections for roadless areas and guidance around protecting biodiversity.

Until the policy is finalized, it is critically important that the administration immediately put interim restrictions on logging of mature and old forests on federal public lands nationwide. Thousands of acres of such forests could otherwise be lost. With a carbon-storage tool as powerful as older forests, the option of logging them needs to be taken off the table. 

Our forests are essential allies in our fight against the climate crisis. President Biden’s executive order is a good starting point for scientifically sound conservation policies and actions. Let’s get to work.   

Norman Christensen, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of ecology and the founding dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. 

Jerry Franklin, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of forest ecosystems at the University of Washington. 

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