Forest service is flunking Biden’s science test


On his first day in office, President Biden announced that the policy of his administration would be “to listen to the science.”

Under Biden’s watch, many federal agencies have quickly pivoted to embracing a data-driven approach.

COVID-19 vaccination numbers have surged. Biden rejoined the Paris climate accord in recognition of the overwhelming scientific consensus on the need to confront the climate emergency. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) vowed to disclose how the agency under President Trump buried studies to protect polluters. And the Department of Interior (DOI) has rolled back a dozen harmful Trump-era fossil-fuel extraction policies.

But the U.S. Forest Service, which manages more than 190 million acres of public land, has been slower to embrace data over dogma.

Consider the case of the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota and Wyoming. Black Hills is a million-acre forested island in a sea of prairie within the Great Plains. Covered with ponderosa pine, it’s a biological mixing zone, with species common to regions from all points of the compass. It is home to deer, elk and turkey, as well as the elusive Northern goshawk, a raptor that requires dense stands of large, old trees for nesting and rearing young.

For nearly a decade Forest Service data has shown that a combination of too much logging, climate-driven fires and insect epidemics has been killing trees faster than they can grow. The agency’s own foresters raised concerns that the Forest Service was allowing the timber industry to log the Black Hills at an unsustainable rate, which is illegal under the nation’s forest management laws.

Finally in 2020 the agency turned to its research arm to study the data. After a year-long review, the Rocky Mountain Research Station in March released its unequivocal results: The amount of logging allowed under the Black Hills’ Forest Plan is unsustainable. Logging must be reduced by at least half for the forest to have a chance to recover.

One would think that the Forest Service would follow the science and swiftly change course to protect the dwindling store of trees, which provide sources of clean water, wildlife habitat and recreational enjoyment. They also pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store that carbon in trees and soil.

Instead, forest managers announced in early April that the science showing gross over-logging of the forest was just one factor to consider. The agency said it will weigh whether to change timber targets through a forest plan revision process, but that will take many years to complete. In the meantime the agency has not made clear whether or how it plans to reduce logging.

So for now it looks like it’s still business as usual on the Black Hills, even when data shows that business is unsustainable and harmful.

Beyond the Black Hills, the Forest Service has been hesitant to embrace scientific studies showing that one of the best and cheapest ways to combat climate change is to leave old and mature forests standing rather than cutting them down. From Oregon to Arizona, tens of thousands of acres of old-growth and mature, fire-resistant trees in national forests are at risk of being whacked.

For example, the agency is hemming and hawing about whether to greenlight Trump-era old-growth clearcutting projects on Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, which the Forest Service admits “stores massive amounts of forest carbon, more than any other national forest in the United States.”

Similarly, the Black Ram project on the Kootenai National Forest in Montana would hack down more than a square mile of old and mature trees in grizzly bear habitat. The local office just needs approval from Forest Service staff in the District of Columbia before loggers can fire up their chainsaws.

The Forest Service should embrace science and move quickly to reduce logging on the Black Hills. Across the National Forest System, officials should protect large and old trees proven to combat climate change.

Absent such action, the agency is flunking Biden’s science test.

Ted Zukoski is a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.

Tags black ram project Carbon Carbon footprint Climate change Conservation Deforestation Donald Trump EPA Forest Service Joe Biden logging wildfires

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