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Biden to issue Earth Day order to safeguard old-growth forests

The order, which the president will sign Friday in Seattle, aims to slow climate change by storing carbon in trees

Tongass National Forest on Prince of Wales Island, Alaska. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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President Biden will sign an executive order on Friday in Seattle laying the groundwork for protecting some of the biggest and oldest trees in America’s forests, according to five individuals briefed on the plan who spoke on the condition of anonymity because it was not yet finalized.

Biden will direct the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to define and inventory mature and old-growth forests nationwide within a year, three of the individuals said. He will also require the agencies to identify threats to these trees, such as wildfire and climate change, and to use that information to craft policies that protect them.

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

It will include initiatives aimed at restoring U.S. forests ravaged by wildfire, drought and insects, requiring federal agencies to come up with a reforestation goal by 2030. It will also address major problems facing tree planting efforts 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 are aimed at curbing deforestation overseas, promoting economic development in regions with major timber industries and calculating the economic value of other natural resources such as wetlands.

While Democrats and environmentalists will probably welcome the order, it does not 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 Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz (Hawaii) and Rep. Earl Blumenauer (Ore.) have written, which would restrict the trade of commodities linked to forest clearing, such as palm oil 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 of the trees that store the most carbon. A 2020 study of six national forests in the Pacific Northwest, for example, found that just 3 percent of the largest trees contained roughly 42 percent of the carbon.

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

“We know old growth forests are less prone to megafires, especially when they’re managed well,” he said. “And apart from the benefits for wildlife and water quality and carbon sequestration, this also could 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 enact new protections for mature and old-growth trees — generally, those over 80 years old — which aren’t prohibited from being turned into lumber. Advocates said that while the Forest Service has largely stopped cutting down older trees, the Bureau of Land Management still allows timber sales from old-growth forests in Oregon.

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

“Allowing logging of mature and old federal forests should become a practice 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. Old-growth trees, such as California’s redwoods and giant sequoias or the mammoth Sitka spruce and red cedar trees in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, collectively store billions of tons of carbon dioxide in their trunks, branches and roots. Protecting them could help avert the worst effects of climate change.

What is a tree worth?

Placing safeguards on older trees could be hugely controversial.

Timber companies are likely to object to any new limits 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 vastly different rates, complicating efforts to define maturity as a set number of years across multiple species.

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

While scientists agree that forests are important to slowing climate change, many say that years of wildfire suppression policies have led to dense forests that are fueling more extreme fires. Some of the strategies to address this involve thinning out small trees, clearing dry brush and intentionally setting beneficial fires. But federal agencies have also contracted with timber companies to clear land for fire breaks and cut down larger trees that they say threaten homes and communities.

“A climate solution we should prioritize is to sustainably manage our forests, based on science, to improve forest health and resiliency,” said Travis Joseph, head of the American Forest Resource Council, which represents mills, manufacturers and purchasers of timber from public land in California and other Western states.

Critics have argued that this approach amounts to a giveaway for timber companies who they say helped make American forests crowded by logging the largest, oldest trees. The many younger trees that sprung up in their place burn more easily and often don’t survive the more destructive wind-driven wildfires that have torn through the West in recent years.

The fight over old-growth forests has been going on for decades. In 1991, a federal judge blocked all logging of old-growth trees in the Pacific Northwest’s national forests to protect the northern spotted owl’s shrinking habitat. Republican and Democratic administrations have put in place dueling logging rules since then, and environmentalists have brought lawsuits that have curtailed several timber sales.

By 2020, the spotted owl had lost about 70 percent of its habitat, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it could go extinct. The Trump administration stripped away protections from more than a third of the bird’s total protected habitat, but Biden officials reversed that decision, writing a Federal Register notice that the rollback had “defects and shortcomings.”

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