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The Woodsman: USFS Aims to Protect Old-Growth Forests

By Steve Wilent

The Woodsman:  USFS Aims to Protect Old-Growth Forests

Old-growth timber is in the news again. As The Oregonian reported on December 23, “NW old growth forests get more protections under new federal plan.” Not only in the Pacific Northwest, but on all national forests in the nation — a total of 193 million acres — as well as on other federal lands.

Back in April 22, 2022, President Joe Biden issued an Executive Order directing both the Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to analyze the threats to mature and old-growth forests on federal lands, including those from wildfires and climate change, and to develop policies “to institutionalize climate-smart management and conservation strategies that address threats to mature and old-growth forests on federal lands.”

BLM, which operates our beloved Wildwood Recreation Site, manages more than two million acres of forest land in Oregon.

In April 2023, the USFS and BLM completed an initial inventory of mature and old-growth forests in the US. They found nearly 33 million acres of old-growth and about 80 million acres of mature forest — impressive numbers, given the extensive harvesting of old-growth over the past couple of centuries.

In December 2023, a notice in the Federal Register stated that the US Forest Service is “proposing to amend all land management plans for units of the National Forest System (128 plans in total) to include consistent direction to conserve and steward existing and recruit future old-growth forest conditions and to monitor their condition across planning areas of the National Forest System. The intent is to foster the long-term resilience of old-growth forest conditions and their contributions to ecological integrity across the National Forest System.”

What is “old-growth”? In their inventory report, the agencies wrote that, “Old-growth and mature forests look dramatically different from coast-to-coast, state by state, and locally. For instance, old-growth sequoias in California can be thousands of years old and upwards of 250 feet tall with a 30-foot or greater trunk diameter, while an old-growth stand of dwarf pitch pine in New Jersey may include trees that are hundreds of years old, roughly 14 feet tall and only several inches in diameter.”

The agencies suggested that 80 years old is a reasonable definition of mature forests.

To some folks, the 120-year-old Douglas firs on my property, some of which are 30 inches in diameter at chest height and 170 feet tall, might look like old-growth. Nope. Merely mature.

The report goes on to state that, “Like all the Nation’s forests, old-growth and mature forests are threatened by climate change and associated stressors. The initial inventory and definitions for old-growth and mature forests are part of an overarching climate-informed strategy to enhance carbon sequestration and address climate-related impacts, including insects, disease, wildfire risk, and drought.”

I have a bone to pick with the authors of the report. Some threats to old-growth and mature forests are not necessarily “climate-related.” Insects, disease, wildfire risk, and drought have always had significant impacts on our forests.

In September this year, the USFS released its “National Report on Sustainable Forests, 2020,” which looks at data on US forests up to 2020. This report mentions the impacts of climate change, of course, but also notes that “Approximately 90 percent of forests [in the western US] may be subject to higher mortality because they are overly dense. The pervasiveness of this overstocking has significant implications on forest health going forward.”

These forests did not become overcrowded because of climate change, but because Native American cultural fires were largely eliminated, plus a century or so of aggressive fire suppression, as well as political, legal, economic and practical roadblocks to reducing forest density.

A December 26 press release from Oregon State University, “Western Cascades landscapes in Oregon historically burned more often than previously thought,” describes a new scientific paper in “Ecosphere.” I might write about the paper in a future column. For now, note this sentence from the release: “Removal of the tribes took their cultural stewardship practices, their use of annual cultural fires, from the land, radically altering how the forests were managed.”

To protect old-growth in Oregon and elsewhere, Indian-style fire will need to be returned to the landscape. And because forests in many areas are too crowded with live and dead trees to use such prescribed fires, some of that fuel will need to be removed before Indian-style burning can be resumed — and before large, intense wildfires sweep through, killing everything. The USFS has its work cut out for it.

Have a question about old-growth trees? Want to know the difference between mature and old-growth woodsmen and woodswomen? Let me know. Email: SWilent@gmail.com.

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