A section of the Willamette National Forest in west-central Oregon's Cascade Mountain Range, near the small town of MacKenzie Bridge
, is home to a patchwork of mature Douglas fir and western hemlock, the oldest of which are 120 to 150 years old and tower more than 100 feet.
After decades of intensive logging
, few mature forests remain in the continental United States, and these trees, like so many before them, may soon be gone as the United States Forest Service moves forward with a plan that would allow approximately 2,000 acres to be cut down in what is known as the “Flat Country” project.
The Biden administration
is pushing an aggressive environmental agenda, pledging to cut greenhouse gas emissions
in half by 2030 and to conserve 30% of America's lands and waters. Those commitments include broad language about the need to "invest in forest protection and forest management" and to "fight climate change
with the natural solutions that our forests, agricultural lands, and watersheds provide."
However, President Joe Biden
and his team have said little, if anything, about old-growth forests, which are typically defined as being at least 150 years old and largely unaffected by human activity. These forests sequester massive amounts of carbon in trees and soil, and scientists say protecting the few that remain intact will be critical to meeting climate and biodiversity targets.
Retired forestry professors Jerry Franklin of the University of Washington and Norm Johnson of Oregon State University collaborated on the forestry plan that made this area available for potential harvest. Adopted in 1994, the plan sought to mitigate the decline of northern spotted owls caused by clearcutting of old-growth forests while allowing for commercial timber production.
More than two decades later, Franklin and Johnson are speaking out against this and other plans to clear mature forests, citing the climate and extinction crises. “Our scientific understanding of such ecosystems, including their ability to store massive amounts of planet-warming carbon pollution, has improved enormously since then,” the two wrote in a recent opinion piece.
“It is past time to put an end to the logging of magnificent mature forests like those in the Flat Country Project once and for all,” they wrote, “because these forests contribute far too much ecologically, socially, and spiritually in their current state.”
The lack of a strong commitment by the Biden administration to stop logging in areas like this and in Alaska
’s Tongass National Forest, the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest, is a “big concern of scientists,” according to Beverly Law, an emeritus professor at Oregon State and an expert on the forest carbon cycle.
“Once they are gone, these are trees that have stored [carbon] for hundreds of years, and it will take that long to get it back,” she said, adding that “it also means that most of that carbon is going to go back to the atmosphere in the next few decades, which will not help us get any closer to meeting our climate goals, but will make the situation worse.”
The Need to Preserve What Is Left
Before Biden was sworn in, his transition team asked Law to submit a scientific position paper on forests and climate mitigation, in which she and a dozen other forest ecology and climate experts called for mature and old temperate forests in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest to be permanently set aside as National Strategic Carbon Reserves.
Law is also working on a comprehensive study to map forested areas with the potential for increased protections, which is a follow-up to one she co-authored in 2019 that identified forests in the Western United States with a high potential for carbon sequestration and a diversity of plant and animal species.
Law told Stardia that preserving ancient forests is a “win-win” situation for both climate and biodiversity.
As part of the fight to avert potentially catastrophic climate change, Biden and his team are under increasing pressure to do exactly that.
In a letter last month, dozens of environmental groups, including the National Resources Defense Council and Earthjustice, urged the Biden administration to prioritize the protection of carbon-rich forests during the November United Nations
climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland.
“Establishing permanent protections for temperate rainforests in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, as well as mature federal forests and trees across the country, will be one of the most cost-effective and necessary near-term climate solutions the United States can employ,” the groups wrote.
It's difficult to overestimate the significance of Alaska's 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest, dubbed "America's Amazon
." According to the US Department of Agriculture, it sequesters about 8% of the total carbon stored in forests in the Lower 48 states, and an astounding 44% of all carbon stored in national forests across the country.
About 7% of forests in the Lower 48 are still intact, with the majority of them in the Pacific Northwest.
'The Elephant in the Room'
Oregon Wild is one of the organizations urging the Biden administration to protect what little is left. Last month, it launched a website outlining the importance of healthy, mature forests and highlighting active old-growth logging projects in various stages of development in Alaska, Oregon, California
, and Washington.
Steve Pedery, conservation
director at Oregon Wild, questions whether Biden's actions on forests will match his rhetoric about climate change being an all-hands-on-deck, no-solutions-off-the-table emergency. He refers to forests in the Pacific Northwest as the "elephant in the room," and says his fear is that the Forest Service, which was established in 1905 primarily to ensure a steady supply of timber will be undermined.
administration prioritized logging, drilling, and other resource extraction across federal lands, repeatedly blaming extreme wildfires on forest mismanagement caused by lawsuits filed by “environmental extremists.” It also obliterated Tongass protections, lifting Clinton-era logging restrictions across 9.3 million acres and reclassifying 188,000 acres, including 168,000 acres of old logging territory.
On his first day in office, Biden signed an executive order directing the Department of Agriculture to investigate Trump's Tongass rollback, but the findings have not yet been made public, and protections have not been officially reinstated.
Environmentalists have praised the language in Biden's climate and conservation commitments that calls for forest protection and reforestation. For example, his job and infrastructure
plan, released in March, calls for major investments to "protect and, where necessary, restore nature-based infrastructure" such as "our lands, forests, wetlands, watersheds, and coastal and ocean
They are, however, waiting to see how this will play out in practice.
The White House
forwarded Stardia's questions about logging and forest protection to the Interior and Agriculture Departments. Forest Service spokeswoman Babete Anderson told Stardia that the term "old growth" "can have a wide variety of definitions and meanings" depending on ecological settings and forest types, and that "the Forest Service does not have a one-size-fits-all policy to guide management."
According to Anderson, forest management decisions are guided by a variety of environmental laws, land use designations, and local conditions.
Pedery contends that, given the urgency of climate and extinction threats, old-growth logging should follow in the footsteps of whaling, which was outlawed federally in 1971.
“A lot of people
were hurt by that change, but it was a necessary change,” he said, adding that “killing whales is not a sustainable business
model, and logging old growth is the same.”
“You may have the most technologically advanced commercial whaling vessel in the fleet,” he continued, “but you're still killing whales.”
Though Biden has remained silent on old-growth logging at home, he is putting pressure on Brazil's far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, to reduce deforestation in the Amazon. During the campaign, Biden said he would mobilize nations to pay Brazil $20 billion to keep the South American country from destroying the rainforest.
The Brazilian government has retaliated against Biden, citing the US's own history of razing forests.
“You’re asking us to solve a problem that you created and are continuing to aggravate,” Brazilian Environment Minister Ricardo Salles recently told Politico
, adding, “We want you to help us solve our problems with a lack of prosperity and economic opportunity in the Amazon region.”