USDA proposes to protect old growth forests

Old growth forests are increasingly threatened by the impacts of climate change, from wildfires to drought and disease. But they also play a crucial role in removing carbon from the atmosphere and mitigating the impacts of the changing climate. Because of this, the U.S. Department of Agriculture—which oversees the U.S. Forest Service—is proposing an amendment […]

USDA proposes to protect old growth forests

Old growth forests are increasingly threatened by the impacts of climate change, from wildfires to drought and disease. But they also play a crucial role in removing carbon from the atmosphere and mitigating the impacts of the changing climate.

Because of this, the U.S. Department of Agriculture—which oversees the U.S. Forest Service—is proposing an amendment to national old growth management that would prohibit management practices that degrade old growth forests and protect remaining stands from industrial logging. The rule also proposes practices that would promote management aimed at combating climate change impacts and reducing risks of devastating wildfires in fire prone ecosystems.

The proposed national old growth amendment would impact all 128 forest land management plans, which impact national forests across the nation. There are five national forests in New Mexico.

A report released last April defines an old growth forest as “dynamic systems distinguished by old trees and related structural attributes. Old growth encompasses the later stages of stand development that typically differ from earlier stages in a variety of characteristics, which may include tree size, accumulations of large dead woody material, number of canopy layers, species composition, and ecosystem function.”

This can be different based on which state or ecosystem the forest is in.

For example, California has old growth forests that include small, twisted bristlecone pines and others that boast giant sequoias with trunks that have a diameter of 30 feet. New Mexico’s old growth can include piñon-juniper forests.

About one percent of national forest lands—about 24 million acres—consists of old growth forests. Another 8 million acres of lands managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management contains old growth forests.

Between those two agencies, more than 9 million acres of old growth forests consists of  pinyon-juniper. Another 7.3 million acres consists of firs, spruce and mountain hemlock.

According to a fact sheet released by the White House press office, the Forest Service and the BLM will host a public workshop in 2024 focused on conservation of piñon-juniper forests.

Ahead of the publication of the notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement for a National Old Growth Amendment, National Forest System Deputy Chief Christopher French sent a letter to regional foresters.

In the letter, French informed the regional foresters that any projects that propose vegetation management activities in areas where old growth forest conditions occur within a national forest must be submitted to him for review. 

“The Forest Service’s proposed nationwide amendment is an important step to proactively conserve old-growth forests so they can do what they do best – store carbon and stabilize ecosystems,” Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society, said in a statement praising the effort. “The Wilderness Society is encouraged by the administration’s efforts to take a science-based approach to safeguard our nation’s forests at a time when they are increasingly threatened by climate change. We look forward to working with the administration to secure a durable policy that conserves the forests we all depend on for healthy communities and landscapes.”

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