Biden Moves to Protect Old-Growth Forests

President Joe Biden is taking steps to restore national forests that have been devastated by wildfires, drought and blight, using an Earth Day visit to Seattle to sign an executive order protecting some of the nation’s largest and oldest trees.

These trees, which are old-growth and have a significant carbon sink, act as key climate buffers.

Biden’s order directs federal land managers to define and inventory mature and old-growth forests nationwide within a year. According to the order, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service are required to assess and identify potential threats to older trees like wildfires and climate change.

According to the White House, this order doesn’t prohibit the logging of old-growth or mature trees.

By signing the order on Friday, Biden can publicly reassert his environmentalist credentials at a time when his administration has been preoccupied by high oil and gasoline prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Gas costs have been a drag on Biden’s popularity and created short-term political pressures going into this year’s midterm elections, yet the Democratic president has been focused on wildfires that are intensifying because of climate change.

This measure will protect national forests severely affected by drought, wildfires and blight. It also covers recent California fires which have killed thousands of large sequoias. Redwood forests are among the world’s most efficient at removing and storing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and provide critical habitat for native wildlife and watersheds that supply farms and communities in the West.

Blazes so intense to kill trees once considered virtually fire-proof have alarmed land managers, environmentalists and tree lovers the world over — and demonstrated the grave impacts of climate change. A warmer planet has caused longer, hotter droughts and a century-old period of fire suppression, which has choked forests with dense undergrowth. This has led to flames that have extinguished ancient trees.

One senior official in the administration noted that forests absorb more US annual greenhouse gases than 10%, and provide flood control as well as clean water, fresh air, and shelter for wildlife. The official insisted on anonymity to discuss details of Biden’s order before it was made public.

Biden’s ambitious climate agenda has been marred by setbacks, a year after he took office amid a flurry of climate-related promises. Last Earth Day, the president hosted a virtual summit about global warming at his White House. He used the moment to nearly double the United States’ goal for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, vaulting the country to the front lines in the fight against climate change.

Even though scientists have reaffirmed their warnings that extreme heat and drought are threatening the future of the planet, some of his boldest proposals still remain unanswered on Capitol Hill one year later.

In addition, Russia’s war in Ukraine has reshuffled the politics of climate change, leading Biden to release oil from the nation’s strategic reserve and encourage more domestic drilling in hopes of lowering sky-high gas prices that are emptying American wallets.

While Biden is raising fuel economy standards for vehicles and included green policies in last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law, the lack of greater progress casts a shadow over his second Earth Day as president.

Nick Smith, representative from the Timber Industry said before it was published that loggers worry about adding bureaucracy in a framework for forest management already struggling to deal with increasing wildfires caused by climate change.

That would undercut the Biden administration’s goal of doubling the amount of logging and controlled burns over the next decade to thin forests in the tinder-dry West, said Smith, a spokesman for the American Forest Resource Council, an Oregon-based industry group.

“The federal government has an urgent need to reduce massive greenhouse gas emissions from severe wildfires, which can only be accomplished by actively managing our unhealthy and overstocked federal forests,” he said.

Jim Furnish, former U.S. Forest Service Chief said that wildfire risk and climate change could be addressed by cutting down smaller trees that fuel uncontrolled fires while keeping mature trees intact.

Furnish explained that the Forest Service has allowed older trees of greater value to be logged for many years to make it possible to get money to take out smaller trees. But that’s no longer necessary after Congress approved more than $5 billion to reduce wildfire risks in last year’s infrastructure bill, he said. It includes funds to hire 1,500 firefighters, and ensures that their hourly wages are at least $15.

The national timber market has more than doubled since the 1990s, when both Republicans and Democrats encouraged more aggressive stand thinning in order to remove small trees and other vegetation that can fuel wildfires.

Many forest scientists and critics claim that officials allow the removal of older trees which can resist fire.

One hundred and fifty scientists signed a letter requesting that Biden protect old-growth forest as part of a crucial climate solution.

“Older forests provide the most above-ground carbon storage potential on Earth, with mature forests and larger trees driving most accumulation of forest carbon in the critical next few decades. Left vulnerable to logging, though, they cannot fulfill these vital functions,” the scientists wrote Thursday. Former Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck and Norman Christensen, founding dean and professor emeritus at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, were among those signing the letter.

Protecting mature forests also “would set an important, highly visible example for other major forest-holding nations to follow as they address climate change threats,” the scientists wrote.

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