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From ‘forest by forest’ approach, FS proposal would provide ‘consistent guidance’ for old-growth conservation

FILE - Old growth Douglas fir trees stand along the Salmon river Trail on the Mt. Hood National Forest outside Zigzag, Ore.
Rick Bowmer
FILE - Old growth Douglas fir trees stand along the Salmon river Trail on the Mt. Hood National Forest outside Zigzag, Ore. A federal judge has found that a Trump-era rule change that allowed for the logging of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest violates several laws. U.S. Magistrate Judge Andrew Hallman on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023 found that the U.S. Forest Service violated the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Forest Management Act, and the Endangered Species Act when it amended a protection that had been in place since 1994. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Mature and old-growth forests play important ecological roles on millions of acres of public lands. Advocates say there’s currently no national policy to protect them, but a new proposed nationwide forest plan amendment from the U.S. Forest Service would change that. A draft environmental impact statement (EIS) was issued on the proposal last week.

A recent federal inventory determined that the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service together manage some 32 million acres of old-growth forest, with another 80 million acres of mature forests.

Among the things that distinguish old-growth forests is the size of trees; the accumulation of large, dead woody material; the number of canopy layers and species diversity, according to the federal inventory. Mature forests are the development stage prior to old-growth, and “may contain some but not all the structural attributes in old-growth forests,” it reads.

A map in the inventory shows heavy concentrations of old-growth in Washington, Oregon and southeast Alaska, and a significant presence in parts of Utah and Colorado.

Some say the current approach to old-growth protection is piecemeal, or “forest by forest.” So a number of environmental groups, like The Wilderness Society, called the Forest Service’s proposal “a step in the right direction.”

“This is the first time that there's ever been an attempt to try to bring consistency to the management of old-growth across the forest system,” said Greg Aplet, a forest ecologist with the Wilderness Society.

A 90-day comment period on the U.S. Forest Service’s plan started last week. In a release, the agency said “it would provide consistent guidance for the stewardship, conservation, and recruitment of old growth across national forests.”

Aplet said that old-growth stands play a number of important ecological roles, including the unique wildlife habitat they provide to a number of species and their ability to filter water. They also serve as significant carbon storage.

Among other changes, Applet said he’d like to see a final policy that has stronger standards to ensure old-growth protection during forest treatments like prescribed fires and fuel reduction projects.

The Associated Press reported that the amendment would allow for exceptions to bans on logging in old-growth forests during wildfire mitigation projects.

The timber industry has also raised issues with the proposal, with the American Forest Resource Council calling it a “politically driven process.”

The group said the proposal does little to address the principal threats to old-growth, like wildfires, insect infestations and disease.

A recent federal old-growth assessment did find that those have been the principal threats to such forests since 2020, and that tree cutting “is currently a relatively minor threat.” However, logging and other tree removal “were the primary reason for loss of old-growth forests” from 1950 to 1990.

You can read more about the draft EIS and comment on it here.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

As Boise State Public Radio's Mountain West News Bureau reporter, I try to leverage my past experience as a wildland firefighter to provide listeners with informed coverage of a number of key issues in wildland fire. I’m especially interested in efforts to improve the famously challenging and dangerous working conditions on the fireline.