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Forest proposal doesn’t ban logging but still likely to anger industry

By MATTHEW BROWN, Associated Press
Published: June 20, 2024, 5:33pm

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The Biden administration is advancing its plan to restrict logging within old-growth forests that are increasingly threatened by climate change, with exceptions that include cutting trees to make forests less susceptible to wildfires, according to a U.S. government analysis obtained by The Associated Press.

The analysis, which is expected to be published Friday, shows that officials intend to reject a blanket prohibition on old-growth logging that’s long been sought by some environmentalists. Officials concluded that such a sweeping ban would make it harder to thin forests to better protect communities against wildfires that have grown more severe as the planet has warmed.

“To ensure the longevity of old-growth forests, we’re going to have to take proactive management to protect against wildfire and insects and disease,” Forest Service Deputy Chief Chris French told the AP. Without some thinning allowed on these forests, he said there is a risk of losing more trees.

The exceptions under which logging would be allowed are unlikely to placate the timber industry and Republicans in Congress, who have pushed back against any new restrictions. French asserted that the impacts on timber companies would be minimal.

“There’s so little timber sales that occur right now in old-growth … that the overall effects are very small,” French said.

The U.S. timber industry employs about 860,000 people, which is about 30% fewer than in 2001, according to government data. Much of their work shifted in recent years to timber from private and state lands, after harvests from national forests dropped sharply beginning in the 1990s due to new policies, changing lumber markets and other factors.

The proposed changes on old-growth mark a shift for an agency that has historically promoted logging. They’re expected to be finalized before Democratic President Joe Biden’s term ends in January, and they come after he issued a 2022 executive order that directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to identify old-growth forests across the nation and devise ways to conserve them.

That order touched off a flurry of disagreement over what fits under the definition of old-growth and how those trees should be managed.

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Old-growth forests, such as the storied giant sequoia stands of Northern California, have layer upon layer of undisturbed trees and vegetation. There’s wide consensus on the importance of preserving them — both symbolically as marvels of nature, and more practically because their trunks and branches store large amounts of carbon that can be released when forests burn, adding to climate change.

Underlining the urgency of the issue are wildfires that killed thousands of giant sequoias in recent years.

Most old-growth forests across the U.S. were lost to logging as the nation developed over the past few centuries. Yet pockets of ancient trees remain, scattered across the U.S. including in California, the Pacific Northwest and areas of the Rocky Mountains. Larger expanses of old growth survive in Alaska, such as within the Tongass National Forest.

Old-growth timber harvests in the Tongass were limited in 2021 to small commercial sales. Those would no longer occur under the administration’s proposal.

The new analysis follows a separate report on threats to old-growth forests that was finalized last week. It concluded that wildfires, insects and disease have been the main killers of old-growth trees since 2000, accounting for almost 1,400 square miles (3,600 square kilometers) of losses.

By contrast, logging on federal lands cut down about 14 square miles (36 square kilometers) of old-growth forests. That figure has been seized on by timber industry representatives who argue that further restrictions aren’t needed.

“A binding restriction on timber harvest is not where their priority ought to be,” said Bill Imbergamo, of the Federal Forest Resource Coalition, an industry group. He added that exceptions by federal officials to allow some logging could be challenged in court, which could tie up even small logging projects that are focused on reducing wildfire risks.

Environmentalists have urged the administration to go even further as they seek to stop logging projects on federal lands in Oregon, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho and other states.

Jamie Williams, president of The Wilderness Society, said the proposal was “a step in the right direction.”

“But it must go further to protect and restore resilient old-growth forests in a way that meets the challenges of the changing climate,” he added.

Government inventories have identified about 50,000 square miles (130,000 square kilometers) of old-growth forests in federal lands across the U.S. and 125,000 square miles (320,000 square kilometers) of mature forests that haven’t yet reached old-growth status. That includes land overseen by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, which in April adopted a rule intended to put conservation on equal footing with extractive industries such as logging and energy development.

Environmentalists lobbied unsuccessfully for the Forest Service to extend its old-growth logging restrictions to mature forests. That means those forests remain exposed to potential commercial logging, said Blaine Miller McFeeley, of the environmental group EarthJustice.

“If you don’t have protections for mature trees, there will never be a new cohort of old-growth,” he said.

Under former President Donald Trump, federal officials sought to open up huge areas of West Coast forests to potential logging. Federal wildlife officials reversed the move in 2021 after determining that political appointees under Trump relied on faulty science to justify drastically shrinking areas of forest that are considered crucial habitats for the imperiled northern spotted owl.