How to protect mature and old growth forests
Litigation has halted the Black Ram forest restoration project on the Kootenai National Forest in Northwest Montana but the array of patch cuts seen in this photo are a good example of the thinning and prescribed fire treatments recommended in the Mature and Old Growth Forests: Analysis of Threats report delivered to the Biden Administration by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in June, 2024.

How to protect mature and old growth forests

“Tree cutting [any removal of trees] is currently a relatively minor threat, despite having been a major disturbance historically.”

Mature and Old Growth Forests: Analysis of Threats to Lands Managed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, June 2024

In June, 2023, President Biden signed Executive Order 14702, instructing the Agricultural Department’s U.S. Forest Service and the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management to define, identify and inventory all of the mature and old growth [MOG] forests in their care.

Eleven months later the two agencies issued their report – a data rich 77-page report filled with tables and charts. Warp speed compared to the three to five years it takes the agencies to complete an Environmental Impact Statement.

The anti-forestry mob rejoiced at what they claimed was the first inventory of MOG forests in history. They were off by more than 90 years. The Forest Service’s Forest Inventory and Analysis group [FIA] has been surveying forests in its care since the 1930s.

The FIA system includes about 355,000 field survey plots on public and private forestland from coast to coast. Each plot is surveyed – usually by biologists – at 10-year intervals. The protocols are set in stone. Every tree species – living or dead in each grid must be counted and measured, even seedlings.

Executive Order 14704 required the Forest Service and BLM to catalogue their latest MOG survey data by age, species and health condition. It also required a separate Analysis of Threats on Lands Managed by the Forest Service and BLM. This latter report, published in June, is a beauty – 117 pages of narrative, tables, figures and photographs that describe what has happened in federal forests over the last 24 years.

The report makes it very clear that timber harvesting is a minimal threat to MOG forests. This should surprise no one since timber harvesting in federal forests in the West is hovering near its all-time low – so far below annual growth and mortality that these forests have become a threat to themselves.

No wonder the 47-member team concluded that the best way to protect mature and old forests from the major threats they identified is to thin them periodically in combination with prescribed fire. There is no other way to reduce the risk these treasured forests face.

And the major risk factors? Wildfire and insects and disease infestations.

Lesser threats: Climate change and exclusion of fire, born of the federal government’s disastrous 19th century policy of forcing Indians tribes to move from their homelands to far off reservations.

For eons, tribes burned their lands annually for a variety of reasons, chiefly food production. They were farmers with only one large scale tool: fire.

Documented proof of their agrarian skills can be seen in pen and ink drawings from the early 1700s in Virginia. Minus frequent “native fire” our western forests began to grew more dense and plant species composition changed significantly.

Also of concern to team members: Heavy RV traffic on forest roads and encroaching home construction that is pushing the boundaries of the Wildland Urban Interface deeper into forests. Both of these threats are born of our universally-shared desire to recreate in and live near forests.

The impacts of insect and disease infestations followed by inevitable wildfire are easily quantified. Not so with climate change. There are no scientific tools for quantifying these impacts, though the team intuitively predicted that rising air temperatures will lead to greater MOG damage by the end of this century.

Not mentioned are [1] the millions of tons of greenhouse gases [ghg’s] that western wildfires release into the air we breathe or [2] the billions of tons of greenhouse gases released monthly from coal-fired powerplants in China and India. The U.S. share of ghg’s isn’t even a decimal point on the global scale.

Here’s a quick summary of U.S. MOG data from 2000 forward:

· 2,434 FIA survey plots have experienced some disturbance since 2000.

· These disturbances spanned 7.1 million acres of mature forest [8.8 percent of all mature forest] and 1.7 million acres of old growth [5.6 percent of all old growth forests].

· Wildfires caused a net decrease of 2.6 million acres of mature forest and 700,000 acres of old growth.

· Insects and disease caused a net decrease of 1.9 million acres of mature forest and 182,000 acres of old forest.

· Logging [24 percent or more basal area] resulted in a net decrease of 214,000 acres of mature forest and 9,000 acres of old growth. The team used basal area rather that trees per acre because basal measurements account for tree sizes. Trees per acre counts do not.

· Two-thirds of mature and one-half of old forests are vulnerable to current threats, including climate change, which is so nebulous that the Team says, “we are sailing into uncharted waters.”

In total, wildfires, insects and diseases have resulted in a net loss of 5.3 million acres of MOG forest since 2000. Logging resulted in a net loss of 223,000 acres, a mere 4.2 percent of the damage caused by lousy forest management policies and practices, including the Forest Service’s current love affair with “managed fire for ecosystem benefit,” a high-risk practice that has come under increasing congressional scrutiny and criticism.

Managed fire for ecosystem benefit might have been beneficial 30 years ago, before so many trees died of neglect, but it's too damned dangerous today. Flammable debris buildups in western national forests now average 30 to 50 tons per acre.

As for logging, it's important to remember that prior to World War II the West's national forests were largely unroaded and the Forest Service's management role was largely custodal. It took several years to build a road system capable of delivering the harvest the nation's post-war housing boom demanded.

The federal timber sale program that flourished from the late 1940s into the late 1980's ended with the federal government’s 1993 decision to list the Northern Spotted Owl as a threatened species.

Mills that survived the owl listing invested in advanced wood processing technologies that favor smaller diameter, higher quality trees purchased from state, tribal and privately owned forests.

The Threats report includes some beautiful color photographs of thinned MOG forests in western Montana’s Bitterroot National Forest. Fire scars are plainly visible on the trunks of these trees, evidence of prescribed fire that most likely followed thinning.

Yet the report’s authors chose not to say these forests were thinned. “Managerial treatments” were applied. Yup, thinning and prescribed fire, a one-two approach state, private and tribal landowners have been using for decades.

It seems likely that the Threats report was not well received by the Biden Administration or its anti-forestry cohorts that continue to insist that "greedy" lumbermen are still obsessed with logging in old growth forests in the West. They are not.

There are a few family-owned mills in the West that would like to buy federal wood but their needs are infintisimally small compared to the volume of dead and dying trees in our national forests. Allowing these trees to fall and rot - or add fuel a wildfire - is unconscionable. Allowing these forests to disintegrate is worse.

At the very least, the Forest Service and BLM should embrace the values espoused by Indian tribes that own and manage their own forests. They view themselves as the First Stewards of lands granted by their Creator. National forests are governed by decadal forest plans, but to meet their cultural, spiritual and economic needs, tribes look seven generations into the future. That's sustainability.

Wisconsin’s Menominee Chief Oshkosh spoke to this more holistic approach to forest management more than 125 years ago:

“Start with the rising sun and work toward the setting sun, take only the mature trees, the sick trees and the trees that have fallen. When you reach the end of the reservation, turn and cut from the setting sun to the risking sun and the trees will last forever.”

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