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Guest Column

Protecting Our Forests is Protecting Our Future

We need to get the Forest Service out of the timber sale business and into the business of conserving our National Forests

By Chris Bachman

The Biden administration’s December announcement that it plans to protect from logging old-growth trees, such as those slated for removal in the Yaak’s Black Ram timber sale, is a reason for everyone to celebrate. Few old-growth forest lands remain in the West and even fewer in Montana. Losing these forests to the saw is counter to all our best interests. These forests are critical to mitigating climate change and, once lost, will take centuries to replace. We simply don’t have the time.

Old growth trees range in age from 100 to more than 1,000 years old. Some trees marked for cutting in the Black Ram Project, halted by the 9th Circuit Court in 2023, exceed 500 years of age. We advocate for protecting these ancient trees as part of our nation’s first Climate Refuge, the initial step in creating a curtain of green that would stretch across the northern tier of the globe and play a vital role in ameliorating the biodiversity crisis and slowing climate change.

Wildfire is a legitimate concern for rural communities. Cutting old growth trees does nothing to mitigate the risk of wildfire. Indeed, these hundred-plus year-old trees are usually the last to burn. They have proven their resilience to environmental stressors by the mere fact that they remain standing.  

In April of 2023 the U.S. Forest Service, fulfilling their requirement under Executive Order 14072, released Mature and Old-Growth Forests: Definition, Identification, and Initial Inventory on Lands Managed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. The document concludes that old growth forests are especially resistant to wildfire and other natural disturbances as the climate warms. 

The driving force behind the increase in wildfire activity we are seeing today is climate change. Even if we stopped emitting carbon immediately, the effects of emissions already in the air would continue for decades. Clearly, we need to stop emitting carbon but also focus on preserving and strengthening natural processes that remove and store carbon from the atmosphere.

In addition to capturing and storing carbon in their leaves, branches, trunks, roots, and building carbon rich soils, these forests provide wildlife habitat and clean drinking water for our communities. 

The Biden Administration is taking an important step toward protecting old growth forests from logging. However, we also need to protect our nation’s mature forests. These slightly younger forests, if left alone, will eventually develop the characteristics that will create the complex ecosystem found in an old growth forest. The administration must also move to protect mature trees and forests from logging. 

We need to get the Forest Service out of the timber sale business and into the business of conserving our National Forests – a benefit to all Americans including those involved in the timber industry. Our forests have much to offer besides sawlogs. 

The administration’s proposal would amend all 128 National Forest Plans, but currently contains loopholes such as allowing thinning in old growth forests and logging old growth trees for wildfire mitigation-in opposition to the best available science. These loopholes must be eliminated. The amendment must protect all old-growth and mature trees and forests in the National Forest system from commercial logging. Our wildlife and our climate — and our children’s future – depend on it.

The administration wants your input. Comments on the proposal are requested by February 2, 2024, and can be submitted here: https://cara.fs2c.usda.gov/Public//CommentInput?Project=65356

Letters must be submitted to the Director, Ecosystem Management Coordination, 201 14th Street SW, Mailstop 1108, Washington, DC 20250-1124.

The proposed action is expected in May 2024 and will be accompanied by an additional comment period, and the final action is expected in January 2025.

Chris Bachman is the conservation director of the Yaak Valley Forest Council.

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