When should national forest old growth be logged?

Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest, North Carolina


Old growth logging projects on national forests are almost sure to generate objections, but most likely they are in an area that was “allocated” to timber production in the forest plan.  (Otherwise timber harvest would have to be for non-timber reasons, and there aren’t many of those to log old growth.)  This thoughtful article examines the issue on the Nantahala-Pisgah National Forest as it continues to develop its forest plan revision.

Williams and other conservationists argue that this stand of older trees and others like it are exceptional and should be conserved. The Forest Service currently says they are not sufficiently exceptional to be conserved.

If a forest plan has been revised under the 2012 Planning Rule, we would know how much old growth is needed for ecological integrity, and old growth could be logged where there is “enough” old growth on a forest based on its natural range of variation (and where not prohibited by the forest plan).  But there are only two plans completed under these requirements.  Both have desired conditions based on what they determined to be the NRV (which is not an easy thing to do because of lack of reliable historical records).  The Flathead also prohibits destruction of old growth characteristics and limits removal of old trees to certain circumstances.  The Francis Marion includes this standard:

S37. Stands meeting the criteria for old growth as defined in the Region 8 old growth Guidance will be identified during project level analyses. Consider the contribution of existing old growth communities to the future network of small and medium-sized areas of old growth conditions including the full diversity of ecosystems across the landscape.

That is similar to the current Nantahala-Pisgah forest plan:

Steverson Moffat, the National Environmental Policy Act planning team leader of the Nantahala National Forest, told CPP that the current Pisgah-Nantahala national forest land and resource management plan requires that the forest designate large, medium and small patches of old growth to form a network that represents landscapes found in the Southern Appalachians that are well dispersed and interconnected.

A big problem with this approach is that this strategic and programmatic “designation” (of a “future network”) would probably occur outside of the forest planning process and maybe out of the public eye (unless the forest plan is amended each time it occurs).  And unless a “network” has been fully described, there is no way to tell whether a particular proposed project area is necessary to comply with the forest plan.  Which leads to that debate on a project-by-project basis, like we have here on the Nantahala-Pisgah.

On a 26-acre stand near Brushy Mountain slated for harvest, the Forest Service said the site meets the minimal operational definition for old growth defined in a Forest Service document known as the Region 8 Old Growth Guide. Even so, the stand won’t be protected since it “is already well-represented and protected in existing old-growth designations.”

How were those “designations” made?  When that occurred, did the public know that it would mean these other areas would be subject to future logging, and did they have an opportunity to object then?

“Only one-half of 1 percent of the forest is old growth in the Southeast,” Buzz Williams of the Chattooga Conservancy told Carolina Public Press. “That is the reason within itself to leave it alone.”

“There is not a need to create (early successional habitat) right on top of old growth.”

The Forest Service disagreed. In an official response to the objections, the Forest Service wrote that while the Forest Service “should provide and restore old growth on the landscape,” this spot and others within the project are either not old growth or unique enough to protect.

I get that old growth should be allowed to “move” across a landscape over time, but that timeframe is even slower than the one for forest planning (note: humor).  There would be little administrative risk in designating which areas would be preserved in a forest plan and which would not (subject to amendments in cases where designated areas are destroyed by natural events).  Better yet, except on national forests that have an abundance of existing old growth (where would this be?), require an ecological reason to log old trees.

This is a debate that should be settled in forest plan revisions not passed on for objections to future projects.  An attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center agrees:

“The question of protecting old-growth forests is very much a planning-based question — in terms of the big picture of the management of the National Forest and restoring its ecological integrity,” Burnette said.

“In light of broad-based community support for protecting old growth, it’s perplexing that the (Forest Service) would want to rush out ahead of the process during a time when the question of protecting old-growth forests in the future is being considered in the revision of the forest plan.”

20 thoughts on “When should national forest old growth be logged?”

  1. “When should national forest old growth be logged?”

    (Almost) never. At this time there is no justification other than greed. And where is the mill that can handle large logs?

    • Toby… the problem is that there is lots of “old growth” but not much early successional habitat. So it is an “ecological” reason. There’s only two choices it seems to me.. (1) make a stab at areas and adjust based on objections and litigation, (2) ask the folks quoted in the article to map out where they think it’s OK, since they are only against it in some places. I wonder about moving the conversation forward- and drawing maps of where it’s OK might be a way to do that.

  2. A value-based debate, cloaked in the scientific cloth of “ecological integrity”. The FS will continue to struggle with this type of conflict if it persists to give more credence to scientific analysis rather than meaningful public dialog. But, to have a successful dialog, all parties need to realize that they will not receive absolute satisfaction. Otherwise, the dialog dissolves into what has been the trend: staunch positions willing to allow the judicial branch resolve the value-based conflict.

  3. I agree with Jon that Jack Igelman is doing a terrific job of reporting on National Forest topics.

    I got a chuckle out of this one..”it’s perplexing that the (Forest Service) would want to rush out ahead of the process during a time when the question of protecting old-growth forests in the future is being considered in the revision of the forest plan.” I suppose that Forests could wait on all projects until their plans were finalized, objected to, and litigated.

    I also think NRV is a very interesting concept for this Forest as American Chestnut isn’t coming back in the near term, and in many places was a dominant part of the tree canopy, and critical both for wildlife and human cultures. So I don’t know how you can “restore integrity” in terms of biological meaning (everything but chestnut? “EBC integrity”?).

    When I read some quotes, often I wish the reporter would ask the question “what’s the mechanism for that” as I am honestly curious about some of these claims. Here’s my favorite from this article:
    “In addition, said Williams, “Old-growth forests, when connected across the landscape, could provide our best chance to adapt and mitigate the effects of climate change.”
    I am really curious about why that would be. I would think that openings give a chance for seeds from currently vigorous and adapted trees to compete (as opposed to seedlings adapted to the climate 100 years ago or more- isn’t that when climate change started?) In terms of mitigation, wouldn’t young trees growing faster absorb more carbon?

    I also thought this quote was interesting.. “The Southern Appalachians faced such intensive logging, that within the rare old growth we have, there is often some indication of minor disturbance in the past,” said SELC senior attorney Amelia Burnette. “If you disqualified all of that for old growth, what would be left?” Certainly what is “minor” is a value question and not a science question, as is defining “old growth.”

    • Old growth forests provide microhabitats that are generally cooler and moister than clearings or early seral stands. So its not so much about assisted migration for the large trees (which may or may not be able to adapt to climate change) but all of the animals and understory plants that are often restricted to these microhabitats.

      Also, many studies have looked at whether young trees grow faster and store more carbon than older trees. Meta-analyses of these studies have not identified a clear trend in favor of younger forests, especially when all carbon stores are included (such as soil carbon).

      IMHO, I think we may be biased looking from the perspective of western conifer forests. From my experience living and working in NC, deciduous forests of the Eastern US are different in kind from Western forests. Even the term “old growth” is used differently between the two areas, where in the West it is often applied to “large” trees above a certain DBH, whereas in the East it usually refers to the amount of disturbance and species composition roughly matching the reference condition.

      Given that old growth is orders of magnitude rarer in the East than in the West, I’m honestly having trouble imaging how NRV could ever be used to justify cutting old trees in the East. But without knowing the specifics of the stands proposed for logging we’re all probably imaging different images of what the “old growth” stand looks like and means.

  4. I think her most important point is that there are lots of places to put early seral habitat that are not where old growth currently is.

    Even if the NRV for species is problematic (and there have been extinctions everywhere), they could still get the age/size part right.

    • But how about the distribution of groups of ages and sizes? And since the species is extinct and had unique properties, how can you replicate that with the species that are left? What about fires and fire suppression and how that might affect the distribution of patches across the landscape?

      • The Nantahala-Pisgah forest plan revision Assessment should provide answers to these kinds of questions. It doesn’t mention NRV, despite the Planning Handbook direction for assessments devoting an entire section to “Describing the Natural Range of Variation” (§12.14a), including (to somewhat address your questions): “When assessing whether an ecosystem has integrity, the Interdisciplinary Team should use the natural range of variation as the ecological reference model, unless the past information regarding the selected key ecosystem characteristic is lacking, or the system is no longer capable of sustaining key ecosystem characteristics identified as common in the past based upon likely future environmental conditions.” It’s a little hard to see how they can design a plan that will provide ecological integrity without this information (oh, the Assessment doesn’t mention ecological integrity either).

  5. Interesting that we could just order protection for all old-growth with cutting “encouraged” in old-growth stands to increase fire resilience and selective removal of in-growth….in some cases 90+years. My research showed OG trees increased their weight by 1/3 in 40 years in stands after thinning to release them. This can be replicated anywhere. The amount of carbon we capture with an acre of OG is naturally a lot greater than smaller, younger trees. Therefore by treating around OG, resilience from fire increases and carbon sequestration increases. Check out my study onthe Lynx timber sale on the North Umpqua R.D. to verify. Cheers, Alan Baumann

  6. There is definitely a lot of forest with old-growth characteristics out there in “general forest”. And in many places, to meet timber targets, there is reluctance to regenerate those stands due to potential for controversy and lawsuits. This has had the effect of forcing regeneration harvests into younger stands that have not reached 95% culmination of mean annual increment, and by harvesting those stands at that stage, we often forgo a fair amount of future volume that could have been harvested from that stand had it been allowed to culminate, and it also has the effect of generating a lot more acres of regeneration harvest in those types of stands in order to meet the timber volume target due to the lower volumes per acre.
    But as a silviculturist, I am always looking for the things on a site that can be very difficult to get back quickly – large diameter snags, large diameter trees, large diameter large wood, multi-layered canopy – and I am usually very conservative about removing those types of elements from the landscape, especially in a disturbance-prone landscape where the future is less predictable and where there is no landscape plan to restore the fire regime. The idea that stands with old growth characteristics can/should be allowed to move around the landscape is an interesting one, but unless we are managing the entire successional sequence over time on a landscape and not just worrying about how much has old growth characteristics, we are doomed to failure because we are likely to lose the “next in line” stands that could replace old growth along with the old growth, and then we are really in a bind.

  7. Of course, this assumes that all big trees are “old growth”, and the fact that older and smaller trees are often cut in thinning projects is overlooked. I think that people want to protect LARGE trees, and age has little to do with it.

    Soooo, how do we differentiate? How do we direct inexperienced timbermarkers, who often don’t even know their tree species? How do we write-up silvicultural prescriptions that can be implemented by temporary employees?

    • It is hard to describe old-growth to protect as there are key differences in hardwoods, softwoods, and species. What worked for me is looking at bark depth and characteristics and secondly, large limb diameters at crown height. Limb size is a better indicator of OG than diameters in many cases; though they are usually complimentary. Old trees grow differently than young trees and can respond to release with poorer crown sizes and shapes; even with disease indicators. All old-growth benefits from a resilient neighborhood and growing space.

      • Alan, I think I get what you’re saying, that you can leave the big older trees and take out others and they will release. In my experience that definitely depends on the species and age and site factors, plus the occurrence of diseases and insects that like old trees. I can’t really extrapolate from my experience in Oregon and California to the different species in NC. But I think their point is that they need early successional habitat for the birds and whatever else needs them, and/or to get back to post-blight “NRV”.
        So we are down to some sized patch big enough to get that habitat. I suppose you could design those around old growth trees, but not if the definition is so broad that any old tree is old growth, and older trees are everywhere.
        Let’s run our traplines and see if we can ask folks who are more familiar with the conditions there.

        • I spent 6 months on the Sumter NF, in South Carolina, doing stand exams and inspecting stand exam work. Most of the actual old growth was in the many species of hardwoods, particularly the oaks. Some of those 20 different oaks are the higher-value trees in the stands but, I’m not sure if those areas close to streams would get logged.

          The are ample plantations from past management that are on a thinning program. Many of those plantations are fast-growing (but planted) loblolly pines, instead of the native short-leaf pines. I would imagine that at the end of each cycle of loblolly, the plantations will be clearcut, then replanted with the native short-leaf pines, which still grow quite fast in that environment.

          • Good point. In some of our restoration treatments in riparian areas we did girdling or felling with no extraction. Treatments can be prioritized to favor any particular species to boost it’s presence in the future stand development. Maybe conifers need to be removed, ir girdled, before they overtop higher valued oak. Usually streamside restoration wouldn’t be designed as a single landscape practice. Other neighboring harvest acres would need to support these KV, Botanical and Wildlife projects.

    • That’s because they are dead or dying from age, disease, and insects and are threats to cabins, campsites, and other places where people gather.

      • Trees don’t die from being “too” old. My research showed specifically that OG trees showed favourable response to release throughout a 40-year period which continues. Chainsaws kill trees. Even OG trees with conk indicators showed positive growth after underthinning. A 30% gain in weight over 40 years for trees already at least 150 years age; with others grouped at 250-400; and also greater than 500 years of age!

        • Here’s an excerpt from the scoping letter:

          Proposed Action
          The following activities are proposed to help achieve the needs identified within the project area:
          • Remove trees identified as Hazards per the Field Guide for Hazard Tree identification and mitigation in Developed Sites in Oregon and Washington (USDA, 2014),
          • Remove trees identified as Dangers per the Field Guide for Danger-Tree Identification and Response along Forest Roads and Work Sites in Oregon and Washington (USDA, 2016).
          • Remove understory trees infected with Indian paint fungus or other diseases.
          • Thin conifer trees from below to reduce stand density and decrease fire risk but retain screening between cabin parcels and campsites where possible.
          • Reduce down wood accumulated from past and proposed hazard and danger tree removal.
          • Plant created openings and low stocked areas with appropriate native species.

          Hazard tree removal would be focused around structures, roads, utilities and trails. Across the project area it is estimated that over 50% of the large trees may qualify as hazards. Some trees may be monitored over time to balance hazard risk and aesthetics. Project-specific design criteria, total acreage, and location will be determined by the interdisciplinary team working with recreation residence permittees, Organization Camp permittees, the Campground concessionaire and Resort operators.

  8. This gives you an idea of all the thought that goes into any timber sale. KS wild is always crying the sky is falling, except when it comes to fires, then it is ok to kill old growth.


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