Protect “Old Growth Trees” in National Forests Groups Tell Biden: Washington Post Story



Old Growth Stand on Fremont Winema National Forest-  Ponderosa Pine

Here are some excerpts from the story.

While many policymakers look to shiny new technologies to solve the climate crisis, advocates say that safeguarding trees has long been a simple way to store carbon dioxide, preventing the potent greenhouse gas from entering the atmosphere and warming the planet.

“We often call it the climate solution you don’t have to invent,” Ellen Montgomery, public lands campaign director for Environment America, told The Climate 202. “Trees are literally standing right there in front of us.”

If “safeguarding” trees seems easy, perhaps they haven’t been talking about wildfire management/suppression (think WFDSS) nor APHIS import regulations. While it can’t hurt to not log them., there are difficulties with considering them a climate solution on the same level as technological fixes.  That’s the argument people make about offsets, anyway.

Their specific demand is for the U.S. Forest Service to begin crafting a rule to protect all old-growth trees on federal lands from logging.

But what is “old growth”? Maybe some of you remember in the 90’s there was an effort to define old growth with TNC and R&D folks.  There’s quite a bit of literature from that time including this one that looked at different definitions for different types. This might be a good time for those of you who were involved to give a historical perspective.

In addition to Environment America, the groups launching the campaign include the Sierra ClubCenter for Biological DiversityNatural Resources Defense Council and Wild Heritage. Their specific demand is for the U.S. Forest Service to begin crafting a rule to protect all old-growth trees on federal lands from logging.

  • In 2001, under President Bill Clinton, the Forest Service enacted a “roadless rule,” which prohibited road construction and timber harvesting on nearly 50 million acres in national forests.
  • However, most trees on federal lands are located elsewhere, according to the groups.

“Right now, there isn’t anything that protects older parts of our nation’s forests,Kirin Kennedy, director of people and nature policy at the Sierra Club, told The Climate 202. “So we’re looking to put those protections in place.” (my bold)

I guess I thought old growth was discussed in forest plans.  It should certainly be considered as part of NRV.  But maybe old trees are “old growth” and there’s another definitional gap. Or maybe forest plans aren’t “permanent” enough?

Since the Admin signaled from the beginning that it would go back to the 2001 Rule in Alaska (in gesture that seemed what we would call “pre-decisional” if a district ranger were to do it), is this a recognition that Roadless is won and it’s already time to push for more?

“We’re really in favor of protecting the Tongass because of what it holds as a natural resource — and because of the benefits it provides not only to Alaska, but to the United States as a whole,” Kennedy said.

I wonder how much “old-growth logging” takes place on the Tongass and in the rest of the country.

Here’s a the press release.

So gather your favorite old growth papers, memories or stories and we’ll explore this topic further.

43 thoughts on “Protect “Old Growth Trees” in National Forests Groups Tell Biden: Washington Post Story”

  1. What about the Sierra Nevada CASPO rules, which protect trees over 30 inches in diameter?

    Also, logging is not prohibited in Roadless Areas.

    These are good examples of ‘misinformation’. It has only been almost 30 YEARS since the old growth protections were voluntarily mandated by the Forest Service in the Sierra Nevada.

  2. My old-growth research on trees greater than 150 years of age, showed these 500+ OG trees not only get older, but more importantly bigger. I saw growth similar to young-middle age trees, averaging over 2.5″ dbh over a 40 year period to some gaining 4-6″ dbh on trees over 40″ dbh to start with. Quite excellent carbon storage.

    • Hi Alanna:

      I am not sure why you consider (I’m assuming conifer) trees 150 years old to be “old-growth.” During my lifetime, Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, redcedar and other long-lived conifers have usually been considered “mature 2nd growth,” at 150 years.

      Old-growth is mostly a logging term used to designate trees when they begin developing a large size and differing bark pattern — typically at least 200 years of age, and some have argued for ages more in the 300 to 400 year range.

      An exception is the comprehensive study that Weyerhaeuser conducted in Coos County following WW II, in which they designated trees as “old-growth” when they were only 191 years of age. By using that age classification they were able to confirm what you are saying about the younger trees in your study — they continue growing very well and continue getting older.

      For a while. Then they start falling apart, just like old people do. Sometime between the age of 200 and 300 years the stands and trees begin dying and losing volume. Fewer make it to 400 years, and hardly any ever make it to 500 years, whether Douglas fir or white oak. In the western Cascades, Olympics, and Vancouver Island a relatively large number of trees have become 500 to 700 years old, and a very few become even older. By that time they have usually lost their tops and are filled with rot and bugs. Then there are the redwoods and sequoias.

      150 years is probably a pretty good number for “old-growth” alder, hemlock, and lodgepole pine, but probably not a good number for the older-living conifers. The 1945-1947 Weyerhaeuser was 125,000 acres in size, included 1576 systematically determined study plots, and 1466 cored trees. I have summarized the study — and ages of coastal Douglas fir old-growth — here:

  3. Wow, if only there was a way of addressing these concerns at a local level. The FS binds this country from stem to stern, not only different merchantable species but also different silvicultural techniques to manage these assets – to say the least.

    This is a great example of throwing anything at a perceived issue, hoping it might stick. It is also is a very bad idea, thrown in with the myriad of bad ideas, normally coming from the “do not touch” groups wanting to paint all landscapes with the same brush!

    Oh, how about addressing local issues through a Forest Plan??????

    • Many eco-groups have installed wheels on their goalposts. It sure makes it easier to reach their real goal of eliminating logging altogether. Luckily, many ‘preservationists’ have changed their minds and became ‘conservationists’, instead, not wanting burned forests, fouled drinking water, smoky air and dead wildlife.

    • Jim Z…. I agree. I have been working on another issue in countering the idea of nationwide rules or directives. When we looked into it, it turned out only some forests/states/individuals had this concern. It makes sense to me also to address their concerns directly (perhaps the Tongass) rather than making a national kerfufle and wasting many hours, electrons, money and paper over something that’s mostly not a problem.

  4. There is much to this topic, but here are a few random thoughts/questions that are not necessarily related to each other concerning old growth and carbon sequestration.

    I grew up in a small town in NH with wood frame homes that are now approaching 300 years old. Isn’t that carbon sequestration?

    I laid out timber sales on the Tongass in the mid-80s. The mindset was to chase every “pumpkin patch” of Sitka spruce regardless of the cost of building a road to reach them. These were deficit sales on steroids. It’s not cheap to build shot-rock roads on the Tongass. Is it necessary to continue chasing the last stands of big trees?

    Another question is one that is similar to one that needs to be asked about designated wilderness areas: how much old growth is enough?

    And one more: In the case of ponderosa pine, how much money and fossil fuels need to be expended thinning them to keep them as fire-resistant old growth?

    • Mike:

      Wilderness Areas are more often the death knell for old-growth, rather than any type of “protection.” At least here in western Oregon. It’s an important point. I can guarantee that far more old-growth were killed in western Oregon during the past 35 years in Wilderness Areas, HCPs, roadless areas, and “buffer strips” by fire than were ever logged. Far more.

      For many years I have argued for the necessity of actively managing the flash fuels, ground fuels, and ladder fuels that predictably result in these fires — for the specific purpose of passing our oldest trees and their successors off to future generations, as in well-managed parks. Passive management is a proven failure and a predictable disaster in waiting, yet we continue to “protect” our desired forests and animals by this very process.

      Somehow, there developed the belief that by removing people from the very forested environments in which they co-evolved with other native animals, “Nature” would fix everything, “again,” and all of the plant and animal species we are targeting by these decisions of enforced benign neglect, will flourish. Unless they are burned alive, of course.

      That seems to be the history. I’m thinking it is documented and not just an opinion.

      • Great Point Bob Zybach!! We can draw lines around old growth on a map, but if we do not manage the trees and fuels around them, we are deluding ourselves that we are protecting them. I think what we are seeing here is just another marketing campaign from the environmental sector. They need to keep their members stirred up to keep the donations coming in under the “Donate Here” business model.

      • Bob,

        I’m big supporter of multiple use on NFS lands, but I view preservation in the form of designated wilderness as one of the multiple uses. The question of how much wilderness is the right mix is a challenging question. There will never be enough designated wilderness in preservationists’ minds and there will always be too much in those who think everything should be open to extractive industry. I believe having areas preserved in designated wilderness aligns well with Leopold’s thought of the need to save all the parts. At the very least they provide a baseline to compare to more actively managed land, but also much more than that.

        As for wilderness areas burning – yes they always have with and without the help of people and climate change is going to/already has changed large fire return intervals and burn severity. I would guess there will be fewer and fewer pockets of old growth ecosystems (it’s not just about old trees) as global temperatures continue to rise. All that said, clearcuts burn just fine too. Back in the 80s when I used to go out on fires, I had to evacuate quickly where we were working three times, one of those was in a clearcut in Oregon with advanced regeneration. Locally, here on the Rio Grande NF in Colorado, I watched the Papoose Fire burn through both beetle-killed forest in the Weminuche Wilderness and green managed stands just fine (both shelterwood and clearcuts). I think the ability to actively manage forests to develop and maintain old growth characteristics will depend on forest type. It may be possible to do this in ponderosa pine stands, but not in the high elevation spruce-fir that is the dominant forest type where I live.

    • Just some thoughts on your thoughts, Mike.
      1. During a period when I attempted to understand the debate over forest carbon, I read a paper that said houses turned over every … x years. That wasn’t what I observed around me, and it wasn’t what you observed in NH (PS I’m a UNH graduate!)

      2. In Central Oregon we also did things in the 80s that seem strange today. We went from pick and pluck silviculture to clearcutting based on recommendations of OSU profs at the time. Things have changed a great deal in the last 40 years, a change that needed to happen.

      3. I think people might say (and Jon is the expert on this) that the same proportions as HRV/NRV are the right amount. Except that we lost so much of that (based on historic veg analysis that we’re still building our way back by saving everything we have and in some cases, thinning so we get more sooner (I think that’s more of a West Side thing).

      4. That’s what I call the Fred Norbury question. I remember going with him to a South Platte Partnership (is that the right group) field trip, and he used his economic thinking to say “we need to do this and keep doing it? That’s a lot of money! And of course, as you know, there aren’t markets to speak of for the material.

      The answers to me are: 1) we’d rather they didn’t burn up due to watershed, wildlife, and recreation impacts so 2) that’s the cost of managing such forests. We can reduce the costs (and not burn in piles releasing carbon) by selling some kind of product. At some point our equipment may be electric or bio or syn gas. But then so will be the zillions of recreationists visiting and so on.

      • Sharon,

        I’m a U. Maine graduate. Those NE schools provide a good education.

        Per #3: Does climate change affect the relevancy of HRV/NRV for use in planning? It seems like our over heated Ma Nature wants to convert some forests to grasslands and shrub lands.

        I totally agree, the monetary cost and expenditure of greenhouse gases is worth it to protect watersheds. It isn’t really about carbon sequestration in large trees. I think there could be markets for the material, but those markets can’t be economically supplied at the moment.

  5. Save the old growth! Fires are beneficial for the forest! We better make up our minds as I have watch millions of old growth trees killed every summer by fire for last twenty five years.
    There continues to be a huge disconnect between what is actually happening in our forests and what is being written about them. I don’t know of a green old growth timber sale on public lands since the Northwest Forest Plan was enacted. It is even now nearly impossible to even harvest roadside trees that are dead.
    Has no one heard of BLM’s forest plan that limits harvesting trees over 80 years old?

    • Thanks for this example! I could go through the decision docs, but wouldn’t it be better to arrange a live video field trip with say, you and Bob, and Norm and Jerry, and the FS designers of the project and have a discussion while you’re standing there and we’re viewing from home?

      • Field trips are the best! I’ve actually been out to the sale with Norm, Jerry, Region 6 Regional Forester Glenn Casamassa, Forest Supervisor Dave Warnock, and District Ranger Darren Cross. No one disagrees about the age of the forest or the proposed prescriptions: instead, the Forest Service is admittedly focused on meeting its timber target from matrix lands.

        Norm and Jerry have put together a storyboard of the sale that you can view here:

        • Thanks! That’s a great storyboard and photos.

          So as you understand it, Norm and Jerry think the FS should stop harvesting non-planted stands because they will grow into old growth, and they should only harvest to create more “old growth like” characteristics in plantations?
          Or “if a stand hasn’t been entered, it shouldn’t be entered for timber?” That’s what I picked up from the storyboard..

          • I just looked at the Story Board that Norm and Jerry put together, and it is excellent work! However, I am left wondering can these stands really survive the coming wildfires under climate change? They look very vulnerable to me. I think we need to start thinking about managing for the climate of the future and not the climate of the past. I also wonder if we aren’t missing the indigenous burning aspect in a place like the Flat Country Timber Sale? It would have been a major east-west travel route through the Cascades and a major huckleberry picking area. I suspect historic stand densities were not real high in that area due to frequent fire. The notion that historic fire in west side forests was infrequent and nearly all high severity seems inaccurate to me.

            • John, I think that the indigenous burning aspect might have been picked up in the historic vegetation maps.
              But Bob Zybach would be the person who is familiar with these datasets, perhaps he can give us some background.

              On page 8 of the Science Findings it says “Old-growth protection policies. Current policies reflect our desire to maintain and restore ecological values associated with old growth. Yet old-growth forests will change even with
              “protection” status. Sources of change include fire occurrence, fire suppression, invasive species, wind, landslides and debris flows, insect and disease outbreaks, forest succession, climate change, pollution, and so forth.”

              and on page 10 Some people have said that old-growth forests are irreplaceable. “The forests may be irreplaceable in ways not considered,” Spies reflects. The climate of the last 500 years may have been a unique period in the eons of climate changes, and our present old-growth forests may be the unique products of the past 500 years. Future climate changes and disturbance regimes, whatever they may be, will almost certainly not be identical to the past. Climate changes can affect which tree species grow at which elevations and latitudes, how fast the trees grow, which insects and diseases affect trees, and frequencies of wildfires, ice storms, and other weather-related disturbances.
              The question, then, may not be how managers could set up the right conditions for nature to create more old-growth forests just like the ones we love now. The questions might be:
              What are the essential characteristics we want to encourage in developing forests? What conditions do we want to create, that will encourage natural processes to develop old-growth forests? “If we’ve learned anything in the last 30 years,” Spies says, “it’s that our understanding of ecosystems will change, just as our understanding of old-growth forests changed during the late 20th century. We have also learned that the diversity of nature frequently defies our attempts to put it in nice boxes either with words, scientific models, or plans. Natural systems are complex and our cultural responses to them are complex as well. Given the natural and social diversity, it would seem prudent to recognize as much diversity as possible in how we understand, manage, and plan for forests of the future whether they are old or young.”

              He sounds a bit like what you are saying and a bit like what I think (my bold). Perhaps humility comes from working with nature and society over extensive periods.

              • Hi Sharon:

                Yes, I am very familiar (or used to be) with the excellent Andrews and Cowlin maps from the 1930s and the very useful maps constructed by the ORBIC project by Jon Christy, Ed Alvorsen and others, beginning in 1994.

                The principal problem with the 1930s maps is the limitation on access to data at that time — aerial forest inventories and Osborne photos were still in their infancy. The main problems with the GLO maps is that the survey notes vary from about 1852 until the mid-1930s — a span of over 80 years for adjacent observations in many instances — and that the notes are otherwise also open to individual interpretation.

                Within the past two months I have relied on the Christy-Alverson maps (with their permissions) to construct a map of the early historical landscape vegetation and trade routes of the various Kalpuyan tribes, ca. 1800-1825.

                These maps are very good aids in conducting research of early historical lands and histories, but they are limited. I have used them routinely for more than 40 years and was surprised to find that few (if any) of my fellow students and professors at OSU Forestry were familiar with them when I returned to school as a middle-aged student in the late 1980s.

                Another limitation, other than the fact that few people have used them in their research of forest history, is that they are only a single source of information, and the notes contain far more detail than just the maps and require significant time to research and interpret.

                Here is how I integrated this data into a study of South Umpqua forest types and trade routes, ca. 1800-1825 — if you follow the links you will see that they all connect to transcribed GLO survey notes and maps, in addition to several other datasets and all ground-truthed and documented with photos:

                • The photos in Bob’s South Umpqua ethnography reconstruction, linked to at the end of his post, are worth a look-see on their own merit. His back-casting of forest structure based on early 20th-century residual trees is ambitious. But don’t let questions of sampling bias associated with old GLO surveys and the like detract from his message: People lived on and affected this landscape, using it for food, shelter, trade, and travel for thousands of years. Their eradication from the land has had profound ecological implications, analogous to losing apex predators from Yellowstone.

                  • Thanks Andy: I appreciate the feedback. I am curious about your use of the phrase “sampling bias” regarding the GLO surveys, however. Are you talking about the surveyors? They were operating on a pretty exacting grid pattern and Bearing Tree selection process — pretty comprehensive! Or are you talking about my research methods? I purposefully used 100% of the original GLO survey notes — and put them online — for the entire study area. Where does sampling bias come into the picture?

                    • Bob: I’ve no criticism of your research methods. The bias challenges associated with using GLO bearing tree survey data have been reported previously (e.g., here) including corrections that can be made.

                  • Andy: Part 2. I’m also pleased to see your agreement with my principal conclusions — although I would argue that people were likely the apex predator at Yellowstone, too. Charles Kay refers to us as “super wolves” in that regard — and has also done a major Repeat Photography for the Park which tells a compelling story. His analysis strongly challenges the research of Bill Ripple and others for that area. To me, that has always been the principal failing of ecologists such as Franklin, Ripple and Spies — an inability to recognize the importance and effects of thousands of years of precontact people in the environment.

              • Sharon- I am an east-sider and when I travel west of the Cascades, I see some of the same characteristics that make our forests over here vulnerable. I think we need to shift away from a take only pictures, leave only footprints mind-set if we are to preserve what old growth is left in the west Cascades. Part of the problem we have is a simplification of fire regimes. I have seen old fire scars in western hemlock, pacific silver fir, mountain hemlock, lodgepole pine, and subalpine fir. We need to recreate conditions for surface fire in these forests, or they will surely burn down in crown fires. The root of our problem is that too often we have been guided by purely economic motives, that coupled with a very shallow understanding of nature.

                • John: I am in complete agreement with what you are seeing and saying. It is the “multi-layered canopy” and the presence of significant dead wood on the ground and in standing snags that the Franklin camp has been arguing as “natural” that is killing off our actual old-growth and millions of native animals via these wildfires. Flash fuels, ground fuels, and ladder fuels are a bonfire waiting to be ignited — NOT a desirable condition.

                  Douglas fir typically grows in even-aged stands that are almost entirely composed of this species. “Biodiversity” becomes greatly limited once the canopy fills in. If we truly want to “preserve” old-growth Douglas fir, then we need to actively manage for that condition. History is very clear on that point.

                  Finally, when you state: “The root of our problem is that too often we have been guided by purely economic motives, that coupled with a very shallow understanding of nature,” I’m guessing most people think loggers and industrial timberland owners. Don’t forget to add the environmental law industry — lots of big paychecks and shallow understandings there, too.

                  Here’s how they used to create and maintain old-growth in the 1800s, on the cusp between westside Douglas fir and eastside Ponderosa pine in SW Oregon:

                  • Bob- When I used the words “a very shallow understanding of nature”, I most definitely would include both people from the industry side and the environmental side. The focus of the industry on MBF is obvious. If I owned a mill I would be focused on MBF too. On the environmental side, I would say there is only sketchy knowledge of ecological processes and only a glimmer of awareness of landscape ecology. Viewing the world through binoculars and being able to correctly identify species and recite latin names does not make one ecologically literate.

          • As I understand them, Norm and Jerry believe that there is no ecological justification to harvest mature and old growth stands and trees. They also believe plantations can be treated to create heterogeneity. And, they believe that if your objective is to create merchantable volume from old stands you can do that too, but it isn’t for ecological reasons: it is for economic reasons.

            • Well, as described by them and you, this seems like one of the most clear disagreements we’ve seen. The FS, as provided for in the NW Forest Plan, has a plan to harvest 100-140 year old trees. There is no ecological reason (although a person might imagine that reducing density might be helpful in case of increasing drought due to climate change). However there is a reason to (meet targets?)(follow the NWFP?) to harvest timber for timber’s (and conceivably worker’s) sake. People disagree about whether that should be allowed on federal lands. Makes sense.

              • Completely agree. I – and others – would simply argue that there are better, and easier (socially, legally, politically) places to get timber for timber’s sake (and associated community benefit).

              • Sharon- I have looked up the EIS for the Flat Country Timber Sale. Under Purpose and Need they state “improve stand condition in terms of density, diversity, and structure” What perplexes me is why are not the terms “resilience and resistance” used in the purpose and need section? In this era of climate change all of forest management needs to be looked at through the lens of climate change and the need to increase resistance to wildfire and drought. The authors of the EIS do not do that. Reducing basal area in some of those stands Norm and Jerry are showing on their website makes sense to me.

                • Maybe “improve stand condition in terms of density, diversity, and structure” means increasing “resilience and resistance.”

            • Hi Susan: I think the important words here are “believe.” And the important phrase is “ecological justification.” A “belief” is something to do with religion, not science, which I think fits this narrative. I’m not sure what “ecological justification” means, but neither does anybody else. “Science” talk.

              In Medieval times the priests used Latin when they spoke with God and the peasants were not allowed to hear or write the words in English. Otherwise, they believed they would burn in Hell, or maybe on a stake. Also, if they didn’t contribute heavily to the collection plate this might happen. Today we need to sequester carbon and stop logging, or the belief is that our lands and grandchildren will burn on Earth. Unless we stop logging and give the government more money. In my opinion, these are much the same extraction processes, and both require a strong belief in order to succeed.

              So far as plantations are concerned, my crews did about 85,000 acres of these from 1970 to 1990 (mostly by 1985), and as far as I know, none of them have ever burned in a wildfire. A fairly large number of these plantations have been logged and planted again, and some of these secondary plantations are already becoming commercial sized. Jerry and Norm’s beliefs regarding plantations and heterogeneity are largely incorrect. That’s been shown on the ground many times. You can’t make a theory materialize from a reality, no matter the investment. Better reforestation planning and stand maintenance strategies are needed, whatever the desired outcome.

        • The “Matrix” areas are the ~17% of the 24.5 million acres of the Northwest Forest Plan area where timber harvesting is theoretically allowed — LSRs and other zones are largely off limits to active management. It’s OK to have a harvest target for Matrix zones.

  6. “Their specific demand is for the U.S. Forest Service to begin crafting a rule to protect all old-growth trees on federal lands from logging.”

    I really don’t think that such a “demand” will gain any traction, whatsoever, within the Forest Service. If this is a threat, it seems very hollow, to me.

  7. The Forest Service/BLM will think about logging old growth whenever it would help them meet targets or make money – unless that option is taken away. I wouldn’t expect this to get much traction either from those who have to meet targets or fund programs. I suspect that traction might look like it did for the Northwest Forest Plan or the roadless rule, but they happened. (Maybe Jim Furnish could tell us how those folks felt about these things.)

    I think there is some information that should be available before making this decision. How much old growth is left, and how does that compare to sustainable (NRV) amounts (taking into account other ownerships in the ecosystem)? How much of that exists in areas where it could be logged under current forest plans? How much is currently being logged?

    Once areas are designated, the question of how to “protect” them needs to be addressed, including criteria for conditions (If any) under which old growth logging would be allowed.

    Yes, there are problems with definitions and data. If the purpose is carbon conservation there should be a definition that would work for that, and (as always) the best available data would have to do. Ideally, this would be a forest plan decision, based on forest-level data. However, there is precedent for urgent interim strategies in forest plans (e.g. INFISH) that could be refined when plans are revised by applying national direction to local conditions.

    • “The Forest Service/BLM will think about logging old growth whenever it would help them meet targets or make money – unless that option is taken away.” That’s a pretty strong statement “whenever” to “make money“. What evidence do you have to support that claim?

      • Everything that people do is based on what they perceive as incentives, and what your boss tells you to do and what will fund your job are pretty strong ones. I’m sure you’ve seen the same evidence of these Forest Service incentives as I have.

  8. If the Forest Services incentive is to make money with their timber sale program they have been doing a very poor job of it for the last 30 years. And this is especially true with any sales that include older trees.
    Now if on the other hand if spending money on fires is an objective they have been highly successful.
    IMHO all these discussions concerning the protection of our forests, old growth or otherwise, are pointless until we as a society decide it is not ok to let fires kill hundred of millions of trees each year.
    I wonder if Oregon State University with ever do a study on the carbon footprint of the fire “suppression” industry?


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