Does the Old Growth Amendment Supplant or Redefine NRV?

Old growth LPP

First of all, let me say that there are probably people in the Forest Service who have thought all this through.  I’m hoping that they will help out with their explanations in the comments.

If old growth is old growth, and mature forests are on their way to old growth, and young forests are on their way to mature forests.. then it seems like there is no ceiling on the amount of old-growth needed, and no reason to ever have openings other than “natural” ones.  This can be problematic, conceptually, as some groups believe that today’s wildfires and wind events are all unnatural or caused or “supercharged by” the anthropogenic part of climate change.

And if you believe that, then does any ecosystem have “integrity”?   Or is the key thing to promote resilience (including biodiversity) in the face of climate change and protect key values of ecosystems and people from these and other dangers?  To keep diverse living trees alive on the landscape, and to protect water, wildlife and other values?  Perhaps some will say “it’s the same thing” and if it is, then perhaps the use of plain English would save time and misunderstanding.

Let’s go back to the 2012 Planning Rule Handbook:

Assessing the status of ecosystems—their level of ecological integrity—is difficult. There is no guide that provides a comprehensive protocol, and each ecosystem has a unique body of scientific information relevant to the ecological assessment. The planning rule and supporting handbook identify departure from the natural range of variation as a criterion to assess ecological integrity. The natural range of variation refers to the variation in key ecosystem characteristics produced by dominant natural disturbance regimes, usually in a pre-European influenced reference period. This method works well for ecosystems that are relatively well-studied and their natural range of variation can be estimated through ecological modeling or other methodology.

(my bold).  Now, as most readers know, I wasn’t a fan of this approach at the time.  At that time,  my thinking went along these lines… (1) there’s a great deal of pre-European time and yet a certain time has to be selected, humans have been around since glaciation;  (2) animals and plants move around and hybridize- and evolution is part of Nature, after all;  (3)  time’s arrow only goes one way, at least genetically;  and (4)  if climate is changing faster than usual, then there is no reason to think that the past is well adapted to the future. And don’t we want forests that are adapted to the future? As described in the Handbook, it unintentionally downplays the role of Indigenous fire management and the idea “natural= pre-European” only fits if Indigenous folks are part of Nature, which some now consider to be racist. It would perhaps be clearer and more accurate to say “we want to go back to Indigenous ways of managing the landscape,” if that’s really the case, but again we’d need more Indigenous people and give them authority over federal forests plus make them do not what they think best but what they think their ancestors did.  And the importance of Indigenous management and climate have only become clearer or perhaps “supercharged” in more recent discourse.

Many forests have done vegetation modeling and historic research, and came up with desired conditions of say, certain amounts of habitat with certain characteristics.  For example, x acres of early successional habitat, or y acres of  western white pine or oaks, or even the historic densities of some species.  So logically, to recreate these conditions, we may need to thin trees for density reduction and create openings for some pine and oak species to regenerate.  There are different ways of getting openings.  Depending on where you are, openings could occur due to wildfire, wind events, volcanoes, floods, trees dying from old age and/or native or introduced diseases and pests, and so on. With or without attribution to anthropogenic factors of climate change, some of these are more natural than others (fire suppression and non-native species obviously not).

Generally, the only other way is to manage is via prescribed fire or some combo of mechanical treatments (aka “logging” or “tree-cutting”) and prescribed fire.  So do we still want those carefully arrived at NRV distributions or not?  According to some, if the opening-treatments  would occur in currently mature or old-growth forests, then not.  So that leaves “natural” disturbances (affected by AGW, so then unnatural, except for volcanos?) and hoping that they get to the desired ratios; or alternatively, doing openings over and over in younger forests but not mature ones, so that they don’t go through their successional stages, which seems also unnatural.   Look who wrote about the importance of early successional  ecosystems in this 2011 paper (abstract)

Different disturbances contrast markedly in terms of biological legacies, and this will influence the resultant physical and biological conditions, thus affecting successional pathways. Management activities, such as post-disturbance logging and dense tree planting, can reduce the richness within and the duration of early-successional ecosystems . Where maintenance of biodiversity is an objective, the importance and value of these natural early-successional ecosystems are underappreciated.

So will the new OG amendment effectively replace the concept of “pre-European conditions” with “creating as much old growth as possible”?  Because we can imagine quite a possible tension between “maximizing old growth” and “ensuring diversity of tree species”,  and the latter  would be important to fulfill certain requirements of NFMA, specifically.

“provide for diversity of plant and animal communities based on the suitability and capability of the specific land area in order to meet overall multiple-use objectives, and within the multiple-use objectives of a land management plan adopted pursuant to this section, provide, where appropriate, to the degree practicable, for steps to be taken to preserve the diversity of tree species similar to that existing in the region controlled by the plan;”

My bold, Of course, trees and bark beetles, do their own things, unbothered by humans’ desire for shade or carbon credits, or even plan amendments, forest-specific or national. From the Fire Effects website:

The average lifespan of Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine is 150 to 200 years [37,170], though some Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine trees live more than 400 years

12 thoughts on “Does the Old Growth Amendment Supplant or Redefine NRV?”

  1. Here is an optimistic take that lets NRV and “create lots of OG” live in harmony. For the most part, NRV analyses in terms of proportions of cover types/seral stages on the landscape indicate a deficit of old forests. Even though mature forests are abundant in many places, there is logic to the assertion that creating more old forest involves protecting and developing (perhaps actively) mature forests. One could imagine that this need is only temporary: once we’ve grown more old forests and have our landscape proportions balanced as we hoped, then we are free to manage all seral stages for multiple values (including timber) as long as we maintain our proportions within desired ranges. Policy is ever-changing, after all, and the need to do a certain thing right now to move toward our desired conditions doesn’t mean that certain thing must be perpetual.

    This is a challenge for me overall with restoration-focused forest management. We have this overwhelming feeling of things being out of whack and needing to do something about it, but little vision for a long-term system that will work once things are back “in whack,” supposing we ever get there. On the other hand, perhaps public land management is fated to always be idiosyncratic and responsive primarily to the acute needs of the times.

    • I think part of the OG problem is nationalizing an abstraction of old forests and old trees, that works for some forests and not for others. Especially forests which have long histories of (human managed) fire.

      If fire and bugs are the primary disturbers of old forests, as the FS data show, then managing PODs and other prescribed and WFU and thinning is the way to protect them from fires, and possibly thinning to protect from bugs in some areas, with some species.

      There are two things that could happen from this amendment, it seems to me.
      (1) After a lot of work by the FS and cooperators and the public, they arrive at these same conclusions (you must cut some trees to protect OG stands (fire) and extend their lives (bugs) with extensive citations, etc. On a forest by forest basis. Same actions, with more paperwork.

      (2) Different actions due to some philosophical/abstraction-laced analysis… we don’t know how this will turn out.

      But we can be relatively sure that some confusion and hold-ups will happen to currently planned projects as they go through WO review.

  2. Opposing human interventions of thinning and prescribed fire, in favor of “natural fire” is quite foolish, and not based in established science. THAT is what some people want for all of our public forests. The “Whatever Happens” mindset hasn’t worked well in the last 30 years. During the Obama Administration, we saw what happens when we allow fires to burn. Turning 3,000 acre fires into 30,000 acre fires was seen to be the wrong thing, for both ‘nature’ AND for us humans. Luckily, the Forest Service hasn’t reconsidered using such a destructive and unscientific plan.

  3. Thanks for asking this question. I would say something similar to what Sean said. “Maximize” old growth really only means maximize efforts to get it back in “whack,” where “whack” is defined as NRV, which can legitimately factor in expected climate. Things may be different post-whack.

    The Planning Handbook would also allow for parts of an ecosystem to have too much old growth (beyond NRV) where that case can be made. Species viability is maybe the most defensible case, but carbon sequestration could also justify it. So making old growth the top priority may currently be necessary. The important question is whether it is also necessary to cut down big/old trees to promote old growth. I think the answer does have to be site-specific, and the amendment should end up establishing a national default of not removing these trees without that kind of justification.

    I don’t think the planning question has to be very complicated. There must desired conditions for ecosystems, and coming up with those desired conditions needs to consider the best available science on their sustainability for the foreseeable future. But the answer isn’t easy.

    One thing a national plan amendment won’t do is change the law or the regulations. The plant and animal diversity, ecological integrity, and species viability requirements will remain. (The trees species diversity requirement in NFMA that you highlighted hasn’t gotten a lot of attention, but I don’t think it should be construed as something in conflict with the overall diversity requirement.)

    • I don’t believe in “whackness”, so there’s that. There seems to be two thoughts: 1) if we proceed toward whackness then by definition it will be resilient and 2) we have some kind of idea of what the future holds and should manage for that. I don’t believe 1, and there are too many different views of the future (including “all the trees will die from climate change”) for that to be a viable option. IMHO.

      I kind of agree with “the amendment should end up establishing a national default of not removing these trees without that kind of justification.”

      So.. my observation is that all the examples that the Climate Forest folks identified did have those kinds of justification already. So.. what is going to be different?

      • Could we look at a specific project where the Forest Service and Climate Forests disagree on the science regarding the necessity of logging big trees?

        As to your points 1 and 2, paraphrasing: we don’t know what resilience means and we don’t know what the future will bring – seem like arguments that we can’t plan for ecological sustainability. But since NFMA requires this, is there a better way?

        (The only valid view of the future for forest planning purposes is the one based on the best available science. And best doesn’t have to be good.)

        • OK, I’ll post and we’ll take a vote on a specific project on their list..
          I don’t think NFMA requires “ecological sustainability” because it wasn’t a concept that existed when it was passed. We can give our best guesses for resilience (e.g. trees dying of drought may need thinning, keeping wildfires from destroying soils is good) based on research, experience and monitoring and adaptive management.

  4. There is little risk that we will end up with “too much mature and old-growth.”

    Two restoration goals in combination will resolve most of this issue.
    1) where possible, manage for mature and old-growth conditions;
    2) where possible, restore natural disturbance regimes.

    Keep in mind:
    – The mature and old-growth plan amendment will likely not dictate management objectives outside existing mature and old-growth.
    – Natural disturbance, as modified by global climate change (plus accidental human ignitions), will be doing a lot of ecological work regardless of our efforts and desires.

    • 2nd… of your points..
      1) if mature is incipient old growth, then aren’t young stands incipient mature stands? So wouldn’t that ultimately apply to all stands?
      2) But what exactly were the “natural disturbance regimes”? Where do indigenous people fit into this or do they? When their populations were moved off the land, was that situation more “natural”? Or what grew back after timbering for railroad ties and mining? The forests we see today are artifacts of the last 200 or so years of human history..

      What do you mean exactly by “ecological work”? Is it promoting resilience or NRV or HRV? I guess you’re saying “there will be lots of openings in the future so no problem.” But there are two problems with this..1) not every disturbance is clearly related to climate change and 2) not every disturbance provides the conditions for diverse tree species. In fact, we have seen reburns that are inhospitable to tree species. Say resilience in ponderosa pine in the Sierra requires lower densities and underburning.. a wildfire blowing through might kill them all.

      Like I said, I think resilience and keeping green trees on the landscape are clearer goals than maximizing old growth.


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