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Forest Service policy aims to conserve old-growth forests, but overlooks logging

A tractor stacks jack-pine tree logs in the Huron-Manistee National Forest before they're transported to a sawmill on October 26, 2023.
Rick Brewer
A tractor stacks jack-pine tree logs in the Huron-Manistee National Forest before they're transported to a sawmill on October 26, 2023.

An estimated 17% percent of more than 140 million acres of forests on federal land are considered "old-growth" — meaning they've been undisturbed for a hundred or so years.

A federal proposal aims to conserve these forests and allow more mature trees to age peacefully, but the draft policy doesn't put a stop to logging old-growth and mature forests. Michigan is home to 3.5 million acres of federal forest land.

Garett Rose, a senior attorney with the National Resources Defense Council, said the Forest Service faces a lot of pressure to harvest timber, but the new policy could be a turning point in how federal forests are used.

"A policy like this could turn the agency away from those bad incentives and keep the big old trees that are still logged in the forests where they should be," Rose said.

The proposal outlines a series of goals such as improving conservation efforts and forest resilience, addressing threats, incorporating Indigenous knowledge and establishing an old-growth monitoring network.

"The goals are really important and necessary," Rose said. "But as it's currently written, I'm worried it [won't] accomplish its goals because of gaps and ambiguities in the protections that are listed."

Rose said the amendment needs to be more explicit in putting an end to sending old trees to the mill.

The amendment references findings from analysis that outlines threats to old and mature forests. It says tree cutting is "relatively minor" compared to wildfires, insects and disease.

"However, past management practices, including timber harvest and fire suppression, contributed to current vulnerabilities in the distribution, abundance and resilience of old-growth forest characteristics," the analysis sates.

In December, WCMU reported on a Forest Service report that questioned the climate resilience of old-growth forests, after stating older trees will be less efficient at storing carbon in the coming decades.

Rose said the policy represents an attitude shift and an increasing recognition of the role old and mature forests can play as a climate solution.

"[We need to] put policies in place that can stand the test of time," Rose said. "That doesn't mean folks shouldn't be vigilant — you never stop protecting these places, but the goal is to have a policy that reflects the public desire for protecting forests and is legally durable."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is assessing the environmental impacts of the policy and will release its report in May, which will be followed by a public comment period.

Map designed by Daniel Wheaton, data reporter for the Midwest Newsroom.

Read the full amendment below:

Teresa Homsi is an environmental reporter and Report for America Corps Member based in northern Michigan for WCMU. She covers rural environmental issues, focused on contamination, conservation, and climate change.
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