America’s Old-Growth Forests in Need of New Protections

Environment Policy Brief #152 | By: Todd J. Broadman | February 6, 2023

Header photo taken from: Ben Hasty / Getty Images




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A federal judge had blocked two sets of timber sales in Southern Oregon last October over concerns they would damage threatened northern spotted owl habitat and the rare birds’ ability to find new homes in old-growth forests, a protection granted by the Endangered Species Act.

Photo taken from: Don Ryan / The Associated Press

Policy Summary

Just over a third of what remains as forested land in America is classified as “old-growth forest,” equivalent to 167 million acres. By definition, old-growth is at least 80 years old, and just 24% of old-growth forest is fully protected – the balance exposed to the risk of logging. 58 million acres of this old-growth forest are on federal lands under management by either the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management.

President Joe Biden signed Executive Order 14072 to protect mature and old-growth forests. A respite for many, after Trump era rollbacks. Executive Orders though, do not carry the force of law – as does an Act of Congress. Rather, Biden’s intention is to direct the Department of the Interior to “define, identify, and complete an inventory of old-growth and mature forests on Federal lands, accounting for regional and ecological variations, as appropriate.” The longer-term aim is to “institutionalize climate-smart management and conservation strategies that address threats to mature and old-growth forests on Federal lands.” The Executive Order will do little to halt the logging schedule already in place which puts over 300,000 acres at risk, according to a recent report by non-profit group, Climate Forests.

 Biden had announced a 30 by 30 Plan, termed “America the Beautiful,” in January of 2021, aiming to protect 30% of U.S. land and water. This initiative would empower local communities and tribal nations to realize its targets. New state laws, like the Revested Lands Sustained Yield Management Act (RLSYMA), run counter to full protection and will continue to present a challenge. RLSYMA will guide logging activities over 2 million acres in Oregon and California.

The U.S. Forest Service focuses on projects that address “demand for wood products, safe roads, wildfire protection, and enhancing recreation experiences.” Along with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), both agencies manage timber sales and are constantly in court, sued by environmental groups for those actions. A recently proposed timber sale of 18,000 acres of old-growth forest was blocked by a District Court in Oregon because it violated the Endangered Species Act – a threat to the northern spotted owl.

Another common argument against logging is that large diameter trees play a critical role in maintaining biodiversity and mitigating climate change and that logging activities over the last 100 years have greatly reduced large trees and their habitat. According to Lauren Anderson, Climate Forest Program Manager for the conservation group Oregon Wild, “Getting forest managers to really think about old-growth trees the same way that other states think about [renewable technologies like] solar panels and wind turbines is the culture shift that needs to happen.”

Policy Analysis

Preserving old-growth forests can be a cornerstone of global climate change and biodiversity leadership. There is widely held agreement on such protections in the scientific community.

If Biden’s Executive Order to do a comprehensive inventory of old-growth and mature forest stands on federal land results in durable protections through state and national laws, then it can be seen as a worthwhile activity. The BLM and USFS though, continue to prioritize industrial timber production. Complicating matters, their budgets are tied to timber production quotas.

For example, timber sales currently taking place include: 4,573 old-growth acres as part of the Poor Windy Project in southwest Oregon; 12,000 acres as part of the Fourmile Vegetation Project in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in Wisconsin.

These large trees and trees like them store 35% to 70% more carbon than newer forests; they offer increased watershed protections and wildfire resilience as well. The old-growth forest biodiversity – genetic biodiversity and species biodiversity, is necessary for long-term resilience of the environment.

Much of the “harvested” old-growth timber goes towards pulpwood which is made into paper and plywood. In other words, precious mature trees are logged, ground down, and turned into low-value products, products that could just as easily be supplied by younger trees. Analogous to making hamburger meat from endangered elephants.

After slow progress, 2023 is a make-or-break year for Biden’s conservation commitment. With existing protections for U.S. lands still hovering around 13 percent, meeting Biden’s 2030 goal will require quickly accelerating the pace of conservation measures for public and private lands, while also ensuring these actions expand nature access for underserved communities, address climate change, and respect Tribal sovereignty and priorities.

Photo taken from: Michael Ciaglo / Getty 

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As less than a quarter of old-growth is fully protected, a big win came recently in the form of protections for 9.37 million acres in the Alaskan Tongass National Forest – the world’s largest intact temperate rainforest. Legal protections will “support the ecological, economic and cultural values of Southeastern Alaska.”

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on resource URL to visit links where available 

hfhc final logo a grassroots coalition that supports the need for active, sustainable forest management to improve and sustain forest health.

oregon wild open graph default 01 works to protect and restore Oregon’s wildlands, wildlife, and waters as an enduring legacy for future generations.

download protects and restores the wildlife, wild places, wild rivers, and health of the American West.

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