Columnist Johanna Neumann: White House must take older trees off federal forest cut list

  • Johanna Neumann FILE PHOTO

Published: 3/21/2023 5:28:58 PM

Halting logging of older trees in our national forests should be a key piece of President Biden’s legacy of climate action.

The Biden administration has done more than any other presidency to reduce the emissions warming our planet. At the president’s urging, Congress passed and President Biden enacted the most significant climate action ever taken by America’s federal government: a package of clean energy tax incentives and other programs designed to reduce global warming pollution 40% below 2005 levels by 2030. With broad adoption, the administration’s affordable clean energy plan has the potential to put the United States’ goals under the Paris Climate Accord within reach. This administration has pledged to fight climate change and in many regards, they are walking the walk.

But what if I told you that the administration has access to an ancient technology that could start working immediately to address climate change? And what if I told you that our government has been allowing and even subsidizing the destruction of that technology? That would sound ridiculous, right? Yet, they do and we have.

Failing to see the forest for the trees

One key answer to reducing global warming is often standing right in front of us and towering above. It’s our trees and forests. Unlike far-fetched geoengineering schemes or human-engineered carbon sequestration projects, the trees in America’s national forests are an incredibly effective climate change fighting tool that we don’t need to invent.

Our forests both slow climate change and lessen its impacts, including absorbing 12% of annual U.S.carbon emissions, moderating temperatures, improving soil health, and providing habitat for countless species of wildlife. Yet these benefits are overlooked by federal agencies who have historically seen forests as timber yet to be harvested, when in fact, given today’s challenges, these trees are worth more standing.

Old trees and forests do more

Old-growth forests provide habitat for diverse species, filter water, and absorb carbon dioxide more effectively than younger forests. But after decades of logging, the old growth that remains covers only a fraction of our total federal forest acreage and only in certain regions. And logging projects that target older trees continue across our national forest system. Right now, some of the oldest trees in New England’s national forests are on the chopping block. The Forest Service is proposing to log nearly 12,000 acres of mature forests in Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest, including 200-year-old trees. And if we continue to log mature forests before they have a chance to grow old, we will not have any new old growth forests in the next century.

It’s time to reevaluate our relationship with national forests

The federal government last undertook comprehensive policy to protect national forests in 2001. After millions of Americans submitted comments in support, President Bill Clinton approved the Roadless Rule, which safeguards nearly 60 million acres of designated “roadless areas” from logging and road-building. This one policy has safeguarded much of America’s remaining old growth for the last two decades. But not all critical trees are included in those roadless areas. Given what we know about the realities of climate change and the value of old trees and forests, it’s time for an update of our forestry policies.

Progress protecting America’s old trees

Across the country, conservation organizations are calling for the Biden administration to kick off a new era of climate and forest policy in which trees and forests are valued as key tools in the effort to curb global warming.

And it’s already made an impact. Last summer, the Forest Service announced that it would halt large-scale old-growth logging in America’s largest national forest, the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska. And early this year, the Forest Service restored critical roadless rule protections to 9.2 million acres of the Tongass. This was a critical protective step, but more action is needed.

Leaving a legacy of climate leadership

Last year, President Biden issued an Executive Order directing federal agencies to inventory and develop policies to protect our most valuable forests. Now, one year later, it is time for President Biden’s Forest Service to take administrative action to protect mature and old-growth forests on United States federal land from logging and other threats, and to ensure federal agencies work to recover these carbon rich landscapes for their climate, biodiversity, and watershed benefits to our nation. Until then, we leave one of our best answers to climate change in peril.

Johanna Neumann, of Amherst, has spent the past two decades working to protect our air, water and open spaces, defend consumers in the marketplace and advance a more sustainable economy and democratic society. She can be reached at

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