Years ago I helped families in the Ozarks and Southern Appalachian Mountains make money from their forests by harvesting timber in sustainable ways and increasing the amount of carbon those forests could pull out of the atmosphere.

Currently, the Biden administration is looking at ways the federal government can conserve and restore public forests in light of climate change. The lessons we learned more than a decade ago, plus new science on how old-growth and mature forests store carbon, offer a way forward – one that might help us get past the environmentalist-vs.-timber-industry impasse that seems to define the public-forest management debate.

A year ago, President Joe Biden announced an Executive Order with the goal of conserving and restoring forests on federal public lands. A major feature of the order was a directive to catalog and assess Old Growth and Mature forests owned and managed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The age and health of woodlands is a major factor in determining forest contributions to climate change protections. 

Last week, the USFS and BLM issued their first national inventory of forest age classes by forest type, finding that old growth (18%) and mature stands (45%) make up nearly two-thirds of all federal forestland. The initial inventory identified 32,658,390 acres of old-growth and 80,112,137 acres of mature forest across 200 types of forests. BLM and USFS manage a combined 178,488,890 acres of forest across the nation. Currently, only 42% of USFS and 20% of BLM forests have timber harvest restrictions through wilderness preservation, roadless designation, or National Monument status. 

The debate that will follow the release of this new inventory of our public forests could set off a familiar media trend of pitting preservationists against the clear-cutters. While there are clear tensions over the balance between old growth forest preservation, storing carbon on public land, providing a steady supply of harvestable timber in forest-dependent economies, and reducing catastrophic wildfires, there are scientifically-proven methods for harvesting trees that achieve these combined goals. 

From 2006-2010, I worked to conserve private family forests in the Ozarks and Southern Appalachia. We assisted landowners in understanding and accessing carbon credit markets that existed then. Our system allowed landowners to conduct periodic harvests within the limitations of carbon sequestration science. In the oak-hickory and mixed hardwood forests where we worked, that translated into leaving four-10 large-diameter trees per acre while allowing harvests of smaller trees that would compete for light and resources with the older, larger trees. This limited-harvest management approach is embraced by many foresters and forestland owners, particularly those involved with the Forest Guild’s Model Forest Program

Missouri’s Pioneer Forest, which has used these management principles on tens of thousands of Ozark acres since the 1950s, describes their practices as, “single-tree selection harvesting” where “managers and landowners are able to maintain a diverse and multi-aged forest (a forest with three or more age classes) while also deriving income from periodic harvests. This forest management technique provides a dynamic opportunity for forest development and succession which is essential for the continuity of the forest. Applying single-tree selection as part of an uneven-aged forest management program most closely mimics the natural process which occurs when individual trees succumb to natural mortality.”

Though we had a valid scientific model for documenting carbon storage using these practices, we spent countless hours defending our approach from attacks by the forest products industry, which maintained that “younger forests store more carbon” since young trees grow at a faster rate than older trees. In today’s iteration of climate-friendly forest management, the debate between old and young forests and their respective carbon storage potential continues even though scientists have roundly concluded that older trees clearly store more carbon. 

In addition to working in Eastern hardwood forest management and conservation in my late 20s and early 30s, I spent a lot of my early 40s covering public lands and forest issues in the rural West for the Daily Yonder. Through many conversations with community forestry groups involved with the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition, the Fire Adapted Communities Network, and researchers at Headwaters Economics, I learned that many of those same active management techniques would help to increase carbon storage in Western forests while also reducing wildfire risks. 

In the more arid and conifer-heavy West, those techniques include thinning thick stands of small-diameter trees, removing brush, de-limbing and pruning branches, and using prescribed fire to periodically burn the thicket of flammable material on the forest floor. Though the economics and processing infrastructure can be a challenge, wood removed through these treatments can be sawn into lumber, split into firewood, or chipped into pieces for the pulp, plywood, or biomass energy markets. 

As the scientific imperative for better forest practices on federal land grows, the politics of forest management continues to be a major barrier to implementing necessary change. Public land forest managers—for treatments and fuel reductions, for fighting fires, for serving outdoor recreation– are simply starved by lack of funding and a workforce crisis.   

The Biden White House and the previous Democrat-controlled Congress did make some progress on these issues. In addition to the Old Growth order, the Biden Administration issued the USDA’s Memorandum on Climate Resilience and Carbon Stewardship, USDA Forest Service’s Wildfire Crisis Strategy, Climate Adaptation Plan, and Reforestation Strategy. Significant budget increases were made through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Inflation Reduction Act. Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack’s Climate Smart Commodities Initiative is supporting some forest management projects. 

To build on this foundation of better forest management policy, the Administration and Congress should: 

1. Move more mature forests toward old-growth status through management that limits harvest and retains older, larger trees.

2. Increase funding for thinning and fuel treatments on federal forests.

3. Increase pay and improve benefits for federal forest workers.

4. Recruit more forest workers to join the industry through a 21st Century Conservation Corps

These are the policy decisions required to address the three-pronged forest management goals of climate action, raw material supplies for the economy, and wildfire mitigation. Thousands of rural jobs,  billions of dollars in potential rural incomes, billions of tons of stored carbon, and safer places to live in fire-prone rural regions are all on the line as Congress continues to under-invest in USFS and BLM forests. 

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