Commentary: Old growth is burning up in wildfires. This calls for better land management

From The Capital Press, by Nick Smith:

In December, the Biden Administration announced its long-awaited policy to conserve old growth forests on lands managed by the federal government. The policy caps a nearly two-year process after Biden signed his Earth Day executive order in 2022, including defining, inventorying and assessing the greatest threats to the nation’s old growth.

The primary threats to old growth on federal lands are severe wildfires, insect infestations and disease that have already destroyed nearly 700,000 acres of old growth forests on federal lands over the past 20 years. The threat of commercial logging was determined to be negligible.

This threat assessment could have provided fresh momentum for the administration to implement its own 10-year wildfire strategy that calls for a threefold increase in forest health treatments on federally owned forests, which includes mechanically thinning fire-prone forests. Under the current process, it takes years and hundreds of pages of paperwork for the U.S. Forest Service to develop and implement these treatments, and even longer when the projects are stalled in court.

Instead, the Forest Service was directed to embark on another costly paperwork exercise, this time amending all 128 forest land management plans to “conserve and steward” old-growth forest conditions on national forests and grasslands nationwide. …

Under the Northwest Forest Plan, for example, three-quarters of national forest land in Northern California, Oregon and Washington are largely off-limits to routine active forest management, including over 7 million acres of “late successional reserves.” Recovery actions related to the Northern Spotted Owl have also restricted forest management, even though wildfires have scorched hundreds of square miles of the species’ habitat in recent years.

This does not count the millions of acres of designated Wilderness, National Parks, wildlife refuges and other areas that are permanently “protected,” and instead are burning up in wildfire. …

Rather than giving our public lands managers the policy tools and support they need to sustain our forests and all the values they provide, such “paperwork protection” of old growth forests forces public lands managers to focus on more government bureaucracy that does little to address the real risks on the ground. The Forest Service is accepting public comment on this policy through Feb. 2. Make your voice heard by submitting a comment on their website, http://tinyurl.com/4hkd8tww.

Nick Smith is executive director of Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, a non-profit, non-partisan organization supporting active forest management on federal lands. He also serves as public affairs director for the American Forest Resource Council, a trade association representing the forest sector in the Pacific Northwest.

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