Politically Driven Nationwide Old Growth Amendment Fails to Address Primary Threats to Old Forests, Harms Efforts to Address Wildfire Crisis

The American Forest Resource Council (AFRC) today said the U.S. Forest Service’s Draft Environmental Impact Statement for its proposed nationwide old growth amendment will not address the primary threats to old growth forests on National Forest System lands, including severe wildfires, insect infestations, and disease that have already devastated nearly 700,000 acres of old growth forests on federal lands over the past two decades.

AFRC says this politically driven process has consumed agency staff and resources that should have been devoted to addressing the growing forest health and wildfire crisis.

“For most Americans, the amendment misses the point. Our national forests are unhealthy. Our communities and rural infrastructure are at-risk. Millions are choking on wildfire smoke, including our most vulnerable populations.  We’re losing access to our most iconic and incredible natural places,” said AFRC President Travis Joseph. “And what’s the Biden Administration’s response? To simultaneously amend 128 national forest plans in the middle of a dangerous wildfire season that will distract the agency from its mission and make any proactive work in forests more difficult and expensive.”

Rather than amending all 128 Forest Plans across the nation at once and adding more red tape to forest management, AFRC says the Forest Service should focus on implementing effective strategies that are guided by local Forest Plans and informed by science, public input, and on-the-ground conditions.

“Instead of increasing bureaucracy and obstacles to active forest management, the Biden Administration should prioritize the implementation of its wildfire strategy that calls for more forest health treatments, and respond to the growing bipartisan frustration in Congress regarding the Forest Service’s slow progress in addressing this crisis, especially considering the billions of dollars in new funding provided by Congress to reduce wildfire risks,” Joseph said.

The Forest Service’s introductory threat analysis found that wildfire, insects, and disease pose the most significant threats to older forests. Since 2000, wildfires have resulted in the loss of an estimated 2.57 million acres of mature forests and 712,000 acres of old-growth forests on National Forest System and Bureau of Land Management lands. Insects and disease have caused a decrease of 1.86 million acres of mature forest and 182,000 acres of old growth.

The agency’s most recent analysis, released this month, indicates that old growth and mature forest loss was greater in areas restricted from timber harvest, including Congressionally-designated Wilderness, inventoried roadless areas, and national monuments, compared to areas where timber harvest is permitted.

“We’re pleased to see the Forest Service unambiguously demonstrate – using the best available data and science – that the greatest threat to old growth forests is wildfire and the best remedy is proactive management.  Yet, we know fringe anti-forestry groups will continue to weaponize this process to stop or block any meaningful work to protect old growth forests and communities from wildfire and other threats,” Joseph said. “That is what’s so frustrating.  There’s broad consensus about what needs to be done to protect old growth and improve forest health: intentional, strategic, science-based, active management.  But our national forests are micromanaged by politicians, activists, lawyers, and judges.  This amendment is the outcome of applying political science to forest management and will create more confusion, conflict, litigation, and paralysis in our forests.”

The Forest Service’s threat analysis found that 2.1 million acres of mature forests and 400,000 acres of old growth experienced “tree-cutting effects.” On 92 percent of these acres, tree cutting treatments were found to improve or maintain conditions for these forests, including improvements to wildfire resiliency.

Severe wildfires pose a far greater threat than tree cutting. According to the analysis, 70 to 80 percent of mature and old growth forests are at “high exposure” to wildfire-caused mortality. The analysis found that almost half of inventoried mature and old growth forests are in designated “firesheds” where there are few sawmills and loggers, but where the current threats of severe wildfire are high.

Forest Service data consistently finds that the nation has abundant old growth forests. In the West, the agency’s June 2024 analysis found that the proportion of forests aged 100 years and older is projected to increase, with relatively large increases in the 150-plus year age class under the current management paradigm, without the proposed amendment.

Despite this abundance of old-growth, carbon sequestration in our forests appears to be declining. The Environmental Protection Agency’s recent greenhouse gas inventory found that American forests sequestered 787 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in 2022, down from 844.2 million metric tons the prior year and from 974 million in 1990.

According to the EPA, “due to an aging forest land base, increases in the frequency and severity of disturbances of forests in some regions, among other drivers of change, forest carbon density is increasing at a slower rate resulting in an overall decline in the sink strength of forest land in the United States.” Separate Forest Service research has also found that, on their current trajectory, national forests are on track to become net carbon emitters in the coming decades due to wildfires, insects and disease.