Trees that have never been logged and that are now at the maximum of their growth potential are called “old-growth.” A long list of plant and animal species depend upon old-growth and mature (trees generally over 80 years old) forest to survive, such as the beautiful predator the Pacific fisher. Mature and old-growth forests are also the most resistant to being killed by fire.
Conservationists have been struggling to protect the remaining old-growth on California’s federal public lands for over a century. Despite this, from the 1960s through the 1990s there was a catastrophic decline in old-growth as a result of U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) logging programs that eliminated fire-resistant big trees and replaced them with fire-prone tickets of small trees, shrubs, and logging debris. While old-growth logging is less common today on California’s federal lands, we continue to lose old-growth as a result of fires that have been made unnaturally extreme due to the impacts of logging, roads (roads lead to more human caused fires), and climate change.
President Biden took action on Earth Day to address this problem by issuing an Executive Order directing the USFS and BLM to inventory all remaining mature and old-growth forests nationwide. The agencies are also supposed to identify threats to these trees and to use that information to write policies to protect them. While the order can be undone by a future occupant of the White House, it only calls for an inventory, and not immediate protection, and the USFS and BLM may blur definitions of old-growth to maintain the ability to log big trees, conservationists still welcomed the Executive Order as a first step in protecting our remaining old-growth and mature forests—at least from logging—at long last.
The move reflects the administration’s broader strategy to fight climate change through land conservation. Scientists consider forests to be critical carbon sinks, meaning they absorb more carbon dioxide than they release into the atmosphere. Old-growth trees collectively store billions of tons of carbon dioxide. Protecting them could help avert the worst effects of climate change.
The agencies were given a year to inventory all old-growth and mature forest nationwide. CalWild and our allies eagerly await these maps so we can focus our efforts to save California’s last ancient forests and to grow more big trees over the decades to come.