The Giant Loop Hole in Biden’s Old-Growth Forest Executive Order

Old-Growth grove, Roaring River Wilderness, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Last month, in honor of Earth Day, President Biden signed an executive order on Strengthening the Nation’s Forests, Communities, and Local Economies. While the EO represents progress in its acknowledgement that old-growth and mature forests are essential bulwarks against the worst impacts of climate change, its stated commitment to science-based management, and its inclusion of indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge as key to sustainable forest management, it does not — yet — actually safeguard the last of these forests here at home.

Amongst the substantive provision of the EO is a directive for the secretaries of agriculture and interior to “define, identify and complete an inventory of old-growth and mature forests on federal lands,” and to make it public within one year. Following the inventory, the agencies are directed to “develop policies with robust opportunity for public comment to institutionalize climate-smart management and conservation strategies that address threats to mature and old-growth forests on federal lands.”

The EO also instructs multiple government agencies to submit a report identifying opportunities for greater deployment of nature-based solutions to the climate crisis. All of these actions are significant, but none has immediate conservation impact.

The EO’s list of the biggest threats to our mature and old-growth forests, moreover, omits the most pervasive threat and the one Biden can influence most: ongoing logging of remaining older public forests. The EO states it is the administration’s policy to “conserve America’s mature and old-growth forests on federal lands,” yet federal agencies continue to propose and approve reckless logging projects in the last remaining old-growth and mature forests in the U.S., including many here in western Oregon.

Take for example the proposed Flat Country logging project in Oregon’s Willamette National Forest. This proposed sale would log nearly 4,500 acres, including clear-cutting 1,000 acres of rare old-growth and mature forest in the beloved McKenzie River watershed. With the massive Holiday Farm Fire having burned west of the area in 2020, the wildlife habitat in the proposed project footprint is all the more critical for imperiled species like the northern spotted owl.

Despite conservation organizations, Rep. Peter DeFazio, leading forest scientists and thousands of Oregonians asking the Forest Service to drop this egregious project, the agency is stubbornly pushing forward.

Our remaining mature and old-growth forests are essential habitat for imperiled wildlife, provide clean drinking water for communities, are beloved destinations for people seeking recreation and solace and are our region’s most significant climate defense. Allowing ongoing logging while mapping the last old-growth is yet another example of an adaptation gap: saying the right words, but failing to take the necessary action to meet stated goals.

While these studies are conducted and reports written, the Biden administration must issue a moratorium on all mature and old-growth logging nationwide and create strategic forest reserves to mitigate climate change, as advocated by leading scientists.

Currently proposed projects in remaining older forests, including Flat Country and dozens of others in development by the Forest Service and BLM in the Northwest, must be shelved. Without such action, the Biden administration continues to be amongst the major threats to our older forests and fragile climate.

This article originally appeared on Register-Guard.

Bethany Cotton is conservation director of Cascadia Wildlands.