Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) Environmental groups are asking the U.S. Forest Service to stop diminishing one of the few ready-made tools mankind has to slow climate change: mature and old-growth forests.

On Monday, in conjunction with the two-week United Nations COP27 Climate Change Conference in Egypt, about 30 members of several environmental organizations gathered in front of the U.S. Forest Service Region 1 headquarters at Fort Missoula as part of a national effort to protest commercial logging of mature and old-growth forests. 

“Chainsaw medicine is not the answer to wildfires or climate change,” said Michelle Dietrich of Friends of the Bitterroot. “We need a moratorium on logging now until we have a firm rule that protects mature and old-growth forests.”

Eight speakers highlighted various Forest Service projects that pose a threat to old-growth forests around western Montana. They represented Great Old Broads for Wilderness, the Sierra Club, WildEarth Guardians, Friends of the Bitterroot, Friends of the Clearwater, Bitterroot Audubon and the Flathead-Lolo-Bitterroot Citizen Task Force.

They are part of the Climate Forests Campaign, a nationwide collaboration of more than 105 organizations trying to preserve mature and old-growth forests that can sequester and store vast amounts of carbon.

Trees store 50% to 75% of the carbon they use during photosynthesis in their wood, and the larger and more mature the tree, the more carbon it absorbs. Forests are good carbon sinks, because they have large amounts of woody material that persists for decades to centuries, barring any disturbance.

Adam Rissien, WildEarth Guardians Rewilding manager, praised President Joe Biden for signing an executive order in April, directing federal land agencies, as part of a larger effort to restore US forests, to inventory all mature and old growth forests within one year and identify threats to their existence.

“Unfortunately, we’re running into resistance within the Forest Service, complaining that the task at hand is too difficult and too complex,” Rissien said. “We’re here today to let the Forest Service know we have some really good news for them: A group of internationally renowned scientists have done the work for them, identifying where mature and old-growth occur across the lower 48 (states).”

Jennifer Watson of Great Old Broads for Wilderness explains why the Forest Service should let old growth trees stand during Monday's rally at the U.S. Forest Service headquarters building. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)
Jennifer Watson of Great Old Broads for Wilderness explains why the Forest Service should let old growth trees stand during Monday's rally at the U.S. Forest Service headquarters building. (Laura Lundquist/Missoula Current)
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The work Rissien mentioned was published more than a month ago in the scientific journal “Frontiers in Forests and Global Change.” Eight American and Australian scientists, led by Earth Island Institute scientist Dominick DellaSala, used computer models, satellite spatial data and Forest Inventory data to map where mature forests still exist. Western Montana is home to several.

The study found that mature and old-growth forests on federal lands “have the highest conservation values reflective of their above-ground living biomass, at-risk ecosystems and species, and drinking water source areas. However, only 24% of (mature and old-growth forests) on national forest and BLM lands are fully protected.”

Those at the rally called for their protection. 

Mary Alexi of the Northwest Chapter of Great Old Broads for Wilderness described the cooling effect – even in the heat of summer - of lush, mossy old-growth forests now threatened by the Black Ram and Knotty Pine projects on the Kootenai National Forest.

“The approved project proposes clearcutting more than 3 square miles of mature old growth forest. It’s being proposed in the name of wildfire mitigation. Ironically, there are no human homes for miles and miles. It is home to a small population of voiceless grizzly bears, Canada lynx, wolves and wolverines,” Alexi said. “These large trees are the lungs of the planet. These large, mature trees are key assets in the fight against climate change.”

The Black Ram Project was one of 10 Forest Service projects highlighted by July Climate Forests report as evidence that federal land agencies are upholding Biden’s executive order. They say the greatest threat to mature and old growth forests is logging, pointing to the 240,000 acres of mature forest included in the 10 projects. 

Climate Forests recently issued a second report criticizing 12 Forest Service projects for proposing to cut mature and old-growth forest, including the Bitterroot Front Project and the Dead Laundry Project on the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest.

“The public must hold the government accountable, because telling the public where old growth forests are located is the last thing the Forest Service wants. In fact, in 1987, the Forest Service said it would inventory all the old growth on the Nez Perce National Forest within 10 years; 35 years later, they still haven’t done it,” said Jeff Juel of Friends of the Clearwater. “In fact, that was the basis of a lawsuit that Friends of the Clearwater won just this year.”

In June, an Idaho federal judge put the End of the World and Hungry Ridge projects on hold until the Forest Service identified and protected old-growth stands. The two projects would have logged more than 40 square miles – including more than 11 square miles of clearcuts or similar treatment - on the Salmon-Clearwater Divide over the next 10 year.

Often, the Amazon rainforest is cited as being important for holding off the worst of climate change. The recent election of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as president of Brazil has given hope to the planet because he campaigned under promises to protect the rainforest after 15 years of deforestation.

But northern mature forests are just as important to capturing excess carbon. But because so much emphasis has been on the tropics, the first- and third-highest forest loss in the world is happening in Russia and Canada, respectively, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Both countries have allowed massive clearcutting, and forests in certain areas are irrecoverable, destroying their ability to capture carbon.

The Climate Forests Campaign wants to stop that from happening in the U.S.
On Monday, Rissien delivered to the Region 1 office almost 6,000 signatures collected by Great Old Broads for Wilderness, WildEarth Guardians, Oregon Wild and the national Climate Forest Campaign in support of a rule protecting mature and old growth forests.

Last week, the Climate Forests Campaign held similar rallies at the headquarters of Forest Service Regions 8 and 9, which are mostly east of the Mississippi, and will be protesting this week at the Region 3 headquarters in Albuquerque, N.M., and Region 6 in Portland, Ore.

“The difficult work is still ahead of us. We know where these forests occur, and now, we need to make sure they are protected,” Rissien said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.

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