Nolan Stout

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Biden administration is revamping all federal forest management plans to conserve old forests and put stronger limits on logging of older trees.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday that the Forest Service will amend all 128 of its forest land management plans, which govern 193 million acres of forests and grasslands across the country.

The proposal would limit commercial timber harvest in forests designated as old growth, but allow logging in other forests that haven’t yet matured to a similar stage. Old-growth trees are part of forests that have grown in areas without disturbance and can be more than 100 years old. They are essential habitats for an array of wildlife, store vast amounts of carbon and are more likely to survive wildfires.

“Old-growth forests are a vital part of our ecosystems and a special cultural resource. This proposed nationwide forest plan amendment — the first in the agency’s history — is an important step in conserving these national treasures,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release.

“Climate change is presenting new threats like historic droughts and catastrophic wildfires. This clear direction will help our old-growth forests thrive across our shared landscape.”

Old-growth forests represent 18% of all forested land managed by the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service. Mature forests represent another 45%.

Officials said revising all of the nation's management plans at the same time, which the White House said has never been done before, would provide consistent direction across the Forest Service for conservation efforts.

“The proposed amendment establishes national intent to maintain and improve amounts and distributions of old-growth forest conditions within national forest ecosystems and watersheds so that old-growth forest conditions are resilient and adaptable to stressors and likely future environments,” Christopher French, deputy chief of the National Forest System, wrote in a letter to regional forest managers.

President Joe Biden signed an executive order in June 2022 directing the USDA to conserve and restore old and mature forests to help combat climate change.

“Our forests absorb carbon dioxide equivalent to more than 10% of our nation’s annual greenhouse gas emissions,” Branda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said in a press release. “Under President Biden’s leadership, our Administration is acting to conserve and restore old-growth forests so nature can continue to be a key climate solution.”

Tuesday’s announcement includes the creation of a nationwide inventory of old-growth and mature forests. An initial inventory report cataloged 32 million acres of old growth and more than 80 million acres of mature forests on land managed by the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

Separately, the Forest Service is updating the Northwest Forest Plan, which was created in 1994 for climate resilience. The plan guides management of some federal forests in Washington, Oregon and California, which contain roughly a quarter of the old growth in the national forest system in the continental U.S. The Forest Service’s portion of the plan hasn’t been updated since 2007.