Laura Lundquist

(Missoula Current) A Legislative committee is backing the Gianforte administration in its opposition to a proposed U.S. Forest Service amendment that could make small changes to preserve old-growth forests.

On Monday, the Legislative Environmental Quality Council approved sending a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture opposing an amendment that would affect all U.S. Forest Service forest plans to add a little more protection for patches of old-growth forest. Instead of protecting old-growth habitat, the EQC pushed for more active forest management.

“The council is concerned the forest service will not meaningfully consider state input from and interests of Montana during this process. We do not believe existing old-growth forest definitions need to be redefined in the first place,” the letter said.

The EQC wrote the letter in response to a two-year-old Biden administration effort to preserve old-growth forests in response to rapidly changing climate conditions. While the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act dedicated funding to forest management and prescribed fires to reduce the threat of wildfires in inhabited areas, Biden’s executive order issued in April 2022 sought to make sure that old-growth forests would be conserved.

On Monday, Timory Peel, US Forest Service Northern Region Ecosystem Planning director, told the EQC that the Forest Service carried out the executive order by creating criteria for identifying old-growth and then inventorying all the old-growth across the nation.

Only a small fraction of the country’s old-growth forests remain. In a report last spring, the agency estimated that there are nearly 25 million acres of old-growth forest on Forest Service land — or about 17% of the agency’s forested land — based on a complex set of definitions tailored to some 200 forest types.

The Forest Service just published an analysis of the threats to old-growth forests a week ago. After receiving 6,400 comments during scoping - the majority of which support protecting old-growth forests - the Forest Service will publish the draft environmental impact statement within a few weeks and then there will be a 90-day comment period. After the comments are analyzed, the final decision should be out by the end of the year, Peel said.

After that, adaptive strategies would have to be in place within two years, the department said, and forests would need to show measurable progress in old-growth areas within a decade.

“The proposed action is direction that fosters proactive stewardship of old-growth forests. It does allow for management for the purposes of ecological restoration or maintenance of those characteristics. It allows for management in protection of communities in the wildland-urban interface.Its primary restriction is that we wouldn’t be harvesting old-growth strictly for economic input or production - we’d be doing it for ecological reasons,” Peel said. “For the Northern Region, the proposed amended language is not substantially different than what our current land management plans state.”

Even though the amendment would change little, Amanda Kaster, Department of Natural Resources and Conservation director, breathlessly condemned the amendment as hindering state logging efforts being carried out on federal lands under the Good Neighbor Policy.

In February, Governor Greg Gianforte joined with five other Republican governors in criticizing the USDA for not engaging the states on the amendment. Their letter to Agriculture Secretary Thomas Vilsack also pushed instead for allowing forest logging projects to be fast-tracked. Utah Governor Spencer Cox, Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon, Idaho Governor Brad Little, Nevada Governor Joe Lombardo, and South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem signed on.

Kaster said the process was moving too fast and didn’t allow enough engagement for interested parties.

“The concerns include a one-size-fits-all definition when it comes to old-growth. We know this sort of top-down policy directive does not produce the outcomes that meet the unique needs of Montana,” Kaster said. “This is a barrier - red-tape, if you will - that impacts our ability to do what needs to be done, which is all-hands, all-lands, cross-boundary landscape-level work to make headway on our high-risk acreage.”

But the EIS is not a one-size-fits-all proposal. While the proposal directs all forest plans to contain provisions on saving old-growth, it gives regional foresters and forest supervisors flexibility to adapt their plans to local conditions. Management schemes for old-growth in the Pacific Northwest, for instance, can differ from those in the East, where old-growth still exists in small patches.

The only citizen who commented on the amendment was Montana Wood Products Association spokesperson Julia Altemus. She also opposed the executive order as “top-down” and said logging doesn’t lead to a loss of old-growth and it’s less of a threat to old-growth than wildfire.

Under the amendment, small trees could be removed from old-growth forests. But since it prohibits logging for the primary purpose of commercial gain, that would preclude clearcutting a section of old-growth forest or taking out larger, older trees, actions that tend to be more profitable. This sort of logging typically doesn’t benefit forests or prevent them from burning, according to several forestry experts.

Studies show that old trees and many old forests, like coastal redwoods, are resilient to wildfires. Only a small portion of commercial timber in the US comes from old-growth forests. The proposal wouldn’t be a major blow to the timber industry, nor would it diminish many forest projects. However, some projects in Montana might be affected.

For example, in fall 2023, the Custer-Gallatin National Forest approved the South Plateau Landscape Area Treatment Project, a 16,462-acre logging project along the western boundary of Yellowstone National Park, which includes 5,531 acres of clear-cutting. Multiple conservation groups sued because it would clear-cut old-growth forest and grizzly bear habitat. Meanwhile, the Black Ram project on the Kootenai National Forest in the Yaak is also in the courts after it was approved under a Trump-era rule allowing the logging of old-growth stands on six national forests.

“They say they’ll log this old-growth forest—this wet, green rainforest—to create fire resilience,” author Rick Bass told Scientific American in March. “But these trees are already fire-resilient.”

Old-growth forests are not only fire-resistant; they yield ecological benefits. Scientists now know that the health of the planet depends on old-growth ecosystems.

For one thing, old trees are exceptionally good at capturing and storing carbon. Old-growth forests tend to have larger trees than younger stands, and larger trees are made of more carbon-rich wood. They also typically have larger canopies, which operate like sponges, sucking carbon dioxide from the air, helping to offset the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions.

As the planet warms, old-growth forests will become even more important for the nation’s wildlife. In 2017, Matthew Betts, Oregon State University forest ecologist, published a study showing that old-growth forests likely help buffer the negative impacts of rising temperatures on birds, likely, in part, because big trees with large canopies help cool the landscape. Aquatic life also does better due to cooler stream temperatures.

“It think this is an incredibly positive step,” Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited, told E&E News in December 2023. “This isn’t wilderness designation. They’re not saying there can’t be any management in these forests.”

The EQC voted 10-5, mostly along party lines, to send the letter opposing the amendment to the USDA. Rep. Marilyn Marler, D-Missoula, was the only Democratic “yes” vote.