Old growth and mature forests are the focus of a new executive order by President Biden, to identify and protect them as a part of climate conservation.

The order, signed Thursday, directs the National Forest Service (NFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to define and inventory all mature and old growth forests on federal land, to identify the specific threats against them, and began plans to minimize those threats.

The NFS manages approximately 200,000 square miles of forested land, and about two fifths of that features trees older than 100 years old. The BLM has 90,600 square miles, and has not measured for age of trees.

The initial hurdle of this order is that there is no official definition of what ‘mature forest’ or ‘old growth’ means, and different agencies wish to draw those lines in different places. Environmentalists ask for a liberal definition of the term, one which would qualify millions of acres of land for new protection. Timber industry allies want a tight conservative definition, one which would not expand logging restrictions.

Seeking to find a path between two extremes, the two agencies are looking for public input on a “universal definition framework” to identify mature and old growth forests needing protection.

“Old-growth and mature forests are critical to ensuring resilience in our forests in the face of climate change, and they play a key role in storing carbon,” said Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning. “We look forward to hearing from the public on how best to define and inventory them.”

The United States forests are mostly not mature or old growth. Over 95 percent of pre-agricultural forests have been logged. A great deal has been restored, but clear-cuts replanted with a single species of tree can take two hundred years to be a properly mature, diverse forest again, and highways and roads spread damage for miles beyond their shoulders that cannot recover.

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