A coalition of more than 70 environmental groups launched a joint campaign on Tuesday calling on President Biden to protect old-growth trees on federal lands from logging as a means of fighting climate change. Trees absorb carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas that causes global warming, and older trees store more carbon than new ones because they are larger.
The campaign seeks to persuade the U.S. Forest Service, a division of the Department of Agriculture that manages around 20 percent of forest land in the United States, to identify areas of mature trees and to protect them, specifically. Since European colonization, the territory of the United States has lost as much as 95 percent of its forests that have never been logged, experts estimate. While some specific areas have since been protected, there is no blanket rule prohibiting logging of old-growth trees on Forest Service land.
“The Forest Service has indicated they are rolling around this idea of how to address climate through the Forest Service, and they’re looking at an administrative rulemaking to do that,” Kirin Kennedy, director of People and Nature Policy at the Sierra Club, told Yahoo News. “We’re simply saying: If you’re going to do some rulemaking around climate, that one avenue is to look at old-growth trees and mature trees.”
Although cutting down a tree and using it for lumber does not release as much carbon as burning it, an estimated 30 percent of the carbon is released when a tree is chopped down, in part because removing the roots releases carbon from the soil.
Environmental activists also note that older forests provide more shade, creating cooler temperatures, which makes them less susceptible to wildfires. Undisturbed microclimates such as old-growth forests also support greater biodiversity. Logging on National Forest Service land can endanger the water supply for the 60 million Americans whose drinking water comes from that land.
“Reducing emissions alone is an insufficient strategy for addressing the climate crisis we face today — the US must also sequester and store significant amounts of legacy emissions from the atmosphere,” the Sierra Club, one of the member organizations in the Climate Forests campaign, wrote in a memo that it distributed on Wednesday morning.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, keeping average global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius to avert catastrophic climate change will require not just the rapid, dramatic reduction of greenhouse gas emissions but sequestering greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere. Although the technology exists to suck carbon from the air and store it underground, only one facility that does so commercially has been built, in Iceland, in part because the cost is still high.
“While there are numerous promising technologies that can help us meet this need in the future, our best near-term opportunities are natural climate solutions that enable us to store vast amounts of carbon in our forests,” the Sierra Club wrote. “Protecting and recovering mature growth forests is a simple, cost-effective climate solution and a climate forest policy is the missing piece of US efforts to address the climate crisis.”
Of course, any action to protect trees is subject to repeal by future administrations. For example, in 2020, the Trump administration opened 9 million acres of the Tongass National Forest in Alaska to development. In November, the Biden administration proposed restoring previous protections to the area.
Kennedy said that activists have met with the Forest Service to make their case for protecting old-growth trees, but that it is not clear if the agency plans to heed their advice. The Department of Agriculture did not immediately respond to a request for comment.