Energy & Environment

Environmental groups urge Biden administration to stop logging mature forests on national lands

The Telephone Gap Project area. Photo courtesy of Zack Porter

Environmental groups around the country are urging the Biden administration to ban the harvesting of old and mature forests on federal lands. The coalition, called Climate Forests, has referenced a Vermont project with thousands of acres of proposed logging as an example of activity they’re trying to stop. 

Old forests are assets to the environment and climate, sequestering carbon, providing safe havens for biodiversity, and making natural and human communities more resilient to climate change. 

In the past several years, the “forever wild” movement has gained traction in Vermont. New organizations such as the Northeast Wilderness Trust and Standing Trees have advocated for passive rewilding and have actively protected thousands of acres, though only around 3% of Vermont’s forests are managed passively. 

Less than 1% of Vermont’s forests have reached old-growth status, according to the state’s Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. 

The coalition, which is made up of 70 groups from across the country, argues that the United States Department of Agriculture Forest Service should not only protect the country’s oldest forests, but that protections also should extend to maturing forests so they can eventually become old.

So, what is a mature forest? Niel Lawrence, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the Biden Administration would need to craft a definition through “a very robust public process, fully informed by environmental review.”

“I think a starting point would be to be looking at trees that are 80 years and older,” he said, but the definition likely would change for various ecosystems around the country.

European settlers clear-cut vast portions of Vermont’s landscape throughout the 18th and 19th centuries to farm. Many of those fields were abandoned around 80 years ago, said Jeff Tilley, the forestry program leader for the U.S. Forest Service’s Green Mountain National Forest and Finger Lakes sections. 

If a policy covered forests that have aged to 80 years and older, “that would be most forests in the Northeast,” Tilley said.

“This could be a real game changer, a paradigm shift in public land management here in New England, and put a significant amount of our forests on the path to recovering the old growth forests, the natural forests that were once here,” said Zack Porter, director of Standing Trees. 

Telephone Gap

The Green Mountain National Forest covers more than 400,000 acres in southwestern and central Vermont. Tilley says logging within those acres is minimal, accounting for a fraction of 1% of the forests, but the Forest Service has been trying to increase the amount of logging after a lull in the early 2000s. Most of the logging in the state takes place on privately owned land, a U.S. Forest Service calculator showed. 

One of the Forest Service’s proposals, the Telephone Gap Integrated Resource Project, has spurred protest from environmental activists. 

The project, located on 72,253 acres of public and private land located in Chittenden and surrounding towns in Rutland County, will include a number of activities such as an expansion of recreation opportunities and management that will promote biodiversity. More than 32,000 of those acres are in the National Forest System. 

But the Forest Service may open up to 11,000 acres of the project area for logging, according to a landscape assessment of the project. 

“On suitable lands, those available for commercial timber harvest, 85% of the forest is over 80 years old,” the assessment said. Fifty-five percent of the forest is more than 100 years old.

The project is still in its early stages, and Tilley said any proposed logging actions would go through an environmental analysis with opportunities for public comment.  

The U.S. Forest Service and advocates of the forever wild movement have markedly different views about the impacts of logging. Lawrence, with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said forests in the Northeast are still recovering from the wide-scale clear-cutting that took place when Europeans settled Vermont. 

“​​The Telephone Gap Project, unbelievably, targets many thousands of acres of federally owned forests in Vermont that are doing the best job of recovering those essential public services and would set them back decades and maybe centuries,” he said. 

Tilley said selective logging is used, in part, to make forests more hospitable to at-risk species. 

He pointed to a 2021 paper by researchers at the University of Vermont’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources that lists the tradeoffs. Forests, the paper said, “represent a critical natural climate solution, given their tremendous ability to sequester and store carbon.”

“And yet, in some forest and woodland ecosystems, including in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions of the US, strategies for keeping carbon on the ground do not always align with providing critical habitat for at-risk species,” the paper said.

For example, some migratory bird species have come to rely on open areas in Vermont, according to the paper. Their decline “may be attributed, in part, to the maturation of forests across much of the Northeast.” Management decisions should be made with empirical data at the tree stand level, the paper said.

Meanwhile, environmental activists say forests are generally most resilient when left alone. 

“In 2022, the greatest good for the greatest number is helping our society, our country to rise up to the challenges of climate change and extinction,” Porter said. “Recovering the natural forests of New England should be our highest priority on our public lands.”

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Emma Cotton

About Emma

Emma Cotton is a Report for America corps member who covers the environment, climate change, energy and agriculture. Previously, she covered Rutland and Bennington counties for VTDigger, wrote for the Addison Independent and served as assistant editor of Vermont Sports and VT Ski + Ride magazines. Emma studied marine science and journalism at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Email: [email protected]

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