President Biden is expected to sign an executive order on Earth Day allowing for the inventorying of old-growth and mature forests across the country, the Washington Post reports. The Friday order will allow the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to use that information to draft policies protecting forests from any threats the agencies identify. It’s unclear what definition the administration will be using for mature and old-growth forests, as the terms tend to vary from ecosystem to ecosystem. For example, the old-growth forest found in Muir Woods in California has trees as old as 1,200 years, while some of the old-growth forests in Minnesota have trees much younger—albeit still centuries old.
What the executive order doesn’t do outright is ban logging. However, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management do have jurisdiction over timber sales from federal forests and could thus limit the practice. The Washington Post adds that the order will extend to limiting foreign deforestation efforts and include an inventory of additional natural resources meant to calculate their value. While the Washington Post does mention that the executive order will promote “economic development in regions with major timber industries,” it’s anyone’s guess what that looks like and whether it includes conservation efforts in addition to boosting communities reliant on logging without harming forests in the process.
Forest management is a tricky process given the way climate change has impacted wildfire seasons in parts of the U.S. Rising temperatures and ongoing droughts have led to drier conditions that only increase the threat of devastating fires that burn more acreage faster and at higher temperatures than in previous years. The logging industry has responded by calling for “forest thinning,” basically cutting down trees to benefit the industry while not really doing a whole lot to mitigate fire threats. True fire mitigation calls for Indigenous stewardship, with tribes using their vast knowledge to prevent more devastating fires from decimating regions. Such stewardship goes hand-in-hand with the Biden administration’s environmental justice goals. But until the executive order is released, there’s no certainty that the Biden administration will do anything more than leave it up to federal agencies to monitor forest fire threats.
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Even if Indigenous stewardship ends up as a component of Biden’s executive order, there’s always the possibility that the following administration will take unkindly to conservation efforts and effectively revoke it. As the Trump administration moved to undermine progress on public land conservation, the Biden administration swiftly moved to undo the damage that had already been done once the president took office. This has led to a back-and-forth in which the Interior Department was forced to resume oil and gas leasing sales at the behest of an injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Terry Doughty, a Trump-appointed judge with a history of problematic rulings.