A hiker makes her way down the Eastside Trail as it winds through miles of old-growth forest in Mount Rainier National Park. (Courtesy of the National Park Service).
President Joe Biden signed an executive order Friday to establish a federal strategy to protect old-growth forests, a move the administration says will help curb destructive wildfires and fight climate change.
The Earth Day order tasks the Interior and Agriculture departments with creating a federal definition of old-growth and mature forests. Such forests are generally considered to be areas where trees are at least 60 years old and have not been meaningfully affected by humans.
The agencies would build a database of forests on federal lands within a year, then create “climate-smart management” strategies to protect the forests. The order also directs the departments to establish 2030 targets for reforestation.
Speaking from Seattle’s Seward Park on Friday, Biden said he had seen wildfires that destroyed old-growth forests in recent years and the results are “absolutely devastating.”
“So we’re going to work with state and local and tribal governments to map, catalog and then conserve old growth forests and our public lands,” he said.
“These are the forests that store, sequester incredible amounts of carbon and help us fight climate change, the forests that are our home to majestic trees like the ones here in this park’s magnificent forest.”
The $1.2 trillion infrastructure law enacted last year provided billions for wildfire management and required Interior and USDA to prioritize old-growth forests. But the federal government had no inventory of where those forests are located.
Friday’s move is meant to help address both a cause and an effect of climate change by protecting forests that store carbon and reducing catastrophic wildfires. Forests absorb more than 10% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions annually, according to a White House fact sheet.
The order is part of a wider administration strategy to employ nature for climate purposes, according to the fact sheet. It calls for a White House report on how to use “nature-based solutions,” including restoring marshes and planting shade trees, to address climate change.
The order is consistent with a pledge Biden made at last year’s United Nations climate conference to participate in a global effort to conserve forests.
In his comments in Seattle, Biden floated the idea of subsidizing the Brazilian government to preserve the Amazon rainforest.
“We should be paying the Brazilians not to cut down their forests,” he said.
The order directs the State Department to reduce U.S. purchases of agricultural products that were grown on recently deforested land.
The environmental community largely praised the order.
“We have no time to lose when it comes to protecting our forests both in the United States and across the globe,” Ellen Montgomery, public lands director with the advocacy group Environment America, said in a statement. “This announcement is a critical step forward not only for the United States but for our role as an international leader in the fight against climate change.”
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, said the order “takes on the climate crisis threatening Oregon & complements fire reduction investments I’ve worked to secure.”
Arkansas U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, also applauded the move and called for passing a bill he has sponsored to ramp up tree-planting while reducing regulations on forest management.
“I’m pleased to see President Biden finally recognizing something congressional Republicans have promoted for years,” Westerman said in a statement. “That properly managed forests play a key role in reducing atmospheric carbon and also provide clean air, clean water, quality wildlife habitat, excellent recreational opportunities and beautiful vistas.
“Continuing to mismanage federal lands or locking them up and throwing away the key is not an option.”
The executive order comes at the end of a week in which the White House has sought to spotlight its climate efforts after a rocky period for Biden’s climate agenda.
Though he secured some climate provisions in the infrastructure law, court orders, opposition from members of Congress and the administration’s attention on other crises have stalled other priorities.
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