On Earth Day last year, April 22, 2022, President Biden issued Executive Order (EO) 14072, titled “Executive Order on Strengthening the Nation’s Forests, Communities, and Local Economies.” The EO directs the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to inventory mature and old-growth forests on all USFS and BLM lands, to continue wildfire mitigation strategies, and to develop reforestation targets to hit by 2030, among other directions.
In celebration of Earth Day 2023, and in reaching the one-year deadline set by the 2022 EO, the USFS made three important announcements on their work to protect our forests from the effects of climate change. As noted in the press release, the USFS recently: 1. issued a joint report on mature and old-growth forests with the BLM; 2. requests public comment on a new rule for adapting forests to climate change; and 3. released the beta version of the new Climate Risk Viewer tool.
First, the USFS and BLM issued their joint report titled “Mature and Old-Growth Forests: Definition, Identification, and Initial Inventory on Lands Managed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management” in early April. This report fulfills the requirement of the 2022 EO directing the agencies to inventory mature and old-growth forests. In total, the USFS/BLM lands contain 2.7 +/- 0.4 million acres of old-growth and 80.1 +/- 0.5 million acres of mature forest, representing 18 percent and 45 percent of the agencies’ forested lands, respectively. These values are an estimate, based on Forest Inventory Analysis (FIA) data, with a 68 percent confidence level.
The agencies had to define “mature forest” and “old-growth forest” before they began their inventory of those forests. The agencies established more flexible narrative definitions, because the definitions need to apply across every ecosystem and work within the larger, long-term adaptive management process. The narrative definitions established the general qualities of all mature and old-growth forests, and then the agencies applied the definition to each region. The first two appendices of the report list the precise data for each forest type of each region using the narrative definitions. To complete the inventory, the agencies used the new definition as applied to each forest type, and then combined those parameters with the FIA data to produce the final totals.
Publication of the report estimating the total amount of mature and old-growth forests in our nation’s public lands is the first step in a longer plan of maintaining and growing these forests. As the EO and the report highlight, having well-distributed and healthy mature and old-growth forests is vital to saving our forests nationwide from the effects of climate change. In the future, the USFS and BLM plan to develop strategies to “develop, recruit, sustain, and restore” mature and old-growth forests, provide guidelines for carbon stewardship, advance policy for further sustainable management, and other related goals.
Next, the USFS issued an Advanced Notice of Public Rulemaking to Build Climate Resilience. The stated purpose of the rule is to “adapt current policies to protect, conserve, and manage national forests and grasslands for climate resilience.” The proposed rulemaking is open to public comment for 60 days, with a deadline of June 20, 2023.
The phrase “building climate resilience” is extremely broad, and the wide range of options to achieve that objective would likely constitute enough material to go into several potential rules. The notice provides more refined questions to prompt answers from the public, sorted into interest area categories. One category includes using the best available science, including Indigenous knowledge (IK), in agency decision-making. By incorporating more IK into the science the agency considers, and by more effectively consulting with tribes, the agency hopes to make better informed decisions about issues directly affecting Indigenous communities.
Another category of questions to stimulate public comment involves adaptation planning and practices. The questions in this category include how to use management and geographic areas for climate mitigation, how to improve post-disaster response, and how approaches should vary based on scale (unit-level to nationwide). Climate mitigation issues of concern to the USFS are watershed conservation, wildlife protection, carbon stewardship, and mature and old-growth forest preservation.
The third Earth Day announcement from the USFS was the release of the beta version of the Climate Risk Viewer tool. Using a wide assortment of datasets projected onto a map of the United States, the Climate Risk Viewer sorts risk to forests into seven categories, viewable either separately or all together: climate exposure and vulnerability, management intent, water and watersheds, biodiversity and species at risk, carbon; reforestation, and mature and old-growth forests. Each category has a lengthy explanation for every source of data and its methodology, and each layer has its own unique visual on the map. Not every layer is currently operational, and the interface could be more user-friendly (the legibility of the layer labels is particularly difficult), but the Climate Risk Viewer can effectively visualize several facets of the climate crisis.
The “climate exposure and vulnerability” category is meant to show assorted trends in climate data and specific indicators of climate change. One measure of climate exposure displayed on the Climate Risk Viewer is the percent change in “snow residence time,” which is the average amount of time snow remains after falling. As climate change means higher temperatures on average and more intense weather patterns around the country, snow residence time tends to decrease, because the snow melts faster after it falls. The Climate Risk Viewer charts the change in percentage of snow residence time from current measurements to projections for the future in 2071–2090, with the darkest areas on the map indicating up to a 100 percent decrease in snow residence time––meaning snow will cease to remain in these areas almost entirely.
An example of a vulnerability on the Climate Risk Viewer is the threat of “human modification” to the environment. High levels of human modification are stressors to ecosystems through human activity and land usage. The darkest areas on the map, showing the most human-modified locations, are in the Midwest, along the East Coast, and in major cities. These most modified areas are not only the densest population centers, but also where the most agriculture, oil and gas production, logging, and other extractive activities occur. While not reflective of every human-caused mark on natural landscapes, this particular layer on the Climate Risk Viewer shows which areas and ecosystems are suffering the most due to human activity.
Overall, the USFS celebrated Earth Day 2023 by congratulating its recent efforts to meet President Biden’s directives on climate initiatives outlined in last year’s Earth Day EO. The joint report with the BLM focuses on identifying, protecting, and revitalizing mature and old-growth forests, critical to forest conservation. The Advanced Notice of Public Rulemaking to Build Climate Resilience reaches out for public comment on better ways for the USFS to manage its lands for climate resiliency, with an eye toward honoring and centering IK in its future rulemaking processes. Finally, the Climate Risk Viewer, while a beta version, is a ready-to-use mapping tool charting out the measurable ways the climate will change according to projections from numerous datasets.
This current trajectory for the USFS, and federal executive agencies in general, is a direct result of the policy directives from the president of the United States. Every new administration means new executive orders and new political appointments across the agencies. While this year’s Earth Day actions of the USFS are a step in the right direction for reducing the effects of the climate crisis, any promises for the future are subject to change after each presidential election. Just because the USFS is committed to protecting mature and old-growth forests now does not mean it will do the same in the next administration. As such, the USFS's Earth Day actions can be seen as more aspirational than concrete. For now, at least, we have a USFS willing to take action to conserve our nation’s forests against the threat of climate change.