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Ageism in Forest Policy: The Forest Service’s Failure to Protect Mature Forests

Antonia Langowski


  • The Forest Service, under guidance from the Biden administration, proposed amendments to conserve old-growth forests, aligning with Executive Order 14072, but lacks explicit measures to protect mature forests.
  • While mature forests offer substantial carbon sequestration and habitat support, the Forest Service's proposed amendment focuses primarily on old-growth forests, leaving a significant portion of forested land inadequately protected.
  • Neglecting the preservation of mature forests undermines the comprehensive approach necessary for sustainable forest management, risking ecological disruption and cultural heritage loss.
Ageism in Forest Policy: The Forest Service’s Failure to Protect Mature Forests
EyeWolf via Getty Images

In the ongoing discourse surrounding environmental conservation and sustainable land management, the protection of mature and old-growth forests has stood as a political focal point for decades. Mature and old-growth forests are vital ecological treasures fostering carbon sequestration, biodiversity, and cultural heritage. North America was once covered in these ancient forests, but as the timber industry grew, loggers systematically depleted a significant portion of the United States’ older forests. Today, much of the remaining forests are managed by the U.S. Forest Service, but the agency has not stewarded a purely conservation-focused approach to public land management. The Forest Service, whose mission statement is to sustain “the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests,” has historically been aligned with the timber industry, often regarding forests as expendable resources. As a result, only a fraction of the nation’s older forests remain, and their preservation going forward may serve as a resilient climate solution.

To cultivate an era of forest conservation, the Forest Service, with the guidance of the Biden administration, has recently set a fresh course. In December 2023, the Forest Service unveiled a proposal to amend all 128 of its land management plans to conserve old-growth forest conditions. This proposal is consistent with Executive Order 14072, which was signed by President Biden on Earth Day in 2022 and instructs the secretaries of the interior and agriculture to, among other things, “restore and conserve the nation’s forests.” The Forest Service plans to finalize its proposal by January 2025. If implemented, the proposal will prohibit vegetation management activities in old-growth forests that are carried out for economic reasons, representing a significant step forward in the prioritization of old-growth forest protection. That being said, while much attention has rightfully been directed toward the protection of old-growth forests, the omission of explicit measures to prevent logging of mature forests nonetheless poses a significant challenge to holistic conservation plans. Ultimately, the crux lies in the Forest Service’s proposed amendment that has the effect of affording less protection to older “mature” forests on the cusp of meeting the criteria for old-growth designation.

Similar to old-growth forests, the conservation of mature forests is critical for various reasons, including, but not limited to: 1. carbon sequestration and climate mitigation; 2. biodiversity and habitat support; and 3. invaluable cultural and social resources. Older forests are incredibly efficient at storing carbon, playing a crucial role in mitigating climate change. These forests accumulate carbon over long periods as trees grow and mature. Thus, mature trees, with large diameters and greater biomass, store significant amounts of carbon in their stems, branches, bark, and foliage. Additionally, mature forests often have dense canopies, further contributing to carbon storage by capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. The soils in mature and old-growth forests also contain substantial carbon deposits, built up as organic matter decomposes. Importantly, because there are over twice as many acres of mature forests than old-growth on Forest Service land, the carbon sequestration capacity of mature forests is substantial. Thus, the conservation of both mature and old-growth forests is vital for carbon sequestration and climate mitigation.

The complex structure of mature and old-growth forests offers; diverse niches for wildlife. Mature trees provide nesting sites and food sources for reptiles, amphibians, and numerous bird species. The dense canopy and understory vegetation offer protection and foraging opportunities for a wide range of mammals, such as white-tailed deer, black bears, and small mammals like squirrels and chipmunks. Rotting logs and snags in mature forests create habitats for fungi and insects, which then serve as food for other forms of wildlife. Finally, the presence of diverse plant species in older forests supports a variety of pollinators, such as bees and butterflies, contributing to natural forest regeneration. Overall, especially because of the immense acreage offered by mature forests, both mature and old-growth forests offer habitat elements necessary for the survival and proliferation of countless species.

Mature and old-growth forests often have deep-rooted connections to Indigenous cultures, traditional practices, and beliefs. Indigenous peoples have long depended on forests for food security, medicine, and materials for cultural and spiritual ceremonies. In many cultures, the forest is of utmost importance in beliefs as it has provided societies with the resources humans need to survive. Because of how sacred trees are in many Indigenous societies, trees should only be harvested and regenerated per the Indigenous peoples’ customary law to ensure ecosystem conservation. Thus, today’s preservation of both mature and old-growth forests is essential for maintaining cultural heritage and supporting Indigenous rights.

Section 2(b) of Executive Order 14072 instructs the secretaries of the interior and agriculture to conduct an inventory of old-growth and mature forests within one year of the order. Exactly one year later on Earth Day 2023, the Forest Service publicly launched its initial inventory report. In the report’s introduction, the Forest Service explains the challenges of establishing an analytical framework while balancing diverse stakeholder values and insufficient definitions in the ecological literature. Because of the difficulties pinpointing a universal definition of old-growth or mature forests, the Forest Service developed complex and dynamic “working definitions,” primarily by integrating new scientific findings and local input. To accommodate the diverse range of forest characteristics across ecosystems, both old-growth and mature working definitions account for over 200 distinct vegetation types across the National Forest System.

Despite the mature stage preceding the old-growth stage in forest stand development, the Forest Service begins its report by defining old-growth forests, due in part to the abundance of pre-existing ecological literature on the subject. The agency’s definition of “old-growth” is inarguably more robust than its definition of “mature,” and the agency even provides the historical context for defining the term. Although the Forest Service acknowledges that no singular definition can adequately represent the diversity of old-growth ecosystems, the agency generally refers to old-growth forests as “dynamic systems distinguished by old trees and related structural attributes.” In particular, the agency states that today’s old-growth forest definitions are based on the “unique biophysical characteristics” taking the diverse array of characteristics into account. Ultimately, based on the regional “old-growth” definitions, the Forest Service estimated in its report that there are nearly 25 million acres of old-growth forests on Forest Service land, making up 16.9 percent of the total forested land.

While the Executive Order emphasizes the significance of both old-growth and mature forests, the Forest Service notes that unlike old-growth forests, mature forests have not been consistently defined before and are considered a “relatively new concept.” As a result, the definitions of regional mature forest types are “explicitly linked to corresponding old-growth definitions.” To differentiate between old-growth and mature, the agency defines mature forests as “the stage of forest development immediately before old growth” that contain “some but not all the structural attributes in old-growth forests.” Other than that differentiation, the Forest Service otherwise discusses any subtle differences between old-growth and mature forests in the context of specific vegetation types or by using complex age-determination methods.

Applying the working definitions, the Forest Service identified 67 million acres of mature forests in its report, which is more than twice the acreage of old-growth forests. However, despite being similarly aged and defined to old-growth forests, mature forests are considerably less protected under the Forest Service’s proposed amendment, meaning that vegetation management restrictions would not apply to those 67 million acres of Forest Service land.

The Forest Service’s proposed amendment prohibits vegetation management activities in old-growth forests from degrading or impairing the ecological processes of the forests. Moreover, vegetation management in old-growth forests must be for “proactive stewardship” and thus may not be carried out for primarily economic reasons. Unfortunately, these management practices only apply to old-growth forests as there are no specific measures in place to prohibit the degradation or impairment of mature forests. Nonetheless, to genuinely cultivate “proactive stewardship,” the Forest Service must protect both mature and old-growth forests under the proposed amendment.

Although the protection of both mature and old-growth forests is imperative, the Forest Service’s proposed amendment excludes mature forests from its management standards, resulting in adequate protection of a mere 16.9 percent of Forest Service land. While environmentalists applaud the proposal’s conservation of old-growth forests, the Forest Service overlooks the importance of mature forest conservation. After all, both types of older forests play vital roles in carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat preservation, and cultural significance. Neglecting the preservation of mature forests not only dismisses their ecological value but also risks disrupting the delicate balance of ecosystems, completely undermining the holistic approach necessary for sustainable forest management.