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U.S. Forest Service proposes to protect old growth trees

Assistant Fire Manager Leif Mathiesen, of the Sequoia & Kings Canyon Nation Park Fire Service, looks for an opening in the burned-out sequoias from the Redwood Mountain Grove which was devastated by the KNP Complex fires earlier in the year in the Kings Canyon National Park, Calif., on Nov. 19, 2021. Thousands of sequoias have been killed by wildfires in recent years.
Gary Kazanjian
Assistant Fire Manager Leif Mathiesen, of the Sequoia & Kings Canyon Nation Park Fire Service, looks for an opening in the burned-out sequoias from the Redwood Mountain Grove.

The Forest Service recently released a proposal to revise its forest management plans nationwide to protect old growth trees. It’s a response to an executive order issued by the Biden administration in 2022. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke about this unprecedented effort with Andrew Sanchez Meador, executive director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University.

What exactly is old growth? Is there a common, accepted definition of old growth?  

Old growth is an interesting term. Because it’s both a scientific term but also kind of a socioeconomic and cultural and spiritual term…. It comes from this idea that in most forested and plant systems, you have a disturbance that creates a place for trees or plants to grow, they establish, they grow over time and like us as human beings, they reach the end of their lifespan…. And so that progression toward the end—the end state being what’s referred to as climax conditions—in some systems can result in the presence of an old growth system…. So, I often get asked, why is old growth important? I think there are a lot of reasons that people automatically know. It has environmental and ecological importance…. It’s a hotspot for biodiversity… It’s got a lot of carbon stored in it…. But people often don’t think about the cultural and scientific importance of it. Culturally, many Indigenous and local communities have deep cultural, spiritual, and historical connections to old growth and the services they provide. And then from a scientific standpoint, they’re living laboratories, they’re classrooms where we get see how these systems evolve, how they become what they are, and it gives us irreplaceable insights into ecological processes, evolution, and climate history that you just can’t get anywhere else.

So it’s complex.

It’s very complex, yeah.

It’s got scientific components but also cultural ones too. So tell me about this proposal the Forest Service released in December, what are some of the major components that they’ve proposed?  

It started with coming up definitions, and that was followed by doing an inventory, and that was followed by doing a threat assessment—what are the threats to mature and old trees?... And then their threat assessment concluded that wildfire, insect and disease, and logging are the biggest threats to mature and old growth conservation. But it’s interesting, it used to be logging was the primary threat. Now logging is like threat number three, with wildlife and disturbances from insect and disease being the number one threat. This current proposal outlines amending all 128 forest land management plans across the Forest Service, which is unprecedented. The Forest Service has done regional plan amendments before, they do individual forest plan amendments all the time, but they’ve never proposed to amend all plans at once. But really it outlines amending the plan to include provisions to conserve and protect old growth… ranging from minimal intervention in existing old growth conditions to full-on hazardous fuel reductions treatments in mature systems where maybe wildfire is a threat.

What’s the main thing you think folks here in Northern Arizona should know about this process?

I think here in northern Arizona we appreciate the old growth conditions that exist. Specifically, here in Flagstaff, if you want to go up above the ski area into the spruce-fir, the tranquility, the feeling of peaceful—all of that old growth spruce-fir that’s up here—I think we all recognize its value and understand it from the importance of the ecosystem. We definitely know the consequences of seeing it burn, we’ve experienced enough of that. The importance of this is for people to understand that the federal government is listening, our land managers are doing their best to come up with a holistic approach to manage these resources for the benefit of United States citizens, but also to conserve and protect these important resources that are there.

Andrew, thanks so much for speaking with me today.

Thanks, Melissa, I appreciate your time and I hope you have a good day.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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