New Mexicans are quick to recall last year’s Hermits Peak, Calf Canyon, and Black Fires – the biggest in state history. Here we are at the door of yet another worrisome dry spring. We are not alone as many Western states suffer the duress of protracted drought and big fires. It’s reasonable to call it a crisis.
Yet, through the ashes and charred trees, I see opportunity. During my 35 years working for the U.S. Forest Service, I learned about the “law of holes” the hard way. The first law: if you’re in a hole, stop digging. The second: when you stop digging, you’re still in a hole. The U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management stopped digging their way through the country’s ancient forests last week when they issued their first-ever inventory and report on America’s surviving mature and old-growth forests. They still have a long way to get out of the hole.
Forests are one of Earth’s best means to combat climate change. As trees age and grow they pull carbon dioxide pollution – the primary contributor to climate change – from the air and safely store carbon in their roots, trunk and limbs. The older and larger the tree, the more carbon it stores. Protecting and restoring mature and old-growth forests on America’s public lands is the cheapest, most effective way to pull carbon from our atmosphere, while at the same time protecting important wildlife habitat and ensuring clean drinking water for communities downstream.
The agencies focused almost exclusively on forest fire as the only threat facing older forests on public lands today. This is odd, because older forests survive fire better than younger ones. And the Forest Service moves ahead with commercial timber sales that keep cutting them down. No matter how they spin it, chainsaws are the biggest threat. Logging must be addressed head-on.
And that is the hole that the two agencies find themselves at the bottom of today. President Biden has directed them to change course on their approach to mature and old-growth forests, and to start working to protect and restore them to capture carbon and fight climate change. However, the agencies have not yet fully admitted that there are some problems for which chainsaws, log trucks, and bulldozers are not the correct solution. Climate change is the big problem.
When Theodore Roosevelt created the Forest Service in 1905, it inherited a landscape dominated by old growth forests. In spite of decades of heavy logging, enough mature and old growth forest remains to build a new and different future. Is it possible the Forest Service will sleep walk through this moment?
The solution lies in conserving ancient forests while reducing fire risk. These are not mutually exclusive goals. The president should direct the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to stop digging. Make it the agency’s preeminent task to combat climate change with mature and old growth forests in the vanguard, articulated through a strong national regulation.
These two agencies have a critical role to play in conserving forests as a natural climate solution. I say restore these lands to a more promising destiny. Future generations will look back with gratitude.
Jim Furnish is a retired deputy chief of the USDA Forest Service