A Future With More Old-Growth Forests?

A snow covered road lined with spruce trees

By Olivia Miller

I have often tried to imagine what our forests in West Virginia must have looked like prior to the widespread deforestation that occurred across the state in the 19th century. My mind drifts to the ancient redwoods in California, the towering Eucalyptus trees in Australia, and the small patches of western red cedar groves in Idaho that narrowly escaped logging because the terrain was too difficult to access. I have been fortunate to spend time exploring old-growth forests in other parts of the world. 

Glimpses of these powerful and sacred West Virginia forests remain in parts of the state that were fortunate enough to have been “spared” by surveying errors—notably the 140-acre Gaudineer Knob Scenic Area in Pocahontas County. If I could time travel, I would choose to be plopped down right in the very center of the great ancient red spruce and eastern hemlock forests that once stood in the high areas of Dolly Sods and Flatrock-Roaring Plains. Trees in this stand were recorded to be well over a thousand years old. 

Anyone that has visited a virgin forest knows that walking through these big trees stirs up an overwhelming feeling of awe. This feeling of awe, as well as the many other benefits our forests offer to our physical, spiritual, and mental well-being are difficult to measure. 

What can be easily measured, though, is the rate at which our forests store carbon. Our forests absorb carbon dioxide equivalent to more than 10 percent of our nation’s annual greenhouse gas emissions. On a tree-by-tree basis, old-growth forests have been shown to store significantly more carbon than their younger counterparts. Thanks to this, the Biden-Harris Administration views the conservation of old-growth forests as a key climate mitigation solution. 

In April 2022, the Biden-Harris Administration announced an executive order calling for an inventory of mature and old-growth forests, setting reforestation targets on federally managed lands, and analyzing reforestation opportunities to enhance forest resilience to climate change. The executive order also instructed the Department of Interior, Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Forest Service to create clear working definitions of old-growth and mature forests. 

The accompanying report to the executive order was released in April 2023, and established working definitions for over 200 regional vegetation types. Things like tree size, accumulations of large dead woody material, number of canopy layers, species composition, and ecosystem function were all considered. In addition to their ecological attributes, the report states that old-growth forests are distinguished by their ecosystem services and social, cultural, and economic values. This task was not as simple as merely establishing a criterion for age. 

The Forest Service’s inventory found that 24.7 million acres, or 17 percent of its 144.3 million acres of forest are old-growth, while 68.1 million acres, or 47 percent, are mature.

Building on this report, in mid-December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced a historic proposal to amend all 128 forest land management plans to conserve and steward old-growth forest conditions on national forests and grasslands nationwide. This would be the first nationwide amendment to forest plans in the 118-year history of the Forest Service. If adopted, the proposal would allow logging to maintain and improve old-growth characteristics, not for timber production.

Beyond the benefits of carbon dioxide storage, the Biden-Harris Administration has publicly acknowledged that old and mature forests are vital to providing clean water and protecting biodiversity. 

The Forest Service is seeking public comment on the proposal through Feb. 2. Comments can be submitted online at https://bit.ly/3tI2ZFb. The West Virginia Highlands Conservancy’s Public Lands Committee will be commenting on the proposal.

According to the World Resources Institute, less than 1 percent of “Frontier Forests”—large, contiguous forests with all species intact—still exist in the lower 48 states. Of the original 1.04 billion acres of virgin forest in the United States, over 96 percent has been cut down.

If current plans continue, we will continue to witness the decimation of old-growth forests across the nation. We can’t undo the mistakes of the past, but we are being presented with the opportunity to provide sweeping protections for mature and old-growth forests and safeguard wildlife, clean drinking water and air, and prevent the some of the worst consequences of climate change. Our children and future generations deserve to reap the beauty and benefits of ancient forests.