ST. GEORGE — This tree looks ancient.

A juniper tree grows gnarled near Pinto, Utah, Jan. 23, 2024 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

Bark hangs ragged from nearly bare, gnarled branches, and lichen grows along the twisted wood. Many like it grow throughout Washington and Iron counties, and the federal government is seeking to protect them.

The U.S. Forest Service announced a proposal to amend all 128 forest land management plans, including for Dixie and Fishlake national forests, on Dec. 19, 2023. The service is requesting public comments until Feb. 2, Forest Service public affairs specialist Crystal Young told St. George News via email.

According to a fact sheet issued by President Joe Biden’s administration, the move would provide consistent direction across the national forest system regarding how old-growth forest conditions are stewarded, conserved and restored nationwide.

Wet snow covers a dirt road near Pinto, Utah, Jan. 19, 2024 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

The proposal would not replace existing guidance contained in individual plans, the Forest Service’s Notice of Intent reads. More restrictive directions regarding actions that could impact old-growth forests would take precedence.

Vegetation management that could impact old growth would be prohibited if the primary purpose is to tend, harvest or regenerate trees for economic reasons, Young said. However, the amendment is not expected to impact the wood products industry significantly.

Additionally, trees could be harvested for other reasons, like habitat restoration and fuel reduction, or to support cultural practices and treaty rights. Young wrote that the amendment could benefit recreationists by maintaining and expanding areas with old-growth conditions.

While the plan isn’t intended to curb all logging and timber, it’s “an attempt to manage our forests for health and industry,” Michael Cravens, Arizona Wildlife Federation advocacy and conservation director, told Arizona News Connection.

A large juniper tree grows near Pinto, Utah, Jan. 19, 2024 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

“You’re going to have those extreme opinions on both sides of the spectrum,” he said. “You’re going to have those folks that don’t want any trees cut and you’re going to have those folks that think this is government overreach that are trying to impede industry. ”

Mike Popejoy, the Grand Canyon Trust’s Utah public lands director, said that while he’s excited about the proposal and thinks it’s a “great first step,” management also requires nuance.

“One danger with focusing on old growth is that you end up with a landscape where you have all old trees,” he told St. George News.

“We’ve seen the problems with human hubris and thinking we know exactly what we’re doing and missing some of those unintended effects in land management,” Popejoy added. “So I think moving forward with humility is always useful to avoid getting in places that we don’t want to be.”

Sap clings to a pine tree near Pinto, Utah, Jan. 23, 2024 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

How individual forest service projects will be impacted is unclear as the process is ongoing. The agency released an interim policy requiring that vegetation management projects that could impact old-growth forests be submitted to the National Forest System Deputy Chief Christopher French for review and approval, according to a letter he wrote.

The proposed plan amendment would require science-based management practices, including Indigenous knowledge, which is listed as a “source of best-available scientific information.”

What is old growth?

Defining old growth is a dynamic process, said Jacqueline Russell, public affairs specialist for the Bureau of Land Management’s Color Country District. The Forest Service and BLM use working definitions based on structural characteristics, and they are expected to evolve as new scientific findings, discussions, and social factors are considered.

A juniper tree grows near Pinto, Utah, Jan. 19, 2024 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

The Forest Service and BLM released a national inventory last April, which can be found in the Forest Service Climate Risk Viewer. Russell wrote via email that it provides a framework for identifying mature and old-growth woodlands, including criteria for various forest types.

Old-growth stands are in a later development stage. They are defined using various characteristics, including large accumulations of dead wood material, number of canopy layers, composition of species and ecosystem function.

Previously, what constitutes a mature forest hadn’t been systematically defined and incorporated in forest system plans. The risk viewer states that mature forests are in the development stage immediately before old growth.

The Forest Service and BLM manage approximately 32 million acres of old growth and 80 million acres of mature forest, according to the U.S. Forest Service. In Utah, the BLM manages over 1.9 million acres of mature forest and over 3.5 million acres of old growth.

Sap clings to a pine tree near Pinto, Utah, Jan. 23, 2024 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

But old-growth forests may not look the way Southern Utahns expect.

“Even within a specific geographic area, no one definition represents the diversity of old-growth ecosystems,” according to the Forest Service Climate Risk Viewer. “Some forest types may reach maturity at roughly 80 years old, while others reach maturity much earlier or later. Often, mature and old-growth forests are perceived to be tall trees with a large diameter such as the giant, rare Redwoods on the west coast. However, mature and old-growth forests come in all shapes and sizes.”

The inventory also provides insight into the estimated locations of old-growth and mature woodlands in Southern Utah, such as that found in the Pine Valley Mountain Wilderness and Harmony Mountains.

Young said it is essential to remember that “mature” and “old growth” are statuses and “not a place on a map.” Statuses may change as forests do, and their development is influenced by various factors, including tree species, location and disturbance history.

This map shows the estimated locations of mature and old-growth forests throughout Southern Utah. St. George is indicated by the black circle | Image courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service, St. George News | Click to enlarge

“Any inventory represents a snapshot in time,” the risk viewer states.

The area hosts ponderosa pines, Douglas fir, bristlecone pines and quaking aspens. However, Pinyon-juniper forests dominate Southern Utah’s landscape, with older specimens appearing “scraggly and bedraggled,” Popejoy said.

“If it has dead branches, if it’s got a flat top — doesn’t have to be tall, right? But you can sort of tell by looking at it that it’s gone through a lot,” he added.

Many such specimens grow in tough, rocky soil and out of the reach of wildfire. They appear to do well in Southern Utah, Popejoy said.

A juniper tree grows gnarled near Pinto, Utah, Jan. 23, 2024 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

“Because of the harshness, the aridity, the inability to predict or rely on precipitation — all of that, I think, has led to us having a pretty substantial amount of old growth,” he said.

Pinyon-juniper woodlands are considered old-growth by the Forest Service and BLM when they are 150-250 years old, depending on the site’s productivity, location and other factors. Some juniper trees have lived over 1,500 years, and pinyon pines can exceed 900 years old, Russell said.

Mature and old-growth pinyon-juniper woodlands comprise 32 million acres of federal land, the Forest Service states.

Why does old-growth matter?

In this file photo, Discover the Desert host Sydnee Imlay takes in the fall weather at the Pine Valley Recreation Area, Utah, Oct. 19, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

The proposed amendment is part of a nationwide push to conserve and restore mature and old-growth forests as directed in an executive order signed by President Joe Biden on April 22, 2022 — Earth Day.

“Forests provide clean air and water, sustain the plant and animal life fundamental to combating the global climate and biodiversity crises, and hold special importance to Tribal Nations,” the order states. “We go to these special places to hike, camp, hunt, fish, and engage in recreation that revitalizes our souls and connects us to history and nature. Many local economies thrive because of these outdoor and forest management activities, including in the sustainable forest product sector.”

According to the executive order, terrestrial carbon sinks, like forests, absorb approximately 30% of carbon dioxide emitted by humans annually. U.S. forests absorb over 10% of its yearly emissions.

In this file photo, a pinyon jay perches on a tree, Iron County, Utah, Dec. 30, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

“Speaking for myself, when you’re around an old growth tree, whether it’s pinyon-juniper, ponderosa — like they’re just impressive organisms. … Having the sense of walking amongst organisms that have been here for 800 years can be impactful,” Popejoy said.

Various bird species benefit from the dead trees and branches, multiple canopy layers and increased seed and berry production older forests may offer, like Mexican spotted owls and pinyon jays, Popejoy said.

Older trees can also be “windows into the past,” which can be used to gather climate data, date archaeological sites and learn about past landscapes.

What threats do they face?

Older forests face many threats, including climate change, drought, development, disease and insects. However, according to the service’s Notice of Intent, an analysis pinpointed wildfire as the leading cause of mortality.

This file photo shows a wildfire in Dixie National Forest, near Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, St. George News

“In recent years, unusually large and intense fires have been very damaging to large areas of old-growth forests, often killing entire stands but sometimes leaving intact much smaller patches of older trees,” Young wrote.

While timber collection is considered a relatively minor threat, the notice states that past management practices, such as timber harvest and fire suppression efforts, contributed to old-growth forest vulnerabilities.

Young said land stewards need various passive and aggressive tools to preserve old-growth forests, including fuel reductions “where appropriate.”

“Some, but not all, old-growth forests are currently vulnerable based on climate change, past management history, and patterns of forest development,” she wrote. “Passive management can often be effective with less vulnerable forests. However, broad-scale insect and disease events or uncharacteristic wildfires threaten to kill large numbers of trees in vulnerable forest areas.”

Popejoy said tree removal can threaten old growth in some forests, like pinyon-juniper.

A juniper tree grows gnarled near Pinto, Utah, Jan. 23, 2024 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

“We’ve seen some projects, even where the (National Environmental Protection Act analysis) documents have said, ‘We’re going to protect old growth — we’re not going to treat old growth,’ and then, (when) I’m doing some follow up on the groundwork, we found that hasn’t been the case,” he said.

How to comment

Southern Utahns interested in commenting on the proposed amendment can do so before Feb. 2 by clicking this link.

The Notice of Intent kicks off the scoping process, which will guide the development of an environmental impact statement. The agency will use submitted comments to develop a proposed action and alternatives and identify potential issues. Once these are released, there will be an additional 90-day comment period.

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