America’s majestic trees — Douglas fir in the Pacific Northwest, redwoods and redwoods in California, and longleaf pine in the south — can live for hundreds of years, protecting nearby water systems, holding topsoil together and filtering air pollution. They also act as carbon banks, extracting carbon dioxide from the air and storing it, making them an important resource in the fight against the climate crisis.
In honor of Friday’s Earth Day, President Joe Biden took a step toward protecting these trees, signing an executive order directing the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture to establish lists of mature and old-growth forests on federal lands. Biden’s order requires agencies to use the findings from the list to develop policies that protect old-growth forests from multiple threats, including wildfires and other risks exacerbated by climate change.
The order also recognizes the critical role forests play in rural economies. While details are few, the White House article states that federal agencies will work with local governments, nonprofits, unions and the scientific community to “create and sustain jobs in outdoor recreation and sustainable wood, paper and other forest products.”
Many environmental groups have applauded the White House’s efforts to protect the forest as meaningful climate action.
“Protecting and protecting our remaining old and mature growth trees and forests has been the missing link in U.S. climate policy for decades,” Sierra Club director Keelinlinky said in a release. “We are encouraged by President Biden’s leadership today and hope that forests can be part of the climate solution.”
Ancient forests have faced many threats in recent decades. Growing heat and frequent wildfires have scorched old trees to a crisp. Warming temperatures are fueling outbreaks of the invasive bark beetle in new areas. Timber companies continue to cut down old trees.
Biden’s executive order requires federal agencies to address the various ways climate change is destroying primary forests and calls for “climate-smart management.” But it’s unclear how the order affects logging, especially on federal lands. The order requires federal agencies to “promote forest-related economic opportunities” while “supporting healthy, sustainably managed forests in timber communities.”
Some environmentalists who responded to the order called on the government to ban logging. “There is no better carbon capture technology than old-growth forests and trees,” Randy Spivak, director of public lands at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a release. “It’s time to stop the deforestation of these carbon storage champions in federal forests, for the sake of our climate and nature.”
Abigail Dillen, president of Earthjustice, called on the government to promptly issue “a simple rule to protect the nation’s federal forests from logging and other threats as a central pillar of our national climate strategy.” ( The Center for Earth Justice and Biodiversity is Grist’s advertiser; advertisers have no role in Grist’s editorial decisions.)
Biden revealed the order during his Earth Day speech in Seward Park in Seattle, Washington. Hundreds of people gathered outside the park, including protesters from environmental nonprofits Food and Water Watch and Rebuild Without Fossils, a coalition that has been pushing for Biden to declare a climate emergency and end fossil fuel development. As Biden’s motorcade passed, activists held up a 15-foot banner that read “Come on, man, the IPCC says now or never: End fossil fuels!” Thomas, organizer of Food and Water Watch “President Biden cannot claim to be a climate leader a week after his administration opened up more federal land for fracking and drilling,” Meyer said in a release.
The executive order also takes steps to protect old-growth forests internationally. It noted that the U.S. State Department will release a report on how the U.S. can avoid buying commodities such as beef, soybeans and palm that are grown on illegal or recently deforested land. The agency will also assess ways to deploy foreign aid and international partnerships to prevent deforestation.
Finally, the order recognizes the important role “nature-based solutions” can play in tackling climate change. Nature-based solutions refer to multiple approaches to restoring ecosystems, adapting them to a warming climate, while better protecting people and wildlife. Restoring marshes and marshes to absorb the effects of rising sea levels and storm surges is one example, as is prescribed burning.
The executive order requires the White House Office of Science and the Environment to prepare a report on how to make better use of nature-based solutions, including “everything from restoring swamps to planting shade trees to promoting drought-resistant crops.” The order also requires the Office of Management and Budget to develop methods for assessing the economic value of the services provided by ecosystems. The order cites the value of air and water purification by pollinators in agriculture and forests as examples of such services.
Daniel Penner contributed reporting for this article.