A federal blueprint for the long-term future of America’s most popular national forest proposes cutting down more trees and reducing protections of old-growth areas, critical “carbon sinks” in battling the climate crisis.
Logging would be set to quadruple in North Carolina’s Pisgah-Nantahala National Forest with more than half of the public land - half a million acres - opened up, environmentalists have warned.
The new logging zones contain more than 12,000 acres of existing old-growth forests. Significant portions of world-famous hiking routes, like the Appalachian Trail, also will be opened to logging.
The USFS Final Environmental Impact Statement lays out how Pisgah-Nantahala will be used and protected for up to three decades. It is the most popular national forest in the country, with nearly 5.2 million visitors last year, and a key source of drinking water across the southeast.
The plan appears to fly in the face of the global deforestation pledge formally unveiled by President Joe Biden at Cop26 this past November.
At the Glasgow summit, world leaders, representing 85 per cent of the planet’s forests, committed to halt forest destruction and begin restoration by 2030. A dozen countries backed the plan with a finance pledge of $12bn.
President Biden called forests as important as decarbonizing the global economy, noting that “the United States is going to lead by example at home”.
A key pillar of the Biden administration’s domestic plan to drawdown greenhouse gas emissions is conserving public lands and waters, including an increase in reforestation.
The Independent contacted the White House and the Forest Service for comment.
James Melonas, who oversees North Carolina’s national forests, told WLOS on Friday that “in terms of forest restoration, we really emphasize the need for more young forests, which is critical to a lot of wildlife species”.
Trees, especially those which have stood for centuries or millennia, are among the greatest natural climate allies, incredibly efficient at pulling carbon from the atmosphere and storing it in a process called carbon sequestration.
Research published last year in the journal Nature Climate Change found that the planet’s forests sequestered about twice as much carbon dioxide (CO2) as they emitted between 2001 and 2019, absorbing a net 7.6bn metric tonnes per year - 1.5 times more carbon than the US emits annually.
Will Harlan, a senior campaigner at the environmental nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), said that the Forest Service plan “utterly fails to protect old-growth forests, rare species and clean water”.
"This is the opposite direction of where Glasgow, the Biden administration, the country and the world in general is heading on carbon storage and protecting our remaining forests,” he told The Independent. “Especially our older forests as carbon sinks, and all of the climate benefits they provide.”
Along with being rich in biodiversity, Pisgah-Nantahala is packed with trout streams, hiking and biking trails. “This forest is far more valuable standing than cut down,” Mr Harlan said.
Josh Kelly, a public lands biologist with conservation nonprofit MountainTrue in Asheville, described the Southern Appalachians as “one of the great temperate forests of the world” where the process of restoring ancient forests has been ongoing for over a century.
“During the Forest Plan Revision, the Forest Service found that over half of the tree canopy in Nantahala and Pisgah National Forest should be old-growth, but in the Revised Plan, the Forest Service designated only one quarter of the forest for old-growth restoration, and worse, they reserved the right to cut existing old-growth where it is found outside of reserves,” he told The Independent in an email.
“Combined with ambitious goals to more than double current levels of logging, this leaves me concerned that the Forest Service is more committed to creating young forest than restoring old-growth.”
Rodney Foushee, the Forest Service’s deputy national press officer, later told The Independent that the Nantahala and Pisgah revised plan ”is based on science that ensures restoring native forest ecosystems to be resilient to climate change”, adding that the agency’s analysis demonstrates that proposed activities will increase carbon storage.
He continued: “Diversity is important for forest health, and timber harvest is a tool to achieve that. We’re not talking about deforestation.”
He said the claim that over half of the forest could be open to logging is “inaccurate”, calling it “alarmist and irresponsible”.
“Currently, 650 acres are harvested annually in this million-acre forest. That’s less than 1/10 of a percent. In the revised plan roughly 1,600-3,800 acres would be harvested annually - less than half of a percent of the forest.”
He added: “The plan increases protections for old growth forest; it doesn’t diminish it. In addition to the 265,000-acre designated old growth network, hundreds of thousands of acres of forest outside the network will continue to age and progress to old growth conditions over time.”
The Forest Service received a record number of comments on the Pisgah-Nantahala plan, CBD reported, with more than 92 per cent of respondents supporting more permanently protected areas.
The public now has a 60-day window to submit their comment on the plan.
“These are publicly-owned lands and we are all co-owners,” Mr Harlan said. “It's not just a short-term plan, it’s what our children and grandchildren are going to inherit. That's why it's so important and why we have got to fix it now.”
This article has been updated to reflect a response from the US Forest Service following publication
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