Center for American Progress

A Plan for the U.S. Forest Service To Lead on the America the Beautiful Initiative
Report

A Plan for the U.S. Forest Service To Lead on the America the Beautiful Initiative

National forests and grasslands are uniquely positioned to help meet the Biden administration’s goal of conserving 30 percent of U.S. lands by 2030.

In this article
A bald eagle sits on a tree in Alaska's Tongass National Forest.
A bald eagle sits on a moss-covered tree along the shoreline of Takatz Bay in Alaska's Tongass National Forest, July 2019. (Getty/LightRocket/Wolfgang Kaehler)

Introduction and summary

The National Forest System was born out of crisis. President Benjamin Harrison established the first “forest reserves” in 1891 in response to public concern that rampant logging had severely deforested the United States, threatening its timber, wildlife, and water supplies.1 Forest reserves were made permanent and expanded across the country with the creation of the National Forest System. The agency that managed it—the U.S. Forest Service (USFS)—was mandated to manage for the long-term conservation of resources for public benefit.

Today, the country is facing a new set of crises. The effects of climate change are being felt around the world, through catastrophic wildfires, severe drought, and devastating floods. At the same time, more species are threatened with extinction now than at any other time in human history.2 These warning signs are a constant reminder of the urgency of conserving key habitats, reducing emissions, and lowering the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Addressing the climate and extinction crises is a top priority for President Joe Biden. Shortly after assuming office in 2021, he set a targeted goal to reduce U.S. emissions 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 and issued an executive order outlining a whole-of-government approach to addressing the climate crisis. Included within this order is a national goal to conserve 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030. This conservation goal—called the “America the Beautiful” initiative—calls on federal agencies to take ambitious conservation action that will reverse biodiversity loss, improve access to nature, and grow our natural carbon sink.3

The USFS has an opportunity to meet the moment and play an important and distinct role in tackling climate change and meeting the goal of conserving 30 percent of U.S. lands and water by 2030.

The 193 million acres in the National Forest System (NFS) present an enormous opportunity for Biden to deliver on both his conservation and climate commitments. These lands have conservation values that rival those of national parks, national wildlife refuges, and other prized conservation lands. In fact, the NFS includes most of the healthy mature forests left in the country as well as the headwaters of many of its most important rivers, which provide drinking water for 1 in 5 Americans.4 They provide habitat for many of the country’s threatened and endangered species and store more carbon than lands managed by any other individual landowner or agency. This makes these lands a critical natural carbon store at a time when we need it most.5

Some of the Biden administration’s first conservation actions have occurred on NFS lands. By restoring roadless protections to the Tongass National Forest in Alaska and ending the threat of mining to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of the Superior National Forest in Minnesota, the administration has secured a future for two of the most special places in the United States.6 But the National Forest System includes special places all across the United States—many of which are not managed in a way that reflects the values they provide. For example, new research by Conservation Science Partners found that unprotected USFS lands hold more than 6 billion tons of carbon.7 However, the Biden administration has not set a cohesive, 21st-century vision for ensuring this valuable carbon store will have a secure future.

To capitalize on this unparalleled opportunity to act on climate and safeguard the multitude of services these lands provide, the USFS must take the following steps to contribute to the America the Beautiful initiative and the administration’s actions on climate change:

  1. The USFS should initiate a rulemaking that creates a comprehensive climate policy for the agency. This policy should provide protections for key resources—such as critical carbon sinks, older forests, wildlife corridors, and intact watersheds—and guide restoration of others, including degraded forests and watersheds, to make the National Forest System more resilient.
    • This policy should establish key ecological values that provide a foundation for performance measures—including watershed condition, ecologically appropriate long-term carbon storage, status of focal species and endangered species, and habitat connectivity. These values should be incorporated into the American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas to share progress with the public.
    • The rule-making process could be paired with a rapid, scientific inventory of existing older forests as well as forests that should be managed to become older forests, although protections offered by the regulation should not depend on first completing an inventory.
  2. Pending final regulations, the secretary of agriculture should restrict the commercial timber harvest of old trees on NFS lands nationwide to ensure consistency with administration goals and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
  3. The USFS should capitalize on new funding from Congress for climate adaptation, infrastructure, and rural development to maintain or restore old-growth forests, restore degraded streams and rivers, and support rural communities.

There are myriad key resources in the National Forest System—its old forests, intact watersheds, and wildlife habitat and corridors—and they are important to the future of the climate, conservation, and communities. However, the USFS currently uses dated metrics, and the old way of doing business will harm its ability to conserve and restore these resources, even as Congress makes substantial investments in USFS programs. The United States needs bold and comprehensive climate policy that safeguards the climate, protects drinking water for communities, and will guide the agency to meet the goals of America the Beautiful and public expectations for its national forests and grasslands.

How the NFS can contribute to the America the Beautiful initiative

The Biden administration’s initial report on America the Beautiful, released in May 2021, identifies three interconnected problems in its call to action: 1) the disappearance of nature and its effects on wildlife, 2) climate change, and 3) inequitable access to nature.8

Past research by the Center for American Progress has found that nature loss is a significant and underappreciated problem. It is happening at a rapid clip: The United States lost a football field’s worth of natural area every 30 seconds from 2001 to 2017.9 This is undercutting efforts to curb climate change too. CAP estimates that if trends continue, natural area loss can emit 140 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually through 2030—a significant amount of carbon roughly equal to 15 percent of what nature sequesters in the United States each year.10 These losses drive species toward extinction and threaten other values nature provides,11 including water supplies, as well.12 Moreover, they often reflect and amplify a long history of inequities and injustice against communities of color, including Native Americans.13

Some benefits of the National Forest System

23B

Tons of carbon dioxide equivalent stored by NFS forests and grasslands that are unprotected

1 in 5

Americans who receive drinking water from rivers and streams originating on NFS lands

400+

Threatened and endangered species that rely on national forests and grasslands for habitat

Lands in the National Forest System have the potential to serve as solutions for all of these challenges. They hold many of the country’s last remaining old forests, which are invaluable carbon sinks, as well as millions of acres of forests where restoration can improve carbon sequestration and ecological outcomes. Many lands in the National Forest System are the headwaters for river systems, and the USFS can and should protect and restore them as drinking water sources and aquatic habitat. Because they manage large, contiguous tracts of lands, national forests and grasslands also protect terrestrial habitat from being subdivided and developed, which has the added benefit of allowing wildlife movement and providing refuge for biodiversity as the climate changes. Finally, the National Forest System is composed of the ancestral homelands of Native Americans. The principles outlined in the America the Beautiful initiative give the USFS a framework to build on its history of partnership with other agencies and organizations and to develop more formal co-management with tribes.

Secure a future for carbon strongholds

Slowing the loss of natural areas is a necessary strategy to achieve 2030 emissions targets, to both reduce emissions and maintain carbon stored in nature over the long term. While this is true in general, it is especially important to recognize the value of lands with high concentrations of stable carbon stores, as well as the outsize impact of their development on the climate.

Old forests, in particular, often store large amounts of carbon. The Tongass National Forest, for example, stores 8 percent of the total forest carbon in the country, with the highest amounts in old, unlogged stands.14 Forests in New England, the southern Appalachians, and the rain-soaked forests of western Oregon and Washington also have significant capacity to store carbon—meaning they have high carbon sequestration potential and relatively low vulnerability to future fire and drought.15 One old-growth stand in Washington state’s Gifford Pinchot National Forest stores more than 900 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per acre—a phenomenal amount compared with the average for forests in the lower 48 (230 tons CO2e per acre) and tropical rainforests (360 to 460 tons CO2e per acre).16

Achieving carbon storage levels such as those observed in the Gifford Pinchot, especially in the western United States, is only likely to occur if stands are relatively undisturbed over time.17 This is due in large part to the role of big, old trees in storing carbon: A study of old forests around the world found that up to 50 percent of the aboveground carbon was stored in the largest 1 percent of trees.18 Safeguarding these forests protects the carbon they have already sequestered and allows large trees to continue to pull greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and store them for the long term.

An old-growth forest is pictured in Snowbird, North Carolina.
A rare patch of East Coast old-growth forest is pictured at the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in Snowbird, North Carolina, where a strand of old-growth trees escaped the industrial-scale logging that stripped almost all southern Appalachian forests of their trees in the late 19th century, July 3, 2016.(Getty/Corbis/Andrew Lichtenstein)

Past timber demand put a target on these carbon strongholds, and most have been lost to logging. In the eastern United States, almost all forests have been logged at least once,19 and this footprint is only slightly less widespread in the western United States. But while much of the forested land in the NFS has been logged, pockets of old growth are more likely to survive there than on lands owned by other agencies and interests. USFS forest inventory data show that older forests in the United States tend to be concentrated NFS lands, making national forests an underappreciated stronghold of sorts as forests on private lands have been the focus of more intensive timber production.20

But the opportunity to regrow after past logging on NFS lands does not mean these forests are not at risk. In some regions—such as the fire-adapted forests east of the Cascades in the Pacific Northwest or in the Southwest21—frequent, high-intensity fires are burning at a much wider scale than they have in recorded history and are causing significant disturbances to ecosystems and human communities. Climate change plays a major role in these fire patterns,22 but their impacts on the landscape reflect a century of intensive logging that removed most of the big, old trees that were more resistant to fires. These altered fire patterns are also a consequence of the removal of Native Americans from the land and an end to stewardship practices, such as cultural burning, that played an integral role in forest ecologies.23

The legacy of these past decisions, coupled with climate change, threatens to alter forest landscapes and send carbon stores up in smoke. CAP estimates that fire on the 50 million acres in the interior West identified as most at risk by the USFS will emit 1,300 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent through 203024—almost equal to emissions from the U.S. electricity sector in 2019.25 Stabilizing the carbon flows into (via sequestration) and out of (via fire) these forests is critically important to meeting climate goals. CAP’s research has found that restoring historic fire patterns on just 30 percent of high-priority lands—15 million acres—can avoid almost 70 percent of the projected emissions through the end of the decade.26 In other words, targeted restoration can increase the “carbon integrity” of these forests, letting trees grow big and old again so that they can store more carbon and coexist with wildfire behavior that better reflects historic ecological conditions.27

The concept of carbon integrity provides an opportunity to align USFS programs with the goals of America the Beautiful. The USFS has significant scientific capacity to evaluate the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss; it is the biggest forest research organization in the world.28 But despite this capacity, there is not an up-to-date, comprehensive accounting of old-growth forests across the National Forest System. Advances in remote sensing along with existing forest monitoring and inventory data should make such a registry easier than ever to complete. Identifying and protecting these forests is a clear contribution to America the Beautiful, and the agency should consult with scientists, tribes, and other stakeholders to determine how to do so.

Changing the ecological trajectory of forests on NFS lands will require more than mapping risk and identifying investment priorities; it will also require addressing past injustices.

Wildfire already plays a major role in USFS plans and programs. The agency released a 10-year wildfire strategy in January 2022, committing to fuels treatments on 20 million acres of NFS land by 2032.29 Much of its focus is on the places where fires are most likely to start and threaten homes and communities.30 But the USFS has also committed to mapping wildfire risks to ecological values, including old-growth stands, as it carries out this strategy.31 Using ecology to guide restoration in fire-adapted forests will stabilize carbon stores in these systems and protect the other biodiversity values that these lands provide.

Changing the ecological trajectory of forests on NFS lands will require more than mapping risk and identifying investment priorities; it will also require addressing past injustices. Knowledge of fire patterns and forest structures has been held within tribal communities for thousands of years. Their forced removal from the landscape during colonization also severed the relationship they had with the land. Pursuit of America the Beautiful is an opportunity for the USFS to expand beyond current efforts to partner with tribes and build co-management relationships that will enable stewardship of these forests, which would stabilize carbon, rebuild populations of big fire-resistant trees, and help restore the relationship tribes had with the land.32

Safeguard America’s headwaters

The National Forest System was established, in part, to protect water sources. As the climate changes, the lands managed by the USFS will be key to the future of the communities and wildlife that rely on them. These rivers and streams provide drinking water for 1 in 5 Americans, anchor the nation’s agricultural production, and are the lifeblood for aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems as well as the fish and wildlife populations that depend on them.

But America’s rivers and streams are degraded. Research by CAP has shown that 49 percent of river and stream miles in the western United States have been modified from their natural state.33 This footprint of human development is most evident on the West’s biggest rivers—such as the Colorado and the Sacramento—where levees have constrained flood plains and dams and diversions have altered flows on 82 percent of all river miles.34 The headwaters of these rivers—many of which flow through national forests—are in slightly better shape but still bear the impacts of development. Old small dams and culverts, built to keep logging roads from washing out, are scattered across the landscape, impeding streams and wildlife passage even when the culverts are no longer in use or when better infrastructure options are available.35

A pristine stream runs through northern Idaho's Packer Meadows.
A pristine stream runs through Packer Meadows in the Clearwater National Forest of northern Idaho. (Getty/Universal Images Group/Don & Melinda Crawford)

Unhealthy watersheds affect both people and nature, and to their credit, the USFS has a system to evaluate where problems are. The Watershed Condition Framework (WCF) is a process for the USFS and its partners to determine the health of a watershed based on a range of factors.36 Currently, nearly 50 percent of watersheds within NFS lands are “properly functioning,” the highest metric in the WCF. The majority of these high-quality watersheds are located in wilderness areas and inventoried roadless areas—signs that certain kinds of protection do maintain ecological integrity. But more than 37 million acres, or 36 percent, of properly functioning watersheds are located on NFS lands without a conservation designation.37 These watersheds, many of which are projected to be relatively shielded from the impacts of climate change, serve as strongholds for species such as salmon and trout and represent ecosystems with high ecological integrity; yet their value is not sufficiently recognized or protected.38 Granting these watersheds protection would reflect a commitment to maintaining their function and would be a clear contribution to the America the Beautiful goal.

Just as important is the future of watersheds that are classified by WCF as either impaired or at risk. These degraded watersheds have less suitable habitat for fish and other aquatic species and inhibit connectivity across the landscape. While other ecosystems tend to receive public attention, freshwater fish and the ecosystems they rely on around the world have experienced significant degradation and declines.39 This is most evident in temperate regions, where almost all NFS lands are located. Climate change further threatens the integrity of these freshwater ecosystems, putting at risk important cold-water fisheries across the western United States.40

USFS contributions to America the Beautiful should include clear protections for properly functioning watersheds that serve as key drinking water sources, especially for communities with limited resources.

Degraded watersheds also threaten drinking water supplies, amplifying the impacts of changing precipitation patterns linked to climate change by reducing water quality and affecting water storage infrastructure. These problems expose weaknesses in our infrastructure, especially for the most vulnerable communities. Past research by CAP has found that more than 5 million people in rural counties are served by small- and medium-sized water utilities that rely on surface water.41 These organizations are often underresourced and unable to make significant investments in natural infrastructure. Without partnerships with better-resourced agencies, they are unlikely to have capacity to prepare for or recover from climate impacts.

USFS contributions to America the Beautiful should include clear protections for properly functioning watersheds that serve as key drinking water sources, especially for communities with limited resources. Despite its connection to drinking water supplies for millions of Americans, the USFS has only limited guidance to develop partnerships with water utilities to protect these supplies; it should develop better tools to allow USFS staff to cooperate more proactively with other agencies.42 Finally, the Watershed Condition Framework—and the corresponding watershed restoration action plans—should be better utilized as a performance measure and a tool for allocating restoration funding, including through the recently reauthorized Legacy Roads and Trails program, so that all watersheds on NFS lands can someday return to “properly functioning” status.

Conserve and connect habitat for America’s wildlife

The National Forest System provides habitat for hundreds of species threatened with extinction—more than 400 Endangered Species Act (ESA)-listed species are found on its lands.43 Compared with most other federal public lands, NFS lands are well distributed across the United States; while most of their footprint is located in the western United States, they also provide habitat in regions, such as the Southeast and Northeast, where private lands dominate the landscape.44 Research on inventoried roadless areas has found that these lands are important for at-risk species, especially those that require large areas with limited human presence.45

NFS lands are also critical spaces for wildlife movement.46 This includes annual movements, such as big-game migrations between summer and winter feeding grounds or salmon returning from the ocean to spawn in their ancestral streams, as well as longer-term shifts in species ranges that are expected to occur as the climate changes.47 Lands managed by the USFS have been shown to be more permeable to wildlife—in that they are easier to move through—than those managed by almost any other agency in the country.48

The viability and recovery of at-risk species and the maintenance of connected habitats give the USFS several opportunities to contribute to America the Beautiful. The 2012 Planning Rule includes among its provisions directions for national forests and grasslands to monitor the recovery of focal species as a measure of the ecological condition of key habitats they manage. The status of focal species and tracking of USFS actions taken to recover species listed under the ESA are logical performance measures; indeed, habitat protection and species recovery are central to the logic of America the Beautiful. Moreover, old-growth protections such as those mentioned earlier would address climate concerns and benefit biodiversity, particularly for imperiled species associated with old forest habitat. In addition to their carbon values, old trees are key to the resilience and diversity of forest ecosystems.49

These values—carbon storage, clean water, and wildlife habitat—are key to reversing the climate and biodiversity crises the world is facing.

The USFS has several tools at its disposal to keep habitats connected. The protection of properly functioning watersheds provides a certain measure of connection along the riparian corridors of rivers and streams. These designations can be managed as a larger network of conservation watersheds across a landscape, a strategy that has been used in the Inyo National Forest in California and the Flathead National Forest in Montana. In addition, they can be paired with guidance that ensures connectivity is maintained.50 Even in degraded watersheds, important protections can be afforded by limiting activity within riparian buffers, a strategy that limits further degradation along waterways. Finally, terrestrial designations have been piloted across the country—including key linkage areas in the Custer Gallatin National Forest of Montana and South Dakota and special management areas in the Cibola and Carson national forests of New Mexico51—to protect important corridors from disturbance. However, these recognitions are piecemeal and need to be implemented in a coordinated manner across the National Forest System.

These values—carbon storage, clean water, and wildlife habitat—are key to reversing the climate and biodiversity crises the world is facing. Conserving and restoring national forests and grasslands for these valuable services also creates an opportunity to right past injustices. Addressing all of these challenges in concert will help the USFS to become more effective as an agency, making investments that match public expectations for their federal public lands and creating opportunities to work with rural communities as they build their own wealth and resilience.

How Biden’s America the Beautiful vision enables a better future for the NFS

The National Forest System faces numerous challenges. Through its wildfire strategy, the restoration of roadless protections on the Tongass and commitment to the Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy,52 and the reversal of the mining decision near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, the USFS has taken early steps to address some of them. The 2012 Planning Rule, which establishes the relationship between the ecological condition of NFS lands and critical ecosystem services such as carbon storage and climate regulation, plays an important role in addressing others. But there is a significant backlog of forest plan revisions and an urgent need to act. A unifying policy framework to address the climate and nature crises comprehensively across the National Forest System would help the USFS adapt to the challenges of the coming century.

This is especially important as Congress has recognized the long-term impacts of firefighting on the agency’s overall capacity and begun to provide the USFS the resources it needs to fulfill its broader mission.53 In particular, it has acknowledged the need for proactive measures to address wildfire, climate-driven drought, and lingering damage done by past overmanagement of our nation’s forests. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), signed into law in November 2021, includes billions of dollars to help the U.S. Forest Service address these issues, including through funding for collaborative forest restoration, prioritization of projects that increase wildfire resilience and maintain and restore old-growth forests,54 and the formalization of the Legacy Roads and Trails program.

A comprehensive policy that addresses the three interconnected challenges underpinning the America the Beautiful initiative would provide guidance to help the USFS make the right investments as soon as possible. It would provide the foundation for updating performance measures, which is key to evaluating progress in the face of the significant challenges the agency faces. It would also clarify the full suite of values that NFS lands provide, creating opportunities for communities and other stakeholders to better partner with the agency on shared conservation and restoration priorities.

Aligning performance measures with public expectations

The funds included in the IIJA are an acknowledgement of the work that is ready to be done, including millions of acres of collaboratively planned projects, where environmental review processes under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) have been completed—also known as “NEPA-ready” projects. But these projects will not amount to a decade of work. Long before 2030, the USFS will have to plan new projects, and at this critical juncture, the metrics by which the agency will track its contributions to addressing both the climate and biodiversity crises are unclear.

The time has come for the USFS to shift its performance metrics to be more holistic [and focused on desired outcomes].

Performance by the USFS has typically been measured in outputs: How many board-feet of timber were harvested last year? Or how many acres were “treated” for wildfire this year? But the agency cannot measure the impacts of its work so narrowly if it is to be successful. The challenges the country faces call for more outcome-based metrics: if a watershed is functioning properly, whether species are recovering, or whether a forest is climate resilient and has carbon integrity.

Congress acknowledged the importance of outcomes in the IIJA and other legislation, and the time has come for the USFS to shift its performance metrics to be more holistic. The three challenges outlined by the America the Beautiful initiative help clarify the general outline of these performance measures, and tools such as the American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas provide an opportunity to engage the public in progress toward achieving them.55

Investing in rural communities

The principles of the America the Beautiful initiative also outline a whole-of-government approach to conservation and climate action. They create a framework for connecting these actions to infrastructure investments and economic development programs, especially for rural communities where national forests and other public lands are located. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) plays a key role in rural development, and coordination between the USFS and USDA Rural Development can help align conservation and restoration investments with programs that build capacity in rural communities, giving them more tools to lead on efforts to build wealth and resilience.

The USFS has, to its credit, pursued crosscutting strategies in a targeted fashion. The Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy is the most recent example.56 In addition to restoring roadless protections and ending large-scale old-growth logging, the USDA and the USFS have committed to investing in tribal and community priorities, with an emphasis on opportunities that support forest resilience, restoration, and recreation. They are also working to improve consultation with tribes to inform management of the Tongass National Forest.

This type of strategy would have value across the National Forest System to align existing Forest Service programs with long-term conservation, climate, and regional development goals. The proposed Rural Partnership Program would provide resources through the USDA to help rural communities build and maintain capacity for development, building on investments in infrastructure, broadband, and renewable energy already approved by Congress. Moreover, proposals to reform federal funding streams that support rural counties with federal public lands would better compensate communities for the benefits that protected public lands provide to society. Indeed, these proposals would help build capacity and capital in rural economies while also delivering on conservation goals.57 A comprehensive climate policy would complement these reforms, giving communities a better sense of the full suite of values provided by the National Forest System along with the tools to capitalize on them.

Recommendations

The U.S. Forest Service has made admirable strides to conserve the natural resources it stewards, but it needs more comprehensive policy to realize its potential contributions to addressing the climate and biodiversity crises—through clearer safeguards for important habitats and watersheds and restoration and stewardship investments that improve the ecological condition of the entire National Forest System. The following recommendations are key first steps toward fulfilling that potential.

  • Initiate a national rulemaking on climate to protect existing carbon strongholds, properly functioning watersheds, and wildlife corridors and to guide the use of restoration funding in order to improve carbon storage, biodiversity, and watershed health across the NFS. The U.S. Forest Service has the scientific capacity to address climate change and biodiversity loss, but the application of this knowledge has been disparate. And while the Forest Service’s 2012 Planning Rule makes the linkage clear between natural resource management and ecosystem services, there is still no collective accounting for the benefits that the National Forest System provides—or comprehensive guidance to ensure that these values are protected and enhanced. A rulemaking with associated directives would accomplish exactly that. It would guide protections of key areas—for biodiversity, carbon, and other ecosystem services—and direct restoration investments to improve the condition of these values into the future. This policy and guidance should reflect best available science and follow with the administration’s ongoing work to elevate Indigenous Traditional Ecological Knowledge into federal decision-making.
  • Adopt new performance measures and guidance so federal decision-makers and the public can identify and conserve valuable habitats and make smart investments in restoration. The public expectations of the USFS have changed over time, with fire risk, climate change, and environmental conservation now front of mind.58 Developing performance measures that satisfy these expectations—and address the threats to lands, waters, and wildlife identified by America the Beautiful—is critical to success. The USFS needs to move beyond output-based measures such as timber targets and commit to more outcome-based measures that track the status of ecosystem services—including carbon—and appropriate focal species, ecological integrity, and the landscape traits and processes that maintain them. These measures should be spatially explicit, specific, and actionable for agency staff, and results should be transparently shared with the public and incorporated into the American Conservation and Stewardship Atlas.
  • Establish an interim policy that restricts commercial timber harvest of old trees on NFS lands nationwide until a comprehensive policy is developed. The Biden administration has committed to forest conservation and restoration as a central tenet of its climate agenda, and Congress has directed the USFS to prioritize maintaining old growth in the use of forest restoration funding provided in the IIJA. The USFS should ensure that old-growth stands are not lost to logging as it establishes necessary policies to follow through on the president’s climate commitments and congressional instruction.
  • Capitalize on funding for climate adaptation and infrastructure to invest in rural communities and safeguard important U.S. carbon stores and water supplies. Congress has provided significant funding for restoration, along with guidance that it benefits important ecological features such as old-growth forests. The USFS should ensure that climate and conservation investments contribute to a more resilient and equitable economy, especially in rural areas. This requires coordination within agencies—USDA Rural Development and the USFS, for example—and across government. A rulemaking that guides conservation and restoration is one piece of the solution, but USFS should also work with other USDA agencies to ensure that metrics and investments align these accomplishments with work done in rural communities. It should also support efforts to reform county payment investments in ways that build capacity over time and reward state and local governments for collaborating with the USFS on conservation.

Taking these steps would position the USFS to account for the climate and conservation contributions of the National Forest System under the America the Beautiful initiative and the administration’s climate goals. It would also help the agency better account for its actions, demonstrate their benefits to local communities, and create a framework for meeting public expectations for the NFS in the 21st century.

Conclusion

The National Forest System was created as a reaction to overexploitation of natural resources and a forward-thinking vision that lands should be managed for the public good. As the country tackles the dual crises of nature loss and climate change, this commitment to the public good should make the U.S. Forest Service one of its most valuable assets.

The loss of natural areas, concerning trends in wildfire patterns, and the vulnerability of ecosystem services such as drinking water due to climate change call for urgent action. The USFS has an opportunity to meet the moment and play an important and distinct role in tackling climate change and meeting the goal of conserving 30 percent of U.S. lands and water by 2030, as laid out in the America the Beautiful initiative. Doing so will protect those values that are especially important on national forests and grasslands—its old forests, intact watersheds, and wildlife habitat—while also helping the agency make the right investments and partnerships to support all of its lands and the communities that rely on them.

Endnotes

  1. Gerald W. Williams, “The USDA Forest Service — The First Century” (Washington: U.S. Forest Service, 2005), available at https://www.fs.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/2015/06/The_USDA_Forest_Service_TheFirstCentury.pdf.
  2. ​​Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, “Media Release: Nature’s Dangerous Decline ‘Unprecedented’; Species Extinction Rates ‘Accelerating’,” Press release, May 7, 2019, available at https://www.ipbes.net/news/Media-Release-Global-Assessment.
  3. U.S. Department of the Interior, “America the Beautiful,” available at https://www.doi.gov/priorities/america-the-beautiful (last accessed February 2022).
  4. U.S. Forest Service, “Forest Inventory and Analysis,” available at https://www.fia.fs.fed.us/ (last accessed January 2022).
  5. Matthew D. Merrill and others, “Federal Lands Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sequestration in the United States: Estimates for 2005–14, Scientific Investigations Report 2018–5131 (Reston, VA: U.S. Geological Survey, 2018), available at https://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2018/5131/sir20185131.pdf; Matthew S. Dietz and others, “The importance of U.S. national forest roadless areas for vulnerable wildlife species,” Global Ecology and Conservation 32 (2021): e01943, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2351989421004935.
  6. U.S. Department of Agriculture, “USDA Announces Steps to Restore Roadless Protections on Tongass National Forest,” Press release, November 19, 2021, available at https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2021/11/19/usda-announces-steps-restore-roadless-protections-tongass-national; U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Biden Administration Takes Action to Complete Study of Boundary Waters Area Watershed,” Press release, October 20, 2021, available at https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2021/10/20/biden-administration-takes-action-complete-study-boundary-waters.
  7. This amounts to more than 23 billion tons of CO2e. See Conservation Science Partners, “Informing the identification and protection of public lands to help mitigate the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss in the United States” (Truckee, CA: 2021), available at https://www.csp-inc.org/public/CSP_ClimateAtlas_TechnicalReport_11-05-2021.pdf.
  8. National Climate Task Force, “Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful” (Washington: U.S. Department of the Interior and others, 2021), available at https://www.doi.gov/sites/doi.gov/files/report-conserving-and-restoring-america-the-beautiful-2021.pdf.
  9. Matt Lee-Ashley, Jenny Rowland-Shea, and Ryan Richards, “The Green Squeeze: America’s Nature Crisis” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2019), available at https://www.americanprogress.org/article/the-green-squeeze/.
  10. Ryan Richards, Jenny Rowland-Shea, and Nicole Gentile, “Nature Loss Threatens America’s Best Defense Against Climate Change” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2021), available at https://www.americanprogress.org/article/nature-loss-threatens-americas-best-defense-against-climate-change/.
  11. These values provided by nature—called “ecosystem services”—are numerous and include clean water, carbon sequestration, and pollination.
  12. Center for American Progress, “The Disappearing West: Rivers,” available at https://disappearingwest.org/rivers.html#big_picture (last accessed February 2022); Ryan Richards, “Restoring Balance: Healthier Rivers and Secure Water Supplies in the American West” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2018), available at https://www.americanprogress.org/article/restoring-balance/.
  13. Jenny Rowland-Shea and others, “The Nature Gap: Confronting Racial and Economic Disparities in the Destruction and Protection of Nature in America” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2020), available at https://www.americanprogress.org/article/the-nature-gap/.
  14. Wayne W. Leighty, Steven P. Hamburg, and John Caouette, “Effects of Management on Carbon Sequestration in Forest Biomass in Southeast Alaska,” Ecosystems 9 (2006): 1051–1065, available at https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-005-0028-3.
  15. Merrill and others, “Federal Lands Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sequestration in the United States.”
  16. Mark E. Harmon and others, “Production, Respiration, and Overall Carbon Balance in an Old-growth Pseudotsuga-Tsuga Forest Ecosystem,” Ecosystems 7 (2004): 498–512, available at https://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs_other/rmrs_2004_harmon_m001.pdf.
  17. Polly C. Buotte and others, “Carbon sequestration and biodiversity co-benefits of preserving forests in the western United States,” Ecological Applications 30 (2) (2019): e02039, available at https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/eap.2039.
  18. James A. Lutz and others, “Global importance of large-diameter trees,” Global Ecology and Biogeography 27 (2018): 849–864, available at https://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs_journals/2018/rmrs_2018_lutz_j001.pdf.
  19. Andrew M. Barton and William S. Keeton, Ecology and Recovery of Eastern Old-Growth Forests (Washington: Island Press, 2018).
  20. Data on the distribution of forest age classes are from U.S. Forest Service, “Forest Inventory and Analysis.” Data on drivers of natural area loss are from Lee-Ashley, Rowland-Shea, and Richards, “The Green Squeeze.”
  21. This term, “fire adapted,” refers to forest types where fire is a relatively common disturbance—often at intensities that do not consume or kill all vegetation in an area. This often means that, absent disturbance, individual old trees are large enough to survive many fires. An overview of the relationship between fire patterns and forest types is available from the Forest Service. See U.S. Forest Service, “Fire Science,” available at https://www.fs.fed.us/psw/topics/fire_science/ecosystems/strategies.shtml (last accessed February 2022).
  22. John T. Abatzoglou and A. Park Williams, “Impact of anthropogenic climate change on wildfire across western US forests,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States 113 (42) (2016): 11770–11775, available at http://www.pnas.org/content/113/42/11770.abstract.
  23. Frank K. Lake and Amy Cardinal Christianson, “Indigenous Fire Stewardship,” in Samuel L. Manzello, ed., Encyclopedia of Wildfires and Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) Fires (New York: Springer Publishing, 2019), available at https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-51727-8_225-1; Nathan Rott, Annie Ropeik, and Molly Samuel, “United States of Wildfire” (Washington: NPR, 2021), available at https://apps.npr.org/us-wildfires-impact-environment-climate-change/.
  24. Richards, Rowland-Shea, and Gentile, “Nature Loss Threatens America’s Best Defense Against Climate Change.”
  25. In 2019, electricity sector emissions amount to 1,648 million metric tons CO2e. See U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, “Greenhouse Gas Inventory Data Explorer,” available at https://cfpub.epa.gov/ghgdata/inventoryexplorer/index.html (last accessed February 2022).
  26. Ibid.
  27. Susan Prichard and others, “Adapting western North American forests to climate change and wildfires: 10 common questions,” Ecological Applications 31 (8) (2021): e02433, available at https://esajournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/eap.2433.
  28. This is a claim made by the USFS itself, based on a review of all research programs, including state and private forestry. See, for example, data presented as an example of its climate change research capacity at U.S. Office of Sustainability and Climate, “Climate By Forest” (Washington: U.S. Forest Service, 2022), available at https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/6a461f604ce347418dd56a2058aa58af.
  29. This goal also includes 30 million acres of state and private lands, for a total of 50 million acres across the United States. See U.S. Forest Service, “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis,” available at https://www.fs.usda.gov/managing-land/wildfire-crisis (last accessed January 2022).
  30. U.S. Forest Service, “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis”; Alan A. Ager and others, “Development and application of the fireshed registry” (Washington: U.S. Forest Service, 2021), p. 47, available at https://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs_series/rmrs/gtr/rmrs_gtr425.pdf; Alan A. Ager and others, “Predicting Paradise: Modeling future wildfire disasters in the western US,” Science of the Total Environment 784 (2021): 147057, available at https://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs_journals/2021/rmrs_2021_ager_a002.pdf; Ryan Richards, “Before the Fire: Protecting Vulnerable Communities From Wildfire” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2019), available at https://www.americanprogress.org/article/before-the-fire/.
  31. U.S. Forest Service, “Wildfire Crisis Implementation Plan – Confronting the Wildfire Crisis: A 10-Year Implementation Plan” (Washington: U.S. Forest Service, 2022), available at https://www.fs.usda.gov/sites/default/files/Wildfire-Crisis-Implementation-Plan.pdf.
  32. Sahir Doshi, “The Biden Administration’s Conservation Plan Must Prioritize Indigenous Leadership” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2021), available at https://www.americanprogress.org/article/biden-administrations-conservation-plan-must-prioritize-indigenous-leadership/.
  33. Center for American Progress, “The Disappearing West: Rivers.”
  34. Ibid.
  35. Ibid.
  36. U.S. Forest Service, “Watershed Condition Framework,” available at https://www.fs.fed.us/naturalresources/watershed/condition_framework.shtml (last accessed December 2021).
  37. Mike Anderson and others, “Watershed Health in Wilderness, Roadless, and Roaded Areas of the National Forest System” (Seattle: The Wilderness Society, 2012), available at https://www.fs.usda.gov/nfs/11558/www/nepa/100663_FSPLT3_4102738.pdf.
  38. U.S. Forest Service, “Watershed Condition Framework”; Wild Salmon Center, “Stronghold Approach,” available at https://wildsalmoncenter.org/stronghold-approach/ (last accessed January 2022).
  39. Guohuan Su and others, “Human impacts on global freshwater fish biodiversity,” Science 371 (6531) (2021): 835–838, available at https://www.science.org/doi/full/10.1126/science.abd3369; Eric Roston, “Almost a Quarter of All Freshwater Fish Species Are in Peril, Thanks to Humans,” Bloomberg, February 18, 2021, available at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-02-18/human-caused-climate-change-threatens-a-quarter-of-freshwater-fish?sref=nKe1GNY7.
  40. Williams, J.E. and others, “Cold-Water Fishes and Climate Change in North America,” Reference Module in Earth Systems and Environmental Sciences (2015), available at https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/B9780124095489095051?via%3Dihub.
  41. Ryan Richards, “Restoring Our Investment in America’s Forests: How the 2018 Farm Bill Can Create New Jobs for Rural America” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2018), available at https://www.americanprogress.org/article/restoring-investment-americas-forests/.
  42. Legal Information Institute, “36 CFR 219.8 – Sustainability,” (a)2), available at https://www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/36/219.8 (last accessed February 2022).
  43. U.S. Forest Service, “Appropriations Related Questions FY10,” available at https://www.fs.usda.gov/about-agency/budget-performance/fy10-appropriations (last accessed February 2022).
  44. Lee-Ashley, Rowland-Shea, and Richards, “The Green Squeeze.”
  45. Dietz and others, “The importance of U.S. national forest roadless areas for vulnerable wildlife species.”
  46. Matthew A. Williamson and others, “Incorporating wildlife connectivity into forest plan revision under the United States Forest Service’s 2012 planning rule,” Conservation Science and Practice 2 (2) (2019): 1–15, available at https://doi.org/10.1111/csp2.155.
  47. Jenny L. McGuire and others, “Achieving climate connectivity in a fragmented landscape,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 113 (26) (2016): 7195–7200, available at https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1602817113.
  48. Only Bureau of Land Management lands were found to be more permeable for wildlife. See R. Travis Belote and others, “Wild, connected, and diverse: building a more resilient system of protected areas,” Ecological Applications 27 (4) (2017): 1050–1056, available at https://doi.org/10.1002/eap.1527.
  49. Elizabeth Pennisi, “Rare and ancient trees are key to a healthy forest,” Science, January 31, 2022, available at https://www.science.org/content/article/rare-and-ancient-trees-are-key-healthy-forest.
  50. See U.S. Forest Service, “Preview of Upcoming Inyo, Sequoia and Sierra EIS Documents: Aquatic and Riparian, Plan Components,” available at https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/r5/landmanagement/planning/?cid=FSEPRD545106 (last accessed February 2022).
  51. Williamson and others, “Incorporating wildlife connectivity into forest plan revision under the United States Forest Service’s 2012 planning rule.”
  52. U.S. Forest Service, “Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy,” available at https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/r10/landmanagement/resourcemanagement/?cid=FSEPRD950023 (last accessed February 2022).
  53. Ryan Richards, “Defining Success for the Wildfire Funding Fix” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2018), available at https://www.americanprogress.org/article/defining-success-wildfire-funding-fix/.
  54. Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, H.R. 3684, 117th Cong., 1st sess. (November 15, 2021), Section 40803, available at https://www.congress.gov/bill/117th-congress/house-bill/3684/text.
  55. U.S. Department of the Interior, “America the Beautiful.”
  56. U.S. Forest Service, “Southeast Alaska Sustainability Strategy.”
  57. Kate Kelly and Jenny Rowland-Shea, “How Congress Can Help States Weather the Oil Bust During the Coronavirus Pandemic” (Washington: Center for American Progress, 2020), available at https://www.americanprogress.org/article/congress-can-help-energy-states-weather-oil-bust-coronavirus-pandemic/.
  58. Center for Western Priorities, “Winning the West: 2020,” available at https://westernpriorities.org/winning-the-west-2020/ (last accessed February 2022); Hannah Rider, Westwise, “Reflecting on ten years of conservation in the West,” Medium, March 10, 2020, available at https://medium.com/westwise/reflecting-on-ten-years-of-conservation-in-the-west-2c3bc91fd322.

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Author

Ryan Richards

Senior Policy Analyst, Public Lands

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