Feds reviewing best way to conserve East Texas forests

In the wake of climate change, the federal government wants to hear from the public on how to preserve Texas’ aging forests.

By Sara Willa Ernst, Houston Public MediaJune 22, 2023 10:52 am, ,

From Houston Public Media:

U.S. Forest Service land in Texas is not a home to old growth forest. An inventory published by the Biden Administration in April showed that trees in their latest developmental stage are absent from the four national forests in the state (Sam Houston, Davy Crockett, Sabine and Angelina) that are concentrated in East Texas, just above the Houston and Beaumont metro areas.

This comes after The White House ordered two federal agencies to survey the land and quantify the number of acres of old growth and mature forest in the country last year. The study did, however, find significant acreage of mature forest, the stage before old growth. 400,000 acres or nearly 60 percent of land managed by the U.S. Forest Service in Texas, which includes forest and grasslands, is mature forest. These trees are mainly loblolly and shortleaf.

Now, the federal government is in the next stage of rethinking policy surrounding old growth forest across the country in the wake of climate change. It’s asking the public to submit comments until July 20th reacting to the information revealed by the inventory and weighing in on how old growth and mature forests should be managed.

“Our forest ecosystems and communities are struggling to keep up with the stresses of climate change, whether it’s fire, drought, or insect infestations, it is clear that we must adapt quickly,” said Homer Wilkes Under Secretary for Natural Resources and the Environment of the USDA, which includes the Forest Service, in a press release.

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National Forest land is used in several ways, including recreation, conservation and commercial production. 88 percent or 557,441 acres of National Forest and Grassland in Texas is suitable for timber production.

The lack of old growth forest on federal land goes back to the late 1800s. When Texas first became a state, most public land was doled out to private landowners, according to Karl Flocke, a Woodland Ecologist at Texas A&M Forest Service.

“There’s not a whole lot of old growth trees because most of that was logged prior to even being federal land,” Flocke said. “(The trees were) cut and left without any reforestation, so there are vast areas in East Texas that were no longer forests,”

It wasn’t until the 1930’s that the federal government started buying back some of this land and reforesting it, making these forests at most 90 years old.

This map shows a partial picture of the mature and old growth forest landscape in Texas because the federal government only owns a small sliver of land in the state. About 95 percent of land in Texas is privately owned, Flocke said.

U.S. Forest Service land use in Texas ranges from conservation to recreation to commercial logging. The stated mission of the agency is to sustain biological diversity, ensure water and soil quality, provide economic benefits to nearby communities and recreation for the general public.

Over 20 percent of all East Texas saw timber is produced on National Forest land, according to an email from an agency spokesperson.

Environmentalists are trying to steer commercial activity away from mature and old growth forests. Conservation of older trees is the priority in the face of climate change.

“When you cut down that old tree, you’re taking away a value that cannot be replaced by that young tree on any meaningful timeframe,” said Patrick Hunter, an attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. “It’s great to plant a new tree there, but that tree is not going to store anything close to the amount of carbon that old trees stored, or hundreds of years.”

He said these trees are vital to storing carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that is contributing to global warming. National Forests in East Texas show how long it’s taking to recoup these benefits.

When these trees are logged, there are several other trade offs too, he added.

“Younger trees are less resistant to wildfire generally,” Hunter said. “They are not as effective at purifying water. They don’t provide the same important biodiversity values that old forests have.”

Rob Hughes heads the Texas Forestry Association which represents private landowners and businesses. The group doesn’t have a position on old growth management here because there is so little federal land in Texas.

However, the group does have an interest in how the U.S. Forest Service land is managed, whether it’s old growth or not.

“In Texas, the management of the national forest here greatly affects their neighbors,” Hughes said.

Hughes is pushing for the Forest Service to better prioritize its management of pests and wildfires that can impact the health of private forestland nearby.

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