September 29, 2022

Why We Need Old Growth Forests

Written by Jem Ashton
Red Canyon in Dixie National Forest, UT Red Canyon in Dixie National Forest, UT

In 1859, Lt. Edward Beale travelled through the forests of northern Arizona and described it in his journal as “…the most beautiful region… a vast forest of gigantic pines, intersected frequently with open glades, sprinkled all over with mountains, meadows, and wide savannahs…” In the past 100+ years, the region has changed drastically. The ponderosa pine forests once covered up to 25 million acres ranging from the south of British Columbia to northern Mexico, from the western Great Plains to the western coast, and were filled with old-growth trees that were up to 800 years old. Today, the ponderosa pine forests in the American west are mostly filled with younger trees, which are more vulnerable to wildfires than their old-growth ancestors. Throughout the late 1800s, the ponderosa pines were inordinately logged. They provided high yields of high-quality lumber, making them the first choice for builders in the frontier era, leaving other trees untouched until their regional supply of ponderosas was depleted. Like other pines, the ponderosa has struggled to return to its former state after a prolonged history with heavy logging and the more recent threat of invasive bark beetles. While the dolent loss of old-growth ponderosas is somewhat alleviated by the continued, fruitful natural propagation of young trees, we have only recently begun to understand the unique benefits of old-growth forests.

Old-growth forests in Utah are rare. Utah’s famous Pando, an aspen grove once thought to be the world’s largest living organism (now surpassed by a fungal mat in Oregon that spreads over 2,000 acres), is itself 80,000 years old, but no individual tree in Pando is older than 130 years, which excludes it from the old-growth forest category. Even the forests in Big Cottonwood Canyon and Little Cottonwood Canyon are comprised mostly of younger trees that took root after the mountains were nearly cleared by loggers. By the 1890s, Utah became a net importer of lumber, after having logged any and all suitable trees from the local area to supply the community’s growth. The forests that survived logging are in areas that were difficult to access during the state’s booming, industrial growth in the 1800s. Some of the most significant examples are forests of ponderosa pines located in the deserts of southern Utah, such as the stretch of old-growth trees in Dixie National Forest’s Red Canyon.

Fortunately, Utah’s forests are more protected than they have been historically, which hopefully means Utah’s future includes old-growth trees and the community who lives there at that time will reap the benefits of the work we put into ensuring at least some of our forests are well-protected today. Utah’s Division of Forestry, Fire, & State Lands implemented a new 10-year plan to revitalize the state’s forests in 2020, kicking off a new period of improved forest stewardship and protection. While the plan leaves a lot on the table, it’s one big step in securing a stable future for our state’s forests. Then, on a national level, the Biden administration recently sought out public input on old-growth forest conservation as part of Executive Order 14072: “Strengthening the Nation’s Forests, Communities, and Local Economies”, which will hopefully lead to even bigger steps towards greater protections for old-growth forests nationally and in Utah.

With efforts on the community, state, and national level, Utah’s future – albeit distant future – will include thousands of old-growth trees in state forests. Old-growth forests are key for sequestering carbon emissions – holding far more carbon than younger forests. They are also essential for maintaining a healthy water supply by storing and then gradually releasing clean water while also mitigating flood and fire impacts – all things that are desperately needed now and will be in even higher demand in the future. Our future generations need to the forests and so do future generations of wild animals and plants. Old-growth forests are required for the continued survival of thousands of species, without which Utah just wouldn’t feel like home. The remarkable wildlife that call Utah home need trees to survive and so do we.