Pacific Northwest National Forests are well known for spectacular scenery, unbeatable recreation, and of course, really BIG trees. When most people think about National Forests, they think about the forests managed by the U.S. Forest Service. But very few people know that there are carbon-rich forests in Oregon that are held in trust for all Americans, but they are not managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
The Least Known Forests
Quite possibly the least known federal forests in America are those administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). If you know about the BLM, your mind likely conjures up images of desert lands of the southwest U.S. But in Western Oregon, the BLM manages some of the most carbon dense, old-growth forests left in the lower 48.
While they are little known outside of Western Oregon, dozens of communities rely on BLM forests for recreation, clean drinking water, and the views that surround their homes. Thousands of locals have spoken up to protect Oregon BLM forests as the threats to these forests have increased in recent years.
Oh, about those trees! The trees in these forests - Douglas-fir, western hemlock, and cedars - are among the largest on earth. We now know that old-growth forests with centuries-old trees store massive amounts of carbon, and are key to fighting climate change.
BLM forests cover a huge area, larger than even Yellowstone National Park. Western Oregon BLM forests encompass over 2.5 million acres - about the size of two average sized National Forests! This forested landscape is a massive storehouse of carbon, home to rich biodiversity, and worthy of our best conservation efforts to combat climate change.
Why does the BLM manage forests in Western Oregon? The story dates back to when European colonizers first began settling in western states. Just after the Civil War, Congress offered land – stolen from Native Tribes – to assist railroad construction. Oregon received a massive grant in the western portion of the state. A private railroad company was then awarded the forestland to cover costs of railroad construction.
Right away, the company violated the agreement and instead of building a railroad, they sold off the magnificent forests to timber barons. These transgressions led the U.S. Congress to reclaim the land and place it in the hands of the General Lands Office which became the BLM in 1946.
Leveling the Climate Forests
Throughout the Pacific Northwest, the federal logging program accelerated in the 1950s with the post-World War II housing boom. We did not know then that logging carbon-dense forests would have devastating impacts to our climate, wildlife, and water supplies. In just 50 years, over 80% of the original, ancient forest was leveled and replaced with tree farms. Luckily, logging was curtailed in the early 1990s and over one million acres of older forests still stand on Western Oregon BLM.
The Most At-Risk Old-Growth Forests in the Lower 48
Sadly, today Western Oregon BLM has the most-at-risk old-growth forests in the Lower 48. Timber companies and their political allies are pushing to log what remains of these forests, and they are gaining momentum through the courts. They are pointing to an obscure law that dates back to 1937 called the “Oregon and California Lands Act,” named after the corrupt railroad granted land in the 1800s, to push for increased logging.
In early 2022, a Washington D.C. court ruled in favor of the timber industry. The court held that according to the 1937 law, BLM forests must be managed for timber production above all other uses and ordered the BLM to ramp up logging. Old forest protections that have been in place for nearly 30 years could be undone. While the Biden administration has appealed to a higher court, if this decision stands the remaining old forests that are dampening climate change will be lost.
Protecting BLM Climate Forests
Action is urgently needed to protect carbon-dense older forests across BLM lands. This is such a critical step to address climate change. Forward thinking world leaders, including those from the U.S., are pleading for the conservation of the Amazon rainforest to help stop the climate collapse. Yet, the ancient forests of the Pacific Northwest, and the most vulnerable forests of Western Oregon BLM, are America’s Amazon rainforest. They capture and store billions of tons of climate polluting greenhouse gasses. These forests need to be left intact.
Joseph Vaile is the Climate Director at the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center.