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Biden marks Earth Day with executive order to protect old-growth trees

The new policy requires an inventory of the nation's oldest trees with the aim of preserving maturing forests.

WASHINGTON (CN) — As wildfires risk the future of maturing forests, President Joe Biden signed an executive order Friday, coinciding with Earth Day, to inventory the number of old-growth trees in the U.S.

The order, which Biden announced during a trip to Seattle, mandates the Departments of Interior and Agriculture create a legal definition for old-growth trees and spend the next year cataloging the U.S. population of aging trees.

The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management will then have to pinpoint threats to old-growth trees and propose conservation measures.

As a way to ramp up tree planting, Biden’s order also directs federal agencies to boost federal cone- and seed-collection programs and seedling nursery capacity. Federal agencies will additionally have to develop a strategy by 2030 to strengthen U.S. forests and restore destruction from forces such as droughts and wildfires.

The order does not go so far as to put an end to the logging of old-growth trees, however, a move some environmental activists and Democratic lawmakers have demanded throughout Biden's presidency.

Back in November, 35 Democratic lawmakers wrote in a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack that the continuation of logging practices would undercut Biden's environmental conservation efforts.

"Current logging practices can have long-term detrimental impacts on hydrology and watershed health, underscoring the need to conserve remaining mature and old growth in essential watersheds. Allowing logging of mature and old federal forests should become a practice of the past," the letter states.

Forests are a central resource to counteract air pollution and climate change, with current tree populations absorbing the carbon dioxide equivalent of 10% of the country's annual greenhouse gas emissions, according to the White House. Larger and older trees can be more effective at storing carbon at higher rates than smaller and younger trees and are more likely to withstand fires.

"Our forests are our planet's lungs, they literally are cycling, recycling CO2 out of the atmosphere, that's what they do," Biden said during a speech on Friday.

Biden signed the executive order from Seward Park in Seattle, which, like many cities in the West, has faced a mounting threat from wildfires in recent years.

The Pioneer Tree, one of the few remaining old-growth coastal redwoods at Samuel P. Taylor State Park, Calif., on Thursday, March 24, 2022, after it collapsed from a fire. (California State Parks via AP)

Wildfires that ripped through California in 2021 scorched acres of land and killed nearly a fifth of the world's giant sequoias, and this year's wildfire season in the Southwest is already proving to be a tempestuous one.

"I think we're in one of those moments in world history and in American history where we've reached the point that the crisis on the environment has become so obvious, with the notable exception of the former president, that we really have an opportunity to do things we couldn't have done two, five, 10 years ago," Biden said.

The order comes on top of a difficult year for Biden's climate change agenda, a key hallmark of his 2020 campaign.

With its $555 billion investment in clean energy and climate-based policies, Biden’s Build Back Better Act fell to pieces in Congress earlier this year as Russia's brutal war on Ukraine has driven up gas prices. This in turn led Biden to release an unprecedented amount of oil from the U.S.' Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

His administration has seen some climate-related wins in recent months with several clean energy policies and subsidies baked into the bipartisan infrastructure plan and a recent executive order that raised fuel efficiency standards for American cars.

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