Mature and Old Growth Science Summit: Climate-Informed Forestry to Foster Resilient Ecosystems

Written by Zander Evans

The Forest Stewards Guild was well represented at the recent Old-Growth Science Summit in Washington, DC. Marianne Patinelli-Dubay, Bill Keeton, and Eric Holst all presented, and Katie Fernholz facilitated the Summit. Numerous other Guild members attended and filled a nearby watering hole for an informal Guild Gathering. 

The Summit was motivated by Executive Order 14072 issued two years ago, which directs federal agencies to define, inventory, identify threats towards, and develop policies to mitigate threats to, mature and old-growth forests.  

The event started with philosophy and a call to bring Indigenous Knowledge to the fore. Michael Dockry from the Potawatomi Nation and University of Minnesota shared his perspective on the interconnection of people and the nature world, in contrast to Western conceptualization that separates people from ecosystems. Guild member, Marianne Patinelli-Dubey shared her philosophical insights on ‘moral vision’ and its influence on stewardship of old forests. US Forest Service staff provided updates on the old growth inventory and threat analysis (both of which the Guild previewed in our December webinar). The inventory found 32 million acres of old growth forests (read Guild member Kristen Pelz and colleagues’ paper on the inventory here). Researchers used federal Forest Inventory and Analysis data to determine that since the year 2000, we have lost 712,000 acres of old-growth forest to wildfire, 182,000 acres to insects and disease, and 9,000 acres to tree cutting on lands managed by the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management in the lower 48 states. Even more worrisome is the prediction that by the end of the century, 90 percent of old-growth forests will be at very high exposure to wildfire-caused mortality and nearly 60 percent will be exposed to drought. Colleagues at the Wilderness Society inventoried old growth using a very different approach for those who want to read more (Classifying, inventorying, and mapping mature and old-growth forests). 

In the afternoon, Cristina Eisenberg and Susan Prichard shared a soon-to-be-released report Braiding Indigenous Knowledge and Western Science for Forest Landscape Adaptation to Climate Change: an Ecocultural State of Science Report. An important element in the discussion of Indigenous Knowledge was dispelling the myth of untouched wilderness and lifting Indigenous stewardship up in its wide variation across the continent. Regional break sessions echoed that diversity by focusing on mature and old-growth forests in four broad regions of the country. In western forests, federal management and wildfire were main topics while in northern forests the diversity of land ownership and the impact of invasive pests and pathogens dominated the conversation. Of course, many of the best conversations happened over lunch, during coffee breaks, and among dinner gatherings. Overall, the Summit brought together a great group of researchers, managers, and conservationists that highlight zones of consensus, areas of disagreement, science needs, and the urgency forced by the changing climate.  

Long-time Guild colleagues at Dovetail Partners have released a report titled Old growth forests: How much is enough? and next month we’ll share a new report when it’s released by Conservation Science Partners. The Guild’s Membership and Policy Council is digging deeper into mature and old-growth forest stewardship and conservation, so look for more on the topic in the coming months.