Five at-risk forests

Mature and old-growth forests help conserve wildlife, purify our water and stabilize our climate

Take Action

Old-growth and mature forests untouched by logging and human development provide a wealth of benefits to the many creatures who call them home, as well as the planet more broadly. Rich and complex ecosystems thrive in forests with trees that surpass 100 years of age. Such woods shelter and support diverse wildlife—from the birds that perch on their highest branches to the fauna that teem beneath their undergrowth. Many offer unparalleled experiences for human recreation and exploration. These older, larger trees also help to filter water—including drinking water for millions of Americans. Equally important, they are critical in absorbing and sequestering large amounts of carbon, even compared to newer and younger trees, and are, therefore, among the most effective and available climate solutions.

In December 2023, the Biden administration announced an amendment to its national forest management plan, protecting old-growth trees in national forests by instituting new safeguards against logging. This action followed an April 2022 executive order that directed federal agencies to define, inventory, and develop policies to protect America’s wealth of mature and old-growth trees on federal lands. American mature and old-growth trees, which total over 100 million acres, are crucial for conserving wildlife, purifying our water and stabilizing our climate.

Yet, despite their promise as a climate solution, and despite the recent progress toward their protection, many of our nation’s forests remain under threat. Below, we share some of our nation’s most treasured wooded areas and the creatures they support:

MarksPursuit |

Nantahala National Forest, North Carolina

The Nantahala National Forest in western North Carolina is one of the wettest regions in the United States. As the largest national forest in the state, it is unique in an area that has been fragmented by private development. Containing a section of the Appalachian Trail and three designated wilderness areas connected to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it also plays host to hikers and recreators. Living among its underbrush is the near threatened green salamander, a mottled green and black amphibian that favors the protection of tree or rock crevices in addition to damp bark, moss, and lichen.

Logging threatens to decimate trees that hold more than a century of stored carbon. Already, less than 1% of forests in the Southeast are old-growth forests. Further logging would result in irreparable loss to one of the region’s most endangered resources. Planned projects would release carbon from the forest’s soil and understory plants and could possibly introduce invasive plants to the region. Found in few remaining areas, the green salamander risks eviction from its home among patchy areas along the Blue Ridge Escarpment.

caltatum |

Medford District, Bureau of Land Management, Oregon

The forests managed by Oregon’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are some of the most carbon-dense woods in the country. The BLM Medford District includes portions of the Southern Cascades and Klamath Mountains ecosystems. The Klamath Mountains (the “Galapagos of North America”) are celebrated as a home to numerous species and are thus considered to be of global botanical significance by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the World Wildlife Fund. The Brewers spruce tree, like many of the area’s plant species, is unique to the region. These forests are home to the threatened species such as the northern spotted owl as well as Humboldt martens, marbled murrelets and many species of fish. Crucial watersheds offer some of the best fly fishing and whitewater boating while serving as necessary habitat for the threatened Southern Oregon/Northern California unit of coho salmon. Other species that thrive in the region’s rivers and streams are Chinook salmon, steelhead, and Klamath small-scale sucker. Beyond their ecological significance, the mature forests here offer beauty and drama; visitors can enjoy towering canopies and swift rolling rivers that cut into the mountains.

In recent years, tens of thousands of acres of mature and old-growth Medford District forests have faced ongoing and proposed threats from commercial logging and its accompanying road creation, as well as thinning plans ostensibly done to reduce wildfire risk. These at-risk areas of forest include late-successional reserves established to protect the region’s many species, as well as up to 200-year-old conifers. Reductions to the forest canopy and reclassifications of protected habitat will further imperil the already threatened northern spotted owl, which relies on the resilient tree stands for nesting and roosting while logging will disrupt and disturb fish behavior and health. Notably, BLM-managed forests are not included in the latest amendments to the proposed old-growth forest protections.

Zack Porter | Used by permission

Green Mountain National Forest, Vermont

The Green Mountain National Forest is one of only two national forests in New England. It is known and loved for its dramatic and colorful autumn landscapes, which are populated by sugar maples, beech, and birch trees. Equally captivating are the beaver, moose, black bears, and other species that live among the 400,000 acres. Green Mountain is also one of our nation’s most visited and accessible national forests, with millions of people living in its proximity. Recent logging projects have posed threats to a substantial area of the forest, which has recovered greatly since it was substantially logged in the 1800s. Such plans would cut short the forest’s enormous potential to increase its function as a carbon sink. Many at-risk and sensitive species, including martens, Indiana bats, Blackburnian and cerulean warblers, and scarlet tanagers, depend on the availability of uninterrupted habitat within the forests. Northern long-eared bats, a federally endangered species of bat will also be imperiled, should the logging proceed. This species, a crucial pollinator and player within the ecosystems of the northeast, relies on old trees to roost and raise its young.

Pilipphoto |

Black Hills National Forest, South Dakota 

Two-thirds of South Dakota’s Black Hills are covered by the Black Hills National Forest, which spans both South Dakota and Wyoming. The forest is home to South Dakota’s state tree, a unique variant of white spruce that cannot be found anywhere else. The forest also gives shelter to mountain lions, eagles, hawks, and bats.

In addition to their function as carbon sinks, these unique spruce ecosystems retain moisture and harbor many species. They support the scattered wetlands and other varieties of tree found throughout the Black Hills. Logging in this region threatens to destroy the unique white spruce forests and add miles of new, harmful, and unnecessary roads. Reduction of this old-growth forest will increase aridity, potentially impacting crucial streams and waterways. It will likely also make the area more prone to wildfires and takeover by invasive plant and insect species.

The up-to-300-year-old white spruce shelters northern goshawks, red and flying squirrels, American martens, black-backed and three-toed woodpeckers, and Cooper’s Rocky Mountain snails, and support the endemic blooms of many species of wildflower.

Hikers in the Tongass National Forest
Staff | TPIN

Tongass National Forest, Alaska

The Tongass National Forest is the largest national forest in the United States, encompassing nearly 17 million acres in southeast Alaska. It is also the world’s largest remaining, mostly intact temperate rainforest. Among the wildlife that populate the stunning woods and waters are Grizzly bears, wolves, Sitka black-tailed deer, flying squirrels, Queen Charlotte goshawks, humpback whales, porpoises, seals, sea otters, sandhill cranes, and hummingbirds. The Tongass’ millions of acres of old-growth woods capture 44% of all the carbon stored by our national forests. 

In early 2023, President Biden restored the Roadless Rule protections to the Tongass, renewing the ban on road construction and logging in this critical wilderness. New roads disrupt and curtail wildlife habitat, including that of the wide-ranging brown bear and logging harms waterways that support salmon survival and transit. Unfortunately, the Tongass is excluded from the latest proposed protections to national old-growth forests. 

Forest of old-growth trees with snow on the ground
Jeff Hollett via Flickr | Public Domain

Protecting older trees is a necessary and simple solution to address the warming climate. Mature and old-growth forests behave as carbon sinks while simultaneously promoting biodiversity. In addition to being charismatic and cute, many of the plants and creatures that call these woods home are critical pollinators and keystone species. Despite their known virtues, our country’s remaining mature and old-growth trees continue to face the chopping block.