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Old Growth Forests

Talking about old-growth, mature forests 

The U.S. Departments of Agriculture and the Interior jointly published a Federal Register notice seeking public comment on plans around federal old-growth and mature forests in response to Executive Order 14072: Strengthening the Nation’s Forests, Communities, and Local Economies

You may view the notice in the Federal Register reading room. A link to the final Federal Register notice will be posted here on Friday, July 14.

An informational session for anyone interested in this subject is from 2-3:30 p.m. EST July 21, 2022. Employees from the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management will provide information about the effort to define, identify and complete an inventory of old-growth and mature forests on federal lands. The session also will provide information on how to submit comments. 

To attend the session, you must register through the Information Session Registration Link. The session will be recorded and a link to that recording will be posted on this page by July 25.

The questions we are asking the public to address are included in the Federal Register Notice. Comments, which  must be submitted before the end of the 30-day comment period, may be submitted through the Forest Service public comment portal for this project.

For more information, contact Jamie Barbour, Assistant Director, Forest Service Ecosystem Management Coordination. Please include “Old Growth Public Comment” in the subject line.

News release: USDA Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management seek public comments on definitions, other aspects of old-growth, mature forests


A picture showing a mountain area in the background with a river running in the foreground with a forested area just behind the river.

Early attempts at defining old-growth forest date back to the 1940s, when the term old growth was used to differentiate slower-growing, older forests from faster-growing younger forests. The idea was largely based on the diameter at breast height of the largest live trees. Discussions around what constitutes old growth expanded in the 1970s with a burgeoning environmental movement.

By the late 1980s, the conversation around old-growth forest characteristics had developed sufficiently for adoption of a generic definition to guide the Forest Service. It read, “Old-growth forests are ecosystems distinguished by old trees and related structural attributes. Old growth encompasses the later stages of stand development that typically differ from younger stages in a variety of characteristics that may include tree size, accumulations of large dead woody material, number of canopy layers, species composition and ecosystem function.”

The Forest Service defines old-growth forest based on the unique biophysical character of each of agency’s nine regions. Resource managers recognize that tree species, climate, soil productivity, and disturbance history all influence the development of old-growth forest. Therefore, Regional definitions account for the vast variation in old-growth forest character that occurs across North America.

Even within a specific geographic area, no one definition represents the full diversity of old-growth ecosystems – definitions are specific to the vegetation type.

Today, the discussion of old-growth forest has expanded to an earlier stage of forest called mature forest. Concerns associated with environmental threats led to a broader view of forest management that includes all stages of development. Climate change has spurred more frequent and longer lasting disturbances, such as wildland fire, severe weather, flooding, and insects and disease.

On April 22, 2022, the Biden Administration released Executive Order 14072: “Strengthening the Nation’s Forests, Communities and Local Economies.” The order reiterates the Administration’s policy regarding consultation with state, local, Tribal and territorial governments as well as the private sector, nonprofit organizations, unions, and the scientific community to:

  • pursue science-based, sustainable forest and land management
  • conserve America’s mature and old growth forests on federal lands, invest in forest health and restoration
  • use indigenous traditional ecological knowledge and support cultural and subsistence practices
  • honor Tribal treaty rights
  • deploy climate-smart forestry practices and other nature-based solutions to improve the resilience of our lands, waters, wildlife, and communities in the face of increasing disturbances and chronic stress arising from climate impacts 

The Executive Order requires that the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and the Interior to:

  • coordinate conservation and wildfire risk reduction activities
  • define old-growth and mature forests on federal lands
  • complete an inventory and make it publicly available
  • identify threats to mature and old-growth forests
  • develop policies to address threats
  • develop Agency-specific reforestation goals by 2030
  • develop climate-informed reforestation plan
  • develop recommendations for community-led local and regional economic development opportunities.