By Hannah E. Jones

In April, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) proposed a new rule — “Conservation and Landscape Health” — that seeks to protect intact natural landscapes and restore degraded habitats. The federal agency’s proposal is open for public comment until June 20.

Under this proposal, BLM would offer conservation leases to promote the protection and restoration of public land. The leases would be similar to the federal government’s current acreage offerings for drilling, mining and grazing. The goal is to put conservation on equal footing with other land uses.

The new rule would also allow the agency to establish a more comprehensive framework to identify, evaluate and consider special management for areas of critical environmental concern. BLM manages more than 245 million acres of public lands, roughly one-tenth of the country. 

Some conservationists point to this rule as a way to protect the nation’s mature and old-growth forests, which are incredibly valuable for our ecosystems. Older forests have a greater impact than newer ones, as they retain more carbon and nitrogen and are better at improving water and air quality.

The world’s largest and oldest trees are estimated to store 50 percent of aboveground carbon and when cut down, they release their stores of carbon back into the atmosphere. (Photo courtesy of Fernbank.)

Georgia has about 17 old-growth forests, as documented by the Old-Growth Forest Network, primarily in Fulton and DeKalb counties. Beyond that, there are old-growth remnants that can regenerate the old-growth forest ecology because the soils are intact. 

Kathryn Kolb, director of EcoAddendum, explained that the City of Atlanta has old growth and remnants sprinkled throughout the city, primarily between residential properties and along stream corridors. This is due to the region’s relatively late development and pockets of forest were left untouched because they weren’t suitable for farming.

For example, a Post Oak was cut down in Kolb’s East Lake neighborhood. She got a slice of the tree, counted the rings and discovered that it was 280 years old.

“The old-growth forest in the City of Atlanta is hiding in plain sight,” Kolb said.

Kolb is supportive of these types of conservation efforts from the federal government, which she feels are imperative for protecting the overall health of the Earth.

“It seems to me that, if we want to preserve natural systems that support life on the planet, the first thing we do is preserve the pieces of the puzzle that are left intact,” Kolb said.

She continued: “The challenge is pretty obvious, and we see this in metro Atlanta. There is no financial incentive to protect older forests or trees. There’s a financial incentive to cut them down for development; there’s a financial incentive to plant trees. The economy of managing forests is that you get paid to destroy forests, you get paid to try to recreate a forest out of what was destroyed … you get paid to do all of these heavy-handed approaches to management but simply protecting what we have — No one’s getting paid to do that.”

In turn, Kolb said that landowners should be given incentives — like “mini conservation easements” — that offer tax deductions in exchange for protecting portions of their property.

Some take issue with BLM’s new proposal, arguing that this would bar public access and recreational use. However, Kolb believes there’s a balance that can be struck between conservation and recreation. She recommends allowing light-touch activities to areas with old-growth, like hiking trails, while other uses can be allocated to areas with less environmental impact.

“[There’s not] any shortage of locations where you can have built amenities or more active recreational amenities,” Kolb said. “We already have a great many places like that.”

If you’re interested in checking out a local old-growth forest, you won’t have to look too far. There are several in Fulton and DeKalb counties, including Big Trees Forest Preserve, Deepdene Park, Fernbank Forest, Frazer Forest and more

To learn more about BLM’s recent proposal and submit a comment, click here.

Hannah Jones is a Georgia State University graduate, with a major in journalism and minor in public policy. She began studying journalism in high school and has since served as a reporter and editor for...

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