SEATTLE (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden marked Earth Day on Friday with a speech promoting a new effort to protect old-growth forests as he visits the lush but fire-prone Washington state.
The move comes as Biden has drawn fire from environmentalists for shifting his focus from climate change to boosting energy production amid high inflation and war in Europe.
The executive order signed by Biden on Friday will create the first-ever inventory of old-growth forests on federal lands and develop a plan to conserve them. It will also task diplomats with doing more to combat deforestation abroad, the White House said.
“Our forests are our planet’s lungs,” he said, adding that the order would “strengthen our forests on federal lands and make them and the local economies they support more resilient in the face of wild fires.”
The massive, sometimes ancient trees that dot the Western U.S. landscape absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, cutting the emissions that cause climate change and also make wildfires more likely.
They’re at risk. A single fire in 2020 in California killed more than 10% of the world’s giant sequoia trees, National Park Service scientists concluded.
“Wildfires and extreme weather events are growing in frequency and ferocity, engulfing communities in the West and across the country and costing lives, homes, and money,” the White House said in a fact sheet announcing the executive order.
The order follows the administration’s decision to tap the nation’s oil reserves to curb prices, plead with domestic producers to drill more, and encourage everyone from OPEC kingpin Saudi Arabia to Brazil to increase production, as energy prices have spiked in part due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Some on the left view the shift as a betrayal, after Biden, as a candidate, made climate change a pillar of his campaign for the White House, promising to decarbonize the U.S. economy, end drilling on public lands, and lead the world in a historic shift away from fossil fuels.
Biden’s visit to Washington state marks the latest in a series of trips aimed at touting the administration’s accomplishments ahead of November’s mid-term elections.
He delivered his Earth Day remarks at Seattle’s forested Seward Park before visiting Green River College in Auburn, a half an hour’s drive outside of Seattle and part of Washington’s 8th Congressional District.
That district will stage one of the three dozen or so competitive races that will determine whether Biden’s Democrats retain control of the House of Representatives in November. Democrats are counting on high levels of participation by young and climate-focused voters to lift them to victory.
The $1 trillion infrastructure law Biden negotiated includes $8 billion for forest and land management activities. But much of Biden’s climate agenda remains stalled, awaiting sufficient legislative support to secure Senate passage.
(Reporting by Jeff Mason, Trevor Hunnicutt, and Alexandra Alper; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell and Diane Craft)