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The Forest Service: A Story of Change
Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth
Centennial Forum
Asheville, NC—November 10, 2004

It’s a pleasure to be here tonight with so many of our partners and collaborators. I can’t think of a better locale for celebrating a hundred years of conservation. As you know, the Biltmore Forest is the cradle of forestry in America, and it’s always a personal honor for me to visit this special place. The work that Gifford Pinchot and Dr. Carl Schenck began here more than a century ago gave birth to the teaching and application of science-based forest management that we are carrying on today. This Centennial Forum has given ample testimony to that, and I’d like to thank Pete Roussopoulos and the folks at the Southern Research Station, as well as Bob Jacobs and everyone in the Southern Region who contributed to this event.

As the endnote speaker at this forum, I have some pretty tough acts to follow. Some very knowledgeable people have covered a lot of ground in considerable detail—the history of forests and forestry, the future of forestry research, the accomplishments we’ve had, and our future direction as an agency. There was a lot to consider in preparing for the Centennial Congress.

But I do want to give you my own view of where I think we’ve been and where I think we might be headed, and I’d like to just start with our mission. Here’s our mission statement: “To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.”

To me, that seems clear enough. But somebody else might see “health, diversity, and productivity” or “the needs of present and future generations” differently than I do. There’s always been some ambiguity built into our mission, but does that ambiguity doom our enterprise? I don’t think so. In fact, I would argue just the opposite—that the ambiguity inherent in our mission has given us the flexibility we need to adjust to changing times. I’d like to illustrate that by talking about some of the periods we’ve been through.

We all know the story of how conservation originated a hundred years ago at a time of natural resource waste. Species like passenger pigeon or Carolina parakeet were going extinct, and we were seeing disastrous fires and floods. There were also widespread fears of a timber famine.

Conservation came out of that crisis because people wanted to stop the waste, and the forests here in the South are one of the greatest conservation success stories. Today, southern forests cover an area larger than many countries, something like 212 million acres, almost all on an area that was once cutover and farmed over. It happened through partnerships between the Forest Service, state forestry and wildlife agencies, universities, nongovernmental organizations, and hundreds of thousands of private landowners. I think it shows the potential for ecological recovery on a national scale.

Social Responsibility
A lot of the national forests in the South came about during and after the Great Depression. We’d always envisioned a social role for the national forests—to help homesteaders and small landowners get access to the natural resources they needed. But during the Depression, people wanted more from their government than ever before.

We delivered social programs and jobs, especially through the CCC. Every national forest had at least one CCC camp, and we gave jobs to thousands of unemployed Americans in all those CCC camps. It was a period of new social responsibility for the Forest Service.

World War II ended the CCC, but I guess you could say our social responsibility continued through the war effort, which we strongly supported. A lot of our employees enlisted, and we ramped up timber supplies needed by our troops.

Timber Focus
After World War II, we entered a new period. Our troops came home, and the demand for housing soared. The war effort had depleted state and private timber stocks, and the national forests were needed to fill the gap. From the 1960s through the 1980s, every administration, with strong congressional support, called for more timber from the national forests. In those 30 years, we went from producing very little timber to meeting 20 to 25 percent of our nation’s sawtimber needs. We helped millions of Americans fulfill the American dream of home ownership.

I don’t want to oversimplify. The 1940s and 1950s were a difficult period of transition. Some of the folks who’d grown up under the old custodial model of the Forest Service found it hard to adjust to the new timber model. Some actively opposed it.

And timber wasn’t all we did from the 1960s to the 1980s, not by any means. Outdoor recreation was growing by leaps and bounds, and popular demand for more of a balance between timber and the other uses led to the Multiple Use–Sustained Yield Act of 1960. We also had the Wilderness Act of 1964. These developments show that public values were changing. The first Earth Day in 1970 sent another major signal, as did the environmental legislation of the 1970s. We learned that the public wanted more of a say in our management, and they wanted us to focus more on delivering values and services like wildlife, water, wilderness, and recreation.

Restoration and Recreation
In response, we started moving toward a new ecosystem-based model of land management. The 1990s were a transitional period, where we no longer focused primarily on timber production. Again, the transition was difficult. Some of the folks who grew up under the old timber model weren’t too thrilled.

But in my view, it was the right and the necessary thing to do. It was necessary because both our landscapes and our social needs are constantly changing. If we don’t adjust to those changes, then we can’t fulfill our mission of caring for the land and serving people.

Today, I believe we are in a new period—a period of ecological restoration and outdoor recreation. Maybe more than ever before, we focus on delivering values and services like clean air and water, scenic beauty, habitat for wildlife, and opportunities for outdoor recreation. These are the main things people today want from their public lands. We know that from our surveys and from talking to our partners and to people in our communities.

And, yes, we also deliver opportunities to harvest timber, graze livestock, and extract minerals. With goods like these come important values, like jobs and community stability. We know that Americans want those values, too.

To deliver all these goods, services, and values, we’ve got to manage the land for long-term ecosystem health while meaningfully engaging the public in our decisionmaking. We believe that what we leave on the land is more important than what we take away.

Future Challenges
The period we are in will some day end, just as every period did before it. What will the future bring? I believe that a few key strategic concerns will drive future change, at least for the next decade or so and possibly beyond. These concerns have nothing to do with timber harvest or livestock grazing or roadbuilding. Those debates are essentially over—or they should be. They have become huge distractions from the major concerns we face today.

The major concerns are, in particular, the Four Threats we’ve been talking about:

  • fire and fuels, including fuels buildups from forest stands killed by southern pine beetle;
  • invasive species—kudzu is a classic example;
  • the loss of natural areas to development—forest loss and ownership fragmentation are especially troubling in the Southern Region; and
  • recreational use that is outstripping our management capacity and damaging resources, particularly the unmanaged use of off-highway vehicles.

But there are also some other concerns. Our recent Chief’s Reviews have found some common themes, including the sheer scale of what we face. Besides the Four Threats, our review teams noted several concerns:

  • a huge backlog of work to complete—thousands of deteriorating culverts to replace, roads to restore, abandoned mines to reclaim, watersheds to repair, vegetation to treat, and all kinds of deferred maintenance and ecological restoration to catch up on;
  • oversubscribed water resources and deteriorating watersheds in many parts of the country, made worse by rapid population growth; and, finally,
  • rising levels of ozone and other substances in the atmosphere—part of the problem is obvious on most days here in the Appalachians.

These are not new problems, and we’ve been addressing them for some time. But what struck our review teams was the sheer scale of what we face when you take these concerns and combine them with the Four Threats. I believe that the Forest Service is at a crucial moment in history. In the past century, there’ve been only a few similar moments where we’ve faced challenges on a similar scale. Meeting these challenges will lay out a career’s worth of work for the next generation of Forest Service employees.

Community-Based Forestry
That brings me back to what we can learn from our past. No matter how you tell the story, I think it comes out the same in the end. It’s a story of changing values—of changes on the land and changes in the people we serve. It’s also a story of how we responded to those changes to protect the land and deliver the goods, services, and values that people want.

So are we in trouble because our mission focus has changed over time? I don’t think so. Change has always been part of our history. The ability to change has always been key to our success.

What’s also changed is the way we deliver what people want. A hundred years ago, Gifford Pinchot recognized the need for working in partnership with local communities if we were to succeed. He planted the seeds of partnership in our first Use Book by directing our employees to work closely with local communities to promote conservation.

Ever since then, we’ve always been committed to fulfilling our mission through partnerships. Today, the scale of what we face leaves us no other choice: We have got to work together. But the way we work with people has changed over time. In particular, we’ve learned the need for more upfront public involvement in our decision making.

Today, I believe that we need a community-based collaborative approach, sometimes called community-based forestry. It involves getting everyone interested to state their ideas upfront and then getting them to talk through their differences and come to some agreement based on shared values. That can be really difficult. Sometimes, people believe we aren’t giving them enough of a say in our decisions. Sometimes, they see things in terms of good and evil and want to have it all their own way. In a lot of places, we’ve got a ways to go before we get the kind of full upfront collaboration with our partners we want. We’ve got to do better.

Another thing we’ve got to do better has to do with our own organization. Our society is rapidly evolving. Our average age is changing, our average complexion is changing, and our attitudes toward gender are changing. We are far more urban today than we were a century ago, and in a few decades, the majority of Americans will come from what today we call ethnic minorities. Our organization has got to keep up. We need to promote diversity within our organization to reflect the way that we as a society are evolving.

Improving Collaboration
In closing, we’ve come a long way together over the last hundred years. Values have changed and so have the challenges we face. In the period we’re now in, where our focus is on ecological restoration and outdoor recreation, the sheer scale of what we face is overwhelming. I believe that the only way we can rise to the challenge is through community-based forestry—by working upfront through collaborative partnerships for long-term ecosystem health.

For that, we’re going to need help from our partners. Community-based forestry is relatively new for us, and we’re still working it out. I believe that the upcoming Centennial Congress is a suitable forum for this issue. We expect the Congress to take the long and the broad view—the view across decades and centuries.

The question of collaboration takes the long and the broad view. It transcends the specific challenges we face. It rises to the strategic level. I look forward to the Centennial Congress as a springboard for improving the way we work together to meet the challenges of the future—and to prepare ourselves for the changes to come.


US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013

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