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USDA Forest Service
Washington, D.C.

Centennial Congress: A Historic Opportunity

Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth
Centennial Congress
Washington, DC—January 3, 2005

Welcome! I am honored and privileged to be here at this Centennial Congress together with so many of our partners and collaborators. Let me start by thanking all of you for being here. This is a difficult week, coming as it does right after the holidays. Your being here is a real tribute to your dedication to conservation.

I’d like in particular to thank the Secretary of Agriculture, Ms. Ann Veneman, for taking time from her busy schedule to be with us today. Secretary Veneman has given us the strong support and leadership we needed in the last few years, and I deeply appreciate everything she has done to help us better fulfill our mission of caring for the land and serving people.

Unique Moment in History
This is a unique moment in time. Exactly a hundred years ago, a similar group of people gathered here in Washington, DC, for the first American Forest Congress. The delegates came from all over the country—and from as far away as the Phillipines. Some of them gave up their holidays to be here.

That first American Forest Congress faced daunting challenges. President Theodore Roosevelt addressed the Congress, and he spoke of forests in trouble. He spoke of timber profiteers whose only idea was, and I quote, “to skin the country and go somewhere else.” He spoke of a possible timber famine.

But he also spoke of hope. He challenged the delegates to figure out how they could continue using the nation’s resources without destroying them, because if they destroyed them, then they themselves would be destroyed.

But they were not destroyed. Instead, they flourished because they took the opportunity to change the nation. They set the stage for generations of Americans from all walks of life to practice conservation, both in their professional lives and in their personal lives.

When I look around this room, I see the same sort of opportunity here today. A great many interests from all over the country are represented here. There are folks from industry … from the environmental community … from the outdoor recreation community … from all sorts of user groups. Groups we collaborate with are here. Universities and the academic community are well represented. Our partners in government at every level are here—tribal, local, state, and federal. Heads of federal and state agencies are here, and my special thanks to them. There are also representatives from Capitol Hill. Many young people are here, our future conservation leaders. And, of course, there are folks from the Forest Service family … from the National Forest Foundation … from the Regions and Stations … from State and Private Forestry … and from the ranks of our retirees, including several former Chiefs—Max Peterson, Dale Robertson, Jack Ward Thomas, and Mike Dombeck.

Proud Forest Service Record
Speaking of the Forest Service family, let me say a few words about the Forest Service. This year, the Forest Service is a century old. I have worked in the agency for more than a third of that time; and, because my father was in the Forest Service, I have really been part of the agency for my entire life. That’s more than half of our entire history as an agency.

I cannot begin to tell you how proud that makes me feel. I’ve known Forest Service employees all my life. I’ve seen them go through some ups and downs as times have changed, and I’ve drawn inspiration from their tremendous dedication to conservation. I’ve seen how hard they’ve worked and the things they’ve accomplished for the land and for the people we serve. I’ve seen them take the lead in dealing with emergencies going way beyond wildland fire—after 9/11 at the Pentagon and at Ground Zero in New York; after the Columbia Shuttle disaster in Texas; and now, after the tsunami disaster in South Asia, we’re again involved in our nation’s emergency response through our International Programs Staff. And I can honestly say, after a lifetime of experience with Forest Service folks: I cannot imagine a finer bunch of people. It makes me proud to be one of them.

But this Centennial Congress is about more than just the Forest Service. What brings us together from so many different backgrounds is something we all have in common: our public spirit and our collective commitment to conservation. We sometimes have strong differences of opinion, but I see those differences as positive, partly because they reflect the same passionate commitment to conservation we all share. Every one of us here wants to do what’s right for the land and for the people we serve.

This Centennial Congress is an opportunity for joint reflection on what that means. It’s an opportunity to recognize our successes, to celebrate our collective commitment to conservation, and to look to the challenges ahead. At this historic moment, I see a real opportunity to renew a national dialogue on the conservation idea.

Conservation Successes
What is conservation? Gifford Pinchot famously said it’s “the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time.” Today, we tend to use the terms sustainable forestry or sustainability as the equivalent of conservation. I think our Forest Service mission sums it up pretty well: “To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.”

“The greatest good” … “the needs of present and future generations” … it sounds great. But what I might think is a “good” or a “need” someone else might not. My “good” or “need” might conflict with theirs, and the next thing you know we’re in court—unless we remember our collective commitment to conservation. That’s partly why we’re here for the next few days: to build trust … to promote dialogue … to rediscover our common ground.

And I think we have had some remarkable successes over the last century. The whole idea of conservation has given us a lot of common ground. A century ago, Theodore Roosevelt spoke of the old pioneer days, when, and I quote, “the American had but one thought about a tree, and that was to cut it down.” Through that attitude, we lost about a quarter of America’s entire forest estate in the first three centuries of our history as a nation.

Thanks to conservation, that wasteful attitude has totally changed. We no longer think of a tree as an obstacle to progress or even as just standing timber. In my lifetime alone, we’ve seen a huge shift in values and attitudes. Today, thanks in part to new scientific insights, our focus has broadened. We now focus on the long-term health of entire forested landscapes.

As a result, the way we go about managing forests and harvesting trees today is light years ahead of where it was a century or two ago. And it’s truly paid off: In the last century, America’s forest estate has stayed roughly the same, with little or no net loss nationwide.

Skinning the Country
Does that mean we no longer just “skin the country and go somewhere else,” as T.R. put it a century ago? Yes … and no. Today, the cut-and-run logger of the 19th century would be hard to find in the United States. But we’ve found subtler ways of skinning the country.

If you drive in any direction from here, you will soon see signs of it. Farms, fields, and forests are giving way to development. Nationwide, we’re losing more than 4,000 acres of open space to development every day. Our families are getting smaller, yet we’re building bigger houses, mostly from wood. And more and more of that wood is coming from overseas.

The “land skinner” today is no longer the American timber producer. Professional forestry in the United States is one of the 20th century’s greatest conservation success stories, and I think you’ll see some of that story told in the film The Greatest Good. Our forests today, especially on public land, enjoy the world’s greatest environmental protections.

But I’m afraid we still might be skinning the country—somebody’s country, anyway—when we import lumber from places with fewer environmental protections. Out of sight, out of mind—but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening. When we import wood from some places, I’m afraid we promote unsustainable forestry practices … illegal logging … deforestation.

Challenges to Conservation
These are some of the challenges to conservation. There are other challenges, too, and they are huge. Here are some of them:

  • Dealing with a growing population. In the last hundred years, we have more than tripled our population to 275 million, and it just keeps on growing. By the turn of the next century, we are projected to have 571 million Americans. Think about what that means for our water resources alone. Some of our fastest growing areas are some of our driest.
  • Expressing the changing face of America. As you know, Americans are growing ever more urban and more ethnically diverse. Conservation belongs to all of our citizens, yet the face of conservation has traditionally been rural and white. We need to give Americans from every background more opportunities to participate in conservation.
  • Supporting our land ethic with a strong consumption ethic. Americans want it all—recreation opportunities, access, clean water, wildlife, and scenery, plus inexpensive two-by-fours and printer paper. Last year, Americans consumed wood products at record levels, and we remain the largest wood-consuming nation on earth. Yet we don’t want any changes in the landscape or any commercial operations on public land. If we truly believe in a land ethic, then we must also demonstrate a consumption ethic. That goes especially for the Forest Service. Others will follow our leadership only if we practice the conservation we preach.
  • Restoring our fire-adapted forests to something more resembling their condition at the time of European settlement. Many of our most pressing problems are related to fire and fuels in forested landscapes that, by their very nature, are dynamic. Our goal is not to keep landscapes unchanged for all time—which is impossible, anyway—but to restore—or at least to account for—the dynamic ecological processes that our forested landscapes evolved with. That includes disturbances such as fire.
  • Responding to the realities of a global economy in a culturally diverse world. One of those realities is that invasive species are moving around the world with growing ease. It’s a huge threat, both to our native ecosystems and to our pocketbooks.
  • Better managing outdoor recreation. We’re in growing danger of loving our public lands to death. We have to get to the point where visitors get the high-quality experiences they want without compromising the health of the land or the ability of future visitors to get those same high-quality experiences.
  • Restoring the health of so many of our watersheds, along with our deteriorating infrastructure. We have a huge backlog of watershed restoration projects on national forest land alone. We’ve got thousands of deteriorating culverts to replace. We’ve got 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.
  • Understanding and coping with long-term and large-scale climate changes. Climate change at various scales is undeniable. For example, we’re in a much drier period out West than we were 30 years ago. This has huge social, economic, and ecological implications.
  • Finally, working better together across boundaries on a landscape scale. That includes better engaging our publics in managing national forest land. Partnerships and collaboration are absolutely crucial. I believe they hold the key to everything else.

Hope for the Future
These challenges are enormous. But as I look around me at the people gathered here, I believe we are up to the task. I am filled with hope—the same hope for the future of conservation that inspired Theodore Roosevelt a century ago.

Partnership will be key. In the last few months, together with many of you, we held regional forums all over the country to prepare for this Centennial Congress. At those regional forums, we opened a dialogue on the future of conservation. Here, you will have an opportunity to build on that dialogue. Tomorrow, we will hold breakout sessions where you can express your own perspective on conservation, on the role of the Forest Service, and on how we, together, can seek “the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time.”

I ask you to remember one thing: This is not just another meeting. This is a historic occasion, and we are lucky. Celebrating this moment is a privilege denied to other generations, both past and future.

You stand on the shoulders of giants—people like Theodore Roosevelt, Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson, Gifford Pinchot, and all the others who set the stage for conservation a century ago. Through their collective commitment to conservation, they gave us common ground. That common ground is represented here in this room, and I believe it gives us reason for hope today.

At this Centennial Congress, you have a historic opportunity to build on that common ground by setting the stage for a new century of service … for another hundred years of caring for the land and serving people … for a whole new era of conservation. Please take that opportunity and use it well.


US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013

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