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Forest Leadership:
Facilitating a Collective Commitment to Conservation
Forest Service Associate Chief Sally Collins
2005 ForestLeadership Conference
Toronto, Canada—February 2, 2005

It’s a pleasure to be here. This ForestLeadership Conference is a welcome forum for discussing the future of forests and forestry, and I’m grateful for this chance to make some remarks on behalf of the U.S. Forest Service.

For those who might not know, first a little background. The U.S. Forest Service manages 193 million acres—about 77 million hectares—of public land called national forests and national grasslands. That’s an area about the size of Chile, or about 8 percent of the land area of the United States.

But our mission is much broader. We have the leading U.S. research and development organization for forest and rangeland sciences. We are also responsible for promoting the sound management of all the nation’s forests, both public and private, which we do by offering support and assistance for state, tribal, and private forestry. And, because today’s forestry issues are increasingly global, we have strong international programs.

Learning from Our Past
We also have a relatively long history. This year, we are a century old, and we kicked off the year with a Centennial Congress in Washington, DC. Hundreds of people came from all over the country and from Canada as well as other countries. It was an occasion for celebrating our conservation roots, but also for reflecting on the daunting challenges ahead. The participants met in groups and came up with dozens of recommendations. There were three major ones:

  • The first one had to do with the way people appreciate and value the ecosystem services provided by forests. On our national forests—on public lands—that means ensuring that we have clean air and water, abundant wildlife and fisheries, and opportunities to enjoy these. On private lands, the participants encouraged us to look for ways to attach market value to ecosystem services as a way to help private forested lands stay forested in the future. These services have traditionally been provided for free, including carbon sequestration, soil and water protection, biodiversity, and outdoor recreation. We are looking into this and encourage you to discuss these ideas with Pete Roussopoulos, who will be presenting a little later on today.
  • A second major recommendation had to do with better engaging the public in conservation, for example by improving our school curricula to better address ecological issues.
  • A third major recommendation involved improving opportunities for partnership and collaboration, for example by simplifying our processes and broadening our authorities.

The issues all focused in one way or another on partnership—on facilitating a collective commitment to conservation, and I’ll come back to that. But I’d like to start by giving you a brief overview of our history at the Forest Service to put all this into context.

Where We’ve Been
In the past century, we have been through three very different eras of national forest management, and now we are moving well into a fourth. A century ago, our nation faced a crisis caused by the unrestrained exploitation of our natural resources. Conservation grew out of that crisis. A national system of forest reserves was established in 1891, and the Forest Service was charged with managing it in 1905, when it became the National Forest System. For the first time, we put uses like grazing and timber under careful management. We also protected the game and started to get the fires under control.

The next era came with the Great Depression in the 1930s, which strengthened our commitment to social responsibility. Through the Civilian Conservation Corps, we gave jobs to thousands of unemployed Americans, who built a lot of our public forest infrastructure—roads, trails, campgrounds, ranger stations, and so on. During World War II, the era of social responsibility continued through the war effort. A lot of our employees enlisted, and we ramped up timber supplies needed by our troops.

The 1950s were a period of transition into the timber era. 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 a large share of our nation’s need for wood. We helped millions of our citizens build homes. During the same period, the courts became much more active in determining forest policy due to conflicts among the various uses.

Under our multiple-use mission, we also protected and delivered other values, goods, and services, including range for livestock, water, fish and wildlife habitat, wilderness, and outdoor recreation. But by the 1990s, under the combined pressures of delivering all this while still producing a great deal of timber, our ability to meet public expectations was overwhelmed.

For the past decade, timber production on national forest land has been a relatively small program. Where we once met more than 25 percent of our national need for wood, today it’s less than 5 percent, and most of that is byproduct from projects for other purposes, such as forest health protection or habitat enhancement. Today, we decommission 12 miles of road for every mile constructed, and timber is no longer the reason for most what we build—it’s access to recreation. Our main focus today is on ecological restoration and outdoor recreation. Our goal is to integrate the social, economic, and ecological components of sustainability in all that we do.

Focusing on Important Issues
These shifts in what we’re doing on the land today reflect a whole new set of challenges facing us in the 21st century. Consider:

  • In the last 4 years, we’ve had our worst fire seasons in 50 years, and five states have had their biggest fires in history. We’ve lost dozens of lives and a record numbers of homes, and we’ve had record firefighting costs.
  • Nationwide, invasive species have cost our citizens billions of dollars while contributing to the decline of up to half of our imperiled species, and the rate of new introductions has been growing.
  • We are rapidly fragmenting our forests and losing open spaces. Every minute, our citizens lose more than 4 acres—one-and-a-half hectares—of open space to development. Again, the rate of loss is growing.
  • Recreational uses have been rising so fast that we haven’t kept up. In particular, we’re seeing unacceptable resource damage from the unmanaged use of off-highway vehicles.

In addition to these four threats, we also know that climate change at various scales is undeniable. For example, we’re in a much drier period in the western part of our country than we were 30 years ago. This has huge social, economic, and ecological implications.

These are all enormous and growing challenges, yet our citizens are too often caught up in debates from the past. Getting people to focus on these important issues of the future is one of the main challenges we face.

As we turn our attention to these threats facing us, it is clear that they are truly international in scope. Fire and fuels issues, invasive species, unmanaged recreation, the loss of open space, and climate change are hitting most nations, in different ways, perhaps. But for us in the U.S. Forest Service, it means opening our minds to some new ideas and approaches, which I’ll turn to in a moment.

Global Trends
For me personally, this journey really started during my second year as Associate Chief. In 2002, I had the opportunity to attend the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa. Prior to the conference itself, I visited three mills owned by a U.S. company in the northern part of South Africa.

The mills had equipment that was decades old. In addition, they were required by post-apartheid law to bring management under black leadership by a certain deadline, one that was fast approaching. So the company was funding a huge training program, and the workforce wasn’t stable. Close to 30 percent was HIV-positive, with a high death rate since drugs were few and living conditions were extremely poor. In this context, the company played an important social role, providing medical care and family and personal counseling.

You can imagine all the costs and difficulties associated with all this. Nevertheless, these mills were exporting FSC-certified wood to the United States, and they expected to be producing a
profit within 3 years. And yet in the United States, with all the advantages we have in terms of equipment and infrastructure and social conditions and proximity to markets, so many mills have closed that there are very few left in some parts of the country, such as southern California. That’s a primary concern for us because thinning trees for fuels reduction is critical for community safety in many parts of the country. Without mills to process the material, it’s tough to get it out of the woods.

From this trip, I finally began to understand that global economic trends had caught up with forestry. We are so challenged in the United States by a whole range of social, economic, environmental, and other issues that it can actually be cheaper to operate overseas and import the wood than it is to operate in the United States and sell on our own markets. When our citizens buy softwood lumber, four boards in ten now come from other countries.

This has huge implications, both at home and abroad. If forest owners in the United States can’t make it pay to manage their forests sustainably, then they tend to stop trying. And if it pays more to sell their land to developers—and often it pays much, much more—then they are sorely tempted to do so. The southern United States is still the single biggest wood-producing region in the world, but southern states like Florida and North Carolina are actually seeing net forest losses to development. As this happens, we are losing forest values and benefits we desperately need.

This also has implications abroad. Public forests in the United States enjoy some of the greatest protections in the world. At the same time, we are by far the world’s biggest consumer of wood. Our per-capita wood consumption is three times the world average, and our consumption of softwood lumber has set new records in 6 of the last 8 years. To my mind, that raises an important question: We are confident of sustainable forest management in North America, but as we import more and more wood from overseas, some of it is coming from places with relatively few environmental protections. When we do that, are we fueling unsustainable practices in some countries … deforestation … illegal logging?

Community-Based Forestry
On national forest land and on state and private lands in the United States, we have to understand the global context we live in. For us, that means paying close attention to the signals coming from all around us—and today they are coming from all around the world. But if we find ourselves focusing on the past—on the debates that mattered yesterday—then we miss the signals we’re getting today.

At the Forest Service, we’re trying some new approaches in response to the challenges we face, particularly in light of global trends. We don’t have all the answers, but we believe that it’s our responsibility to take some initiatives, see what works and what doesn’t work, then adjust our methods accordingly. And some are not without their share of controversy.

First, we’re trying some new ways of involving communities more actively in the planning of our work. A hundred years ago, the first Forest Service Chief, Gifford Pinchot, recognized the need for working in partnership with local communities if we were to succeed. More and more governments are similarly engaging communities in managing their local forests because they see that the best caretakers are those who know and depend on the land the most. We’re seeing a global trend toward community-based forestry, with parts of Mexico being stellar examples.

Something similar is going on in the United States. In many of our rural counties, residents eke out a living on the margins of some of our richest forests, which are often on public land. Our local communities know local forest conditions better than anyone else, and they have strong traditions of caring for the land—provided they have a stake in the outcome.

One response to this trend has been the evolution of a new tool called stewardship contracting. Traditionally, we would contract for particular projects—for a timber sale, for stream restoration, and for trail reconstruction, for example—with separate contracts in the same geographic area. And the timber sale was the primary vehicle for commercial timber. With a stewardship contract, we work together to outline the broad landscape outcomes we want on the land, then leave it up to the successful bidder, potentially NGOs or community groups—and we’ve had both, as well as industry groups—to figure out the details and get the outcomes we want. With the products they sell, they can reinvest in the other restoration work on the land. The focus is on what you leave on the land, not on what you take away. It’s a great way to involve the community in managing the land and taking local ownership, and it is already dissipating public concern in some places over traditional timber sales.

Second, we’re taking a hard look at some of our fundamental planning tools to make them more responsive to conditions in the 21st century—bringing in new technology as well as the public’s desire to be involved, and recognizing the threats facing our forests and the need to respond to them quickly. Most prominently, we’ve reformed the guidelines that our national forests use to make long-term management plans.

The new guidelines—called a planning rule—will allow us to focus on future issues quickly and more adeptly, such as increased recreational use, invasive species, big fires, and ecological restoration. The planning rule also provides for quickly incorporating the best available science into planning as we learn. By reducing the time it takes to complete a plan—from about 7 years to about 2 years—it encourages more upfront public participation. And, finally, it requires a system of independent third-party audits to make sure not only that we deliver what we say we will, but also that we truly are improving the environment. The audits use environmental management systems for certification by the International Organization for Standardization, and we will have them in place by 2008. This will increase not only our accountability, but also the transparency of our monitoring process, something our publics and communities have wanted for decades.

We are also considering a field test of forest certification, looking at both the Forest Stewardship Council and the Sustainable Forest Initiative simultaneously to learn more about third-party auditing processes and see how our approaches align with these systems. We have many details to work out and more conversations to hold, and while this test won’t result in certification of a national forest directly, it will help inform us and others on the value of possibly taking that step later.

You might ask, why now—especially since I have already told you that most of the timber produced on national forests today is a byproduct of restoration work and that the focus of our programs has changed from timber to ecological restoration and outdoor recreation. We’ve seen third-party forest certification grow from almost nothing 15 years ago to become a major global contributor to third-party monitoring for sustainable forestry, and we want to do what we can to encourage that trend. In the last 15 years, we’ve joined the international dialogue on sustainable forestry through the Montreal Process and other forums, and we’re firmly committed to continuing that dialogue based on the use of criteria and indicators of sustainable forest management. For more information on testing for certification, you can talk to Elizabeth Estill, who is here all week.

Finally, over the past 2 years we’ve put all of our senior leadership through seminars on global forestry trends, for most of the reasons I’ve talked about today. From that came many of our ideas about independent audits, examining markets for ecosystem services, and the market niche that forest products have in a global context. We know that rich, biologically diverse, unfragmented, healthy forests in the United States depend on a rich, vibrant, healthy forest products industry. Unless we take the time—like we are doing here this week and like we’ve been doing for several years with our senior leadership—we will miss the opportunity to intervene in these larger issues that truly affect the course of the future of our world’s forests.

Hope for the Future
Our first Forest Service Chief, Gifford Pinchot, often talked about his trips to Europe and Asia. In fact, he envisioned conservation as a global peacemaker. He reasoned that if we can conserve our renewable natural resources worldwide, then we can eliminate one of the biggest incentives for waging war: to plunder the resources of other countries.

In this spirit, I have great hope for the future. All of us forest managers face what appear to be overwhelmingly large challenges in the years ahead; yet we have developed a global framework for sustainable forest management. We’ve moved forward on many issues in our international dialogue, and we have many opportunities to work together across borders and boundaries. We have a lot to offer each other, but, more importantly, we have so much to learn from each other as well.


US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013

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