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SPEECH
USDA Forest Service
Washington, D.C.

Celebrating the Forest Service’s Past and Looking to Our Future
Forest Service Associate Chief Sally Collins
70th Annual North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference
Washington, DC—March 16, 2005


It’s a pleasure to be here. This conference is a highlight of the year for us because it brings together so many of our partners in natural resource management. I’m grateful for this chance to make some remarks on behalf of the U.S. Forest Service.

Learning from Our Past
This year, the Forest Service is a century old. In January, hundreds of participants from the United States, Puerto Rico, and other countries arrived in Washington for our Centennial Congress. Among the participants were delegates from different regions; speakers from universities, agencies, and other organizations; many young people, our future conservation leaders; and many of our partners—I know some of you attended.

It was an occasion for celebrating our conservation roots, but also for reflecting on the daunting challenges ahead. The participants met in groups to discuss some of the challenges we face, and they 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, that means ensuring that we have clean air and water, abundant wildlife and fisheries, and opportunities to enjoy these. Participants told us—and we concur—that national forests provide some special and unique ecosystem services found in few other places in America, if not the world. This includes providing a specialized niche—wildlife habitats for rare species. This includes offering the opportunity to recover and conserve wildlife and fish species with limited protections elsewhere—particularly limited on private lands, such as species dependent on late successional ecosystems. And we’re uniquely positioned to provide remote recreation experiences, including more primitive hunting and fishing opportunities.

    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 in order to add a bigger economic engine to conservation. These services have traditionally been provided on private lands for free, including carbon sequestration, soil and water protection, biodiversity, and outdoor recreation.

  • A second major recommendation had to do with better engaging the public in conservation, for example by improving our school curricula to better address conservation issues.

  • A third major recommendation involved improving opportunities for partnership and collaboration, which I’ll talk more about in a moment.

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 this hundred-year history, because I think it puts much of what I’ll share into some context. I hope you’ll be able to see the Forest Service centennial film The Greatest Good. In 2 hours, it provides a beautiful portrait of what I’ll sketch for you in a minute or two. Tomorrow, if you choose to, you can see 30 minutes of this film.

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 forests we know today. 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.

The 1950s were a period of transition into the timber era, because the supply of timber on private lands was depleted due to the war effort. 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, producing a peak level of more than 12 billion board feet in 1987, today it’s less than 2 billion board feet, less than 5 percent of the nation’s wood supply. Most of that is byproduct from projects for other purposes, such as forest health protection or habitat enhancement. Today, we decommission about 12 miles of road for every mile constructed, and timber is no longer the reason for most of what we build—it’s access to recreation. Our main focus today is on ecological restoration and outdoor recreation. Our goal, now, 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 thousands 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 steeply.

  • We are rapidly fragmenting our forests and losing open space. Every minute, our citizens lose more than 3 acres 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. Our Forest Service researchers, looking at climate change for more than three decades, have indicated that under the most optimistic scenario, the United States will see significant ecological changes in the decades ahead. Tomorrow some of those same researchers will be speaking on changes in sagebrush ecosystems as a result of climate change.

These are all enormous and growing challenges, yet Americans 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.

Transition to Global Context
As we turn our attention in the Forest Service to these larger threats to our nation’s natural resources, we’ve been struck by the extent to which our national conservation issues have become global—everything from species protection of migratory birds; to invasive species management, with the never-ending introduction of exotics from ever-expanding global trade; to international ecotourism; to global markets for forest products.

Our chess game of resource management has become more and more multidimensional. Let me talk for a minute about this last issue—global markets for forest products—because it ties directly to our future conservation efforts in the United States.

In the 1990s, I was the forest supervisor of the Deschutes National Forest in central Oregon. During that time, mills were closing all over the Pacific Northwest. Yes, it had to do with declining timber availability on federal lands, which in turn has to do with the outcome of the conflict over habitat for the northern spotted owl. But more and more, timber prices were and are being set globally. The American timber industry is not faring well in this global market, and more American timber producers are investing overseas, where labor and production costs are lower. Ten years ago, a local mill owner in central Oregon bought a mill in Lithuania for export to the United States. At the time, I wondered how that could possibly be economical with all of the transportation costs, to say nothing of development costs in an underdeveloped country.

Global Trends
This became even more confounding to me when I traveled to South Africa 3 years ago. 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, near Sabie.

The mills had equipment that was decades old and pretty inefficient as a result. 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 Forest Stewardship Council-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, there are very few mills left in some parts of the country, such as southern California. And without mills to process material, it’s tough to get it out of the woods—something we need to do to reduce fire hazards, provide habitat for various species, and restore fire-adapted ecosystems—ecosystems we all know are significantly “out of whack” for a variety of reasons.

Well—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, partly by selling trees, 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 often do just that. 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 urban and suburban development. As this happens, we are losing forest values and benefits we desperately need—like habitat for the native wildlife we are all committed to protecting.

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: 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? And what does that do to biological diversity?

Community-Based Forestry
I believe we have to understand the global context we live in. For all of 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. But we can’t do it alone. We can’t succeed without active involvement from the public and our partners. Partnerships are key, and let me explain that a little more.

The Forest Service has a long tradition of fulfilling our mission through partnerships. But the way we work with people has changed over time. When I first started with the Forest Service, many of us still believed that we “professionals” had all the forestry expertise needed to make the right choices for the land. Our public involvement was largely limited to explaining our decisions, and our partnerships were limited to helping us carry them out.

That’s changed. Again, a global trend is involved. Eighty percent of the world’s poor depend on forest resources, and more than a billion poor people live in the world’s 19 biodiversity hotspots. What we’re learning from our international partnerships—with organizations like The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, Forest Trends, and others—is that if we want to protect biodiversity worldwide, then we have got to give local communities a stake in the land. They are showing, with these partnerships, that for people to work for conservation, conservation has to work for people. More and more governments are 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.

New Initiatives
One response to this trend of community-based forestry 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, or for trail reconstruction, for example—separately—that is 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; to build local support—ownership for the work being done; and to boost the local economy.

Second, in response to decades of criticism by the public and in view of the need to respond to very different issues today, we’re taking a hard look at some of our fundamental planning tools to make them more responsive to conditions in the 21st century. We’re bringing in new technology as well as the public’s desire to be involved, and we’re recognizing the threats facing our forests and the need to respond to them quickly. There are dozens of great examples here—just developed in the past 3 years—such as new categorical exclusions or the Healthy Forests Restoration Act. But, most prominently, we’ve reformed our forest planning process.

The new 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 effective 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—or EMS—for certification through an internationally recognized process, 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.

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, about markets for ecosystem services, about the market niche that forest products have in a global context, and about the worldwide movement in community-based forestry.

Hope for the Future
In closing, as we work together locally to protect and conserve our wildlife and other natural resources, let’s remember to think globally. Gifford Pinchot, the first Forest Service Chief, traveled internationally quite a lot, and 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.

Worldwide, the wave of the future is community-based stewardship through partnerships and collaboration. While all of us in natural resource management face what appear to be overwhelmingly large challenges in the years ahead—fire, fuels, invasives, growing population and climate change, and loss of open space—we have great opportunities for working together across borders and boundaries, across government at all levels, and with partners representing the full conservation spectrum. As our partnerships have matured over the past decade, so have our successes. We see it not just in the innovations—those really spectacular partnerships among so many different and nontraditional parties—but also on the land, in restored habitat and thriving wildlife populations. You all have so much to be proud of and we are proud to be your partner.

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