About Us  |  Contact Us  |  FAQ's  |  Newsroom

[design image slice] U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service on faded trees in medium light green background [design image slice] more faded trees
[design image] green box with curved corner
[design image] green and cream arch
Employee Search
Information Center
National Offices and Programs
Phone Directory
Regional Offices

US Forest Service
1400 Independence Ave., SW
Washington, D.C.

(800) 832-1355

  USA dot Gov: The U.S. Government's Official Web Portal.
An image of the Forest Service badge
USDA Forest Service
Washington, D.C.

The Future of Public Land Management
Forest Service Associate Chief Sally Collins
Federal Lands Committee Meeting, NCBA
Denver , CO — February 3, 2006

It’s a pleasure to be here this morning. Thank you for inviting me! This is an important opportunity for us to talk about our future together. Ranchers are important partners for the Forest Service, and we value your contributions to the health of the lands we manage together. We need to continue and strengthen our partnership.

In my remarks today, I’d like to give you an idea of how we see the future of public land management in general. Then I’d like to point to some specific things we’re working on to strengthen our partnership for the future.

Four Threats
Last year, we celebrated our centennial at the Forest Service. It was a time for reflecting on where we’ve been in the last hundred years and what the future challenges are. As you probably know, our land management focus has changed a few times in the past century.

  • A hundred years ago, the main use of the national forests and grasslands was for grazing. We put what at the time was a totally unregulated situation—with declining rangeland health in many areas—on a sound management footing.
  • For the next half century, we managed the national forests on a custodial basis. We saw our job as conservative management and use for the health of forests and rangelands as a whole.
  • In the postwar period, our focus changed. There was enormous demand for wood, and every Congress and Administration asked for more national forest timber. Our mission was still multiple-use management, and we did our best to balance the various uses. However, until the late 1980s, our main focus was on natural resource extraction, particularly of wood.
  • In the 1990s, our focus again shifted, partly in response to changing public values. Today, our main focus is on land restoration and providing opportunities for outdoor recreation—on providing clean air and water, habitat for wildlife, and opportunities for outdoor enjoyment. We believe that the public will want us to keep focusing on these things for many years to come, and we believe it’s the right thing to do.

However, our ability to provide services like clean air and water, forage, habitat for livestock and wildlife, and high-quality outdoor recreation is in growing doubt. We are facing a number of very serious long-term threats. We’ve been focusing on four threats in particular:

  • First, unnatural fuel buildups and uncharacteristically severe fires have been devastating many parts of the West.
  • Second, invasive species have been displacing native species and disrupting ecosystems throughout the country. That includes invasive weeds and the attendant forage loss.
  • Third, we’ve been losing working farms, forests, and ranches to development. As you know, many ranching families have had to sell off their lands and move off of the landscape.
  • Fourth, outdoor recreation is booming, and it hasn’t always been as well managed as it should be. That’s resulted in resource damage, particularly from unmanaged OHV use.

This list of four isn’t exhaustive. There are many other threats as well, such as climate change. I don’t think there’s much doubt anymore that this is a very serious long-term threat, both regionally and globally. For example, we’re in a much drier period out West than we were 30 years ago. As you know, this has huge social, economic, and ecological implications.

Loss of Open Space
Of all the threats we face, one in particular affects ranching families as much as any other—or maybe more so: loss of open space. Let me just talk about that for a minute, because I think it has enormous ramifications for the future of federal land management.


The problem is complicated.

  • First, the production costs for products coming off public lands have greatly increased in the past decade. This is true for timber products as well as food and fiber products and the whole range of nontimber forest products. There are lots of reasons, including the rising costs of labor, energy and transportation, and so forth. Production costs on private lands are also increasing.
  • Second, there’s globalization. Today, market prices are set internationally. When prices for so many products are set globally, the economic dynamics obviously change for local producers. This is complicated by larger issues of international trade, but—suffice it to say that it can be a more challenging environment to work in. This has caused a wholesale restructuring of some sectors, like the livestock and forest products industries. For example, taking both costs and transportation into account, we can now import wood to Baltimore from South Africa cheaper than we can ship it from Atlanta , Georgia .
  • Third, real estate values have gone up dramatically. The supply of prime land is in constantly growing demand as developers push farther and farther outside urban areas.
  • Finally, there’s been an increase in disposable income for many Americans, which has led to the acquisition of more and more second homes. Real estate investments have reached levels we’ve not seen historically.

The impacts from all of this are far-reaching: Every day, across America , we lose more than 4,000 acres of working farms and ranches to development. I’m sure you’re all very familiar with this problem, but there’s really much more to it than meets the eye. When a ranch is sold for development, it’s not just the ranching family or the food and fiber production that’s affected. And it’s not just private land that’s affected, either. The impacts go much further:

  • First, we lose management capacity on public land. As you know, ranchers who graze livestock on public lands contribute to improving their allotments. In some places, we even use grazing itself as a management tool, for example to reduce fuels and keep woody vegetation from encroaching. When we lose permittees, we lose that capacity.
  • Second, we lose habitat all across the landscape. Wildlife species such as elk are often associated with the national forests, but they also use privately owned bottomlands at certain times of the year. As these private lands are developed, the wildlife disappears, no matter how good the habitat remains on adjacent public land.
  • Third, we lose a whole range of other ecosystem services, including fresh water, flood regulation, carbon sequestration, and aesthetic as well as recreational values. Developed land simply cannot furnish these services like open rangeland can.

Traditionally, such ecosystem services have been free. Whether they came from public or private land, most ecosystem services have been available to anyone who wanted or needed them. They are what economists call a “commons,” and a commons is notorious for the tragedy it can lead to. When goods or services are for the taking, they tend to be undervalued. No one has a stake in conserving them.

So ranches are important for many things. They are important for conserving a way of life—part of our western heritage. Ranches also contribute to giving our nation a safe and secure food and fiber supply, and they add to our management capacity across the landscape. But what often goes underappreciated and undervalued is that open rangeland gives us all kinds of ecosystem-related values and services that people have traditionally taken for granted. When we lose ranchland to development, we lose all of these things.

I think the public increasingly understands that. The sense we are getting from the different constituents we serve is that they increasingly understand the value they get from working ranches. In particular, more and more people are coming to see the value of open space in providing ecosystem services. Increasingly, they don’t want to lose that value. Last year, as part of our centennial celebration at the Forest Service, we hosted a Centennial Congress in Washington , DC , where delegates assembled from all over the country. One of their three major findings for the future was the need to conserve and protect the ecosystem services we get from open spaces like working ranches.

So the sense we are getting is that the public wants to see viable ranches in the West. They want to see the improvements we are making together with our permittees—and our scientists tell us, in fact, that 6 out of 7 acres of grazing allotment are in good or improving condition. The public wants to keep the land open and working instead of converted to urban uses. We know that many ranchers depend on their federal allotments to make their entire operation feasible and economical, and our intention at the Forest Service is to work with permittees to keep these allotments healthy and operational.

Finding Solutions
Given all this, one of the things that the future of public land management has to be about is finding long-term solutions to the loss of open space and the loss of all the goods, services, and values associated with ranching. The traditional program for protecting open space has included regulations, land acquisition, conservation easements, and tax policy and incentives. Some of these elements are more or less popular than others. Some work better than others. In combination, however, they aren’t able to adequately address the dimensions of the problems we face today.

Part of the underlying problem seems to be market failure. The market sees only the value of the land for development and for products such as red meat. It ignores the value of the land for delivering water, sequestering carbon, supporting wildlife, and so on. The value of such ecosystem services might not completely replace the value of traditional rangeland products, but it can be a vital supplement. If we can assign a monetary value to such ecosystem services and add it to the value of rangeland products, then the sum might be greater than the value for development. The economic incentive for sustainable land management would then outweigh the incentive for development.

A market correction along these lines might go a long way toward solving problems related to loss of open space. It’s been called natural capitalism—finally recognizing nature’s contribution to the balance sheet and putting that natural capital to work.

It’s already being done in a number of places in a number of ways, for example through emissions trading or by paying for crop pollination or upstream watershed protection. There are lots of investors already deeply involved in ecosystem service investments around the world, such as Hancock Insurance Corporation.

In the farming and forestry sectors, some approaches involve government payments for ecosystem services, and others involve private investments. There are markets for some ecosystem services on the New York and Chicago Stock Exchanges—like carbon storage. For others, such as water filtration in the New York City watershed, local governments make payments to forest landowners to keep their land managed as forests, obviating the need to construct much more expensive water filtration systems.

In the ranching community, we’ve seen lots of ideas emerging, such as grassbanking and reserve common allotments. Ranchers are expanding their operations to diversify and increase their income. Among other things, they are looking to ecotourism, hunting, and fishing.

Forest Service Role
You might ask: Why is the Forest Service interested in this? What’s our role? And you might also be wondering, why is she talking to us about all this?

First, the markets for ecosystem services are already developing. Transactions are happening. We don’t intend to make transactions for ecosystem services on federal lands, but we do see a role in our State and Private Program for helping private landowners sustain a working landscape.

Second, the Forest Service can help stimulate a public dialogue on markets and payments for ecosystem services. We have a strong forest and rangeland research program that can guide and enrich this dialogue. We support a web-based effort to display current trading in ecosystem services, called the Ecosystem Marketplace. NRCS has recently joined us in sponsoring this marketplace. USDA is currently looking at building an ecosystem service market approach into the 2007 Farm Bill.

How does this affect you? You’ll hear from Janette Kaiser later on in a little more detail about what we are doing, but I want to briefly mention one initiative we have underway. It folds together a number of possible solutions to the problem of ranchland loss, with the basic idea of making it easier and less costly to graze livestock on federal land. So far, we’re calling it Sustainable Rangelands Restoration—in hopes of stimulating interest in the rangeland equivalent, in some ways, of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003. I’ll just summarize the parts that would affect national forest land, including grazing allotments.

  • We would like to have the ability to authorize cooperative agreements whereby permittees could work to restore rangelands on grazing allotments, and in exchange they would receive an equivalent value—maybe a grazing fee waiver or credits for services provided. This would be one way ranchers could redeem value for the ecosystem services they provide.
  • We would also like to be able to authorize long-term, 30-year grazing permits in exchange for retaining rangelands in open space. That would mean restricting commercial or residential development of the associated private ranchlands and providing a value for good rangeland management, for clean water sources, and for managing these lands sustainably as open space.
  • We’re also looking at establishing national standards for monitoring rangeland conditions. We should all be on the same sheet when it comes to evaluating management practices and determining whether we are meeting our objectives or at least making progress.
  • We would also like to help streamline NEPA in several ways:
    • We think we need a permanent authority to categorically exclude decisions to continue current grazing management on lands that are meeting or moving toward management objectives, based on monitoring tied to the national standards.
    • We are looking at ways to categorically exclude certain kinds of projects that are designed to improve rangeland health, restore rangeland ecosystems, or reverse woody encroachment.
    • We would also seek to categorically exclude certain kinds of projects that apply registered pesticides or biocontrols against noxious weeds and invasive and species.
  • We also want to exempt all such categorically excluded projects from administrative appeals.
  • Just as in the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, we would also help streamline ESA by applying joint counterpart consultation to rangeland restoration projects, together with streamlined consultation guidelines.
  • We would also help streamline the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) through new SHPO consultation guidelines for rangeland restoration projects.
  • In addition, we would like to have the authority to establish a trust fund to finance restoration, invasive species treatment, and monitoring activities on federal rangelands.
  • Finally, we think its time to clarify conditions and terms of judicial review.

If we want to put natural capital fully to work, we’re going to need more than this, but it’s a start. These innovations would leverage some of the value of ecosystem services from the land to get badly needed restoration work done. They would also get rid of some of the associated process gridlock, and I’m sure we all agree that’s badly needed. If markets for ecosystem services are ever going to develop in the United States—as they have elsewhere—we’re going to have to keep down what investors call “transaction costs.” In other words, we need to minimize extraneous process that doesn’t add value to the transaction—also known as process gridlock.

Giving Ranchers Incentives to Stay
To sum up: The Forest Service is facing some very serious long-term threats to our ability to provide the values and services Americans want from both their public and private lands.

We believe that one of the gravest threats facing working ranches is loss of open space to development. In the next hundred years, our population will grow to something like 570 million, and if we sit back and do nothing, our open spaces will dwindle away. As working ranches disappear, so will all the benefits they provide—a part of our western heritage; a safe and secure part of our food and fiber supply; and all the ecosystem services we take for granted—and that our children’s children will want and need.

We in the Forest Service believe that traditional approaches to the problem won’t be enough. Please know that we recognize and value greatly grazing on public lands. This doesn’t change that. Public land, tax reform, and conservation programs will take us only so far. We have got to give private landowners—including private ranchers—more of an incentive to stay on the land, and we have got to help them manage it sustainably.

Like everyone, we are struggling with all of the changes affecting our programs. Usually, we worry about budget cuts and conflicting authorities, or we fret over the lack of public support for our multiple-use mission or the apparent erosion of the private property rights. In some ways, while important, these can distract us collectively from these larger, looming, more global issues—and from the solutions to them.

That is what we are trying to get a better grip on in the Forest Service today and why I am so pleased to be here talking to you! Thanks for listening and having me here.


US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013

[graphic] USDA logo, which links to the department's national site. [graphic] Forest Service logo, which links to the agency's national site. [graphic] A link to the US Forest Service home page.