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In the Spirit of Earth Day: Connecting People to the Land
Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth
Earth Day, University of California
Berkeley , CA — April 22, 2006

It’s a pleasure to be back here in California. The story of the Forest Service in California is more than a century old. I saw a big part of that story firsthand, because I grew up in California on various national forests where my father was forest supervisor. Later on, I served with the Forest Service in California myself for a few years, and I’ve been back since then from time to time.

Exactly three years ago, I came back to give an address on the occasion of Earth Day here at UC-Berkeley. Earth Day has always been important to me. On the first Earth Day thirty-six years ago, I was working on a Forest Service ranger district, and I went to a local school to talk about how forests are connected to people. For me, that connection is what Earth Day is about—how people connect to the water, wood, wildlife, wilderness, and other values, goods, and services they get from healthy forests and grasslands.

That connection is also what the Forest Service is about. Our job is to connect the people we serve to the things they want and need from their forests and grasslands—things like clean air and water, habitat for wildlife, and opportunities for outdoor recreation.

How do we make that connection? That’s what I want to talk about today. It isn’t easy. We face tremendous obstacles to conservation—maybe more than ever before. But I do have hope, because we also have some great opportunities for working together through partnerships and community-based stewardship to meet the challenges we face. I see a new consensus emerging behind conservation, and by the end of my remarks, I hope you’ll see it, too.

Four Threats
Three years ago, the Forest Service was at a pivotal point in our history. The old timber wars were over; we were harvesting less than 15 percent of the timber we harvested at the peak of the timber era, and we were decommissioning about 12 miles of road for every new mile of road we built. But the public debate, here in California and across the nation, continued to focus on timber and roads, as if nothing at all had changed. Meanwhile, some very serious threats to the nation’s forests were getting lost in the debate.

That’s when we decided to do what we could to change the debate. We began focusing our national policy on the four major threats to our nation’s forests—fire and fuels, invasive species, loss of open space, and unmanaged outdoor recreation. Three years ago, I came to Cal to make the case that these four threats were getting lost in the debate. I chose Cal again today for an update on where we stand. I’ll summarize the four threats, then outline some of the progress we’ve made.

  • First, fire and fuels. Many American landscapes are adapted to wildland fire, yet that connection has been disrupted. As a result, fire seasons have been worsening: Since 2002, five states have had their biggest fires in history, including the Cedar Fire in southern California two and a half years ago. These fires are devastating to communities and ecosystems alike. We have got to restore our fire-adapted ecosystems to a healthier, more resilient condition.
  • Another major threat comes from invasive species. Invasives can be like a slow-moving fire. Maybe you can remember what it was like when sudden oak death started moving through the coastal ranges near here in the 1990s. Nationwide, invasive species have contributed to the decline of 49 percent of our imperiled species, according to one study. That makes invasives one of the greatest threats to biodiversity there is.
  • A third major threat is loss of open space. Every day, we lose more than 4,000 acres of working farms and ranches to development, and forests are also being fragmented and lost. For nearly a century now, we’ve had no net loss of forestland nationwide, but that’s changing. By 2050, we could see a net forest loss the size of Maine.
  • The fourth threat has to do with outdoor recreation, particularly the use of off-highway vehicles. In recent decades, OHV use on national forest land has grown from next to nothing to something like 11 or 12 million visits a year. In 2004, there were more than 14,000 miles of user-created trails on national forest land alone. That’s a lot of damage, and it costs a lot to repair. We have got to do a better job of managing that use.

These four threats—fire and fuels, invasive species, loss of open space, and unmanaged outdoor recreation—are the major challenges facing land managers in the United States today. With support from the administration, from Congress, and from the public at large, the Forest Service has been focusing on these four threats, and we’ve made a lot of progress:

  • With respect to fire and fuels, our focus is on restoring fire-adapted ecosystems in collaboration with local communities, and we’ve made great strides. Since 2001, the Forest Service has treated more than 13 million acres under restoration projects of all kinds. That’s an area about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined.
  • With respect to invasive species, we have so far controlled the threat from pests such as the Asian long-horned beetle. Working with the states, we have also slowed the spread of weeds such as cheatgrass and knapweed. And through the cultivation of disease-resistant trees, there’s now hope for restoring white pine forests in the West and chestnut forests in the East.
  • A good way to conserve open space is to keep working ranches and forests in operation. We are helping landowners keep their lands open and well-managed through various kinds of financial and technical assistance. Through the Forest Legacy Program, the Grassland Reserve Program, and other easement programs, the Forest Service and USDA now protect more than 3.8 million acres nationwide. That’s an area larger than Connecticut.
  • With respect to unmanaged recreation, we’re implementing a national rule to better manage OHV use in collaboration with various user and environmental groups. The new rule applies to national forests and grasslands that allow motorized use. It requires them to work with partners and the general public to designate a system of roads, trails, and areas for motorized use. This will give us a chance to repair the damage caused by thousands of miles of user-created trails.

So we’re vigorously addressing the Four Threats. But there are some additional long-term challenges we face. I’ll describe a couple of these before turning to the opportunities we have.

The Changing Face of America

First, the face of America has changed:

  • In the last hundred years, we have more than tripled our population in the United States to about 300 million, and it just keeps on growing. By the turn of the next century, we are projected to have more than half a billion Americans.
  • The overwhelming majority of Americans now live in metropolitan areas. Our population has shifted from less than 30 percent metropolitan in 1910 to about 80 percent today.
  • Ethnic minorities are also increasing. If current trends hold, then minorities will become the national majority by about mid-century. They already are here in California.

Conservation belongs to all of our citizens, yet the face of conservation has traditionally been rural, male, and white. We need to give Americans from every background more opportunities to participate in conservation. We’ve got to broaden the circle of conservation.

Consider how much California has changed. Increasingly, the national forests in this state are becoming islands and archipelagos in a sea of urban, suburban, and exurban development. Increasingly, Californians rely on imports to provide the comforts of urban living. Half a century ago, California was self-sufficient in wood; today, California imports 80 percent of its wood. Trace some of that wood back to its source, and you will find practices that Californians would abhor here at home ... vast clearcuts … areas stripped of sensitive habitat. As we lose our connection to the land through urban living, we tend to lose touch with our land ethic.

Sixty years ago, the great ecologist Aldo Leopold—who authored the land ethic—warned that this might happen. The connection between water and watersheds, food and farms, wood and forests was obvious to our rural ancestors, but urban life teaches that water comes from a faucet, food from a grocery store, and wood from Home Depot or Lowe’s. Our connection to the land—the very spirit of Earth Day—tends to get lost in urban living.

It’s up to us at the Forest Service to help restore that connection. The people we serve—increasingly urban and from a variety of ethnic backgrounds—these people are the future of conservation. If we want to achieve our goals, then we need to win their support. We need to show the relevance of conservation to their daily lives if we want to help people discover their connection to the land. Again, we need to broaden the circle of conservation.

Climate Change
The people we serve have changed, and so has the land we care for. I’ve already alluded to some of the changes—fire and fuels have dramatically altered many landscapes, and so have invasive species and the loss of open space to development. But these changes come in a broader context that hasn’t been talked about enough. It’s climate change.

Climate change isn’t something that might or might not be coming. Forest Service researchers and others will tell you it’s already here. The problem is greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide: More carbon is being emitted into the atmosphere than is being taken up by forests and other so-called carbon sinks. In the past few centuries, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from about 280 to about 370 parts per million; and in the next hundred years, that could easily double.

It takes CO2 a hundred years to break down in the atmosphere, so even if sources and sinks were brought into balance tomorrow, the greenhouse effects would still be with us for a long, long time. The best known effect is a rise in average temperature. In some parts of the country, the average annual temperature has risen by as much as 5 degrees in the last hundred years.

As you might imagine, that has some serious long-term consequences. Growing seasons are getting longer. Many glaciers are retreating, and snowpacks and river ice are melting earlier. Species are shifting range, forest density is increasing, and disturbance regimes—including fires, insects, and disease—are changing. Those big fires we’ve been seeing could be partly due to climate change. The same goes for the huge bark beetle outbreaks we’ve been seeing in the Sierras and Rockies as well as in Alaska and Canada.

What’s in store for the next hundred years? Forest Service researchers have been studying this question since the late 1980s. If CO2 in the atmosphere doubles over the next century, then we are likely to see some very substantial changes.

In California, temperatures could rise by as much as 9 degrees on average, and there could be up to 50 percent more precipitation in some places. But much of that would quickly run off. During downpours, soils would become more saturated, bringing more floods, landslides, and debris flows; but at other times, soils could become even drier than they are now, especially in summer.

There would be major changes in ecological communities. Grasses would move into desert areas. Alpine and subalpine communities would all but disappear as lower elevation forest types move upslope. Some forests would likely become more dense, while others could disappear. We’re already seeing dry pine forest in parts of southern California being weakened by drought, then devastated by bark beetles and replaced by chaparral.

Summers would be longer and hotter. Snowpacks would melt sooner, so summers would also likely be drier. Combine all that—more fuel, more heat, drier conditions—and you would get even more explosive fire seasons than we’ve seen so far—and probably even more water shortages. Shifting temperatures and vegetation could disrupt local and regional economies, including the ranching and forest products industries and recreational industries such as skiing. All in all, severe social, economic, and ecological disruptions could lie ahead.

Restoring Ecosystems
So far, I’ve focused on the challenges to conservation—the things that threaten or weaken people’s connection to the land. I’ve talked about fire and fuels, invasive species, loss of open space, unmanaged outdoor recreation, urbanization, and climate change. These challenges are enormous. For the past several years, I have traveled all over the world to assess the state of conservation with forestry leaders from around the globe, and I have come to the conclusion that the challenges we face are on a global scale.

And yet I am optimistic. In fact, I think we have more opportunities today to connect people to the land than we’ve had for some time. Let me outline the reasons why I have a lot of hope for the future.

First, our focus at the Forest Service has changed. Our focus today is on restoring and maintaining the ability of ecosystems to furnish services that people want and need. We are restoring ecosystems of all kinds, from damaged salmon and trout streams, to upland meadows and tallgrass prairie, to rangelands choked by invasive weeds, to wetlands along streams and lakes, to degraded pine and oak savannas and woodlands. Where ecosystems are in trouble, our role is to restore them to health. What we leave on the land is more important than what we take away.

Of course, restoration isn’t feasible everywhere, and it’s not all we do. We still deliver a full range of goods, values, and services to the American people, including water, wood, livestock forage, habitat for wildlife and fish, and opportunities for outdoor recreation. In some places, we might decide to harvest timber in a sound, sustainable manner to help furnish local jobs and supply Americans with wood, even where a timber sale has no restoration value.

But where restoration is feasible and appropriate, it’s the right thing to do, and it resonates with people. One of the most promising aspects of restoration is its enormous collaborative appeal. Restoration delivers services that people want—and cannot afford to lose—such as clean water or fire protection or biodiversity. A restoration opportunity can bring community stakeholders together to find common values and agree on the actions needed to reach shared goals.

It’s a win/win situation. Instead of refighting the old timber wars, more and more people are coming together around restoration opportunities. In fact, 75 to 80 percent of the timber now generated from national forest land is byproduct from projects for other purposes, such as ecological restoration, fuels management, and habitat enhancement. Restoration projects furnish jobs, and the byproducts help to meet the need for wood and energy here in California and across the nation. Everyone wins.

Managing Carbon
Climate change complicates matters. It does no good to try to restore a forest where the climate has become too dry, for example. In this case, the challenge becomes easing the transition to another type of ecological community by promoting ecosystem health and resilience under the altered climatic conditions. In the longer term, the most important challenge for forest managers is to help restore a global balance between carbon sinks and carbon emissions by preventing deforestation or increasing carbon storage in trees.

The long-term climate change outlook might seem pretty bleak, but there are things we can do. We can use science to manage ecosystems so the impact of climate change isn’t so disruptive. We can start by restoring the health of our nation’s forests and grasslands, then manage for future changes to ensure that ecosystems continue delivering the values, goods, and services that people want and need.

In fact, I see another major opportunity here. The world’s largest carbon sinks are oceans and forests. The Forest Service can’t do much about oceans, but we can do something about the capacity of forests to take up and store more carbon. Both public and private forest lands can play a role here. Almost 60 percent of forests nationwide are in private ownership, and many have high potential for vigorous young stands of rapidly growing trees.

The Forest Service has one of the largest conservation research organizations in the world, and our researchers have already done a lot to help us address climate change. Forest Service scientists have been evaluating climate change and projecting its impact on America’s ecosystems. They are also figuring out how much carbon is soaked up and stored by forests and grasslands and how effective different types of land management can be in offsetting carbon emissions. Finally, our scientists are researching ways of putting natural capital to work by making it pay for landowners to provide ecosystem services like carbon storage.

Putting Natural Capital to Work
I want to expand on that last point, because I think it’s another opportunity—another critical step in connecting people to the land: We need to find ways of putting natural capital to work. Let me explain what that means.

Carbon storage is one of many services we get from healthy ecosystems. We get a whole array of ecosystem services, such as soil protection, water purification, biodiversity, outdoor recreation, scenic beauty, and so on. But of all the services we get from ecosystems, only a few such as timber currently have any market value at all. We get the rest of these services for free.

In the past, that has worked, to a point. As long there was a substantial amount of sound, sustainable timber production on private land, we generally got the other services for free. But global markets have changed, and we now import a lot of the wood we use—and not just in California. Nationwide, four boards of softwood lumber in ten now come from other countries.

Meanwhile, land markets are booming. In the last five years, about 60 percent of the prime timberland once owned by the forest products industry has been sold to long-term investment companies. The future of these forests is uncertain, and so is the fate of the ecosystem services they provide, because these relatively new forest owners are beginning to sell. The buyers often turn these lands from forests into row houses and shopping malls. All the ecosystem services we got for free are then lost.

The challenge is to find ways of valuing forests and grasslands as working natural capital that delivers ecosystem services. We need markets that attach a fair value to all the services we get from forests and grasslands—not just to timber and livestock, but to water purification, carbon storage, biodiversity, and so on. Forest landowners ought to be compensated for producing these services instead of selling their lands to developers. I’m betting that the additional market value of a forest or grassland would then be considerable. It might well exceed the value of the land for development—and loss of open space would then be greatly reduced.

At the Forest Service and all across USDA, we are looking into ways of promoting markets for ecosystem services. It will take careful research and preparation, but I think the future holds tremendous opportunities for putting natural capital to work. This kind of market correction is essential if we want ecosystems to continue delivering all the goods, values, and services that people need and want from the land.

Broadening the Circle of Conservation
I talked about the changing face of America. As Americans have grown more urban and ethnically diverse, their connection to the land has changed. Fortunately, I see tremendous potential in urban, suburban, and exurban areas for broadening the circle of conservation and connecting people to the land.

The national forests themselves provide some outstanding opportunities through outdoor recreation. Most people will remember that camping trip last year because it stands out from their everyday humdrum. They tend to value the memories—the trees, the air, the waters, the wildlife, and all the rest. It begins to connect them to the land.

If we can bring such experiences to people who wouldn’t normally have them—maybe through a program for inner-city kids, for example—then we can begin to make a difference in their lives. We can begin to win their support for conservation.

Other opportunities come from working with people who live on the margins of national forest land in the so-called wildland/urban interface. People are moving into the interface in record numbers in search of a higher quality of life. They value the clean air and water, the sense of seclusion and naturalness, and the opportunities to see wildlife and enjoy the outdoors.

However, they often run up against some harsh ecological realities, particularly the fact that the landscapes they cherish often evolved with fire. Coping with such realities can provide opportunities for working together with people to keep them safe while restoring healthy fire-adapted ecosystems. The Forest Service has some strong collaborative programs for that, such as the Firewise program or community fire protection planning. Such experiences can strengthen people’s connection to the land and win more support for conservation.

But some of the greatest opportunities come from working with people directly in urban neighborhoods. It takes relatively small investments in urban greenspace projects, for example, to make a huge difference in people’s lives and outlooks. We’ve seen it in cities such as Chicago, where the Forest Service works through a metropolitan partnership called Chicago Wilderness.

And, given the challenge of climate change, one of the biggest opportunities for new carbon sinks is through urban afforestation. The Forest Service has programs for working with municipalities to protect neighborhood trees and encourage people to plant more trees around their homes.

Building Partnerships for Community-Based Stewardship
So I see tremendous opportunities for connecting people to the land, starting with a focus on ecological restoration and taking it all the way into our biggest metropolitan areas. Opportunities like these have one thing in common: They engage people at the local level in taking responsibility for the land. That’s my final point: The success or failure of conservation today depends on building partnerships for community-based stewardship.

The Forest Service’s role has changed. Whether in managing the national forests or anything else we do, our role isn’t to provide all the answers in the old top-down fashion. In the years ahead, I believe our role will increasingly be that of a catalyst and motivator, in partnership with the people we serve. As I see it, the solutions will come less from the Forest Service than from our partners at both the local and the national level, based on a mutual understanding of the need for healthy, resilient ecosystems that can deliver all the values, goods, and services that people want.

Over the years, we’ve developed some outstanding partnerships for this with groups like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation or the National Wild Turkey Federation, as well as with groups in the land trust community, the recreational community, and the environmental community. They provide considerable resources for habitat restoration and natural resource protection. We need more partnerships like these.

The big reason for engaging more folks in caring for the land is probably self-evident to most of you. The days are gone when the public was content to sit back and let the so-called experts decide everything. Today, the public generally wants to get involved in natural resource issues and national forest management. People deserve a meaningful say in how their public lands are managed. That includes addressing and resolving any differences of opinion, then moving forward with agreed-upon actions on the ground. It does not include stalemate and gridlock, where conservation and collaborative stewardship are held hostage by a self-righteous few.

In America, we are blessed with a strong national framework for conservation, with robust laws protecting our natural resources. To realize the benefits from this system, we must work at the community level with people who live day to day with the impacts of our actions. People who live on the land and use it are the ones who know it best, including folks from urban areas who might use a favorite spot for recreational purposes. They have a strong stake in the outcome, and we depend on their knowledge, commitment, and active participation to help us achieve outcomes that everyone wants.

Increasingly, our role at the Forest Service is to bring folks together to articulate their concerns and values, hammer out some agreements based on mutual goals, then work together to restore ecosystems through on-the-ground community-based projects. A collaborative approach builds commitment to partnership and ownership of the results. It broadens the base of support for conservation in the future. It’s the best way I know to connect people to the land.

The Spirit of Earth Day
Before closing, let me just return to Earth Day for a moment. I think Earth Day captures the true spirit of conservation. Earth Day is about looking beyond the confines of our daily life to discover the source of our existence in our connection to the land. People depend on healthy, resilient ecosystems around them to deliver the essentials of life—basic things like clean water and clean air as well as amenities like outdoor recreation and scenic beauty.

But it’s a two-way street. Because people are part of ecosystems, the capacity of the land to deliver a full range of values, goods, and services depends on whether people keep ecosystems healthy and resilient. Helping people make that connection is our job at the Forest Service. Our job is to help people connect to the land.

I see tremendous opportunities to make that connection. Yes, the challenges we face are daunting, but so were the challenges a century ago, in the early days of the Forest Service. Yet people came together based on shared values and goals, and it made all the difference in the world. They stopped the cut-and-run logging that had been devastating our forests, and a new era of conservation was born, based on protecting and restoring the nation’s forests for future generations.

Today, I see a new national consensus emerging, and it gives me great hope. I see people coming together around natural resource issues and national forest management based on some of the opportunities I’ve talked about today:

  • Our focus on restoration is key. I see more and more people putting aside their differences and coming together around opportunities to restore healthy, resilient ecosystems. Again, what we leave on the land is more important than what we take away.
  • The other opportunities I mentioned also have a lot of potential for bringing people together—managing carbon to offset climate change; putting natural capital to work to deliver ecosystem services; and broadening the circle of conservation to include Americans from all walks of life.
  • But how we do all these things is just as important as what we do. Our role at the Forest Service is to empower people at the local level, through resource advisory groups and other local initiatives, to get together and resolve natural resource issues for themselves.

In closing, the key to connecting people to the land is to connect them to each other so they can care for the land themselves. That’s our job at the Forest Service today—bringing people together to find on-the-ground solutions through collaborative community-based stewardship. The future belongs not to us, but to the people we serve—and that includes everyone here. In the spirit of Earth Day, the future of conservation belongs to you.


US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013

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