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Sustaining Americas Forests: Challenges and Opportunities
Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth
National Association of State Foresters
Anchorage, AK— September 18, 2006

Good morning. Associate Chief Sally Collins was honored to join you last year, and I’m very pleased to be back with you again this year.

Today, I’d like to talk about what we can do together to help sustain America’s forests. But before I start, I’d like to thank the states for their response to last year’s hurricanes and this year’s fire season. I’ll start with the hurricanes.

As part of the total interagency emergency response, we had 21 base camps and 3 evacuation centers providing services for tens of thousands of displaced storm victims. State contributions were critical; let me highlight just a few. Forty-one states provided nearly 15 percent of the overhead personnel and a third of the engines and incident management teams. The states contributed about 65,000 person days at a cost of close to $36 million.

Now to this year’s fire season. As of late August, state and local agencies were providing half the crews, three-quarters of the engines, half the helicopters, and half the overhead resources. State and local agencies have also conducted 16,000 prescribed fires, improving conditions on over a million acres.

On behalf of the Forest Service, I’d like to thank you for your outstanding efforts.

Now I’d like to touch on several things:

  • First, I’ll provide an update on what’s occurred regarding a national dialogue on the value of private forests and the threats they face.
  • Second, I’ll talk about some of the challenges we face in sustaining America ’s forests.
  • Third, I want to touch on some emerging opportunities for private forest landowners through markets for ecosystem services.
  • Finally, I’ll close with a few thoughts on how we might work together to address our common interest in the future of private forestlands.

The Chief’s Challenge
When I spoke to you 2 years ago, I raised what I still see as a very serious concern. Despite all of our dedication and effort, the American public is still not fully aware of the value of forests and their importance in our daily lives. Four out of five Americans now live in metropolitan areas; people are becoming progressively less connected with the natural environment.

That raises several questions:

  • How can we better articulate the contributions made by state, private, and tribal forests to environmental quality for all Americans?
  • How do we mobilize and energize communities to act?
  • How do we get people to come together to work on sustaining and managing forested lands?
  • How can we do a better job of telling our story?

NASF responded by convening three regional stakeholder forums in the summer of 2005, where the results confirmed what many of us here today were already thinking. A common thread was the importance of sustaining the values and services that come from private forestlands.

Since the regional meetings, a summary report was prepared and shared with the participants. Results were also distributed at other forums, like last year’s White House Conference on Cooperative Conservation in St Louis. Recommendations from these meetings have fed into a larger effort to take a new look at how we manage our State and Private Forestry programs. Later this morning, Jim Hull and Jim Hubbard will discuss whether or not these programs need to be aligned differently to better address issues of national importance and produce outcomes at a meaningful, cross-boundary scale. I would like to move forward on this with your support.

Challenges to Sustainability
Now I’ll turn to some of the challenges facing America ’s forests. I’ll talk about several in particular: fire and fuels, invasive species, loss of open space, and climate change.

Fire and Fuels
First, fire and fuels. We all know the threat. Since the 1980s, fire seasons have grown progressively worse. This year, we have already exceeded the 5- and 10-year average acres burned. The problem has to do with declining forest health, which we’ve begun to address on federal land through the Healthy Forests Initiative and Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003. We’re conducting record levels of fuels and forest health treatments; each year, we aim to set a new record.

But we’re still seeing near-record wildfire activity this year, ranging from Hawaii to Minnesota . We’ve got prolonged drought conditions in much of the West, plus a lot of excess biomass, and that combination creates explosive fuel conditions. Dozens of large fires are burning, and containment isn’t expected for some of those fires until mid-October or later. And we still have the southern California fire season ahead.

Despite the challenges, we’re collaborating to meet the threat, and we’ve made progress in a number of areas:

  • One area is coordination and decisionmaking. The NASF representative to the National Interagency Fire Center is critically important in helping to coordinate firefighting activities and other significant multi-state events. Don Artley of Montana is currently serving as the NIFC State Fire Director. When we have a complex fire season—like this one—the State Fire Director serves a particularly vital role.
  • Another area is strategic aviation planning. NASF has two representatives on the National Interagency Aviation Council—Jim Ziobro from Oregon and Tony Pate from North Carolina . They are helping to develop a unified aviation strategy for the entire wildland firefighting community.
  • A third area is firefighter safety. NASF has appointed a representative to work on the group developing the emerging operational doctrine. The idea is to formulate a shared doctrine for risk management and the health and safety of all wildland firefighters.

We appreciate your contributions in all these areas, and we need your continued support and participation.

Invasive Species
Now I want to say a few words about invasive species. Again, we all know the threat, so I won’t go into it in detail. Suffice it to say that thousands of nonnative plants—not to mention pests and pathogens as well as birds and mammals—are established in the United States, and about 1,400 of them are considered invasive.

The first line of defense is to keep invasives from crossing our borders and we’re doing our best to help. Our Forest Health Protection staff is working with APHIS to monitor offshore ports for outbreaks of potential pests such as the Asian gypsy moth. We’re also working with APHIS to detect invasives at ports of entry, to develop new detection technology, and to provide a scientific basis for regulatory actions.

Once an invasive enters, we need to detect it early. We have an Early Detection and Rapid Response pilot program for detecting new invasive bark beetles. The program has already found five new beetles, and we’re working with APHIS to assess their threat potential. We’re also working with the states to make the pilot program fully operational.

Many invasive pests enter through our urban forests, such as the Asian longhorned beetle and emerald ash borer. We have just begun a project with arborists to help them detect and report trees infested with new pests before they spread.

With respect to invasive plants, we are working to detect and manage noxious weeds and invasive plants on national forest land. We are also working closely with the states through our cooperative forest health program to monitor and suppress invasive plants on nonfederal lands.

Loss of Open Space
Now I’ll turn to loss of open space. This is a central threat to private forestland. From 1982 to 2003, over 35 million acres of working farms, ranches, and forests were converted to developed uses. That’s an area twice the size of the Tongass National Forest here in Alaska, which is huge. We estimate that about 44 million acres more are at risk of development by 2030—an area the size of Oklahoma.

When forests are replaced with megahomes and shopping malls, we lose ecosystem services. Besides, new developments disturb a larger area than just the footprint of the new structures. Roads and powerlines that service the new homes fragment the surrounding forests, especially when houses are spread across the landscape on tracts of 5, 10, or 40 acres.

Part of the problem is parcelization. From 1993 to 2003, forest parcels of less than 50 acres grew by almost 8 million acres. As you well know, small parcels are much harder to manage for timber, recreation, forest health, wildfire prevention, water, and wildlife.

Public forests are also affected. National forests are becoming islands in a sea of urban, suburban, and exurban development. The fastest growing rural counties include those with national forests.

Since 2003, the Forest Service has been working to better understand the issues associated with loss of open space. Our next step is to develop a national strategy for conserving open space. This fall, we will be gathering input and ideas from various stakeholders, organizations, and agencies. By now, each of you should have received a letter inviting you and your staff to participate in this effort.

We envision the Forest Service playing the role of catalyst and motivator in partnership with local communities, the states, and others. Our goal is to provide scientific information, resources, and programs to help local communities and landowners conserve and sustainably manage open space. Near the national forests, we hope to sit down with folks from across the landscape to consider how growth will affect both private and public forests. Ecosystems don’t recognize jurisdictional boundaries, so the challenge for all of us is to cooperate across boundaries, taking a landscape-scale view of the problem.

Climate Change
Now I’ll turn to climate change. Science has shown that greenhouse gas buildups are already having serious consequences. In some parts of the country, the average annual temperature has risen by as much as 5 degrees in the last hundred years. Growing seasons are getting longer, glaciers are retreating, and snowpacks and river ice are melting earlier. Species are shifting range, forest density is increasing, and disturbance regimes are changing. Research suggests that the big fires and huge beetle outbreaks we’re seeing are tied to climate change.

And it’s only going to get worse. Even if we brought climate sources and sinks into balance tomorrow, it would take a century for the excess CO2 that is already out there to break down. The changes are going to continue.

Fortunately, 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, and 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 an opportunity here. The world’s largest carbon sinks are oceans and forests. As forest managers, we 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 forestlands can play a role. Almost 60 percent of forests nationwide are in private ownership, and many have high potential for vigorous young stands of rapidly growing trees. And that brings me to my next topic—opportunities for private landowners through markets for carbon sequestration and other ecosystem services.

Ecosystem Services
To sum up: The future of privately owned forests is highly uncertain. At the Forest Service, we are deeply concerned about losing open space and all the associated goods, services, and values. The traditional programs of land acquisition, conservation easements, and tax incentives just aren’t enough to protect all the ecosystem services we will need for generations to come. But if we can give landowners additional incentives to keep their lands forested and sustainably managed, then maybe there are grounds for hope.

Traditionally, forests have provided ecosystem services for free. I think it’s only fair for private forest landowners to be compensated for producing all the services we get from forests—not just timber, but also water purification, carbon storage, biodiversity, and so on. The additional market value of a forest might then be considerable. Taken together with forest products, tax incentives, conservation easements, and so forth, the combined value of a forest might well exceed the value of the land for development—and loss of open space would then be greatly reduced. Forest landowners would also have an added incentive to actively manage their lands.

At the Forest Service and all across USDA, we are looking into ways of promoting markets for ecosystem services. I’ll just mention a few things we are doing:

  • Our scientists are researching ways of making it pay for landowners to provide ecosystem services. For example, they are figuring out how much carbon is stored by forests and how effective different types of land management can be in offsetting carbon emissions.
  • The Forest Service is helping to stimulate public dialogue on markets and payments for ecosystem services. Markets for ecosystem services will not develop automatically. They will require careful intervention. Our State and Private Forestry mission will play a major role here.
    • The Forest Service can help beneficiaries of ecosystem services understand the need to invest in the services they depend on.
    • We can link beneficiaries or buyers to sellers like the forest landowners who provide the services.
    • In fact, we are working with the Texas Forest Service on its Ecosystem Services Pilot Program. This program is designed to promote public awareness, educate landowners and forestry professionals about the potential of markets for ecosystem services, and bring buyers and sellers together in a forum later this year. We hope this pilot program will serve as a model for other states.

State/Federal Collaboration
We can sometimes be tempted to focus on our own turf. That’s human nature, and there are institutional forces that also move us in that direction. In my view, however, focusing on our own turf just isn’t feasible anymore—not in an age of globalization and climate change, where what happens a world away can have a tremendous impact on conditions in our own backyards.

We need to set an example of collaborative stewardship. The states, federal agencies, and local communities all share landscapes and watersheds. We need to work across borders and boundaries to address areas of mutual concern and work toward mutual goals. I think the issues I’ve raised here today make the need for collaborative stewardship very clear.

  • For example, we need to work together to conserve working forests and ranches. There is no silver bullet; an array of measures is needed to keep forest landowners on the land. But markets for ecosystem services can play a role, and I hope we can count on your continued support in developing them.
  • An obvious example of the need to work together on a landscape scale is protecting life and property from wildfire. I’m proud of our shared record of emergency response, both to fires and to other disasters such as hurricanes, and I deeply appreciate the contributions you have made to the success of our interagency efforts.
  • One more example, and then I’ll close. Invasive species are a case in point that what happens far away can deeply affect us here at home. Chestnut blight … white pine blister rust … gypsy moth … cheatgrass … the list goes on and on. We have got to work together on a landscape scale if we are to have any hope at all of coming to grips with the threat.

In closing, the challenges we face today are daunting—threats from fire and fuels, invasive species, loss of open space, and climate change. But we can turn these challenges into opportunities by working together on a landscape scale. There has never been a better time to work together, and I want to find ways to do it better. Only by working together can we sustain the ability of America ’s forests to deliver all the goods, values, and services that Americans will need for generations to come.


US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013

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