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SPEECH
USDA Forest Service
Washington, D.C.

Climate Change and the Future of Forestry
Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth
North American Forest Commission
Vancouver, Canada— October 23, 2006

 

It’s a pleasure to be here to discuss forestry matters of great importance to our countries, to our continent, and to the world.

Last year, we had an event of considerable importance to the United States—the hundredth anniversary of the first American Forest Congress. More than a hundred years ago, in January 1905, conservation leaders came together in Washington, DC, to launch forestry and conservation as formal commitments by the United States government. Out of those commitments came the U.S. Forest Service, which was formed later that year.

In January of last year, we held a Centennial Congress to celebrate a hundred years of the U.S. Forest Service. We renewed our commitment to forestry and conservation with the help of partners from all over the world, including our friends from Canada and Mexico. I am glad to say that we had representation at the highest levels of both your organizations. I thank you for honoring us with your presence.

Last year’s event was more than just an occasion to celebrate. It was also a chance to discuss the challenges we face in the coming century. The delegates identified a number of themes, including threats from wildfires and insects and the way they’re connected to climate change. I think this is something that foresters across North America will be dealing with for some time, and I’d like to say a few words about it now.

Growing Fire Severity
When it comes to wildland fire, our situation in the United States is far different from what it was in the past. In the distant past, we had a lot of fires, and they covered a lot of area each year—far more than they do today. But in many parts of the country, the fires were generally low to the ground and didn’t do much damage. They kept many landscapes far more open than they are today, both in the eastern United States and in many parts of the West.

By the 20 th century, that had dramatically changed. People rarely used fire anymore, and most fires were suppressed. In fact, we started to exclude fire from our landscapes. Fire exclusion as well as timber and grazing practices released a lot of small trees, and pulses of wet weather in the West in the early part of the century and again in the 1970s helped those trees to grow. The result was that many forests grew much thicker than they were historically.

Our citizens generally like thick forests, because—ironically—they associate them with wild nature. In the late 20 th century, people moved into these forests in droves, seeking solitude and serenity. Some of our fastest growing counties are in the rural South and West, where people can find beautiful forested landscapes with opportunities for outdoor recreation on public land.

So what we have now in many places are unnaturally dense forests that are full of homes. That has proven to be a recipe for disaster. About twenty years ago, we began getting longer fire seasons, with bigger fires and more acres burned. This year, for example, we’ve had more acres burned than in any year since 1954.

As a result, many more homes are at risk, and thousands have been destroyed in recent years. Plant and animal communities that aren’t adapted to severe fires are also at growing risk.

Climate change is part of the reason—or, rather, a change in climate variability, with greater extremes. Since the 1980s, higher temperatures and earlier snowmelts in some years have driven fire severity beyond the historical range of variability. In 2000, I saw some of that incredibly severe fire behavior myself in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana and Idaho.

 

Invasive Insects
Another impact of climate change has been just as bad. Warmer temperatures have allowed bark beetles to speed up their breeding cycles and to extend their range. Bark beetles are native to North America, but some now display the characteristics of invasive species.

An invasive species is a plant or animal that goes where it doesn’t belong and destroys species that aren’t adapted to it. Bark beetles are starting to do that from California to New Mexico and up to Alaska and British Columbia. Changes in climate variability are weakening trees through periodic extremes of drought. At the same time, climate change produces more prolific beetle breeding, and it puts beetles in places where they weren’t before. This upsets the natural balance in forests adapted to a certain range of climate variability. Our native forests just can’t cope with the new levels of stress from bark beetles, and trees are killed across tens of millions of acres.

For example, mountain pine beetles are now proliferating in high-elevation whitebark pine forests. Whitebark pine already faces threats from an exotic disease—white pine blister rust—and from competition by subalpine fir due to fire exclusion. Whitebark pine is interdependent with species such as grizzly bear, red squirrel, and a bird called Clark’s nutcracker. The additional stress from mountain pine beetle could cause the entire ecosystem to collapse.

Similar threats extend across the West—and potentially much farther. Mountain pine beetle is ravaging lodgepole pine in the Canadian Rockies beyond what used to be its northern limits. If it gets into jackpine, it could sweep across the northern boreal forest and down through the southern pineries in a vast continental arc reaching from British Columbia to East Texas.

The potential feedback loops are frightening. Warming temperatures melt snowpacks earlier, making more fuel available and worsening fire seasons. They also spread bark beetles, killing trees and adding more fuels. As the fires grow, the smoke and carbon emissions increase, putting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere—and causing even warmer temperatures. The problem could spiral out of control on a global scale.

Forestry Solutions
What can be done? A lot has been said about reducing carbon emissions, and we should do more in that regard. Each of our organizations has an environmental footprint that can probably be reduced. At the Forest Service, we owe it to the people we serve to become more carbon-neutral, and we are looking for ways to do so.

But as foresters we also have an obligation—and an opportunity—to improve the global balance between carbon emissions and sinks. The world’s greatest carbon sinks are oceans and forests. As foresters, we can’t do much about oceans, but we can do a lot about forests.

Consider what we can do with biomass and small trees—the stuff we need to take out of the woods anyway to restore forest health. If the material is sold and utilized in wood products, then it sequesters carbon for the future instead of burning up in the next big fire and adding carbon to the atmosphere. Of course, there are many things to consider before removing trees from the woods, but one of them should definitely be the global carbon budget.

Biomass can also help us solve our energy problems. The United States already uses it for biofuels—for example, to heat schools in parts of the West. Biomass also has enormous potential to fuel transportation and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Ethanol made from cellulose—including wood—is seven times more energy-efficient than gasoline and five times more energy-efficient than ethanol made from corn. Think of the energy potential in all the down woody material left by last year’s hurricanes in Mexico and the southern United States.

Or consider the implications for forest management. Again, one consideration among many should be the global carbon budget. For example, one reason to maintain a range of forests at various stages of growth is that biodiversity requires a range of habitats, from early- to late-successional. Now we have another reason: Young forests sequester carbon at much higher rates than old forests. We need to find ways to build the capacity of our forests to store carbon, and urban forestry holds a lot of promise in this regard. We also need to prepare for the effects of climate change, including shifts in vegetation.

Or consider the opportunities to support forest management on private land. Almost 60 percent of the forests in the United States are privately owned, and they are being subdivided and developed at an alarming rate. To keep private forests intact and sustainably managed, we need to find alternative sources of income for the owners of these lands. Carbon sequestration has a cash value; its value on the European exchange, for example, has been as much as $21 per metric ton. By promoting carbon markets, we can help sustain private forestland for future generations.

Finally, consider the implications for forest research. Our understanding of climate change, carbon emissions, and carbon sequestration is still far from perfect. Forest Service researchers have been working on these problems for years, and we are also starting to explore carbon markets and how they work. Furthermore, we are studying what happens to forest products in the course of their lifetimes so we can extend their capacity for carbon storage.

Bottom Line
The bottom line is this: As foresters, we need to start thinking long-term about the most serious problems we will face in the coming century, and climate change is certainly one of them. For years, we have been trying with mixed success to manage uncharacteristically severe wildfires and outbreaks of forest pests. Now, we are coming to see that climate change is part of the underlying problem—and a common thread.

Fortunately, there are things we can do as foresters to address the problem. We can manage fuels to maximize energy utilization while minimizing carbon emissions. We can build the carbon storage capacity of both public and private forests, and we can promote carbon markets. All of this will depend on the research needed to deliver sound science—and on a public dialogue to build public willingness to address the threat collaboratively. I believe that we owe it to future generations to begin preparing now.

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US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013
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