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SPEECH
USDA Forest Service
Washington, D.C.

Broadening the Circle of Conservation
Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell
Black History Month
Washington , DC — February 20, 2007

 

Hello, I’m Gail Kimbell. As you know, I have just started as Forest Service Chief. I only hope I can live up to the legacy left by the Chiefs of the past, from Gifford Pinchot to Dale Bosworth.

 

Shared History
I was asked to introduce this event on the occasion of Black History Month. I want to do that in the context of a history that all of us share. As you know, there are different kinds of history—stories, really, that help us understand who we are.

 

For example, there are stories about who some of us are as women. There are stories about who some of are as Irish-Americans … as Mexican-Americans … as Native Americans … and—yes—as African-Americans.

 

Then there are stories about who all of us are just as Americans.

 

Not least of all, there are stories about who all of us here are as Forest Service employees … as conservationists … as people with a rich and varied history of caring for the land and serving people. I want to place my remarks in the context of that story we all share. I think that’s particularly appropriate, since we just celebrated the centennial of the Forest Service.

 

Our story is one of caring for the land for the benefit of people. That means all of the people, not just some of the people. Gifford Pinchot made that very clear a hundred years ago.

 

At the time, some people had more access to forest resources than others. The forest reserves were designed to protect America ’s forest resources from overutilization by the few for the benefit of the few. The Forest Service made it very clear that the national forests would be managed for the benefit of everyone. That includes ordinary Americans, not just the privileged.

 

That ideal of serving everyone, including ordinary Americans, resonated during the Great Depression. Through the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Forest Service made a tremendous contribution to putting ordinary Americans back to work. That legacy lives on through the Job Corps, which gives ordinary Americans, with Forest Service help, a chance to make a good life for themselves.

 

That ideal of serving everyone is embodied in our Research organization, which is dedicated to conservation research on behalf of all Americans. It is embodied in our State and Private Forestry organization, which is dedicated to sustaining forests all across our nation for the benefit of all Americans. It is even embodied in our International Programs, which serve communities of ordinary people worldwide by helping them cultivate community forests that, in turn, help them sustain their livelihoods. And, just as Gifford Pinchot envisioned, it is embodied in our national forest programs, where we work with local communities to meet the needs of all Americans for a full range of goods and services.

 

Living Up to Our History
I am proud of that tradition. But have we entirely lived up to it? Do we really serve all Americans today?

 

I’m afraid we do not, at least not as well as we might. A single statistic is indicative: about 97 percent of national forest visitors identify themselves as “white.” That’s at a time when the majority in our largest state— California —is nonwhite. And the majority nationwide will be nonwhite by the middle of the century.

 

I am not suggesting that we necessarily need ethnic parity among national forest visitors. But I do think we need to bring more people of color into the woods, and we have taken steps to do that. Job Corps reinvigoration is one; a new recreation program called More Kids in the Woods is another.

 

But we can also bring the woods to more people of color in the places where they live, which tend to be urban areas in most parts of the country.

 

The South is an exception. Blacks in the South have a long and proud tradition of farming and forestry. We can connect with that tradition, and I think we do that in many places, for example through bottomland hardwood restoration along the Lower Mississippi River.

 

In general, however, I think we have a lot of work to do in our urban communities. That’s where 80 percent of our people now live.

 

The Meaning of Black History Month
At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I respectfully suggest that this is part of the meaning of Black History Month, at least for us as conservationists—as Forest Service employees. I think we do have a long and proud tradition of serving all Americans. It’s a story we all share. It’s our history as an agency.

 

But if we want to live up to that history, then we need to do a better job of serving urban Americans of all colors and backgounds. We need to broaden the circle of conservation—to find new and innovative ways of connecting to urban Americans in the places where they live. We need to carefully examine the delivery of all of our programs to ensure that we are serving all Americans … that all Americans are welcomed on the national forests … that all Americans can know something of the tremendous benefits they get from forestlands.

 

As you reflect on your heritage as black Americans and on our future course together as Forest Service employees, I would ask you to keep our shared history in mind. You can help tell our story in your own work by helping us broaden the circle of conservation.

 

Thank you.

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