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SPEECH
USDA Forest Service
Washington, D.C.

Keeping Places to Hunt and Fish
Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell
Outdoor Writers of America, Annual Meeting
Roanoke, VA—June 16, 2007

 

It’s a pleasure to be here. This is a great opportunity for the Forest Service; people who write about the outdoors have a huge influence on the American public, since so many Americans recreate outdoors. The national forests and grasslands get over 200 million visits per year, and there are many things to write about in connection with the lands we manage. I’d like to talk about some of those things today.

 

Hemlock Woolly Adelgid
Here we are in Roanoke, a beautiful part of the country, and I hope you get a chance to get out into the mountains—or what they call “mountains” here in Virginia. I have lived all over the West and grew up in the Northeast, and I know the word “mountain” evokes wildly different images and emotions depending on your own experiences. Anyway, millions of Americans get out into the Appalachians every year, from Maine to Georgia. They often visit national forest land, as you can a few miles from here on the Jefferson National Forest.

 

If you go, travel up a stream in a mountain cove. You’ll notice that the stream courses are lined with eastern hemlock. Hemlocks are some of the biggest and oldest trees in the Appalachians; some have been called “the redwoods of the East.” They can reach 175 feet in height and 6 feet in diameter and be 800 years old or more. A hemlock stand creates extremely dense, cool shade—very welcome in summer for both people and wildlife. Hemlock filled this niche in the ecosystem after the American chestnut was lost to blight. And you’ll undoubtedly note that the hemlocks are dying—in very large numbers.

 

What is killing hemlock originated in Japan and came to the East in the 1950s. It is still spreading, but it reached the southern Appalachians decades ago. It’s a tiny insect called hemlock woolly adelgid, about the size of a period at the end of a sentence. It creates protective sacs that look like bits of white fluff on the underside of hemlock twigs. It spends its entire life feeding on hemlock sap. It can weaken and kill trees in as little as four years, and it can wipe out entire stands.

 

This is cause for concern, especially if you like to birdwatch, hunt, or fish. Several warbler species are strongly associated with mature hemlock stands. And, because they moderate temperature so well, these stands are some of the best wintering habitat for whitetail deer. In the Appalachian coves, you can catch native brook trout in their native habitat, but what helps them survive the summer heat is the deep shade created by hemlocks. If the hemlock is lost, we don’t know how quickly the ecosystem can find its replacement—or if.

 

The Climate Change Connection
There is another twist to this story: climate change. Where winters are harsh, the number of hemlock woolly adelgids in a stand is greatly reduced. You can even get trees where the upper branches, exposed to winter storms, are fairly free of adelgids but the lower branches are still heavily infested. It takes much longer for adelgids to kill hemlocks in the Northeast than here in Virginia, and we believe it’s due to winter severity.

 

But now the climate is changing. Over the last hundred years, average temperatures have risen worldwide by about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit, with the rate of change accelerating in recent decades. Research has correlated rising temperatures with changes in precipitation, more severe wildfires, and more activity by forest pests. For example, mountain pine beetle is expanding its range in the West, and that has been tied to climate change.

 

Since cold winters help control the adelgid, we might also expect climate change to lead to more adelgid activity. EPA estimates that temperatures here in Virginia will rise over the next century by as much as 6 degrees Fahrenheit in winter. With milder winters, the adelgid could be even more deadly.

 

What can we do about hemlock woolly adelgid? Opportunities for control are limited. Chemical controls are labor-intensive and expensive. They might be feasible for ornamental trees, but generally not in forests.

 

But there are grounds for hope: biocontrol. The Forest Service has one of the biggest conservation-related research organizations in the world, and some of our researchers are working on the hemlock woolly adelgid problem. The insect has no effective predators here, but it does in Japan, and we are looking into the possibility of importing insects that like to eat adelgids. Preliminary research results look promising—and, as you can see, we have a sense of humor about it. The poster there draws on the Japanese connection, alluding to those thriller Godzilla movies.

 

Responding to Climate Change
This leads me to a broader question: What can we do about climate change? There are opportunities, rich opportunities, and there are at least four steps we are taking.

 

First, the Forest Service is studying climate change in all its implications. We have some of the world’s top experts on carbon sequestration and storage, and we have experimental facilities where we are looking at the long-term effects of increased atmospheric carbon and ozone on vegetation.

 

Second, we can help restore the global balance between carbon emissions and carbon sinks in a couple of different ways—by reducing emissions and by increasing carbon sequestration.

  • The Forest Service has more than 30,000 employees, with thousands of facilities and huge fleets of vehicles. We are looking into ways of reducing our environmental footprint as an organization, including our carbon emissions.
  • For the health of the forests we manage, we remove tons of biomass each year. We are exploring further opportunities for converting low-value biomass into bioenergy. Biofuels can displace some fossil fuels and decrease carbon emissions.
  • Through agreements with partner organizations, people can purchase carbon offsets to neutralize their own emissions. Everyone in this room can go onto the National Forest Foundation website, for example, and do it in a matter of minutes. The proceeds are used to grow trees on National Forest System lands. As you know, trees take up carbon from the atmosphere.

Third, we can restore and maintain healthy ecosystems, and we do that on millions of acres of national forest land each year. Climate change places additional stress on ecosystems, making them more vulnerable to disturbances such as wildfire or insects and disease. The purpose of our restoration treatments is to increase the resistance of various ecosystem elements to stress and to increase their resilience—their ability to recover from disturbances.

 

Finally, where necessary, we can help facilitate the transition to new types of vegetation. This is something we can never fully prepare for, but we can better plan for shifts in plant species and in wildlife habitat and for tree nursery management. For example, under one climate change scenario the Piedmont region to the east of here could eventually transition from closed forest to open woodland, with grass and scattered trees. We need to have the research in place and the genetic material available to recognize these changes, when and if they come, and to help ecosystems adapt.

 

More Kids in the Woods
In closing, I want to mention something we’ve noticed about visitation on National Forest System land: It seems to have leveled off in recent years, and it is skewed toward the older age brackets. About two-thirds of our visitors are thirty or older, and—as you probably know—the number of hunters and anglers has declined.

 

This seems to be part of a larger generational phenomenon. Kids these days have fewer opportunities for unstructured outdoor play than most of us did while growing up, and they also have opportunities we never had to play with all kinds of e-toys—videos, videogames, e-mail, MySpace, weblogs—you know the list. They have less time to explore the Great Outdoors—and less interest in doing so.

 

So why am I interested in who is visiting our national forests and grasslands? For the reasons I already mentioned and more, I want future generations to know where clean water comes from, where air gets cleaned, where so much carbon is stored, and what wildlands can provide. I want them to care enough about wildlands to want to keep them wild.

 

So the Forest Service has launched a series of projects to get more kids out into the woods. Conservation belongs to future generations, and it is up to us to give future leaders the environmental literacy they will need to carry on. Climate change—hemlock woolly adelgid—these are just some of the many challenges facing us today; the next generation of conservation leaders will face them, too. We—and they—must come to grips with these challenges if generations to come are to have places to hunt and fish—healthy forested landscapes like we had when we were young. That is our obligation to the future.

 

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US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013
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