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Climate Change, Kids, and Forests: What’s the Connection?
Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell
Society of Environmental Journalists, Annual Conference
Stanford, CA—September 7, 2007


It’s a pleasure to be here. I share your dedication to advancing understanding of environmental issues. As journalists, you play a key role in developing awareness of natural resources and their importance for Americans. I appreciate this opportunity for a dialogue with you.


I grew up in New England. As a youngster, I would follow my father onto the White Mountain National Forest, never dreaming that one day I would be Chief of the Forest Service. All I knew was that I loved being in the forest, and when it came time to choose a career, I chose one that I thought would let me live my life in forests.


That turned out to be not quite the case. As Forest Service Chief, I am no longer in the forest as often as I would like. But I am still of the forest, and it is my privilege and my responsibility as Chief to speak to you about forests—about how they are doing, where they are going, and why that should matter to you.


Much of our work at the Forest Service involves improving forest health to reduce fire impacts, controlling invasive species, managing outdoor recreation, and addressing the loss of forests and other open spaces to development. Our work in these four areas is vitally important, and it will continue—even grow.


However, since being named Chief in January, I have talked to many people in Washington and around the country who are concerned about forests. I have been struck by their hopes and fears, and three themes in particular stand out. I will discuss these one by one and show how they are connected.


Climate Change
The first theme is the challenge of climate change. I have come to the conclusion that history will judge the leaders of our age, including my own leadership as Chief Forester, by how well we respond to this challenge.


What does climate change have to do with forests, you might ask. We are already seeing the effects:

  • Fires are a natural part of forested landscapes, but each year the fire season comes earlier and lasts longer. Fires are burning hotter and bigger, as you have all probably seen on the nightly news. Fires have become more damaging and dangerous to people and property.
  • Insects are also a natural part of forested landscapes, but now the insects—both the natives and the invaders—are spreading more rapidly than ever. The winter cold isn’t knocking them back. They are killing more trees and making the fire danger even worse.
  • The warmer winters are also affecting our water supplies. The snowpacks are thinner and they melt earlier in spring, so the water runs off from the forest earlier in summer. The droughty forest soils makes trees more vulnerable to fire and insects.


Scientists call this a “positive feedback loop”: Climate change makes droughts worse, causing worse insect outbreaks and worse fires, which in turn means more smoke and carbon in the atmosphere—and more climate change. This cycle threatens the capacity of our forests to provide all kinds of environmental services that people have come to expect, including clean air and water, habitat for fish and wildlife, and opportunities for hunting, fishing, skiing, and other kinds of outdoor recreation. If current trends continue, forested landscapes will be absolutely changed for future generations.


There are things we can and must do in response. In the United States, our options include protecting the existing carbon sink through forest conservation and increasing carbon sequestration through reforesting degraded land, improving forest health, and supporting sustainable forest management. The use of forest biofuels for energy and the substitution of wood for manufactured products are other opportunities for managing carbon.


The Forest Service is in a unique position to contribute through long-term integrated research and support for forest management across ownerships in the United States. More specifically, we have an obligation to address climate change in three ways in particular.


First, we must help reduce the adverse impacts of climate change on the nation’s forests. The Forest Service is already doing a great deal in this regard. Each year, we manage the vegetation on millions of acres of national forest land to make forests more resistant to fires, insects, and disease and more resilient to major disturbances such as a large wildfire. These same treatments can make our forests better able to withstand the stresses associated with climate change.


In addition, our scientists are looking for better ways of forecasting how ecosystems will change in response to a changing climate and how the changes will affect animals and plants that depend on these ecosystems. In partnership with other land managers, we will work to identify the landscape-level forest conditions most likely to sustain forest ecosystems in a changing climate.


The second thing the Forest Service must do to address climate change is to reduce our own carbon footprint—the amount of greenhouse gases that our operations release into the atmosphere. Some of our units have already taken such steps as buying more efficient lightbulbs or more fuel-efficient vehicles, recycling paper, and utilizing telecommunications technology. We are also generating more heat and electricity for our buildings from wood, offsetting fossil fuel emissions. When replacing office buildings, we are using a set of standards developed by the U.S. Green Building Council to reduce energy use.


Our field units have been incredibly innovative in finding ways to reduce our environmental footprint. You will be hearing more about that this year, but you might take a look at what’s under “Sustainable Operations” on the website for our Rocky Mountain Region.


The third thing we can do to address climate change is to use forests to reduce the buildup of greenhouse gases. This can take several forms. For example, the Forest Service is supporting the development of markets for carbon offsets created by sound forest management. Carbon markets will create new income streams for landowners who use trees to pull carbon from the air and store it in wood fiber and forest soils.


We are also finding ways to use the smaller diameter woody biomass that contributes to severe fire danger and insect outbreaks in wood products that can store carbon. We can use woody biomass to heat homes, generate electricity, and even power cars. Forests can provide renewable biofuels that can replace fossil fuels like coal and oil. This will reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere while diminishing our dependence on foreign fuel sources. We must also promote tree growth in urban areas to take up carbon and to provide shade and greenery.


In this connection, I propose a national effort to reach two forest-related goals. This would not be just a Forest Service effort, but a concerted national effort based on public/private partnerships:

  • The first goal would be to sustain and strengthen the role of America’s forests as a net carbon sink. All forests, public and private, currently take up enough carbon from the atmosphere to offset about 10 percent of America’s carbon emissions. I propose a national effort to double that amount by 2020.
  • The second goal would be to increase the amount of America’s energy that comes from forests. Our scientists tell us that with the technologies now becoming available, we could replace as much as 15 percent of our current gasoline consumption with ethanol from wood —and not just any wood, but wood that is not now being used for other purposes and in some cases being burned. I propose that we set that as a national goal as well.

These are ambitious goals, and they would take a concerted national effort to reach. But through the energy, ingenuity, and commitment of the American people, I believe that these goals are achievable.


Water Issues
As I said, climate change is linked to water—to declining snowpacks, retreating glaciers, and changing patterns of precipitation and runoff. The evidence shows that we are entering a period of water scarcity not seen in our previous history. This is another concern I have heard again and again around the country: dwindling supplies of pure, clean water.


We can use forests to protect water supplies. Spongy forest soils are ideal for holding, filtering, and slowly releasing water. In fact, more than half of America’s surface water originates on forestland, even though forests cover just a third of our land area. In addition, forests cool and purify the water they release.


Already, some communities have taken significant steps to protect the forests that provide their water. In the 1990s, New York City was faced with the need to construct a 6- to 8-billion-dollar water purification facility to meet EPA water quality standards. Instead, the city purchased sensitive forestland upstream, and it is paying upstream farmers and other landowners to protect private forestland. The Forest Service is working with partners to promote such payment schemes, market-based or otherwise, for water and other ecosystem services.


Conservationists have long understood the connection between forests and water. The National Forest System was created in part for “securing favorable conditions of water flows,” as it says in the foundational legislation from 1897. The national forests protect headwaters in many states, like here in California. Eighteen percent of the nation’s water supply originates on national forest land, even though the National Forest System covers just eight percent of our land area.


The Forest Service has a duty to protect municipal water supplies, where they exist on national forests, from the effects of drought, disease, and fire. There are many opportunities. For example, by managing forest vegetation we are restoring the functions and processes that forests evolved with on a watershed scale. That includes the hydrological processes—the way forest vegetation interacts with precipitation to recharge streams and aquifers. We are restoring forests in this way on millions of acres.


Another example of what we are doing to protect America’s water supplies is restoring high mountain meadows in the Rockies and in the Sierra Nevada and recreating their capacity to store water. These meadows form natural wetlands that store water and slowly release it in summer. This offsets some of the effects of climate change and drought, such as reduced summer flows. It also cools the water, protecting aquatic species downstream. In addition, it obviates the need to build new dams for water storage and new levees for flood protection, the cost of which would otherwise appear in people’s insurance bills and monthly water bills.


Kids in the Woods
As I have listened to people around the country talk about climate change and drought, I have been struck by the number of times they have expressed concern about the kind of future we are creating for our children and how well the next generation understands what is happening. Our children need to understand how much they depend on forests, wherever they live—and 80 percent of our population lives in urban environments. Children need to know how much pleasure there is to be had in forests.


For generations, American children grew up with this knowledge, whether we knew it or not at the time. Children gained this knowledge in their daily lives, whether as part of their outdoor chores or as part of their outdoor play. Through having the outdoors in their daily lives, they saw the connection of natural resources to their homes and communities. They learned that forests provide clean air and water, habitat for wildlife, hunting, fishing, and recreation opportunities, building materials, and even jobs. Such experiences and insights spawned the great conservation movements that have safeguarded the natural treasures for which America is justly renowned.


That might be changing. Children no longer have so many opportunities for outdoor activities away from supervised playgrounds and playing fields. And they have many more opportunities for indoor distractions through electronic gadgetry and imagery. Of course, children do learn something about the natural world through electronic media, but nothing can replace experience that is direct and personal. My concern is that a whole generation of children might be growing up estranged from nature in a way they never were before.


Our most important resource in this country is not forests, vital as they are. It is not water, although life itself would cease to exist without it. It is people. The challenges of climate change and looming water shortages will not be resolved in a few years. It will take generations. Today’s children—and theirs—will need to be able to take the baton and finish the race. For that, they will need a full understanding of why forests are so valuable, along with a strong land ethic. It is our imperative to give them both.


The Forest Service has a tremendous number of ongoing activities to reach children—you’ve all heard of Smokey Bear, for example. One of the latest examples of our commitment to reach children is a program we call “More Kids in the Woods.” Under the program, the Forest Service is working with partners on dozens of projects around the country to get kids away from the TV, away from the computer, away from their PlayStations and out into the forest—face to face with nature, up close and personal. There has been a tremendous response to this program around the country, and it works.


Here’s what Karen from Houston wrote after her two-week program on Big Creek, Montana: “Personally, I am a big-city girl. But the experience at Big Creek has opened my eyes to realize that there is other beauty in life besides movies and shopping malls. Thank you for opening my eyes to the real and natural beauty of life—and Montana.”


You think we made a difference? I only wish we could have funded all the wonderful project proposals submitted, but we are going to continue this effort next spring through another round of projects, again all over the country. Not only are we going to be taking more kids to the woods than ever before, we’re going to be bringing the woods to the kids. One of our projects actually involved tearing up asphalt and creating downtown green space for kids to enjoy.


In this connection, I will issue a challenge to everyone here—to everyone anywhere who cares about the future of forests or of children: This year, I challenge you to take at least one child into the woods. Show them what it was that caught your imagination, made you want to explore, what you loved about the woods. Let them experience the same wonder and awe that you did.


The Forest Service will be there with you. We will work with partners to ensure that every child in America has the opportunity, in one way or another, to personally experience the Great Outdoors, whether it is in a remote mountain wilderness or in a spot of nature created and protected in the heart of our cities. This will be a tremendous undertaking involving tens or even hundreds of millions of children. In pursuing this goal, above all others, we will need your help—and the help of many, many more.


Forests: A Precarious Future
As I walked through the forests of New Hampshire and Vermont as a child, I had little thought of how they came to be or what they would—or could—become. For me, they were just there, and I loved them.


Today, I no longer have the luxury of that simple innocence. I have a heightened sense of how remarkable our forests are, but also how precarious their future is unless we act, and act decisively, and soon. Climate change is perhaps the greatest challenge we will face in this century, partly because it will affect our water supply, our most precious natural resource. We must be prepared—and we must prepare our children—to meet the challenge.


I am going to do everything I can in my time as Chief to protect the health of our forests so that those who come after us will have the same opportunity to experience them that I did. The role that forests can play in meeting the challenge of climate change, in providing renewable energy supplies, and in sustaining abundant flows of fresh, clean water demands attention from government agencies, Congress, and the public. It demands your attention, too. It is time to explore the role that forests can play in carbon management in particular—to prevent their neglect in climate and carbon strategies. I am asking for your support and, more importantly, for your participation in this great undertaking.


Thank you.


US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013

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