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SPEECH
USDA Forest Service
Washington, D.C.

People and Forests: Connecting the Dots on the Landscape
Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell
National Association of State Foresters, Annual Meeting
San Antonio, TX—September 17, 2007

 

Good morning. It is an honor and a pleasure to be here today. I know that you’ve welcomed previous Chiefs to your annual meeting, and I’m delighted to be able to speak with you this morning before you begin your work this week.

 

Transformation
The Forest Service is undergoing an organizational transformation, and I know many of you are wondering what it’s about, so I’ll start with that. Transformation affects our Washington Office, or Regional Offices, and the Northeastern Area. In brief, it is about increasing effective and efficient mission delivery and services to the American people.

 

Our operating costs are rising while our buying power is declining. The bottom line is this: We have to reduce our fixed costs in the neighborhood of 25 percent and increase the flow of dollars to field units.

 

To put it mildly, that raises a few questions: What would these cost reductions and funding shifts do to our operations? Would they necessitate a change in our organizational structure? If so, how can we structure the change to ensure appropriate mission support and to meet the associated requirements for leadership and decisionmaking?

 

We have a lot of work to do to fully analyze our Transformation options, to complete our leadership review, and to make the necessary decisions. After final decisions are made, we will work hard to communicate what we decided to NASF and other stakeholders and partners.

 

I want you to know that I am carefully watching State and Private Forestry to make sure that relationships with State Foresters and the effectiveness of State and Private Forestry programs are not harmed or undermined through our Transformation effort. Jim Hubbard has been working with you on State and Private Forestry Redesign to recharacterize the mission of State and Private Forestry by increasing focus on environmental outcomes across the landscape. I am mindful of that relationship, and I support the Redesign approach.

I’ll say a little more about Redesign at the end of my remarks. But first I’d like to highlight some of the collaborative ways we are working together and some of the opportunities we have to work together in the future.

 

Fire and Fuels
I’d like to start by thanking the states for their response to this year’s fire season. So far this year, more than 67,000 fires covering more than 7 million acres have been effectively suppressed. Federal firefighting agencies owe a debt of gratitude to our state and local partners for all their help—as you well know, we couldn’t have done it without you. I thank you for your continued support as we cross landscapes and jurisdictions to work together to manage wildland fires. Thanks too for your commitment to safety during this challenging fire season.

 

As you know, the NASF representative to the National Interagency Fire Center is critically important in helping coordinate firefighting activities and other multi-state events. Dan Smith has assumed the role, and the transition was smooth and seamless, a credit to your Association. I commend you for your foresight in overlapping the tenure between Don Artley and Dan. Dan’s previous membership on the Fire Committee was also very helpful.

 

Dan stepped up in his new role as Fire Director and has done a phenomenal job. As the season has drawn on, we want to take this opportunity to thank Don Artley for returning to provide Dan a much-needed, well-deserved break. The leadership shown by Don and now Dan has proven invaluable to the National Multi-Agency Coordination Group.

 

So far this year, fuels reduction work has been completed on almost 2 million acres of national forests and grasslands and in critical wildland/urban interface zones to reduce the risk of wildfire to communities and resources. We are proud to have worked together with our state and local government partners in order to see more than 1,100 Community Wildfire Protection Plans through to completion. These plans cover more than 3,300 communities at risk, with at least an additional 350 plans currently underway. In the last 6 years, our federal, state, and local partnerships have treated over 20 million acres to reduce hazardous fuels and the corresponding potential fire intensity.

 

Collaborative efforts, such as the work done to create the Community Wildfire Protection Plans, not only help the Forest Service accomplish our mission, but also allow our state and local government partners, as well as the communities themselves, to prioritize the most important work while at the same time lowering the risk to their respective communities.

 

Our hazardous fuel reduction efforts are paying off in the wildland/urban interface. Despite the extreme burning conditions in many parts of the country this year, there are many examples of homes and lives saved and communities protected.

 

Fire Suppression Financing
As you know, firefighting isn’t cheap. With fire seasons worsening since the 1980s, costs have gone through the roof. Firefighting costs for the Forest Service now routinely exceed a billion dollars per year, yet our budget has remained relatively flat. Where less than a quarter of our budget once went to fire, now it’s almost half.

 

Under the budgeting method traditionally used by Congress, suppression budget increases come at the expense of other activities. The math is relentless: If almost half our budget now goes to fire, less must go to other programs. Unless an alternative is found, the Forest Service faces serious budget challenges.

 

We’re working on it. However, even if we find an alternative way of funding fire suppression, we owe it to taxpayers—to the people we serve—to stay focused on cost containment. Here is some of what we’re doing:

  • Additional wildland fire analysis tools and information are coming on line, such as LANDFIRE. This will give us better predictive models and provide options for fire management strategies and tactics. Fire managers will have a better idea of funding priorities.
  • For incidents of national significance, we are now deploying a Chief’s Principal Representative. This is an executive-level line officer who provides increased fiscal oversight while supporting the local line officer.
  • All Forest Service line officers must now meet specific qualifications before they are designated as the responsible official for an incident. We expect this to improve spending decisions.

 

Farm Bill
As you know, the Farm Bill plays a major role in the funding we get from Congress and what we can use it for in partnership with the states. As the 2007 Farm Bill moves through the Senate, we are getting closer to a final version. We have been working closely with our partners and stakeholders to make this Farm Bill forestry-friendly so we can provide better support and assistance to forest landowners.

 

The House has already passed its version of the Farm Bill, and I’d like to share a few highlights.

  • In the Forestry Title, the State Foresters are directed to develop statewide assessments of their forest resources. This priority mapping and assessment program is consistent with our proposal for redesigning State and Private Forestry. It is also consistent with existing programs like the Spatial Analysis Project.
  • Amendments to the Energy Title include the Forest Wood-to-Energy Research Program and the Community Wood-to-Energy Program. These two programs would fund research and provide grants for projects to turn woody biomass into clean, renewable energy.
  • In the Conservation Title, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Security Programs have been updated to be more forestry-friendly and more compatible with our Forest Stewardship Program.
  • I was very pleased to see that the Market-Based Approaches to Conservation section was added straight from the USDA proposal. This program will encourage new markets for ecosystem services, such as the clean air and water or the wildlife habitat that private forests now provide for free. This could bring new private investments in forests and forestry, giving private landowners more incentives to keep forests working.

 

There is still a long way to go before the President signs the Farm Bill, but we are encouraged by many of the provisions that benefit forest landowners. When it is signed, we’ll look forward to working with the State Foresters and partners to implement the new bill.

 

Open Space Conservation Strategy
As I mentioned, developing markets for ecosystem services is another way of addressing an issue that is vital for the Forest Service: stopping the loss of working forests, farms, and ranches to development. Nationwide, more than 4,000 acres are lost to development every day. From 1997 to 2050, at current rates of development, we expect to lose an area of forest the size of Maine.

 

This fall, the Forest Service will publish an Open Space Conservation Strategy, the first of its kind for a federal agency. In a nutshell, our strategy is to work with states, local governments, landowners, and nonprofit organizations to conserve open space through a series of new and existing Forest Service initiatives.

 

As you might know, we solicited public comments on the strategy, and you gave us a number of good ideas, like focusing our efforts on lands that are high-priority for conservation or working together to show people the importance of open space. We are already cooperating to conserve open space through the Forest Legacy and Forest Stewardship Programs and through other State and Private Forestry efforts. Our strategy builds on these efforts by advancing new ideas. It has four priorities:

  1. convening partners to identify and protect high-priority open space;
  2. promoting national policies and markets to help private landowners conserve open space;
  3. providing resources and tools to help communities expand and connect open spaces; and
  4. participating in community planning to reduce the ecological impacts and wildfire risks associated with growth and development.

Our vision for the 21st century is an interconnected network of open space across the landscape—one that supports healthy ecosystems and a high quality of life for Americans. We plan to achieve this through collaboration and partnerships—by working with willing landowners and with states and local governments to promote voluntary land conservation.

 

After publishing the strategy this fall, the next step is implementation. As always, we will look to NASF and the State Foresters to be leading partners as we work together to conserve open space across the landscape.

 

Climate Change
I’ve touched on fire and fuels as well as loss of open space, two of the four threats that you’ve heard us talk about before. The others are invasive species and unmanaged outdoor recreation. As you well know, these four threats affect federal, state, and private lands. Our work in all four areas is vitally important, and it will continue—even grow.

 

However, several other issues also stand out. In my remaining time, I would like to touch on two of them: climate change and the loss of a connection to nature for children.

 

I have come to the conclusion that history will judge the leaders of our age, including my own leadership as Forest Service Chief, by how well we respond to the challenge of climate change. We are already seeing its effects on forests—longer fire seasons, growing threats from insects and disease, and thinner snowpacks that melt earlier in spring, so the water runs out from the forest earlier in summer.

 

The Forest Service can address climate change in a number of ways:

  • We can reduce the adverse impacts of climate change on the nation’s forests. Each year, we treat millions of acres to make them more resistant to fires, insects, and disease and more resilient to major disturbances such as a large wildfire. These same treatments 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. In partnership with state and private landowners, we will identify the landscape-level conditions that are most likely to sustain forest ecosystems as the climate changes. We will then work with partners to get us there.
  • We can also reduce the agency’s carbon footprint—the amount of greenhouse gases that our operations release into the atmosphere. We are generating more heat and electricity for our buildings from wood, offsetting fossil fuel emissions. We are looking for ways to make the vehicles we use more fuel-efficient.
  • Another way of addressing climate change is to use forests to reduce the buildup of greenhouse gases. 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 looking for new ways to use woody biomass in wood products and for energy. Forests can provide endlessly renewable biofuels that can replace fossil fuels like coal and oil.
  • In addition, we can promote tree growth in urban areas to take up carbon and to provide shade and greenery.

Climate change is a larger, longer term issue. It cuts across the shorter term challenges we face, testing our very ability to protect our national resources for future generations. Therefore, I have decided that the Forest Service should make it a priority, and we are seeking opportunities to work with partners in each of the areas I just mentioned.

 

Kids in the Woods
It won’t be easy. The challenge is so great that it will take a concerted national effort, and future generations will need to take the baton and finish the race. However, there is a growing chasm between America’s youngsters and nature.

 

For many generations, children learned about their natural environment through their daily lives, as a part of their outdoor chores or their outdoor play. They learned that forests provide clean air an water, habitat for wildlife, recreation opportunities, building materials, jobs, and more. Such experiences and insights spawned the great conservation movements that have safeguarded the natural treasures for which America is justly renowned.

 

That seems to 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.

 

The Forest Service is committed to exploring solutions to this problem, together with our partners. For example, in a partnership venture called Kids in the Woods, we invested half a million dollars in 26 cost share agreements with conservation education organizations and outdoor enthusiasts all over the country. The projects were designed to introduce children to nature, providing meaningful outdoor experiences and nurturing a lifelong appreciation for our environment. We’re very pleased with the results, and we are going to continue this effort next spring with another half million dollars and another round of projects, again all over the country.

 

Still, Kids in the Woods is just a start. Our vision is for every child in America to have 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, we will need your help—and the help of many, many more.

 

SPF Redesign
I’d like to close with a few more thoughts about the proposed Redesign approach to State and Private Forestry. The Redesign effort was initiated by NASF and the Forest Service in response to the idea that some program delivery needed more focus. We support the move toward an approach that considers landscape-level outcomes.

 

It is our hope that state and private programs will become more responsive by focusing on high-priority projects across ownerships within a given landscape. I want to thank State and Private Forestry, NASF, and the Redesign Board of Directors for your hard work this past year in constructing the framework for the Redesign approach. I look forward to the outcome of your deliberations this morning and am hopeful that we will soon be working together on implementing the new approach.

 

Thank you.

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US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013
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