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How Is Globalization Affecting America’s Forests—And What Can We Do?
Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell
Society of American Foresters, Annual Meeting
Portland, OR—October 24, 2007


It is a pleasure to be here and a great honor to have been invited to speak here today.


Society depends on the sustainability of America’s forests. At a time of increasing global interdependency, how can we sustain forests in America for future generations? This is a difficult question with multiple aspects, including global markets for wood; our own demographics; invasive species; and climate change. I will start with global markets.


Global Markets for Wood
The United States is rich in forests. About a third of our land area is forested, and we have almost 8 percent of the world’s forests, more than any other country except Russia, Brazil, and Canada. Yet we import about 40 percent of our softwood lumber.


Why is that? And what are the implications for the sustainability of America’s forests?


Forest Service researchers and others have explored this question in detail. To sum up: Capital moves across borders to where markets are booming and the factors of production are cheapest. Land, unskilled labor, and wood fiber are all relatively expensive in the United States, and the fastest growing wood markets are all overseas.


To give just one example, the growth of plantation forestry tends to give overseas producers a long-term market advantage. Plantations now supply about a quarter of the world’s timber, and in 20 years it is expected to be half. In Brazil and Indonesia, for example, it takes a fraction of the land needed in the United States to produce a given quantity of wood fiber, thanks to faster growing trees and shorter harvest times.


Flourishing global markets also drive illegal logging. According to the American Forest and Paper Association, illegal logging represents from 5 to 10 percent of global industrial roundwood production, and it depresses global prices for wood products.


All of this means less investment in American forestry, which spells trouble for America’s forests. The United States faces huge ecological threats and climate change. Meeting these threats requires various kinds of forest restoration and other work. But if globalization forces firms in the American forest products industry out of business, who will do the work? In addition, as American timber loses profitability, timberland is sold to developers. Loss of working forests means loss of so many ecosystem services that we take for granted.


For many reasons, the loss is particularly acute near the national forests and grasslands, according to a study released this week by the Forest Service. From 2000 to 2030, housing growth is projected on about 22 million acres of private rural land within 10 miles of a national forest or national grassland. These are nice places to live, with plenty of amenity values. But the development creates issues with access, water, and support for active forest management.


In today’s global marketplace, long-term survival means finding areas of comparative market advantage. In the United States, such areas might include certified wood, dimensional lumber, specialty wood products, and nontraditional forest products. Forest landowners might also be paid for furnishing ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration or water storage or wildlife habitat. There are also new opportunities to utilize small trees and biomass.


The Forest Service is helping in several ways:

  • Our researchers and technical specialists are exploring potential markets for ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, water delivery, and nutrient management.
  • We are also developing new ways of utilizing biomass and small-diameter trees, with our Forest Products Laboratory taking the lead. Biofuels alone have huge potential. Later this week, on Friday, we will be presenting a biomass strategy. I encourage anyone interested to participate in that session.
  • We are using the national forests to pilot-test or showcase new techniques and technologies, including biofuels, carbon accounting, and carbon offsets.
  • We are working to generate a more dependable supply of materials from the national forests to help stabilize the forest products industry. To do this, we are using authorities gained through the Healthy Forests Initiative and using stewardship contracts, in addition to more traditional authorities. In some places, conservation organizations are joining us because they are seeing too many working forests converted to development. That’s a very hopeful sign.
  • Not least of all, we are supporting international agreements to foster sustainable forest management worldwide. Our staffs are helping people in other countries find ways like reduced-impact logging or nontimber forest products to make a living from forests rather than cutting them down illegally or converting them to agricultural uses.


Invasive Species
Global interdependencies bring rising commerce and travel, and that’s good. But they also bring the rising risk of introducing new species. This is an extremely complex and ambiguous issue. For example, the tropical forests of Puerto Rico contain many nonnative species that have become an integral part of the ecosystem on the El Yunque National Forest.


With that said, Americans generally value their native species and landscapes, and we want to protect them from damage or destruction by nonnative species. One study concluded that nonnative invasive species have contributed to the decline of 49 percent of all imperiled species in the United States. As you know, invasive species have devastated major forest types, such as American chestnut or western white pine.


Invasive plants like knapweed or kudzu or saltcedar give some idea of the scope of the problem. Nationwide, invasive plants cover an area greater than Oregon and Washington combined. They can alter key ecological processes, such as hydrology or fire return intervals. According to one study, all invasives combined cost Americans about $138 billion per year in total economic damages and associated control costs.


  • The Forest Service is in a good position to deal with invasive species. We have done extensive research in this area, and we have key relationships with local jurisdictions, states, other federal agencies, and foreign governments. Based on these capacities, our invasive species strategy has four components:
  • First, prevention. We are working with partners, both at home and abroad, to identify the species that pose the greatest risks and prevent them from crossing our borders.
  • The second component is early detection and rapid response. Again, we are working with others to pinpoint outbreaks and jump on them right away.
  • Third, control and management. For invasives that are already established, we work to limit the damage. Examples include the Slow-the-Spread program for gypsy moth and cooperative weed management areas in the West.
  • The last component of our strategy is rehabilitation and restoration. Examples include postfire rehabilitation and partnerships to restore species like American chestnut and American elm.

Climate Change
Invasive species issues seem to be getting worse, perhaps exacerbated by climate change. One recent study showed that likely future concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will stimulate six invasive weeds, including leafy spurge and spotted knapweed. Warming temperatures have helped mountain pine beetle jump the Rockies into the northern boreal forest. There is a danger that it will sweep from Canada down through southern yellow pine all the way to Texas, joining the five beetles already active there.


Climate change has contributed to a number of cross-cutting effects:

  • Each year, the fire season comes earlier and lasts longer. Fires are burning hotter and bigger, becoming more damaging and dangerous to people and property.
  • As I mentioned, insects 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 lighter and come off earlier in spring, so streamflows peak earlier in the year and leave less for summer. The droughty forest soils make 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 the ecosystem services that people want and need. If current trends continue, then forested landscapes will be absolutely changed for future generations.


There are things we can and must do as a nation. 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 good position to contribute through our long-term integrated research and our support for forest management across ownerships in the United States. We have already made a start.

  • First, we are helping to reduce the adverse impacts of climate change on the nation’s forests. 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.
  • Second, 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 then work to identify the landscape-level forest conditions most likely to sustain forest ecosystems in a changing climate.
  • Third, we are setting an example by reducing our own carbon footprint—the amount of greenhouse gases that our operations release into the atmosphere. Some of our units have already taken steps such as using more fuel-efficient vehicles, recycling paper, and utilizing telecommunications technology in lieu of travel.
  • Fourth, we are working with partners 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. We are also finding ways to use small-diameter wood and biomass to heat homes, generate electricity, and even power cars. Forests can provide renewable biofuels that can replace fossil fuels like coal and oil.
  • Fifth, we are working with municipalities to promote tree growth in urban areas. Urban trees take up carbon as well as providing shade and greenery.


In this connection, I have proposed a national effort to reach two forest-related goals:

  • 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 proposed 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 proposed that we set that as a national goal as well.

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


Global Solutions
In closing, we live in a global era. Developments in one place can have profound repercussions halfway around the world. The same economic forces that drive illegal logging and deforestation in some places can drive unemployment in others, along with depressed land prices and the loss of forested landscapes. Other global drivers include the spread of invasive species and climate change. Both profoundly affect the sustainability of our forests.


In this global era, sustaining forests at home means also sustaining forests abroad. Each year, the world loses an area of forestland, on average, the size of France and Italy combined. We are gradually losing the world’s most important carbon sink, next to the oceans. As American foresters, we cannot afford to ignore what is happening overseas, because it ultimately affects us too. It affects the people we serve. What can we as foresters do to stop the loss?


The Forest Service has made a start through what we are doing overseas to stop deforestation and illegal logging. But no one of us can do it alone. It will take a concerted national and international effort, with constant attention to the global scale of the problem, to mitigate the challenges we face and to help the ecosystems we manage adapt to inevitable change. It will take partnerships working across borders and boundaries on a landscape and a global scale.


In the short time since I’ve served in the position of Forest Service Chief, I’ve spoken many times about forests and sustainability, about climate change, about water, and about the need to have kids aware of the environment they will inherit. I am convinced that forests will play a large role in this nation’s efforts to address all of these. It is critical that we, as a profession, and we as the U.S. Forest Service be prepared to act to sustainably manage forestlands across all ownerships. Our time is now.



US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013

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