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Challenges of Forest Governance: A Perspective from the United States
Forest Service Associate Chief Sally Collins
A Global Vision for Forestry in the 21st Century
Toronto, Canada—October 1, 2007


It is a pleasure to be here. I want to commend the University of Toronto for taking up the challenge of a global forestry vision for the 21 st century. The issues we face in forestry today are so broad and complex that none of us can hope to deal with them outside the global context.


A Tale of Two Families
Let me illustrate the complexity we face by telling you about two families, both fictional and somewhat stereotypical—but I think quite instructional. One family lives in the United States, the other somewhere in the developing world. Together, they demonstrate some important points about forestry today.


[slide 2] The U.S. family worked in the woods for generations. They owned and managed a piece of forestland, but mostly they worked for others, including big timber companies on both private and public land. They made a good living, and over multiple decades their local community grew strong and prosperous.


[slide 3] But that changed. First came state and federal regulations tightening up how timber could be harvested on both private and public land. Jobs harvesting and milling trees were cut and several mills closed. One mill stayed open for a number of years, retooling to take smaller and smaller trees. But it finally closed as well, due to lack of a reliable supply of timber, increasing costs, and foreign competition. Eventually, the local timber company sold its land, [click] and it was quickly developed for retirement and vacation homes. The family also sold their land, and while they made some money, they also used most of it to pay off debts, and most family members moved to the city.


[slide 4] Those who stayed behind now eke out a living working in local shops and cafes. The community has changed, with hard times for many continuing on. The traditions of working in the woods, even hunting and fishing, are no longer the norm. The kids—like urban kids—are into TV, videogames, surfing the Web, and playing their i-Pods. Certainly not all bad, but not what it was decades before.


[slide 5] Meanwhile, what is happening to the adjacent forest? What the pine beetle has not killed, a wildfire did, destroying homes and a municipal watershed—and, along with it, the community’s drinking supply. [click]


[slide 6] Now a second family, this one in the developing world. They, too, have long depended on nearby forests for hunting, fishing, and gathering—for centuries, as a matter of fact. While they don’t own any forestland themselves, nor does anyone in their community, the forests have always been available for people to use. [click] The government owns all of the forests in the country (if ownership is even the right term).


With the best of intentions, the government established a “protected area” for the forest surrounding the village, and it set aside another area close by for a timber concession. Log prices are very attractive, partly because there is huge and growing demand for wood in places like the United States and China.


[slide 7] The family works cutting trees for the concession, but trees continue to be harvested in the protected area as well. Too many trees are cut in the wrong places. [click] Severe rains come and the community is hit by floods. Topsoil is washed away, devastating cropland. Streams are full of sediment, affecting drinking water. And forest loss results in wildlife loss, reducing the family’s food supply. This family, too, faces a future very different from the past.


Forest Conditions
As I said, these two families are stereotypical, but I think they illustrate a number of important points:

  • [slide 8] We now live in a global economy for wood, where 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 to development or agriculture.
  • [slide 9] Another global driver is climate change, which is already affecting forests and communities worldwide. For example, research has shown that climate change has contributed to worsening wildfires in the western United States. Those who suffer include the rural poor.
  • [slide 10] Rural poverty is global. According to FAO, about a quarter of the world’s poor depend directly or indirectly on forests for their livelihood. And 80 percent of the world’s poor live in and around forests. Poverty is chronic in some parts of the United States, partly due to a changing natural resource economy.
  • [slide 11] In the United States, most of our forests are in private ownership—about 58 percent. That’s unusual—worldwide only about 12 percent of forests are privately owned. But forest landownership patterns, whether public or private, are no panacea. Any approach to landownership can lead to problems if it fails to facilitate a positive relationship between people and the land.
  • [slide 12] Now how is that important relationship fostered? Children’s outdoor experiences are vital to their development. Increasingly, however, children find it difficult to relate to nature, especially in developed countries. Where children once worked or played outside, many now stay indoors. There are lots of reasons for this, too many. And for those of us here, we can probably all track our love for the outdoors to early outdoor experiences. So you have to ask, who will care about protecting forests in the future if not these children?
  • [slide 13] Worldwide, we are seeing a significant loss of ecosystem services from forested lands. Forests provide food, wood, water, wildlife, recreation, spiritual renewal, and much more. The families I described once enjoyed all these things, but the dynamics of our modern world have contributed to the degradation not only of their livelihoods, but also of their local forests and the ecosystem services they absolutely depend on.
  • [slide 14] Finally, the two families I described, though living half a world apart, find their fates inextricably linked. The global economy, climate change, invasive species—all these and more make us mutually interdependent in ways we might not even fully realize. We can no longer afford to focus entirely on our own backyards.


Building Relationships to the Land
I think we are starting to recognize that we could do better, but we aren’t quite sure how. [slide 15] One place to look might be the writings of Aldo Leopold. [click, click] Leopold strongly supported protected areas and he championed wilderness, but his writings focus mainly on building personal relationships to the land. [click] His famous land ethic entails a voluntary relationship to nature based on personal insight and experience. While he supported a strong regulatory framework, he argued that regulations alone won’t get you conservation.


[slide 16] Maybe Leopold was onto something. [click, click] Maybe we ought to be focusing less on the land per se and more on building relationships to the land. If we look at forests in terms of relationships, our thinking becomes more holistic, because we reintegrate the people who live on the land into our thinking about it.


[slide 17] The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment offers a good way of doing this through the concept of ecosystem services. People depend on forests for all the services forests provide, such as primary production, water purification, and spiritual renewal. [click, click] In this way of thinking, people assume center stage in terms of their wants and needs, but also in terms of their ecological impacts. The best way to conserve natural resources is to help people build strong relationships to the forests they depend on.


Forest Governance
[slide 18] I think this way of looking at the problem has profound ramifications for forest governance worldwide. Do the forms of forestland tenure and forest management we choose help people build and maintain strong relationships to forests? Or do they tend to marginalize people and separate them from the land? [click] In general, if those who live on the land or who care for forests get a say in forest governance, then relationships tend to improve and conservation can follow.


[slide 19] My agency, the U.S. Forest Service, is working with forest communities throughout the world through technical assistance programs—although, to be honest, we learn as much as we help. [click] One place is in Mexico, where 80 percent of the forests are now managed by local communities. [click] Some communities are prospering from timber revenues, and they are regenerating their local forests as well as protecting forested watersheds and forest-dependent endangered species. Some are beginning to develop markets for ecosystem services. We are looking at this model for forest communities in the United States.


[click] Another place is in the Congo Basin, loaded with high-value tropical woods. It is tempting to make a windfall profit by clearing the land, then perhaps converting it to pasture or cropland. We are working in several areas to promote reduced-impact logging: You select a few high-value trees and remove them in a way that does no lasting damage to the forest. [click] Communities can prosper while continuing to get water, fuelwood, and other ecosystem services. As in Mexico, some of the forests are now certified, which is beginning to show them the promise of the marketplace.


[slide 20] Although the United States is a little different, the same general principle applies. As I mentioned, 58 percent of our forestland is privately owned, with the rest under various forms of federal, state, and local government management. The role of the U.S. Forest Service is to work with all forest managers, private and public, to build our joint capacity to manage forests across ownerships, on a landscape scale, for the ecosystem services that people want and need.


[slide 21] U.S. forests face some very serious threats, including changing demographics and changing patterns of landownership—80 percent of the industrial forestlands sold in the last decade went to TIMOs and REITs. The number of nonindustrial timberland owners has grown exponentially, and the average size of their properties has decreased at a similar rate—further fragmenting our forested landscapes.


And the complexity increases. Our overarching goal today is to experiment with ways to strengthen the relationship people have with the forestlands they depend on. On private lands, we are experimenting with lots of ideas, including developing new markets like biofuels and small-diameter wood—and even carbon. On public lands, we’re experimenting with what we (and now Congress, by law) call stewardship contracts, which could soon largely replace timber sales on national forests. While a timber sale is focused on the product removed, a stewardship contract is focused on what is left on the land. Communities, new local enterprises, Indian tribes, even conservation groups like The Nature Conservancy are winning these contracts, which allow them to keep receipts from products sold on a landscape in exchange for providing for and investing in stewardship of the land.


Conservation Working for People
In closing, I believe we need a fresh approach to forest governance. Too often, we have focused on protecting forested landscapes as if people did not live in them. [slide 22] A beautiful landscape scene like this is supposed to inspire people to conserve natural resources, and for me—and for many others—it does.


But the truth is that people will conserve only what they can relate to; they will relate to only what they can value; and for billions of people around the world, they will value mainly what they can use in their daily lives to support themselves and their families. [click] Conservation needs to put people back into the landscape—to focus on the relationships that people have to the land and to each other. [click, click] There are various aspects of that.


[slide 23] Think of those two families I mentioned at the outset. We need them both. For forestlands to flourish, families like these must flourish—and have a role in their governance. For people to work for conservation, conservation must work for people.


Thank you.


US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013

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