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Remarks for the Plenary Panel, 'Building Bridges: Organization to Organization'
Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell
Society for Range Management & American Forage and Grasslands Council
2008 Joint Annual Meeting
Louisville, KY – January 28, 2008

Thank you, Bob. It’s really a pleasure to take part in today’s discussion. This is a special occasion for me - for all of us I’m sure – as it’s not often that I have an opportunity to sit with colleagues in what I expect will be a provocative exchange about the natural resource issues we all are facing. There is plenty going on in each of our worlds that can distract from building the bridges America needs.

We stand at a critical place in the history of natural resource management. If, a hundred years from now, a future generation of natural resource managers were to look at a timeline of resource management history, they’d see a significant mark right around now – a mark on the timeline, at the beginning of this new century, that denotes a change: A change in thinking about conservation, resource management, and land stewardship - and a change in reasoning - that the solutions we used in the past might not be enough to solve the conservation challenges of the present. Climate change, biodiversity loss, land conversion, freshwater scarcity, energy shortages, the frequency of floods and fires, a growing disconnect between urban and rural populations…we have moved into this new century with a set of challenges that together seem unprecedented in their magnitude, their frequency, their intensity. We need to respond together.

The theme of this conference, “Building Bridges,” reflects the undeniable need to build partnerships within the Society for Range Management and the American Forage and Grassland Council, and with other professional organizations, with agencies, academic institutions, interest groups, with urban America, with consumers. “Building Bridges” gets to the heart of the solutions we will need to respond to the resource issues of present day. Strong community relationships, creative alliances, and collaborative work are more important than ever.

I’m going to spend a few minutes talking about three defining challenges for the Forest Service –long-term trends that require a fresh perspective and focused response, that call for ‘building bridges.’ And then I’d like to end with some notes on how, together, we can address these challenges.

As some of you may know, this month marks my anniversary of being named Chief of the U.S. Forest Service. It has been a year of purpose, of enrichment, of discovery. In my travels and discussions, three themes are ever-present: climate change, water, and kids - the need to connect people to nature, especially kids. These are hefty challenges that will test our ability to carry out the Forest Service mission: to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the Nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations - for rangelands, this means keeping working lands working.

Climate change
Climate change has been a scientific concern for decades and is now the subject of everyday news.  Climate change research at the Forest Service goes back 20 years. The potential impacts of rising temperatures and sea levels around the world continue to stimulate public discourse and political action on a global scale. We know that climate change may fundamentally alter the distribution of forest and rangeland ecosystems in the U.S., their species diversity, their productivity, and their ability to supply the ecosystem services that sustain our quality of life. Climate change cuts across virtually every major issue we face in land management – fire and fuels, pests and invasives, water resources, endangered species, outdoor recreation, markets, food security, sustainable development, and more.

Simply put, the Earth’s climate will continue to warm from carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, and the hydrologic cycle will speed up - more evaporation, more rain. What we will in fact experience will vary regionally and locally. And this is especially the case for precipitation. For rangelands, an altered precipitation pattern becomes a critical issue. Higher rain variability leads to a higher likelihood of both floods and dry spells or droughts. The summer dry season could begin earlier and end later, extending the season of fire danger; increasing vulnerability to accelerated soil erosion; and altering flora and fauna at a landscape scale - all of which affects the human environment.

Higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere will certainly benefit plant production in many cases, but changes in seasonality and fire frequency will open native plant communities to invasive, non-native grasses and forbs. Invasive plants are already a major issue for grasslands and range ecosystems, of course. If more of our rangelands are dominated by cheatgrass, the quality of forage declines, together with so many other values associated with more diverse, rich native plant communities – wildlife habitat, recreation, soil and water quality.

The water outlook
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - the IPCC - predicts that in just 40 years many semi-arid regions, including the western United States, will suffer a decrease in water resources due to climate change. Changing patterns of precipitation, declining snowpacks, and retreating glaciers are contributors.

Water shortages are already a prime concern throughout the country, as the epic droughts across the southeast continue to point out. At least 36 states will face water shortages within the next five years. Forty percent of the world may be living in water scarce regions by 2025. As populations increase, water shortages will simply be a result of water demands surpassing the availability of our freshwater resources. Since 1950, the U.S. Geological Survey has compiled data on amounts of water used in homes, businesses, industries, and on farms throughout the United States. From 1950 to 2000, electricity water use increased by almost 500 percent. Irrigation water use increased by about 50 percent. The good news is that since 1985, water withdrawls have remained relatively stable. But the U.S. population is expected to more than double by the end of the century. Our need to conserve water resources is more critical than ever.

Conservationists have long understood the connection between healthy landscapes and water. As our first Chief, Gifford Pinchot said, “The relationship between forests and rivers is like father and son. No father, no son.” But do the four million residents of Atlanta all understand the connection? Does our youngest generation, our future voters?

The next generation: connecting kids to nature
As I listen to people around the country talk about the open spaces they care about, I am struck by the number of times they express concern about the kind of future we are creating for our children. How well do children understand the changes they are seeing? Our next generation might be growing up estranged from nature - without the sense of wonder most of us experienced as we played and worked in natural settings. Many do not have a connection to the great outdoors. Our children need to understand how much they depend on the services provided by forests and rangelands, wherever they live. Our children need to appreciate the compelling American tradition of working the land.

The challenges of climate change and looming water shortages will not be resolved in a few years. It will take generations. Today’s children will need to be passionately willing and able to meet these challenges. We’re working with partners around the country to get kids outdoors, face to face with nature, to begin to instill in them a lasting land ethic.

Building bridges
Aldo Leopold once wrote, “Government, no matter how good, can only do certain things.” He was right of course. As we rise to meet the great conservation challenges of today, we must do so with an expanding set of partners. Traditional conservation approaches have brought us far in safeguarding landscapes and biodiversity, but we need to look beyond our own circle to find new stakeholders and new tools. We need to put collaboration ahead of confrontation. We must seek business leadership and community engagement.

So, how can we begin to ‘build bridges’ today? We start by addressing our challenges together. By connecting each of our efforts – individually, collectively, as professionals, as neighbors, as people with a love for the land …by connecting our effortswe expand our reach - across the landscape, across an increasingly diverse population.

Let me offer a few things we can all do:

First, bring research to management. As we advance and focus our climate change knowledge across agencies and across disciplines, we need to make it relevant. How can land stewards adapt to changing water availability? How can carbon market opportunities be profitable? How do we ensure a landscape that is resilient? As science evolves, it will be increasingly important to integrate ongoing research with practical, on-the-ground management. Scientists and practitioners alike will need to rely on scenario building, assessments of risk and ecological tradeoffs, economic valuation, and methods of managing with uncertainty. Maintaining partnerships at the local level is essential, as they provide us with local knowledge, an ability to learn across the landscape, and a direct connection to people on the land.

Secondly, take someone with you the next time you spend the day outside – take your kid, your grandkid, or your neighbor’s kid, to explore a stream bed, ride through a pasture, help you with your sampling, your measurements, and join you in conversation with those you meet on the land. By doing this you’re expanding your circle and giving the child a gift. As professional associations you can have a lasting effect by influencing education and bringing new people into the profession, people that together bridge generations, backgrounds, and lifestyles – with new people you’ll find renewed energy and fresh ideas.

And lastly, I’d like to ask each of you to put your dedication and energy into partnering with us as we continue to work to conserve open space and working lands. The conservation of open space has been a focus of the Forest Service for years. Remember that without wilderness, rangeland and prairie, farms, forests, and urban parks, we lose our ability to respond to climate change and water conservation, and we lose our hope for connecting the next generation to nature.

Many of you provided comments on our Open Space Conservation Strategy, released last month. This strategy sets forth our vision for the 21st century - an interconnected network of open space across the landscape, driven by grassroots efforts and voluntary land conservation. One of our priorities is to promote national policies and market-based incentives that will improve the economics of land management and keep private landowner operations viable. Our strategy emphasizes innovation and collaboration through sharing, and without your help it will not succeed.

As professional societies, we must work together, share our experiences, and build off of each other in the pursuit of our common goal, ecosystem resilience. Capture the collaborative spirit you feel today, at this meeting – and bring it back home with you. Broaden your circle. Stay engaged. Tell your story. Rangeland accounts for one-third of the land in this country - help people understand its value, how much it matters, and how much they depend on it for the life-supporting benefits it provides. Make use of the strength of your networks here to win support for your work at home.

Let me leave you with another quote from Leopold, taken from an essay he wrote called The Farmer as a Conservationist: “Conservation means harmony between men and land. When land does well for its owner, and the owner does well by his land; when both end up better by reason of their partnership, we have conservation. When one or the other grows poorer, we do not.”

Thank you.


US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013

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