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A Crossroads of Concerns: Climate Change, Water, and Kids
Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell
NACo Public Lands Steering Committee Meeting
Washington, DC—March 2, 2008


It is a pleasure to come before the members of NACo today. Let me begin by thanking you for being such great partners for the Forest Service in our local communities.

I just got back from Phoenix, from a national meeting of forest supervisors on water, and I got the chance to see former Chief Dale Robertson. I can remember when Dale was still Chief and I was a forest supervisor. I got a chance to meet with Dale, who gave me a piece of advice. He told me to be sure to work closely with county governments, because with community support we can do anything, but without it we can do nothing. I’ll always remember that advice, because I’ve found it to be true.

Collaborative Gains
Some of you might have experience or knowledge of bitter divisions between federal agencies and local communities. Some were longstanding, and some were infamous. One example from the 1980s was Catron County, New Mexico.

New Mexico’s “Communities at Risk” initiative followed the December 2003 passage of HFRA. Community meetings were held across Catron County—50 to 60 people at a time—and they included state and federal agencies, community groups, and local elected officials. Everyone was at the table, and over time those meetings built a sense of trust and shared purpose. The county took the lead, and people came together behind a countywide fire protection plan and behind strategically placed fuels treatments.

Last year, a Forest Service leadership team from my office visited Catron County, and we heard the story from the Catron County Commissioner. He radiated enthusiasm, calling it “truly a collaborative effort.”

The experience in Catron County shows the benefits that can come from good relationships between federal agencies and local elected officials. We have seen the importance of these relationships, and we have continued to build them. Last year, the Forest Service signed an agreement with NACo to further them. The Forest Service and BLM have each established a liaison position with NACo, and we now have a joint project, with funding from both agencies, to have NACo evaluate ways to improve implementation of community fire protection plans.

We also want to improve our government-to-government relationships through cooperating agency status. BLM has an effective program for training local elected officials and federal employees in implementing CEQ guidance on cooperating agency relationships. Forest Service employees already take part in some of these sessions, and I will ask our Forest Service liaison to work with his BLM counterpart to get us more involved in planning and conducting these training sessions.

Secure Rural Schools
Another area where we have worked closely with local governments in recent years is in implementing the Secure Rural Schools Act. Payments under the Act were designed to provide a parachute for communities that, in the past, depended on timber from federal lands. That transition has been hard for many communities to make, and losing that parachute has promised to make for some very rough landings.

Congress extended Secure Rural Schools from 2006 to 2007, and the President’s budget proposal for 2009 would reauthorize the Act and would provide funding for 2010, 2011, and 2012. Of course, the 25-percent payments will continue, as always.

What will also remain, I hope, is the strength in community developed by the Resource Advisory Committees. Under Secure Rural Schools, the Forest Service maintained 55 RACs in 13 states. Those RACs have accomplished an unbelievable amount. People have come together in some communities in ways they’d not ever come together before to collaborate on projects for the future of the community. The RACs selected around 4,400 projects and mobilized $213 million in funding over the lifetime of the legislation. That’s a tremendous accomplishment.

There must be a way to continue that collaborative energy. Maybe we can work together to find a way to recharter RACs in some communities. We invite you to work with us to make it happen.

Long-Term Challenges: Climate Change and Water
Now I’ll turn to some broader, longer term resource challenges. As you well know, the fire and fuels situation is worsening not just in the West, but in other places as well, and in part that is attributable to climate change. After decades of climate change research, Forest Service scientists have come to the conclusion that climate change, among other things, is driving worsening fire seasons and insect outbreaks. Signs of ecological stress in America’s forests and grasslands are abundant and growing, partly due to a changing climate. Consider:

  • Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are now higher than at any time in the past 10 million years.
  • Eleven of the last 12 years rank among the 12 warmest years since 1850.
  • We are already seeing shifts in range and behavior for some plants and animals, a trend that is likely to increase. For example, we’re seeing dieback of high-elevation spruce in the Appalachians. We’re seeing growing mortality in eastern hemlock from woolly adelgid. In the Rockies, we’re seeing upslope and northward spread of mountain pine beetle into forest types that aren’t adapted to handle it.

Climate change will also affect our water supplies, as will rapid population growth. Consider:

  • Warming in western mountains is projected to decrease snowpacks, cause more winter flooding, and reduce summer streamflows.
  • The water level in Lake Mead is down to about 50 percent. Some experts believe that the lake might never again be full.  
  • One government study predicted that, by 2025, every western state will have unmet rural water needs and/or a moderate to high likelihood of water conflicts. Those conflicts have extended into the East. For example, after 200 years Georgia wants to redraw its border with Tennessee so it can tap the Tennessee River.

It’s tempting to think of drought as temporary—as part of a natural cycle of wet and dry. But in an era of climate change, that’s wishful thinking. About the Southwest, one expert recently said, “You can’t call it a drought anymore, because it’s going over to a drier climate. No one says the Sahara is in drought.”

New Opportunities
But there is also good news. New technologies are allowing urban and rural communities alike to meet their needs with less water. Water withdrawals in the United States, after rising for most of our history, have leveled off since the 1980s. The city of Aurora in Colorado has even found a way of recycling virtually 100 percent of the water it takes from the South Platte River.

Forests have an important role to play in this connection. As Gifford Pinchot put it a century ago, “The connection between forests and rivers is like that between father and son. No forest, no rivers.” Due to climate change, our forests, public and private, are stressed by higher temperatures, changed water regimes, and drought. They are also more susceptible to insects and catastrophic fire. We need forests to be healthy—to be able to do their job of filtering water, storing water, and keeping water cool. There are opportunities to work to keep our forests more resilient. It does require that we actively manage forest, matching the stocking of vegetation with the ability of the site to support it. That active management has to have economic incentives and multipliers to make it work.

Our Forest Products Lab in Madison, Wisconsin, is looking for ways of making the work profitable so that local industries and communities can benefit. For example, we helped create start-up opportunities for small businesses through what we call a “business incubator.” Trinity County in California has one. It’s a 10,000-square-foot facility for businesses that utilize wood from small trees. The facility shares the start-up and operational risks, and it’s heated entirely by burning wood waste. Through partnerships like these, we are working with rural communities to find ways to have active forest management—for forest health, and to benefit communities economically.

HFI and HFRA have helped by bringing communities together behind fire protection plans. Since 2000, we have treated more than 15 million acres of National Forest System lands, and the Department of the Interior has treated more than 7 million acres of other federal land. Most of those acres have been in the WUI.

As a nation, we are beginning to understand the opportunities in using wood to replace fossil fuels. The energy bill passed late last year encourages the utilization of biofuels. But it also contains a definition of biomass that excludes wood from public lands in calculations to offset carbon emissions. If it stands, there will be fewer opportunities for communities and counties to benefit from biomass removal. In an era of climate change, can we as a nation really afford to ignore such opportunities?

Budget Constraints
Now I’ll turn to the proposed budget for the Forest Service in fiscal 2009. Three things are clear:

  • First, the Administration’s priorities are defense and homeland security. In most other areas, there have been cuts. We are not the only agency affected.
  • Second, we are just beginning a long and complex congressional process for determining final funding levels. I want to stress that the numbers we have now are preliminary. Judging from the past, they will change.
  • Third, our starting point is pretty rough. Our fire seasons have grown to be year-round, and suppression costs have soared. Congress has provided emergency supplemental funding for fire suppression, but we have also been forced to draw funds from other program areas to pay for firefighting. The increasing percentage of the budget that goes to fire leaves less for other things.

What we can control are some of our own internal costs by reforming the way we do business. To save costs, we have centralized and streamlined functions. Our Transformation effort is the next step in that process. Our sole purpose is to reduce costs and get more dollars to the ground so we can do more work and better serve the American people.

Kids in the Woods
Some of the challenges we face are clear and present, such as fire and fuels or invasive species. Others are looming on the horizon: the full effects of climate change … population growth … deep water shortages. These challenges will affect Americans for generations to come. Future Forest Service Chiefs—and future county governments—will have their hands full.

If we are to succeed, then future generations must be willing and able to step forward. In the words of the ecologist Aldo Leopold, kids will need to learn the “alphabet” of the land—“the soils and the rivers, the birds and the beasts”—so they can read the “story” of the land. Only then will they become good stewards of the land.

Are kids today learning to read the land? Consider:

  • From 1997 to 2003, the number of American children from ages 9 to 12 who spent time on outdoor activities fell by 50 percent.
  • On average each day, American children from ages 8 to 18 spend almost 6-1/2 hours in activities involving electronic media, including 3 hours of TV. By contrast, they spend about 30 minutes in unstructured outdoor activities.

Again, there are things we can do. As part of our long history of conservation education, the Forest Service has launched a challenge cost-share program called 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. You need and I need this next generation of American citizens and voters to care about forests and where their water comes from.

NACo has launched a program to fight rural obesity, with goals that are similar to ours. Through that agreement I mentioned earlier, the Forest Service and NACo are now working together to pool our resources in programs of similar interest. Projects addressing kids, water, and climate change might very well fit.

At a Crossroads
Our nation is at a crossroads. The natural resource challenges ahead—climate change, water, and kids—are on a scale never seen before. As the climate changes, water will become less reliable, and a growing population will put more pressure on water sources—and on the land. The growing human footprint on the land will make it more difficult for ecosystems to adapt to climate change, and urban growth will put more distance between kids and the woods. These challenges intersect in ways that threaten to drag us all down.

But there is hope. In recent decades, we have cemented government-to-government relationships through collaborative stewardship, and already we are achieving results. In Catron County and other places where, a generation ago, the conflicts seemed intractable, today we are working together to create new opportunities for counties and communities. I am confident that we will broaden the scale and the scope of our partnerships to address the longer term issues of climate change, water, and kids. Through the social capital we have built … through the technical knowhow that has always made our nation great … I am confident that we shall prevail.

I know I have touched on only some of your areas of concern. I welcome your questions and comments, and I look forward to having a dialogue.


US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013

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