About Us  |  Contact Us  |  FAQ's  |  Newsroom

[design image slice] U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service on faded trees in medium light green background [design image slice] more faded trees
[design image] green box with curved corner
[design image] green and cream arch
Employee Search
Information Center
National Offices and Programs
Phone Directory
Regional Offices

US Forest Service
1400 Independence Ave., SW
Washington, D.C.

(800) 832-1355

  USA dot Gov: The U.S. Government's Official Web Portal.
An image of the Forest Service badge
USDA Forest Service
Washington, D.C.

The Future of Outdoor Recreation and Lands:
Business Leadership Makes a Difference

Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell
REI Leadership Conference: Leaders Make a Difference
Seattle, WA – March 14, 2008


It’s certainly a pleasure to be here. It was only 34 years ago when I became an REI member – 1974, I think it was. I was working in Medford, Oregon as a forester for the Bureau of Land Management. I bought my Kelty pack - exterior frame, drab green – from REI of course, and despite the old metal zippers and the discernible twist to the frame, I still use that pack. My husband was a member in the 1960s and bought a nesting billie set that he is also loathe to give up – those pots have been all over and despite the fact that they’re no longer round and the middle one has a leak, we continue to use them today. In all those years we’ve purchased canoes, bicycles, packs, tents, sleeping bags, helmets, gloves, life jackets, skis…

A changing America

1974 may seem like a long time ago, but it’s not. A lot hasn’t changed. Like REI, the Forest Service has a strong mission that we’ve carried through the decades – our motto of “Caring for the land, serving people” is in our blood, it’s our organizational DNA - the stuff that drives us, inspires us, and lends purpose to every program, every plan, every partnership we engage. What is changing is our customer base - the American public – the people we serve and their needs, their values, and their expectations.

This isn’t the first time that the American public has demanded change. On New Year’s Day 1970, President Nixon announced to the nation that the 1970s would be the environmental decade. And so it was. It was a time of great change for the Forest Service as people became more involved in public land management, advocating for recreation development, wilderness designation, and the preservation of scenery rather than viewing the forest in a strict utilitarian way. In response, the Forest Service shifted its focus. We manage the national forests for a broad array of values that society expects from public land - clean water…wilderness…wildlife habitat…outdoor recreation and fiber. Forest Service employees have always considered themselves a part of the communities they lived in but we had to learn public involvement. We now lead federal agencies in our open and transparent decision process and in providing opportunities for the public to be involved.

And once again, we face a time of great change - a new environmental movement inspired by climate change and the link between the state of the environment and human health. We’re also experiencing a shift in values as America’s population grows and becomes more diverse, more techno-centric, and increasingly removed from nature. 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’ve moved into a new century with a set of conservation challenges that together seem unprecedented in their magnitude, their frequency, their intensity.

Can the Forest Service respond to the environmental challenges of today? Can we keep pace with the changing needs of the American population? Can we remain relevant to a new generation? The answer to all of these questions is yes. But the solutions we used in the past are not enough to solve today’s challenges. We need to look ahead. We need a fresh perspective. And we need to act now, in concert with our partners – with you - recognizing that we share a common vision, knowing that together, we can engage more people in conservation and foster in them a love for the outdoors.

I’m going to spend a few minutes talking about three defining challenges for the Forest Service, for us all – long-term trends that will impact forests in America and their ability to provide the goods and services we depend on, the ecosystem services that sustain our quality of life. These challenges are climate change, water, and kids.

Climate change

Climate change has been a scientific concern and a practical concern for decades - climate change research at the Forest Service goes back at least 20 years. And it’s now popular news, garnering head lines in every magazine, from the Economist to Vanity Fair, popping up in the Sunday comics and on Jay Leno. The potential impacts of rising temperatures and sea levels around the world stimulate public discourse and political action on a global scale. Climate change cuts across virtually every major issue we face in forest management – fire and fuels, pests and invasives, water resources, endangered species, recreation, markets, food security, sustainable development, and more. It will affect business. It will affect the global economy.

We know that climate change may fundamentally alter the distribution of forests and rangelands in the United States. As the climate changes, ecosystems are essentially re-arranging themselves: they are disassembling, and the species that survive will reassemble into new configurations - new ecosystems. We’re beginning to see this across the West, where over 21 million acres of forests are at risk of dying because of native bark beetle epidemics. Bark beetles are natural in coniferous forests, but higher temperatures have quickened the beetle’s life cycle and extended their abundance and their range – with warmer temperatures, beetle populations can quadruple within a year. It doesn’t take long for a skier in Colorado to realize that the landscape of red trees before her is in fact a vivid demonstration of a dying forest. In northern Arizona, the tree mortality rate of some pinyon pine forests is one hundred percent - will these forests soon be gone? Some climatologists suggest that the Piedmont region of the Southeast U.S. will move to a savannah vegetation type.

We’re noticing evidence of climate change elsewhere --

  • Fire seasons are beginning earlier and lasting longer. Because of fuel buildup and fuel moisture content fires are larger; they’re more extensive. We’re experiencing the worst fire seasons in 50 years, and at least five states have had their largest fires in history. We’ve lost dozens of lives and a record number of homes. The social and economic costs to communities are enormous.
  • And of course climate change is affecting our water supplies. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that warming will decrease snow packs, cause more winter flooding, and reduce summer stream flows, creating water scarcity and exacerbating competition for water resources. Last summer the snow pack in the Sierra Nevada, which provides most of the water for Northern California, was at its lowest level in 20 years.

The water outlook

But water is no longer just a western issue - water shortages are a prime concern throughout the country, as the 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 assessed water use in homes, businesses, industries, and on farms across the country. From 1950 to 2000, water used to generate electricity increased by almost 500 percent. The tie to energy demand is obvious.

Increasingly, water quantity issues are tied to water quality issues. We’re seeing saltwater intrusions in municipal water in Texas and many states along the Atlantic seaboard; radium in Milwaukee; and arsenic near Green Bay, Wisconsin.

The good news is that since 1985, water withdrawals have remained relatively stable. But the U.S. population is expected to more than double by the end of the century. Almost two-thirds of our fresh water originates on forested lands, public and private. Our need to conserve water at the source is more critical than ever.

Conservationists have long understood the connection between healthy land and water. As the first Forest Service chief, Gifford Pinchot said, “The relationship between forests and rivers is like father and son. No father, no son.” I want to believe that the three million residents of Seattle understand the connection between healthy land and water – and the interdependencies among upstream and downstream neighbors. I want to believe that our youngest generation does- our future voters, our future decision-makers. But I’m not sure they do.

The next generation: connecting kids to nature

One of our challenges in the Forest Service is communicating the importance of forests to an increasingly diverse public, a population that spends more and more of the time indoors. Today more than 80 percent of the U.S. population lives in urbanized areas. Most people don’t know where their food comes from beyond the supermarket shelf, how much they depend on forests for clean air and clean water, or the economic and psychological benefits of street trees in their neighborhoods.

We worry that kids are growing up estranged from nature - without the sense of wonder and quietude so many of us experienced as we did chores and played outside. These children are not getting outside and they’re not learning about the natural world. Without a connection to nature, how can they appreciate its value? Our children need to understand how much they depend on nature’s services, wherever they live.

And what of the face of America? I live in Washington DC and I ride the metro. English is one of many languages spoken on the metro. Immigration issues aside, those speakers intend their children to be voters here in the U.S. – they may or may not have a cultural tradition that honors the outdoors.

The challenges of climate change and water scarcity 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. So we have an obligation - we have an obligation to help kids learn about the natural world and to understand how their choices and their actions – or inactions – matter. We need to inspire them to embrace a responsibility for nature to be stewards of the environment.

Business leadership makes a difference

You’re all here this week as part of a leadership conference. True leaders speak out and act on the challenges of the future, rather than leave them to their successors.

Today we see leaders emerge from all sectors, as businesses are increasingly aware of the impact climate change will have on their bottom line –

  • Energy-intensive businesses face growing risks from the availability of energy.
  • Companies face risks from the physical impacts of climate change – larger forest fires, forest health crises, changed snow and stream flow patterns - companies like REI, that already know they are dependent on a healthy environment and are leading the way.

Financial markets are starting to reward companies that are moving ahead on climate change, while others are assigned more risk. For some, it’s not a choice - many companies are acting because they face regulation overseas or they will here at home in the not-too-distant future. But a whole host of companies, including REI, are leading on climate and sustainability issues. So are our cities – three years ago Seattle’s Mayor Nickel led the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement with the goal of getting 141 cities to join. Over 800 mayors have signed, from all 50 states and Puerto Rico. 

I mentioned earlier that the solutions we used in the past are not enough to solve today’s challenges - that we need a fresh perspective. While traditional conservation approaches have brought us far in safeguarding landscapes and biodiversity, we need to expand the community of stakeholders. In this age of globalization our success will depend on our ability to work with a whole variety of partners. Business leadership, and close partnership between government and business, will be essential as we rise to meet the conservation challenges of today.

In the past, the nation relied on government programs and special interest groups to meet conservation needs. In the 1970s, the “environmental decade,” regulation was the answer. Environmentalism was confrontational. And conservation was entirely separate from the economic interest.

Today, stewardship is a civic responsibility that will have to be shared - now, everyone needs to be an environmental steward. We must seek business leadership at the corporate level and community engagement at the local level. We need to put collaboration ahead of confrontation. And we must consider the entire landscape, for 57 percent of the nation’s forests are privately owned. Let’s move to thinking about incentives for conservation – incentives for the landowner, for the consumer. In the words of Peter Forbes, co-founder of the Center for Whole Communities, “To be truly meaningful and enduring, the work of conservation must be grounded not just in legal statutes, but in peoples’ hearts, minds, and everyday choices.”

Celebrating nature: the Forest Service and REI

Before I close, I want to say a few things about a public/private partnership that speaks volumes – a partnership between government and business that will help us meet the challenges of climate, water, and kids. This is the close partnership between REI, the National Forest Foundation, and the Forest Service. We’re working hand-in-hand, celebrating nature and getting people outside.

▪ For years, REI flagship stores have hosted Public Lands Information Centers, where the Forest Service has set up shop to provide maps and information on recreational opportunities on the national forests. But REI and the Forest Service go above and beyond distributing maps and pointing out hiking trails. This is a vital connecting point to the public, for people who need that extra push to get outside. And for people to learn that recreation and stewardship can be one and the same.

▪ REI’s outreach to volunteers is getting the larger community outside, increasing people’s direct access to the land and providing opportunities for learning and inspiration. REI and the National Forest Foundation have worked together to provide conservation awards for projects that enlist volunteers in Wilderness Areas. Your stores have hosted “Friends of the Forest” days for the National Forest Foundation, where volunteers come together to improve trails, restore native habitat, and to plant trees.

▪ With REI support, the Friends of the Forest outreach effort has initiated connections with over 80,000 “friends.”

▪ Together, we’ve worked to get kids outside, through such programs as the Wonderful Outdoor World program and volunteer opportunities specifically geared towards children and families. Almost two years ago, REI helped us launch the renewed Junior Forest Ranger national program, one of our conservation education programs that works with kids ages seven to thirteen.

▪ And individual REI employees continuously reach out to the public and serve as the biggest champions of recreation on our national forests and grasslands. Whether it’s while wearing the dark green vest in the store, leading an adventure trip on a national forest, or participating in urban and community projects, REI employees are sharing their stories, spreading awareness of scenic places, promoting the benefits of recreation and user ethics, and helping us carry out the Forest Service mission.

REI stands out among the best and your efforts are noticed and appreciated, as we saw last month when the Natural Resources Council of America awarded REI its Corporate Stewardship Award. REI was recognized for unparalleled corporate leadership in supporting conservation programs in America.

Today, the average American can recognize one thousand corporate logos, but can’t identify ten plants and animals native to their region. It’s through business leadership and partnerships like ours that we can expand our reach and make a difference – it’s too critically important to not give it our best.

Concluding thoughts

I want to end by giving my thanks to Brad Johnson and Lee Fromsen, both of whom are on the board of the National Forest Foundation and have dedicated endless time and enthusiasm to connecting people to the great outdoors.

Arthur Carhart, a man who spent a lifetime thinking about the value of wild places, once wrote, “Perhaps the rebuilding of body and spirit is the greatest service derivable from our forests, for of what worth are material things if we lose the character and quality of people that are the soul of America?” Let us continue our great partnership - REI and the Forest Service - and our common passion and pursuit to share with the nation the wonders of nature, and to keep the soul of America strong.

Thank you.

US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013

[graphic] USDA logo, which links to the department's national site. [graphic] Forest Service logo, which links to the agency's national site. [graphic] A link to the US Forest Service home page.