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Climate Change, Water, and Kids: Three Areas of Mutual Concern
Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell
NSAA 2008 National Convention
San Francisco, CA—May 29, 2008


It’s a pleasure to be here this morning. Thank you for inviting me. It’s a privilege to address the members of the ski resort industry today. You have many fabulous leaders amongst you, and I’m honored to address a crowd that includes so many who give selflessly to issues on the national forests that are much larger than winter sports.

Ralph Bellamy once wrote, “If bread is the first necessity of life, recreation is a close second.” In winter, that second necessity is often skiing, and we work together to meet the need for outdoor recreation. There are 134 ski areas operating on the national forests, and we are close partners in delivering essential services that Americans want from their public lands.

I myself am no stranger to winter sports. I grew up in New England, and when you think of a New England winter, you traditionally think of snow. Both the White Mountain and the Green Mountain National Forests offer opportunities for winter sports on trails and at ski areas like Mount Snow and Waterville Valley. I grew up in a family of alpine racers and thought it very normal to have a mudroom full of ski boots and to hear edges being filed on a Friday night. Always one to go a different way, I was a Nordic skier and instead spent my Friday nights waxing with green and special green.

In the course of my career with the Forest Service, I have served mainly in the West. Again, I have seen a lot of skiing and some fantastic relationships with the ski resort industry. I am grateful to you for your partnership—for working together to let people enjoy their public lands in winter, and to do it in a sustainable way. This has enormous benefits for personal health and fitness, for the economic well-being of communities—and for public lands, because it generates public awareness and public support. This is a big part of what our business of sustaining forests for present and future generations is all about.

But we are facing some very serious long-term challenges to our business. I will spend the next few minutes talking about these challenges and what we might do to address them.

Climate Change
First, climate change. This has been a scientific concern and a practical concern for decades; focused climate change research at the Forest Service goes back at least 20 years. It’s now part of everyday news, attracting headlines all over the country, even popping up in the Sunday comics.

It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to foresee—or even already to see—the impacts of climate change on ski areas. Here are some of the facts to consider:

  • According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 11 of the 12 years from 1995 to 2006 were the warmest in recorded history.
  • Mountain glaciers and snow cover have declined worldwide.
  • Most of the United States has been warming and drying over the last hundred years.
  • Warming in the West is decreasing snowpacks, causing more winter flooding and reducing summer streamflows. Last summer, the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada was at its lowest level in 20 years.

We use the term “climate change” rather than “global warming” because the effects are uneven. It can still get awfully cold in a lot of places. When the New Hampshire snows got deep in winter and the temperatures plunged, my father would needle me about climate change. But the effects on the Arctic seem to be stronger than in most other places, hence the melting ice and issues for polar bears. We saw some of that variability just this last winter, with record snowfall in parts of the Northeast, the Lake States, the Rockies, and the Pacific Northwest. As a result, we had good snowpacks in much of the West this year, but not the long periods of bitter cold we need to knock back pine beetles.

Still, in the longer term, ski regions are likely to see less snow and shorter, more erratic seasons for winter sports. Operating costs will probably go up as ski areas are forced to rely more on artificial snow. The Forest Service understands that coping with climate change is part of your business reality.

Fortunately, the ski industry has been a leader in responding to climate change. We applaud your efforts to spotlight this issue. We applaud your Sustainable Slopes environmental charter and your participation in the Keep Winter Cool campaign in partnership with Clif Bar. We applaud your investments in energy efficiency and green energy. We applaud your efforts to engage the millions of Americans who use your facilities to make changes in their own lives to help address this challenge.

The Forest Service has taken up this challenge as well. Climate change is tied to devastating fire seasons and insect outbreaks. Lodgepole pine, pinyon pine, and whitebark pine in the West and eastern hemlock and southern pines in the East are coming under historically unprecedented climate-related stress. There are signs that many landscapes might be undergoing fundamental long-term change, and we are responding in three fundamental ways: mitigation, adaptation, and biomass utilization.

Let’s start with mitigation. Forests can be tremendous carbon sinks. In fact, next to oceans, forests are the largest carbon sink on Earth. By managing forests for carbon, we can offset greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists estimate that forests in the United States currently take up enough carbon from the atmosphere to offset about 10 percent of America’s carbon emissions. We can add to that through forestry—by planting new forests, by managing forest growth to optimize its carbon uptake potential, and by managing forest fire emissions.

The National Forest Foundation has a website where people can estimate their personal carbon footprint. They can then offset their carbon footprint by investing in reforestation projects on National Forest System lands. These are demonstration projects designed to show the value of forests in our larger climate change strategy and are being closely monitored.

Another element of our strategy is adaptation. When we take a degraded, overgrown forest and restore it to a healthier, more resilient condition, we are also, in many cases, making the ecosystem more resilient to deal with the stresses associated with a warmer, drier climate. Each year, we conduct restoration treatments on millions of acres. In the last eight years, we and our partners in the Department of the Interior have treated over 25 million federal acres, an area the size of Ohio. Add to that the millions of acres treated on private and state lands and we are making a difference.
Adaptation has other dimensions as well. Forest Service scientists are looking for better ways of forecasting how ecosystems will change in response to a changing climate and how the changes will affect the animals and plants that make up these ecosystems. In partnership with other land managers, including private landowners, we are working to identify the landscape-scale forest conditions most likely to sustain forest ecosystems in a changing climate. I know many of you have been wrestling with the impacts of insect outbreaks, such as mountain pine beetle in Colorado. We want to work with you and other partners to plan forest management on a landscape scale over long periods of time.

The third element of our climate change strategy is biomass utilization. Excess biomass can fuel huge fires or insect outbreaks or simply lie to rot and ultimately wind up as carbon in the atmosphere. Instead, we can remove excess woody biomass and use it to fashion wood products, heat homes, generate electricity … even power cars. This can replace part of our use of fossil fuels like coal and oil and in turn reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere.

So there is a lot we can do, but climate change has affected our budgets, making it harder for us to mount an effective response. A warming climate has helped to make fire seasons longer and fires more severe. That has dramatically increased our firefighting costs. In 1991, the cost of fire management made up 13 percent of our budget, but today it is almost half. That means less money for everything else, including outdoor recreation—and including mitigation, adaptation, and biomass utilization.

Climate change is affecting your budgets, too, and we are committed to working together to adapt. As the climate warms, we are working together to rethink what a ski area might mean. We are aware of your desire to increase year-round activities on national forest ski areas. We understand your interest in increasing the number of operating days and providing natural-resource-based outdoor recreation activities that don’t rely on snow.

The Water Outlook
Climate change is affecting our water supplies. We live in a part of the world with clean, abundant water—something we often take for granted. But at least 36 states may face water shortages within the next five years. And 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. To look at the future, perhaps we can learn from experiences in other parts of the world. Maybe it’s most acute in Jordan.

I was in Amman, Jordan, a few months ago and saw for myself the water supply issues that Jordan is experiencing. Current annual consumption in Jordan is about 200 cubic meters per person, compared with an average of 110,000 cubic meters in North America. Still, water use exceeds renewable supply, and Jordan is forced to overdraw water from its aquifers and to seek Red Sea water through desert canals and desalinization. A warm shower is a luxury and something we take for granted.

It’s different in the United States, but we’re seeing some very worrisome trends. Large parts of the West are in long-term drought. For example, the water level in Lake Mead is down, and a study in February found a 50-percent chance that Lake Mead will be dry by 2021. Another 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 already 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, but in an era of climate change, it’s wishful thinking. One expert put it this way: “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.”

Something we talk little about is population growth. In the course of this century, our population in the United States is projected to rise from about 300 million today to about 570 million. Those additional hundreds of millions of thirsty people are going to place a lot more demand on our water supplies.

We can do something about water quantity and quality through sustainable forest management. The cleanest water flows from healthy, forested watersheds. Almost two-thirds of our freshwater originates on forested lands, public and private, and the national forests are a big part of that. Here in California, the national forests make up 20 percent of the land area and supply 45 percent of the freshwater. As forest managers, we specialize in knowing how land management practices affect water quantity and quality. We study different forest and rangeland conditions to know how water filtration works. The Forest Service has the largest forestry research and development organization in the world, and through partnerships with universities and other federal and state agencies, we learn more every day.

On national forest land, we are applying that knowledge by restoring the resiliency of ecosystems so that they can deliver clean water and other services that Americans want and need. For example, we are restoring high mountain meadows, re-creating their capacity to store water for slow release in summer. This offsets some of the effects of climate change and drought, such as reduced summer flows. It also cools the water, protecting aquatic species downstream. In some cases, it obviates the need to build new systems for water storage and flood protection, the cost of which would otherwise appear in people’s insurance bills and monthly water bills.

But the Forest Service can’t do it alone. We need to work with partners like you to protect our nation’s water resources. I know that the ski industry shares our concern about future water scarcity, and we have worked closely in the past on water-related issues. We want to continue and strengthen that partnership. We applaud your efforts to conserve and recycle water … to make snow more efficiently … and to protect water resources for downstream uses, including habitat for aquatic wildlife. I would like to personally thank you for everything you’re doing.

The Next Generation
Despite everything we are doing, however, these issues are tremendously complex, and they are on a scale that is vast. Climate and water issues are interconnected and mutually reinforcing, and it will take generations to resolve them. Whole careers will be built around them, entire lifetimes spent on them. We are only at the very beginning. And that raises another question: Will future generations be prepared to rise to the challenge?

A century ago, 60 percent of Americans grew up on the land in rural settings. Today, it is 20 percent. The overwhelming majority of kids today grow up in urban settings, with few opportunities to explore surrounding forests and fields. I worry that kids are growing up estranged from nature—without the sense of awe and wonder that most of us experienced as we played and worked outside. For example:

  • From 1997 to 2003, the number of American children ages 9 to 12 who spent time on outdoor activities fell by 50 percent.
  • On average, American children ages 6 to 11 spend about 30 hours a week in front of the TV or a computer. They spend only 30 minutes doing unstructured outdoor activities.

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? Children need to understand how much they depend on nature’s services, wherever they live. Without that understanding, I worry that the next generation will not be prepared to rise to the enormous challenges ahead.

Fortunately, we can do something about it. We can probably all remember how we felt as kids outdoors, how open we were to the sensations surrounding us. Maybe you have actually taken kids into the woods and remembered through them, through their reactions and questions, how wonderful it was—how eye-opening the experience could be—and how deeply it can affect future lifestyles and life choices.

In particular, those of us who work in and with the outdoors, who know something about outdoor recreation—we have a special obligation to share that knowledge with kids. It doesn’t matter whether we work for government or industry, for a community or a nongovernmental organization: If we work with forests, we have the ability … and the responsibility … to get more kids outdoors. After all, these are future voters, and society needs them to be conservation voters.

The people who manage ski areas have acknowledged that responsibility, and we applaud your commitment to kids. Ski areas have a huge role to play in getting kids outdoors. Ski areas, like other developed sites, give kids the opportunity to experience the outdoors in a user-friendly setting. You have all kinds of great programs for getting kids involved in skiing and other winter sports, and we are working with you to see how we might expand that capacity to get kids outdoors year-round. Ski areas have the capacity and experience to orient kids and other novices to outdoor recreation and can serve as portals for fun and challenging outdoor experiences. These experiences will help create a lifelong connection to nature, and we applaud you for it.

The Forest Service also accepts that responsibility. We have long had programs for getting kids in touch with nature, and our newest program is called More Kids in the Woods. We work with partners in dozens of projects around the country to give kids opportunities to get outdoors, up close and personal with nature. In 2007, for example, we funded projects in Idaho and Wyoming that were aimed at getting kids outside on snowshoes and learning about their national forests in winter. This year, we selected a project on the Lewis and Clark National Forest in Montana that is aimed at getting fifth graders snowshoeing and investigating winter ecology. Through steps like these, multiplied many times, we can help prepare the next generation to become good stewards of the land.

Strengthening Partnerships
Climate change, water, and kids—these are some of the great challenges we have identified for the generations to come. The ski areas and the Forest Service share these same concerns. I believe that our interests and our outlooks dovetail in all three areas.

The question is, are we working together in all three areas as well as we might? We can start by accomplishing the goals we identified in the memorandum of understanding we signed in 2007 and by continuing to collaborate on the Sustainable Slopes program. By supporting Winter Trails Day, we can introduce more kids and families to winter recreation activities, as well as to our Jr. Snow Ranger program. Winter Trails Day will be held on January 10, 2009, and I hope we can work together to increase the number of sites hosting events. And perhaps there are other ways as well that we can pool and leverage our resources.

But these issues of climate change, water, and kids go far beyond the parameters of our particular partnership. There are others out there who are equally affected … who are equally concerned … who are equally committed to rising to these three great challenges. To find real solutions, we need to work across landscapes—across ownerships. We need to involve all stakeholders on a landscape scale—to mobilize all interested parties.

At the Forest Service, we have been talking about the need to build a larger coalition of recreation and other interests, not only to support national forest management, but also to look beyond to the broader issues facing generations to come. I believe it is time. Perhaps the opportunity to begin is right here in this room.

Thank you.


US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013

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