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Looking ahead in forestry: Expanding our context in a changing world
Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell
2008 Lloyd P. Blackwell Lecture Series
School of Forestry, Louisiana Tech University
Ruston, LA—May 8, 2008

Good afternoon! It’s a pleasure to be here today. And it’s very heartening for me to see so a room full of future leaders in conservation. As was mentioned, I received my B.S. in forest management from the University of Vermont, and I hate to admit that it does seem a long time ago, probably because I’ve been so many places between then and now. But I distinctly remember my years at UVM as a forestry student. With each course I took, each lecture I heard, and each question I asked (which usually led to another, and then another), forestry became less a field of study for me, a major or a minor, and more a unifying concept that brought together a whole set of disciplines and ideas. Forestry—with a capital F—meant management and conservation, forests and ecosystems, water and wildlife, wilderness and backyard woodlots, and above all—it meant people.

When I completed my degree and moved to Oregon to work in the field as a forester, I began to understand the dynamic nature of forestry—that management objectives change not only with stand-level disturbances like fire and pest outbreaks, but also with new science and technologies, even with changing economies, and particularly with the shifting values of people and communities. As foresters, we need to continually update our management perspective by understanding the larger scale at which we operate—because regional and global issues can affect us locally, and what we do at the forest level affects the larger ecosystem and the people downslope or downstream. Today, this is more important than ever, for the forestry profession is changing and our management challenges really are global in scope, whether or not they directly impact us on the ground.

I’d like to spend some time talking to you today about three issues that, at first mention and to most people, may not seem to be related to the practice of professional forestry … but indeed they are: climate change, water, and kids. These are three important areas of focus for the Forest Service. They are long-term challenges that affect forests in America forests in America and their ability to provide the goods and services we all depend on. And they are 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.

Climate Change

Climate change 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. Climate change is part of everyday news, attracting head lines in every magazine and newspaper, popping up in the Sunday comics even.

We know that climate change is impacting temperature, sea levels, and precipitation patterns across the globe. Climate change will affect people. It will affect businesses and the global economy. And it cuts across virtually every major issue we face in forestry—wildfire and fuels, pests and invasives, site productivity, water resources, endangered species, recreation, markets, food security, sustainable development, and more.

Climate change may fundamentally alter the distribution of forests in the United States. As the climate changes, ecosystems are essentially rearranging themselves: they are disassembling, and the species that survive will reassemble into new configurations—new ecosystems. The massive infestation of southern pine beetles we’re experiencing here in the South is a perfect example of the potential for a threshold change to ecosystems. As you know, bark beetles are natural in coniferous forests, but higher temperatures are quickening the beetles’ life cycle, extending their abundance and shifting their range. With warmer temperatures, beetle populations can quadruple within a year. What will happen when the pines are removed from these systems? How can we respond to the increasing risk of fire, the impacts to wildlife habitat, the substantial losses to the softwood timber industry? We’re experiencing the same issues across the West, where over 21 million acres of forests are at infested with beetles. I was just recently in Colorado, where some of the world’s premier alpine skiing is on national forests, and the forests are dead and dying!

We’re noticing further evidence of climate change and the compounding impacts it can have:

  • 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.
  • Climate change is affecting our water supplies. Last month the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a new report on climate change and water—their main finding is that warming over the past decade has fundamentally changed the hydrologic cycle. The IPCC predicts that warming will decrease snowpacks, cause more winter flooding, and reduce summer stream flows. Last summer the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada, which provides most of the water for Northern California, was at its lowest level in 20 years. These climate impacts will percolate through our watersheds to affect the end users downstream. We can certainly expect water scarcity issues when this happens and competition for water resources.

The Water Outlook

Water shortages are already a concern in many parts of the United States, as the epic droughts across the Southeast indicated last fall. In October, a worst-case analysis predicted that Atlanta’s main source of water, Lake Lanier, could be drained dry in 90 to 120 days time. Those hard numbers shocked the region into action—a city in North Carolina declared a water shortage emergency and ordered each “household, business, and industry” to reduce water use by 50 percent.

We live in a world of clean, abundant water—something we often take for granted. But at least 36 states may face water shortages within the next five years. And 40 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. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

I was in Amman, Jordan, last month and saw for myself the water crisis the country is experiencing. I call it a water crisis because, for me, coming from the United States, it was stark. On a per capita basis, Jordan has one of the lowest levels of water resources in the world—water use exceeds renewable supply and the country is forced to overdraw water from its aquifers, lowering its water table and putting the quality of its water at risk. Families have access to water only twice a week—twice a week! Main water supplies are shut down for the remainder, which means that on the days when the water is on, people rush to fill up water tanks and other containers and hope that their household supply lasts the rest of the week. A warm shower is a luxury.

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.

As foresters and forestry students, you know that the cleanest water flows from healthy forested watersheds. Almost two-thirds of our freshwater originates on forested lands, public and private. Forests capture and store rainfall, naturally regulate stream flows, reduce flood and storm damage, control erosion and salinity, and replenish ground 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.”

Freshwater availability may be the most important natural resource issue of the century—and as our need for water increases, so will the demands on the nation’s forests.

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 or city parks.

At the Forest Service, we are concerned 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. Children are not getting outside and they’re not learning about the natural world. Many are new to the country, without cultural traditions that value wildlands or honor the forest.

  • From 1997 to 2003, the number of American children ages 9 to 12 who spent time outside fell by 50 percent.
  • On average American children ages 8 to 18 spend almost 6-½ hours each day absorbed in electronic media—this includes 3 hours of TV. They spend only 30 minutes a day participating in unstructured outdoor activities.

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.

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. As foresters and wildlife biologists, we have an obligation to help kids learn about forests and to understand how their choices and their actions, or inactions, matter. Ladybird Johnson was the First Lady of the United States in the late ’60s—she once said that “children are apt to live up to what you believe in them.” We need to believe that kids in America can embrace a responsibility for nature and be the future stewards of the environment.

Working with People, Understanding People

What I haven’t talked about today is other trends affecting forests, especially in the South—forces of change like invasive species, urbanization and land parcelization, and the significant shift of private industrial forest land to real estate investment trusts and the future impact that might have. In the South, people hold differing positions on the emerging biofuels markets and cypress harvest. When you put all of these trends and issues together, one thing is very clear: as natural resource managers, we need to be aware of the broader trends affecting forests and forestry. We have to understand the context we live in—at multiple levels, and at multiple scales—and the people, the cultures, the values that altogether shape this context. We have to advance and apply the science, but we also have to pay close attention to what’s happening within the community.

As a forester in Oregon, I quickly learned that the answers were not in my textbook—the textbooks, the computer analysis, and all of the reading can give you part of the answer, for sure. But in order to be a successful forester, you have to be able to talk with people—to help people understand how much they depend on forests for the many benefits or ecosystem services they provide, to find out what different people expect from forests into the future, and to understand what the conflicts are, the controversies. It will be increasingly important to work with other resource professionals as we weigh resource uses and evaluate tradeoffs. And more often than not, we need to involve the community. Gifford Pinchot once wrote that “with community support you can do anything; without it, you can do nothing.” I always remember that quote, because I find it to be true.

An Exciting Time in Forestry

I can’t end before mentioning that this is such an exciting time to be working in forestry, to be involved in forestry issues. It really is. More and more, governments, businesses, municipalities, and citizens are beginning to understand how much they depend on ecosystems—people are beginning to link their health and well-being to the fate of the environment; companies are beginning to incorporate social and ecological responsibility into their business practices; cities are boosting urban canopy goals in recognition that trees lower energy costs and provide a higher quality of life for residents.

Maybe it was the intensity of Katrina, the intense fire seasons we’ve experienced, or the droughts of last fall. Maybe it’s the country’s energy concerns, the popularity of sustainable building design, or the growing collection of organic foods and green cleaning supplies on the supermarket shelf. Whatever the reason or set of circumstances, we stand at a critical place in the history of land management, where we’re witness to an evolving environmental conscience. And it means that our purpose as foresters is more important than ever, for healthy, productive forests are an essential ingredient to a healthy and whole population.

At the Forest Service, we have a renewed sense of purpose. Helping people connect to the landscape will continue to be important for us. And as the population grows, as income levels increase and values change, our focus will be on restoring and sustaining the ability of forests to furnish the services that people want and need. When I think about fulfilling our mission into the future, important needs or objectives come to mind:

  • To protect biodiversity, clean air, and clean water, we have to consider whole ecosystems and work with people across landscapes, the public lands alongside the private.  
  • We need to contrive to incorporate the science we’ve gained into our management, and share our knowledge and technological advances with forest landowners. We need to continually challenge assumptions.
  • Expanding our partnerships, especially with other government agencies and the private sector, will bring in new ideas and fresh perspectives while encouraging innovation.
  • Engaging people at the local level is central to creative solutions, successful conservation, and community-based stewardship. At the same time, we need to participate in national and international dialogues to help others understand how forests and forest management contribute to national economies and social well-being.
  • We will need to build climate change into everything we do. Adaptive management will be fundamental to our work on the national forests, for today we manage in an era of uncertainty, where we can look to past patterns and processes as a reference but not as a solid predictor.
  • And we need to remember our own responsibility to reduce our resource use and ecological impact—for if we truly believe in a land ethic, we must also demonstrate a sound consumption ethic. 

Within the next decades, we may be dealing with a different landscape than we are used to. And we will certainly be responding to a different set of values and public needs. I’m looking to the Forest Service to provide leadership—among other forested countries as well as in the community. We can lead by example, and we can also lead by being involved in key resource and policy discussions that are taking place—discussions among municipal water managers, urban planners, and professional resource societies; up on the Hill in Congress; and in international negotiations. I encourage you to get involved. We need to look for opportunities to address the role of forests—in mitigating climate change, in providing clean water, in safeguarding biodiversity—to a wider audience, and especially to kids.

Thank you for your warm welcome and for inviting me here to speak with you today. I look forward to your questions, to the discussion later this afternoon, and to this evening’s celebration.


US Forest Service
Last modified March 29, 2013

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