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.

Three Great Challenges Facing Forestry
Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell
Association of Consulting Foresters, Annual Conference
Anchorage, AK—June 30, 2008

It’s an honor to be here.  With you and here in the Great Land.  I had the good fortune of serving in the Forest Service twice in Alaska.  The first time was in the 70’s when Alaskans still paid income tax.  I was a sale layout forester on Afognak Island and have memories of those two plus years that will last at least 30 years more.  I spent almost six years in Petersburg and cried like a baby when my husband and I made the decision to move south.  Living here isn’t for everyone but once smitten, you never get over it. 

I, too, am a professional forester.  I lead an agency where forestry is the cornerstone of our mission of sustaining the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands for present and future generations. The Forest Service employs almost 2,000 foresters and another 8,000 forestry technicians in our workforce of somewhere around 35,000.  There is much going on in this country and around the world that affects the practice of forestry on all ownerships.

I was invited here today to give a federal perspective on the challenges facing forestry and our vision of the role that consulting foresters can play.  My views are colored, of course, by my own background and experiences, so let me tell you a little about those.

I grew up in New England, and I hiked, fished and explored the White Mountains of New Hampshire throughout my childhood.  My bachelor’s is in forest management from the University of Vermont and my masters is in forest engineering from Oregon State University and I’ve spent most of my career in the west.  
Still, I have traveled over much of the country and a little overseas, especially since becoming Chief.  Wherever I go I hear people of very diverse interests speak of their concerns and their ideas. This gives me some perspective on the long-term challenges facing forestry and conservation on a national and even a global scale.

Wherever I go, I hear concerns generally falling into three areas: climate change; water supplies, particularly as populations grow; and the disconnect between growing populations and nature, most specifically with kids. I’d like to share with you some of what I have learned, and some examples from here in the Great Land. 

Climate Change
First, there is the challenge of climate change.  History will judge the leaders of our age, including our leadership in managing America’s forests, by how well we respond to this challenge.  Forest Service scientists have been working on this issue for more than 20 years, and they tell us it is real.  Alaskans know it is real, because here you can see some of the harshest effects.  Here are a few examples.

  • According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 11 of the 12 years from 1995 to 2006 were the warmest in recorded history.  Here in Alaska, according to EPA, average temperatures are 4 degrees warmer than they were a century ago—and the experts assure me that is a lot.  The impacts include melting permafrost, worsening storms, melting glaciers, and rising sea levels.  All this contributes to coastal erosion, subsidence, damage to roads and other infrastructure, and profound ecological change.  For example, as permafrost melts, ponds and wetlands drain away, and the ground forms humps or “thermokarsts,” releasing methane gas, a greenhouse gas that is 25 times more destructive than carbon dioxide.
  • Fire is a natural part of many forested landscapes in the United States, but each year the fire season comes earlier and lasts longer.  Studies show that climate change is contributing.  In recent years, Alaska has seen some of the biggest fires in its history—on the order of a million acres or more, like the Taylor Complex in 2006.  Over 11 million acres burned in Alaska in the summers of 2004 and 2005 alone. These record-breaking fire seasons include megafires that behave in ways our firefighters have never seen.  They are threatening and destructive to both people and property, and they contribute to atmospheric carbon.
  • Insects, too, are a natural part of forested landscapes, but now the insects—both natives and nonnatives—are spreading more rapidly than ever before.  The winter isn’t cold enough for long enough to knock them back, and the mortality is increasing.  Here in Alaska, millions of acres of spruce on the Kenai Peninsula have died back, with enormous implications for ecological health.  We’ll hear more about this from a Forest Service entomologist, John Lundquist, this afternoon; and you’ll get to see some of the mortality and associated fuels problems on your train trip tomorrow.
  • The warmer winters are also affecting water supplies across the United States.  The snowpacks are lighter and they come off earlier in spring, so waterflows peak earlier. In Southeast Alaska, we predict that snowlines will move upslope and glaciers will retreat.  That is going to redistribute runoff, with big impacts on stream channels and habitat structure.  Streams could become much less habitable for fish and other aquatic organisms.

We use the term “climate change” advisedly because the effects are uneven.  We saw variability this last winter across the Lower 48, 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.  I’ve just left Missoula, Montana, where the three rivers that flow into or through Missoula are at flood stages more typical of early May than late June.  Winters still get bitter cold in some places, but in many places it hasn’t been the bitter cold we need to knock back pine beetles.  Not in Montana, not in Colorado, not in Vermont, and not in Alaska.

So in a process of long-term ecological change, it goes in fits and starts.  The effects are uneven.  Here in Alaska and across the Arctic, the effects are stronger than in most places. But as the climate changes, ecosystems are essentially rearranging themselves: they are disassembling, and the species that survive will reassemble into new configurations—new ecosystems.  In Southeast Alaska, for example, something triggered a massive die-off of Alaska yellow-cedar, one of the state’s most valuable species.  The problem began with changing snow patterns about a hundred years ago and then accelerated as the climate warmed.  The cedar problem illustrates how difficult it will be to predict the effects of climate change—in this paradoxical case, we believe that the Alaska yellow-cedars are dying from a freezing injury to roots caused by warmer weather, reduced snow, and brief cold snaps.  The vast boreal forests in the Alaska interior are also vulnerable to ecological change triggered by a changing climate.

We see changes in the Lower 48, where over 21 million acres of forests across the West are under siege by bark beetle, with millions of acres already dead.  These changes are threatening the capacity of forests to provide the ecosystem services that people have come to expect and take for granted, including clean air and water, habitat for fish and wildlife, and opportunities for hunting, fishing, skiing, and other kinds of outdoor recreation.  Pine beetle in the southern states, hemlock woolly adelgid in the eastern states … it just goes on and on.

Forest Service scientists are collaborating with other scientists to find the most appropriate response. The good news is, we can respond.  Even in an era of climate change, despite all the associated challenges, forestry can make a significant difference.  The Forest Service is 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.  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, by taking into account the carbon stored in wood products, and by managing forest fire emissions.

The forest products industry is well aware of the opportunities for using forestry to optimize carbon storage.  Still, many nonindustrial private landowners are unaware of these opportunities.  Given that private forest landholdings make up 57 percent of America’s forestland, it’s critical that all landowners learn about the opportunities.  Carbon markets are emerging in many parts of the country, and there is potential for all private forest landowners to add to their income streams—but only if the markets are designed to reward them for forestry projects that sequester carbon.

Another element of our strategy is adaptation.  When examining an overgrown, diseased, or damaged forest stand for treatment, we work to restore it to a healthier, more resilient condition.  In many cases, the result is to make the ecosystem more resilient to deal with the stresses associated with a warmer, drier climate.  Each year, the Forest Service conducts restoration treatments on millions of acres.  In the last eight years, federal land managers have treated over 25 million federal acres, an area the size of Ohio, to reduce hazardous fuel loadings.  Together with acres treated with silvicultural prescriptions and the millions of acres of private and state lands treated, we are making a difference.  You are making a difference through the work you do, and I thank you for it.  All of America should thank you. 
Adaptation has other dimensions as well.  We 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.  For the Alaska yellow-cedar example in Southeast Alaska, scientists are using snow predictions to look for places where habitat will be favorable in the future. Yellow-cedar will have to be actively managed there to help conserve this valuable species.  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.  We want to work with partners—some of whom might be your clients—to plan forest management on a landscape scale over long periods of time, and we welcome your help.

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.  Biomass utilization is a principal focus area for our Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin.  The Lab has already found cost-effective ways of using biomass to heat homes, schools, and other buildings.  Now the Lab is conducting large-scale research into cost-effective ways of producing liquid fuels from woody biomass.

These three elements—mitigation, adaptation, and biomass utilization—can be mutually reinforcing, and I’ll give you an example.  On the Mendocino National Forest in California we are working to validate the concept of carbon offsets from forestry.  We removed excess woody materials from an area of forest and sent them to a bioenergy plant.  We are measuring three potential kinds of carbon offsets: one, from avoided wildfire emissions; two, from net gains in carbon sequestration; and three, from avoided burning of fossil fuels.  Based on the results, a private forest landowner might eventually be able to do three things through a forestry project: one, sequester carbon and get paid for it—that’s mitigation; two, restore a forest to a healthier condition, thereby making it more resilient to the impacts of climate change—that’s adaptation; and three, offset fossil fuels through biomass utilization.  It is not only our opportunity as foresters, but also our duty as foresters to help people manage their forests for the benefit of all living creatures. And it gets better.

The Water Outlook
You cannot talk about climate change without making the link to water—to declining snowpacks, retreating glaciers, and changing patterns of precipitation and runoff.  Seventy percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, yet about 1.1 billion people worldwide lack sufficient clean water, according to the United Nations, and some 2.4 billion people lack sufficient sanitation.  Especially as the climate changes, 40 percent of the world could be living in water-scarce regions by 2025.

Even in the United States, we see some worrisome trends.  In interior Alaska, the permafrost beneath some wet boreal forest types is melting, allowing water to drain and creating droughty conditions on what used to be boggy sites. Large parts of the West are in long-term drought.  For example, the water level in Lake Mead in Arizona and Nevada is down by almost 50 percent, and a study in February found a 50-percent chance that the lake 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, its 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.”

Besides, our population is growing, and as it does water shortages will simply be a result of water demands surpassing the availability of our freshwater resources.  In the course of this century, our population in the United States is projected to rise from just over 300 million today to about 570 million by 2100.  Those additional hundreds of millions of thirsty and hungry people are going to place a lot more demand on our water supplies.

Again, forestry can be part of the solution, because the cleanest renewable water flows from healthy, forested watersheds.  Gifford Pinchot, the first Forest Service Chief and founder of the Society of American Foresters, put it this way: “The connection between forests and rivers is like that between father and son. No forest, no rivers.”

Almost two-thirds of our freshwater originates on forested lands, public and private, and the national forests are a big part of that.  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 15 experimental watersheds, some with data collection starting as far back as 1909, and one of which is in Alaska: the Caribou-Poker Creeks Research Watershed near Fairbanks. These research watersheds help us better understand the hydrological and ecological processes that drive watersheds and the surrounding landscapes.

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.  In the past two years, we have worked with partners to improve soil and water resources on more than 40,000 acres, and we have restored habitats on over 3,300 miles of stream and 34,000 acres of lake.  Through such efforts, we have restored the capacity of many meadows and forest stands 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 isn’t going it alone. We need to work more with partners to improve the capacity of all forests, both public and private, to better manage waterflows. With more than half of America’s forestland in private ownership, we welcome the opportunity to work with private landowners to look across boundaries to protect water resources. Some of them might be your clients.

The Next Generation
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.  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 wooded lots or fields.  I worry that kids are growing up in another reality, 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.
  • Even in a place like Alaska, the Great Land, reportedly only about 20 percent of the youth in Anchorage have ever ventured beyond Potter’s marsh, just south of the municipal area—you’ll see it on the train trip.

Too many children are not getting outside and are 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 wildlands, wherever they live, whoever manages them.  Without that understanding, 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.  Who amongst us has not thrown a stick in a stream and imagined its journey to the ocean.  Or observed tree buds opening in spring.  Who knew Douglas-firs had flowers?  Maybe you have taken kids into the woods and remembered through them, through their reactions and questions, your own wonder at the experience.  It can be eye opening and deeply affect future lifestyles and life choices.

In particular, those of us who work in and with the outdoors, who know something about the outdoors—we have a special obligation to share that knowledge with kids.  It doesn’t matter who we work for.  If we work with forests, we have the ability … and the responsibility … to get more kids outdoors.  They will be making decisions for all of us in not too many years, and our society needs them to be aware of the choices they’ll make.

The Forest Service accepts that responsibility. We have long had programs for getting kids in touch with nature, and our newest grant program is called More Kids in the Woods. We work with partners on dozens of projects around the country to give kids opportunities to get outdoors, up close and personal with nature.  For example, we have a project on the Chugach National Forest headquartered here in Anchorage to bring 20 kids from Anchorage into the forest for a week of outdoor learning and fun.  We know that such experiences can lead to a lifelong appreciation for the outdoors.  Another project is at Mount St. Helens in Washington State. Each year, about 8,000 schoolchildren come there for its educational programs.  It’s a great way to engage with the outdoors through the spectacular story and scenery of Mount St. Helens, but many families cannot afford such programs.  This project will bring in 800 schoolkids who otherwise might never see a forest close up.  Our programs reach thousands of kids each year, and, multiplied many times, we can help prepare the next generation to become good stewards of the land.

Forests: A Precarious Future
There is an old New England proverb: “The forest is the poor man’s overcoat.”  From our earliest times, our country has depended on forests for so much—for food and water, for shelter and clothing, for energy, for medicine, and so much more.  My career has given me a heightened sense of how remarkable our forests are, but also how precarious their future is unless we act soon, and act decisively.  Climate change is perhaps the greatest challenge we will face in this century, partly because it will affect our water supply, our most precious natural resource.  We must be prepared—and prepare our children—to meet the challenge.

The good news is that we can.  Forests play a key role in meeting the challenge of climate change, in providing renewable energy supplies, and in sustaining abundant flows of fresh, clean water.  It is time to explore the role that forests can play in carbon management in particular—to prevent their neglect in climate and carbon strategies.  I am asking for your support and, more importantly, for your participation in this great undertaking.


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.