Thank you, Fran—and thanks to all of you who have come here this week to explore how we can best work together as partners to care for our nation’s public lands and natural resources.
Those of us who work in land management agencies and related fields often feel like we’ve got some of the greatest jobs in the world. We spend our lives taking care of the great legacy of public lands that are the birthright of all Americans. In doing so, we spend a lot of time in the company of people who share our commitment to conservation and our passion for being outdoors. Most of us fall in love with the land long before we go into the business of caring for the land. I may be Chief of the Forest Service today, but not so long ago I was just a lucky kid whose dad happened to be a district ranger.
As great as our jobs are sometimes, they are not without conflict. There will always be controversy surrounding public land management, heritage preservation, and natural resource conservation. It’s frustrating sometimes, but we’ve got to remind ourselves that it’s democracy in action. People in this country care about their natural resources and they voice their concerns, sometimes pretty strongly. That’s not going to change. We will never just get it fixed and then move on to something else. As old issues fade away, new ones arise because ecosystems are dynamic living systems.
For example, the problem of wildland fire gets a lot of attention in the media, so the public hears the debate on the subject, especially during fire season. Other equally important threats to forest health—such as invasive species, loss of open space, and unmanaged recreation—rarely get the same amount of attention. That’s sometimes a problem when we ask Congress for money to deal with these threats or we ask people to change their behavior to protect fragile ecosystems. It helps when we all come together to communicate a clear message and then work together in partnership to create a better future for our public lands, our communities, and our planet.
Honest public debate also helps us work with people upfront instead of doing our own thing and engaging people later. Many of you know this as “collaboration,” but it is really about working together. In today’s world, people expect to be informed and involved in decisions that affect them. They also expect us to work effectively with each other to carry out our respective agency missions. The Healthy Forests Initiative and the stewardship contracting authority are two opportunities the Forest Service has to integrate partnership activities into our daily work. We will look for other opportunities. There are sure to be some bumps along the way; if we are respectful of each other and the public we serve, the bumps may slow us down, but they will not prevent us from reaching our long-term goals of strong communities and ecosystem health.
During this conference, you will hear many case studies about the power of the American landscape to inspire people to work together for the benefit of protected areas and other special places. This power of place helps people maintain local parks and green space in urban areas like the Los Angeles Basin. It helps us care for national icons like Yellowstone, and it helps people stay on the land in rural areas when they might be better off materially in some big city.
Regardless of whom we work for and where we come from, working in partnership comes down to taking care of the land and taking care of communities. To emphasize this point, I want to take a minute to talk about what is happening during this fire season.
In recent weeks here in southern California, when wildfires were raging out of control, we saw some of the best examples of selfless service and partnership from all of the firefighting agencies, emergency services, and their community partners. There were stories in the media of firefighters who stayed on the line and support personnel who completed their assignments, giving everything they could to protect lives and property, even though their own homes were lost and their families were displaced. Those of us familiar with firefighting see this over and over again—that American tradition of pulling together in the face of great danger or tragedy. It seems to bring out the best of us as a people. In spite of our individual or collective losses, we feel a need to serve our neighbors, take care of each other, and give something back to our communities.
I salute all the men and women who responded to the emergency here. You deserve the honor of your colleagues and the gratitude of those you have served.
There is still some fire season left in this part of the country; I’m confident we will continue to work through it together. As the fires die down, the restoration work begins. The emergency rehabilitation teams arrived before the fires were completely out to care for the land and put burned ecosystems on the road to recovery. These teams rarely get the same publicity as the firefighters, but their jobs are just as vital, and they are always looking for volunteers.
I want to close by giving you my commitment to the Partnership Pledge. I will work with all of the agency heads to improve the way we share information and coordinate programs. We must challenge ourselves to find solutions for the good of the land and provide a seamless system of service to the users of public lands. This conference is more than a chance to sign a pledge, it’s an opportunity to move toward those goals.