Building on a Record of Conservation Leadership
Thank you for that generous introduction.
First, I want to wish The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests a happy 100th birthday. The plan to “save the White Hills” developed by eight visionaries led by former Governor Frank Rollins that began on February 6, 1901, ultimately resulted in the White Mountain National Forest and a lot more.
It’s fair to say, I think, that no single state has played a greater role in the protection and conservation of our national forests than the state of New Hampshire.
A century ago, when the White Mountains were being overcut, leaving eroded hillsides and silted streams, this group of citizens from your state fought long and hard to stop the devastation. Along the way, they organized The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. One of the results of their work was the Weeks Law of 1911. This ground-breaking legislation not only protected the White Mountains, but also led to the creation of 49 national forests in the eastern United States, where previously there were none.
The Weeks Law gave the federal government the right to buy land to protect the headwaters of navigable streams and ensure a sustainable supply of timber. Almost a century later, the Forest Service is still acquiring land under the authority of this legislation.
The importance of the Weeks Law cannot be overstated. It gave the American public the ability to create public lands from lands that were previously in private ownership. Without the Weeks Law, open space with public access would be significantly less than it is today in the eastern United States.
Getting the Law passed was not an easy task. It was very hard to convince Congress that the Government should buy land for the purpose of scenery. In fact Joseph Cannon, then Speaker of the House, railed against the proposal by saying, “Not one red cent for scenery!” As we look around us now we can be thankful that the Forest Society found a way to ultimately convince Congress otherwise.
The significance of the Weeks Law was recognized by former New Hampshire Governor Sherman Adams at the 75th-anniversary commemoration of the Law in 1986, when he said, “It [the Weeks Law] signified, in a maturing nation, a public recognition that all forest land, even that in private ownership, contributed to the public good and was worthy of the application thereto of newly defined principles of conservation.”
The Weeks Law and saving the White Mountains were only the beginning for the Forest Society. As a recent article in the Manchester Union Leader put it, “Like a century-old maple tree, the organization has branched out and achieved success far beyond the White Mountains.” I couldn’t agree more. In addition to the 49 national forests created in the East as a result of the Weeks Law, the Society has a long list of accomplishments at the state and local levels in New Hampshire. The fact that New Hampshire has a higher percentage of conservation land—22 percent—than any other state in the Northeast is due in no small part to activities of the Society.
What strikes me today about the history of conservation leadership and the passage of the Weeks Law is not only the vision behind the effort, but also the coming together of diverse interests to work successfully toward a common goal. Ultimately, grassroots organizers, logging and milling companies, reporters and editors, private clubs, and legislators found common ground and focused on what united them, instead of what divided them. We talk today about collaborative stewardship as a new concept. Well, it obviously isn’t new. The model was developed right here by the Forest Society. It has been around for a hundred years.
Since the creation of the White Mountain National Forest, the Forest Society and the Forest Service have had a long and beneficial partnership and working relationship. In more recent years, the Society continued its leadership role with the forest by actively participating in forest planning processes and forging the New Hampshire Wilderness Act in 1984.
Nationally, the Forest Service manages some 192 million acres. Many of the issues and challenges found on the White Mountain Forest are found throughout the country. I want to take a few minutes to talk about a few that are very important to the Forest Service at this time.
Sustainability is one important issue. What we have to offer has roots in the past. A hundred years ago, the Forest Service introduced the concept of sustainable forestry to America. By the middle of the 20th century, there were fears of a timber famine in America. When I first started my career, the management objectives of the Forest Service included harvesting old-growth forests. It wasn’t because we were in bed with the timber industry, as some have said, but rather to get the land reforested with vigorous, faster growing, healthy stands of timber to provide wood fiber for future generations.
Today, those fears are ancient history. In fact, the Forest Service predicts that by the year 2050, growing stock inventory on U.S. timberland will nearly double from levels in 1960. Today, sustainability means more than just sustainable forestry. It means sustaining ecosystem health as well as producing multiple products and uses. As a result, many of our management activities now center on long-term forest health and restoration. It’s more of a focus on what we leave on the land versus what is taken off the land.
Sustainability has also acquired a strong international dimension. We have agreed to use the Montreal Process Criteria and Indicators as a common framework for thinking and talking about sustainable forest management, both in this country and internationally.
In order to sustain healthy ecosystems, we need active management. The Government Accounting Office recently estimated that there are hazardous fuels on 211 million acres of federal land. On the national forests and grasslands alone, about 73 million acres are at risk from catastrophic fires that could compromise human safety and ecosystem integrity. About 33 million acres are also at risk from insect and disease infestation.
Our forest health problems are intertwined. I was recently in the Lake Tahoe Basin, where tree mortality has reached about 40 percent. Decades of fire exclusion have produced dense forest growth in a drought-prone region. When drought comes, competition for scarce water weakens trees, making them susceptible to insect attack. Many acres are then highly susceptible to catastrophic fire.
We have made a start; in 1999, the Forest Service treated about 1.4 million acres of national forest land through prescribed burning and thinning. However, that is a small start. At that rate, it would take 53 years to treat all of the 73 million acres now considered most at risk. Meanwhile, additional fuel buildups would place many more lands at risk, and we would be falling farther and farther behind while the fire danger gets bigger and bigger.
I am encouraged, though, because—after the disastrous fire season in 2000—the Administration and Congress stepped in and funded a national plan that provided $1.9 billion for additional fire suppression resources, burned area restoration, and fuel treatment projects. We also recently signed a 10-year joint strategy with the western states to reduce fuels in critical parts of the West.
The challenge that now faces both the Forest Service and the agencies in the Department of the Interior is to accomplish what we said we would do in the plan. This is the only way funding levels will be sustained.
Even with sufficient funding, we still face enormous institutional barriers to accomplishing National Fire Plan projects and other work on the ground. So much time is taken up by the procedural process of complying with laws and regulations that sometimes the work on the ground does not get done. This problem is sometimes called “analysis paralysis.”
For example, analysis through the National Environmental Policy Act, from initiation through the administrative appeals process, often takes over a year for what might be a very small project. If the project is litigated, add another 2 years. If it takes that long and the project was to remove fire-damaged trees for fuel reduction and other purposes, the project might not get done at all unless appropriated funds are used, because the trees have deteriorated and lost commercial value.
Out in Montana, where I was regional forester before becoming Chief, we had huge fires last year in the Bitterroot Valley. One of the fires burned a large portion of the Sula State Forest, which is adjacent to the Bitterroot National Forest. The state finished salvaging 22 million board feet of fire-killed and -damaged timber this summer. They will harvest the remaining 4 to 6 million board feet and probably have the area reforested and complete other rehabilitation work next year. By comparison, the Bitterroot National Forest’s Final Environmental Impact Statement to cover postfire treatment and rehabilitation still isn’t scheduled for release until about now and undoubtedly will be appealed and probably litigated. That leaves needed work on the ground undone, creating further environmental degradation. There is something wrong with this picture.
Another example is that it might take 5 to 10 years to complete a forest plan that is supposed to be revised every 15 years. Meanwhile, the landscape might have changed or new information might have emerged. Suddenly, the assumptions we made early on are no longer valid, and we are back at the beginning, starting all over.
Part of the problem is that the laws sometime overlap. As federal Judge Karlton said in deciding a case “Indeed, the crazy quilt of apparently mutually incompatible statutory directives are enough to drive any Secretary of Agriculture interested in discharging his lawful duties to drink.” I would add the Chief of the Forest Service to that as well.
We have a team looking at this issue and may be proposing some new approaches that would give the Forest Service some authorities to try performance-based planning and project implementation. I want to cut through the red tape in planning a project and focus on the monitoring to see if we did what we said we were going to do and if the project had the environmental effects that were predicted.
Of course, to do anything the public has to be with us. I want to return to something I mentioned earlier, related to The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests and the Weeks Law. What the founding members of your society did was achieved through a true collaborative process. That is what we need now for managing America’s public lands and natural resources instead of the current management by court decision. To have true collaboration, though, we need to focus more on what unites us and brings us together rather than what divides us and drives us apart.
I honestly don’t think this is as hard to achieve as some might think. Five years ago, at the Seventh American Forest Conference, a cross-section of more than a thousand people interested in America’s forests came together. They were able to agree, often by large majorities, on 12 out of 13 visions for the future for those forests. If we can get people out of their trenches on the extremes, I think we have hope for working together in the future based on common visions.
In closing, I want to reaffirm the Forest Service’s commitment to continue the strong partnership we enjoy with the Forest Society.