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Changing the Debate on Managing National Forests and Grasslands

Dale Bosworth, Chief
Society of Environmental Journalists, Annual Conference
New Orleans, LA
September 12, 2003 at 12:00pm

The following is the basis for Chief Bosworth's remarks during the "Breakfast Roundtable" at the 2003 annual convention of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Thank you for that generous introduction. I'm honored to be here. I've talked to a lot to reporters throughout my career with the Forest Service, most of the time in a one-on-one situation. It's exciting to talk to so many of you at once, but also a bit daunting. In my experience, the reporters who specialize in environmental stories, or other scientific topics, are often the sharpest and the toughest reporters who cover us.

Environmental issues are complex scientifically, complex politically, and complex emotionally. Those of you who've been on this beat a long time know it takes careful research to do a good story. You must be willing to do a lot of work to get the story right; that's why you're here at this conference, listening to people like me.

Getting the Story Right

I also know that I personally and the Forest Service collectively need to do a better job in communicating agency policy, programs, laws, regulations, the complexities of dynamic ecosystems, and the reasons for active management on some national forest lands. This was really brought home to me earlier this year when I was interviewed by a reporter and we talked about several topics, including the 2002 fire season. Four states had their largest fires in history that year, and California came close with the McNally Fire.

The McNally Fire is the one that threatened giant sequoia groves on the Sequoia National Forest. Some of the sequoia groves are at extreme risk because of an understory of white fir trees that has grown over the years. While giant sequoias, with their thick bark and a canopy that is far above the ground, are very adept at withstanding low-intensity ground fires, the fir trees could provide a "ladder" for fire to climb into the sequoia canopy and kill the big trees—maybe even take out the entire grove.

After explaining the problem, I told the reporter that some of the white fir might have to be removed to protect the sequoia groves against future fires. I said that if mechanically removing some fir trees 14 inches in diameter would protect the sequoia groves, then that made sense to me. Even though we talked about a wide variety of subjects, the next day the headline read, "Forest Service Chief Favors Logging Bill," referring to the healthy forests legislation that had recently been introduced in Congress. The story also quoted me as saying that if we needed to cut down a giant sequoia 14 feet in diameter for fire protection, it would be okay.

What really bothered me wasn't so much the 14-inch white fir trees turning into 14-foot giant sequoias, because I know mistakes happen and in this case we called and there was a retraction and correction. No, what really bothered me was that someone would think that we would want to cut down a 14-foot giant sequoia for any reason at all! That isn't what the Forest Service is about. Forest Service professionals care passionately about the land and the resources on the land, and it bothers me deeply that we haven't adequately made that abundantly clear to one and all.

Changing Land Management

The Forest Service will be 100 years old in 2005. We are an agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We are sometimes confused with the National Park Service, which is an agency in the U.S. Department of the Interior, but the two agencies have different histories and different missions. What I want to talk about today is how management of our national forests has changed over the last century. Americans have always looked to the national forests for many uses—for water, wildlife, timber, forage, and recreation, to name a few. Much of the public focus and debate about the Forest Service in recent years has been on issues associated with timber and road building. This hasn't always been the case, and I don't believe it should be any longer. I'll say more about that later.

The Organic Act authorizing the forest reserves was passed in 1897 "to improve and protect the forest within the boundaries, or for the purpose of securing favorable conditions of water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber" for a growing nation. Yet for decades after the forest reserves were set aside, timber wasn't the primary use. That changed to some degree after World War II when our country's demand for wood surged. One of the biggest reasons cited is that our national leaders wanted to make the American dream of affordable housing a reality—for the GIs coming home from the war and for everyone else too. So Congress began to set timber harvest levels in each annual appropriations bill.

When I started my career there were actual fears that there would be a "timber famine" in the country. There was a lot of pressure on the Forest Service to liquidate older, slower growing timber stands and to replace them with younger fast-growing stocks. Even so, the Forest Service was always concerned about keeping timber harvest sustainable, so we limited harvest levels based on forest conditions. We had some big battles with the timber industry over that. It still stuns me when I read that the Forest Service was in bed with the timber industry all those years. Believe me, if you'd sat in on some of our meetings, you'd know we were not in bed together. We had major disagreements over a variety of issues.

Originally, we had a huge area we could harvest from—what we called the timber base—and we set harvest levels accordingly. As time went on, more Americans began to look to the national forests for more than just timber. The postwar prosperity that increased demand for timber also spurred demand for better access to public land for outdoor recreation. People wanted more land managed for recreation, wildlife, and wilderness. The Forest Service had public pressure coming from both sides—for more timber and for more land protected from timber harvest. Something had to give; ultimately, it was timber.

Today, timber harvest on national forest land is only about 13 percent of what it was in the mid-1980s. That works out to be about 1 cubic foot per acre per year for the entire National Forest System. Not very much, when you stop to think about it. And for every mile of road we build, we decommission 14 miles of road. In the last 5 years, we've decommissioned 10,000 miles of road.

Today, we know and judge our performance based on what the land looks like after treatments rather than by what is taken off the land. Most of the tree removal today is to thin overcrowded stands to reduce wildfire risk and restore healthy forest conditions.

Environmental Sustainability

But public demand for wood is still growing. Americans love beautiful, unspoiled landscapes; they also love beautiful homes made with lots of wood. Today, much of our timber need is met by state and private suppliers, but we import more wood every year. A recent article in the Sacramento Bee, written by Tom Knudson, did a great job of describing this quandary. Here's what he wrote:

The logging never really stopped; it just moved to Canada. In throttling the harvest of wood from its own backyard, while continuing to devour forest products, California is not merely turning to America's largest trading partner, Canada, to fill the gap. It is buying wood from a nation where up to 90 percent is harvested through clear-cutting … and where two-thirds of the cutting occurs in old-growth stands.

The message of the article is this: When it comes to timber harvest, out of sight has been out of mind for a lot of us in the United States—and not just in California. That trend poses an environmental and ethical dilemma for our nation. We'd better take a hard look at the choices we are making, including our consumption choices. It doesn't seem right to me that we pose as environmental leaders to the rest of the world, and then expect other countries—often countries with less environmental protections in place—to meet our need for wood products and many other products, as well.

Prosperity has to be environmentally sustainable. I was heartened to hear British Prime Minister Tony Blair state that in his recent address to Congress. He said that "climate change, deforestation, and the voracious drain on natural resources cannot be ignored. Unchecked, these forces will hinder the economic development of the most vulnerable nations first and ultimately all nations."

Environmental sustainability is an issue that in my opinion is underreported. So many articles are still being written about the debates of 20 years ago. In spite of all that's changed, it's still being characterized as industry versus environmentalists. Former Chief Jack Ward Thomas has a great quote about the inability of people on either side of the old "forest wars" to come to grips with the future. He said this:

Fierce in battle, many of the eco-warriors have been unable to come to grips with the consequences of victory and are now reduced to wandering about the old battlefields bayoneting the wounded. Their counterparts from the resource extraction community, likewise, cannot come to terms with defeat and hold "ghost dances" to bring back the good old days when they were undisputed Kings of the West.

Four Major Threats

The continuation of the old debate is a major distraction from the real issues facing the nation's forests, including the national forests today. They distract from what I feel are the four real threats to environmental sustainability. The threats I'm talking about are: (1) fuel buildups in so many of our forests; (2) loss of open space; (3) unwanted invasive species; and (4) unmanaged outdoor recreation, especially unmanaged off-highway vehicle use.

Many of our fire-adapted forests have become overgrown and unhealthy. For example, historically ponderosa pine forests were extremely open, with a few dozen trees per acre. Today, we might have hundreds or even thousands of small trees crowded into the same area. All those trees have to compete for a limited amount of water and nutrients. Instead of an open stand of big, healthy trees like the ones the first European settlers saw, we see thickets of small-diameter trees that are more susceptible to drought, disease, and insects.

All this weakened excess vegetation can fuel big, dangerous wildfires. These fires don't just threaten lives and property; they transform the landscape into something that looks like the dark side of the moon. The trees are dead, the watersheds that feed our municipal water systems are degraded, the soil is cooked of its nutrients, and the wildlife is killed or left homeless. Contrast this picture with a forest that isn't overcrowded or diseased or bug-infested. Wildfire burns through these forests with less speed and less heat. It generally stays on the ground where it clears away excess fuel and revitalizes the soil. Most healthy trees survive this kind of low-intensity fire, and the ecosystem remains intact.

We've simply got too much fuel in too many of our forest stands. The problem took decades to develop, and it won't get fixed overnight. Old fire suppression policies contributed to the problem, particularly in forest types—like ponderosa pine—that historically had frequent fires. Early settlement and livestock grazing broke up the natural fuel, which also suppressed fire. European settlement also halted the common practice of American Indians to frequently burn the woods and prairies for a variety of objectives.

Think of this widespread fuel buildup as an environmental debt, like a toxic dump. While great strides have been made through National Fire Plan funding and programs in reducing hazardous fuels, much remains to be done. It will take decades of action to clean up.

Some people advocate just letting fires burn unless they are near communities and only doing fuel treatments around homes and communities. The problem is that in a lot of areas with big fuel buildups, fires are so big and hot that they can put the very existence of key components of the ecosystem in question.

Recently, a lot has been written about the Healthy Forests Initiative. In a nutshell, the actions developed under the initiative are an attempt to give the Forest Service and agencies in the Department of the Interior tools to carry out the National Fire Plan in a more timely and cost-effective manner. Yet there have been many news stories and opinion pieces that have said it is about cutting old growth or clear cutting or building roads in roadless areas. In truth, the Healthy Forests Initiative has nothing to do with any of these things.

Another threat to our nation's forests and grasslands comes from the country's shift toward urbanization. Every day, we lose about 4,000 acres of open space to development—about 3 acres per minute. We are losing open privately owned grasslands and large tracts forests that animals like marten, bear, and cougar need to survive.

One way the Forest Service is helping is through our Forest Legacy Program. We help states acquire easements from willing landowners to help them keep their lands forested in perpetuity. We also have a program in New Mexico along the lines of the "grassbank" you might have heard of. We set aside a forage reserve that our grazing permittees can use to give their grazing allotments a rest. It's a great program, and we'd like to see more of that kind of thing. Through programs like Forest Legacy and the forage reserve, we can work together across the landscape to keep the land whole.

There are those who advocate the end of grazing on public land. The consequence of such an action would be unacceptable, in my opinion. Without the access to seasonal grazing on national forest or other federal lands, the viability of many ranching operations in the West would be seriously in doubt. An end result would be the selling off of many of the privately owned base ranch properties adjacent to public lands. What typically happens next is the land is subdivided into ranchettes and valuable open space and wildlife habitat is lost. I have yet to see even the best designed subdivision provide better wildlife habitat than even a poorly managed ranch.

Invasive species are also a great threat to the nation's biodiversity. Invasive species include insects and pathogens, and they are spreading at alarming rates, adversely affecting people and ecosystems. Invasive species can be introduced on purpose, like kudzu was in the 1930s for erosion control, or by accident, like the Asian longhorned beetle, which entered the country in the 1990s on some packing crates from China. With the globalization of commerce and foreign travel to and from the United States, the number of new invasive species from abroad is growing.

Invasive species are not always introduced from foreign countries. By definition, invasives are organisms that have moved from their natural habitat to a new environment. They pose an enormous drain on U.S. resources, creating total economic damages of around $137 billion per year. Invasive plants now cover about 133 million acres in all ownerships nationwide and are advancing at the rate of 1.7 million acres per year. They outcompete native species and result in loss of wildlife habitat and biodiversity. Invasives can threaten the very survival of some native species; they are the single greatest cause of biodiversity loss in the United States.

Currently, invasive plants infest about 3.5 million acres of national forest land. Leafy spurge, knapweed, star thistles, saltcedar, and cheatgrass are some of the biggest problems on national forests. Livestock carrying capacity and wildlife habitat are seriously affected by invasive weeds. We've got some tools to combat this menace, such as weed-free hay certification for pack stock, direct treatment of infested areas, and working in partnerships with local weed control boards. Nationally or even globally, we need to find means and mechanisms to prevent the spread of invasives, and we need an aggressive program to treat areas already infested.

A fourth great threat is unmanaged outdoor recreation. Let me give you an example: unmanaged use of off-highway vehicles. OHVs are growing in popularity and they are a legitimate use of national forest land. Tens of millions of OHVs are now in use—far more than just 10 years ago. Most users are responsible, but just a tiny percentage of problem users can leave hundreds of miles of wildcat roads and trails that damage meadows, streambeds, and other sensitive areas. It doesn't take much to leave a scar on the land, and it can take years to undo the damage. We've got to manage this use of our public lands to protect our national resources.

Need for a National Debate

Each one of these four threats is a growing problem, and time is not on our side. The first step in dealing with any of these threats is an open, productive debate about the problem. At the Forest Service, we've got to accept an honest critique of what we may be doing wrong; but just as important, we've got to stop debating the past and start looking at the future.

As journalists, you are in a key position to get the new debate going. As environmental journalists, you are the most qualified writers to cover the story. Right now the story isn't told often enough or well enough.

I've worked in the Forest Service my whole life, like my father before me, like my son who is following in my footsteps. Since I started my career, I've seen a big shift in public attitudes, and those attitudes are reflected in public policy and the way we manage our natural resources. The Forest Service, myself included—maybe especially me—has learned a lot over the years. Perhaps the most important thing we've learned is just how complex and interdependent ecosystems are. They're a lot like immune systems. The more we study them, the more we realize how complicated they are.

Remember in the 1950s when doctors yanked out tonsils right and left? The thinking today is real different. Most kids keep their tonsils. Forestry science has made a similar journey. As I said earlier, today we know that what we leave on the land is more important than what we take away. Today our focus is on forest and rangeland restoration and stewardship. Where we do cut timber, it is usually a byproduct of a forest health project—like cutting 14-inch white fir to protect giant sequoia from fire.

That's the story I came here to tell. I'd really like your help in getting the word out. Help us focus attention on the real threats to our nation's forests and grasslands. Help us elevate the dialogue into meaningful debate. The story I've told you probably isn't the easiest one to write, or the flashiest topic you'll hear at this convention—but it is an important story, and it needs to be told by many voices. We need your help.

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1. Tom Knudson, "State of Denial," Sacramento Bee, 27 April 2003.

2. Jack Ward Thomas, Testimony in hearing before the Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health on "Conflicting Laws and Regulations-Gridlock on the National Forests." 25 October 2001. U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, DC.

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