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An Exemplary Conservation Partnership

Tom Tidwell, Chief
37th National Wild Turkey Federation Conference
Nashville, TN — February 16, 2013

Thanks for that introduction.  It’s a real pleasure to be here!

These are tough economic times, yet the challenges facing America’s forests and wildlife are as great as they’ve ever been. To meet the challenges, we need to do things differently, to think outside the box, to figure out where our goals might come together so we can leverage our mutual resources.

A great example of where we are already doing that is our partnership with you—the National Wild Turkey Federation.    

Practicing a Land Ethic

This is the 40th anniversary of the National Wild Turkey Federation.  And we are approaching the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964.  The Wilderness Act is well known; less well known is the fact that the world’s first wilderness area was established 40 years earlier, in 1924, on the Gila National Forest in New Mexico.

That was largely due to the efforts of the great conservationist Aldo Leopold. Leopold started his career with the Forest Service in the Southwest, and he served in a variety of Forest Service positions for almost 20 years.  Then he went on to become the father of wildlife management in America, devoting the remainder of his career mainly to protecting and restoring habitat for wildlife.

In the course of his career, Leopold accumulated a great deal of experience in both public land management and in working with farmers, NGOs, and others in fostering conservation on private lands.  He came to see the role of government in conservation as important—but secondary.

He once joked that “Relegating conservation to government is like relegating virtue to the Sabbath.  Turns over to professionals what should be daily work of amateurs.”  The key to conservation, according to Leopold, was not government.  It was for private landowners to embrace an ethical obligation to conserve the land.

In the spirit of Aldo Leopold, the future of conservation belongs to you. Conservation is about you in the private sector who recognize an obligation to conserve the land … who are willing to step up and do what you can to protect a variety of habitats and wildlife.  Our role in government is to work with you … to help grease the wheels … to facilitate partnerships and collaboration.

Benefits from Forests and Grasslands

Practicing Leopold’s land ethic begins with a basic premise:  that healthy, resilient forest and grassland ecosystems are vitally important to our nation—to all Americans, young and old.

Healthy ecosystems deliver a whole range of ecosystem services.  They purify the air we breathe.  They store carbon and regulate climate.  They form soils and control runoff and erosion.  They protect biodiversity, providing habitat for a wide variety of native fish, plants, and wildlife.  They furnish rich opportunities for collecting wild foods … for hunting and fishing … for outdoor recreation of all kinds … for getting training and jobs for underemployed youth … for getting kids outdoors to connect with nature.

Challenges to Forest Health

But America’s ecosystems are too often in poor or declining health.

In 2011, we had record precipitation across our northern tier of states.  As a result, we saw heavy flooding, especially in the spring.  While our northern tier of states was exceptionally wet, our southern tier of states has been just the opposite—exceptionally dry.  Many areas are still in prolonged drought.

In fact, the situation in Texas has been so dire that habitat for migrating monarch butterflies has been severely degraded.  Generations of monarchs migrate each spring from hibernation trees in Mexico northward toward Canada, returning in the fall.  But the severity of the prolonged drought raises concerns about the very ability of the monarch to survive.

The result has also been extreme fire weather, with forests and rangelands extremely dry and flammable, and we have gotten a series of very severe fires. This is part of a pattern.  Since 2000, we have had fires with record sizes in at least 10 states, and fire season severity has been growing.  Last year, more 9 million acres burned.  Experts think that fire seasons in the future could return to levels not seen since the 1940s, reaching 12 to 15 million acres.

Another challenge comes from invasive species.  An exotic disease, the chestnut blight, has already wiped out a major forest type here in East, the oak/chestnut system.  Other trees at risk include eastern hemlock, ash, walnut, and dogwood, just to name a few.  Bats are vital to controlling insects and keeping habitats in balance, but they are now threatened by a fungus that produces whitenose syndrome, killing millions of bats.

In some places, native forest pests like bark beetles are beginning to act like invasive species, behaving in new ways, with disastrous consequences.  You might know of the mountain pine beetle epidemic in the West, the worst on record.  Entire landscapes of pine are dead or dying.  Experts have estimated that the outbreak has affected more than 41 million acres in all ownerships. That’s an area the size of Wisconsin.

Urban sprawl and heedless development are also threatening private forests with land use conversion and habitat fragmentation.  From 2000 to 2030, substantial increases in housing density are predicted on about 57 million acres of forest land nationwide.  That’s an area about the size of Georgia and South Carolina combined.

In fact, urbanization and fragmentation/parcelization are some of the most serious threats to wildlife habitat here in the East.  Forest Service studies have shown that much of the East, from New England down to Florida, across the South, and up again to the Lake States, is at moderate to high risk of increased housing density. Thirteen of the top 15 watersheds with increasing housing density are along the eastern seaboard, from Maine to Florida.

Budget Constraints

In my view, the conservation challenges today are as great as any our nation has ever faced.  A century ago, at the time of President Theodore Roosevelt and the first great conservation movement in America, Congress responded by creating new authorities for government action to protect America’s vanishing outdoor heritage.  For example, we recently celebrated the centennial of the Weeks Act of 1911.  The Weeks Act led to the creation of 52 national forests in the 26 eastern and southern states.  Without this legislation, many of the beautiful national forests we enjoy in the East today would not exist—nor would all the benefits people get from them, including habitat for a rich variety of native wildlife.

But times are hard, and we have limited budgets for addressing wildlife habitat loss.  As you know, the states are receiving fewer flow-through dollars—and there are fewer trickle-down resources for private organizations as well.  As America struggles to reduce our deficit, further cuts are likely for federal agencies across the board.

With our increasingly limited funding, we need to work together and get smarter about the investments we make, more focused and collaborative, leveraging new funds with multiple partners.  And that is just what we do with the National Wild Turkey Federation.

Making Tracks Awards

Our relationship with the National Wild Turkey Federation goes all the way back to its founding in 1973—one of the longest working relationships we have with a wildlife conservation organization.  Together we have done much to improve the habitat for wild turkeys and other wildlife species.

Our relationship was formalized in 1986 with a Memorandum of Understanding.  The MOU provides for projects and programs that maintain and enhance the productivity of wild turkey habitat on Forest Service and private lands—such as the projects and programs being honored here today.

In many ways, our goals and yours overlap, which makes for a great partnership.

Our Making Tracks program is one such example.  Its goal is to create an abundant population of wild turkeys on National Forest System lands.  Since the first project back in 1986, we have worked together to complete more than 700 habitat improvement projects.

Together we have restocked turkeys, restored turkey habitat, improved forest and watershed health, led hunting and outdoor education programs for youth and women, and supported disabled hunters.  Your regional biologists have provided us with countless hours of technical advice and helped us attract new conservation partners.  And you have provided matching dollars and in-kind services for many of our projects and programs.

Today’s awards celebrate outstanding individual and group achievement in the conservation of wild turkeys.  The Habitat Management Program and Project awards recognize those that best incorporate wild turkey management into ecosystem management.  The Partnership Achievement award commends those that have strengthened our partnership.  And the Conservation Education award spotlights the best in educational programs for wild turkey conservation.

With more than 28 million acres of wild turkey habitat in 35 states, the national forests and grasslands support an abundant wild turkey population that all can enjoy.  Our employees being recognized here today continue a long and honored tradition of partnerships, highlighting the importance we place on wildlife management and conservation education.

Thank you.

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