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Focal Areas for Partnerships With Universities

Dale Bosworth, Chief
National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges, Annual Meeting
Washington, DC — November 12, 2001

It's a pleasure for me to be here. I'd like to thank Dr. Alfred Sullivan for inviting me. For me, this is a welcome opportunity to strengthen a very fruitful partnership we've had at the Forest Service with the state universities and land grant colleges. I appreciate this opportunity for a dialogue with you.

Future Focal Areas

Dr. Sullivan asked me to address a couple of topics: Where does the Forest Service need to place resources to meet future needs? And how can the universities help? Frankly, I don't see any one-size-fits-all prescription. Forest Service folks serve state and private landowners on some 490 million acres of forest land. Those ownerships all face different challenges. We also manage 155 national forests and grasslands, every one with a different set of resources and user groups. For example, the Angeles National Forest right outside Los Angeles obviously serves different needs than, say, the Bitterroot National Forest in the Northern Rockies, which is mostly backcountry and wilderness.

Besides, there are 105 different land grant institutions. They all have different things to offer. For example, Washington State University focuses on different things than the University of the District of Columbia. But they all have something important to offer for the future of conservation in America.

With that said, there are some general challenges we all face:

  • First, we have a very severe forest health crisis, especially in the Interior West. We will need to focus national efforts on restoring our ailing ecosystems to health.
  • Second, there have been a lot of changes in our nation over the last 40 years. We need to find new and better ways of delivering services and information to the American people.

For those of you not in natural resources, I'd like to summarize these challenges. Then I'll outline some of the opportunities I see for us to work together to resolve some of these issues.


First, we have a very severe forest health crisis. Here are some of the signs:

  • Since the mid-1980s, our fire seasons have generally been getting worse. On the national forests alone, about 73 million acres are at risk from wildland fires that could compromise human safety and ecosystem health.
  • Other forest health threats are also getting worse. On all ownerships, 70 million acres are at severe risk from insects and pathogens. Invasives add to the problem—gypsy moth, Asian long-horned beetle, the list goes on and on.
  • These forest health problems are intertwined. Decades of fire suppression have often produced overcrowded vegetation in our forests, weakening the trees. Especially during drought, the weakened trees are prone to fire and more susceptible to pests and pathogens. Too often, the result is soil erosion and habitat degradation, especially in sensitive areas such as streams, lakes, and wetlands.

So we do have a severe forest health crisis. But that's not all. The challenges we face are even more complicated. Changes over the last 40 years have raised new issues:

  • Americans have come to use their national forests and grasslands mainly for recreation. We figure the number of recreational visits has grown 15 to 20 times since 1945. Last year, we had some 209 million recreational visits-that's a lot of recreational pressure on our roads, trails, campgrounds, streams, and lakes. Meanwhile, our funding has not kept pace. The result has been a tremendous maintenance backlog-about $716 million last year.
  • Another trend is the growing wildland/urban interface. People are steadily moving from the cities into rural wildlands in search of a better quality of life. The 2000 census shows that out of the top 10 fastest growing States, 7 are in the West. Many of these folks surround their homes with dense vegetation. I guess it gives a feeling of isolation in the woods. But it also increases the fire hazard.
  • Here's a third trend: an insistence on leaving nature alone. Some people see lots of trees in the woods and think things must be great. Literally, they can't see the forest for the trees—they don't see the ecological processes that are gnawing away at the thing they love. So when we try to treat the forest, they take us to court. We might be tied up for years. By then, it might be too late. Maybe a fire has come through, for example, and destroyed what we were trying to protect.
  • A fourth trend is demographic. Americans are becoming older on average and more racially and ethnically diverse. By the year 2050, a majority will no longer be of European ancestry. A challenge for us at the Forest Service is to extend our services to all of our diverse communities.

So these are some of the problems I see: not enough focus on underserved communities; a misplaced public faith in the forest primeval; rising pressures from homeowners and recreational users; and fuel buildups in overgrown forests. But we do have opportunities to work together to meet the challenges. I'd like to spend the rest of my time talking about some of the things we're doing together and some of the opportunities I see for maybe doing even more.


The Forest Service has three main program areas, each with a somewhat different focus—the National Forest System; State and Private Forestry; and Research. I'd like to highlight some of the partnerships we've had with you in these different program areas. I think we can expand these partnerships and even imagine some new ways of working together. I'll break my remarks into the three parts of the land grant mission: education, research, and extension.

First, education. Obviously, we hire folks who graduate from your universities, so we care about what they learn. We also have units collocated with the universities, and our researchers sometimes teach classes.

I think we need to look at our educational collaboration more broadly. There are some disciplines that we need to mutually address—for example, forest entomology and forest pathology. With the expansion of global trade, more and more exotics are being introduced. We've seen things like chestnut blight, gypsy moth, and sudden oak death ravage our native forests. Somewhere between the universities and the Forest Service, we need to work together to ensure that the critical disciplinary bases are covered. We need to meet the challenge of invasive species in every state and in every forest type at risk across the nation.

We need broad training for future natural resource managers in other disciplines as well. Our funding will be limited; that's just a fact. But we still need to provide services, so we need to leverage other funding. One way is through partnerships. For that, we will need employees not only with technical backgrounds, but also with social and communications skills. We need folks who can work with partners to serve recreational visitors and local communities, for example to reduce fire risk in the wildland/urban interface. For that, we'll need your help. Your capacity in the social sciences and the communications field goes way beyond ours.

Our scientists can teach classes in some disciplines, and maybe your scientists can collaborate with our researchers in others. We already do this now, but we need to do it more. I'd like to know from you how we can jointly use our scarce resources better. For example, are there administrative barriers to collaboration that need to be addressed?

The issues we face on the national forests and grasslands are constantly changing; the problems are getting more complex. We need to work together to provide lifelong learning opportunities for our employees in a wide range of disciplines. We already have some joint programs for continuing education. Examples include the Silviculture Institute, with Oregon State University and the University of Washington; and TREES, with the University of Idaho, Northern Arizona University, and Colorado State University. I think we need more programs like these.

Second, let me say a little about research. We are engaged in a wide variety of research agreements, joint proposals, and other activities. For example, on the Fort Valley Experimental Forest in Arizona, we are working with researchers from the Environmental Restoration Initiative at Northern Arizona University to experiment with prescribed fire and thinning. I think we ought to have similar projects in every forest type at risk in the United States.

We are also engaged in broad monitoring studies to track long-term changes in ecosystem health at the landscape level. One example is our system of Forest Inventory and Analysis. University researchers are helping us develop new inventory techniques and analyze data. We value that partnership. I want to see it continue and grow.

In fact, there are lots of research opportunities for your researchers and your students on our experimental forests, ranges, watersheds, and research natural areas. Maybe we need to better publicize these opportunities through tours and the Internet.

Third, I'll say a little about extension. We have a long history of extension partnerships with the universities, especially through our State and Private Forestry. One of the greatest challenges we face today is public education on a host of natural resource issues. I think we need joint educational programs that are unbiased and don't just lecture, that include listening and learning on our part, too.

We've made a start through successful programs on reducing fire hazards in the wildland/urban interface. But we need to do a lot more to help folks understand what's going on the woods and what we need to do about it. I think we ought to think about the key extension issues that our organizations should jointly address and then develop some joint activities. We're wide open to suggestions.

Training Our Future Leaders

Finally, there's one area of opportunity I'd really like to stress-our changing workforce. In the next few years, a lot of folks will be leaving the federal workforce. Our retirees can offer all kinds of experience and expertise that you might be able to tap into as additional resources for your schools. And it works both ways. To replace the folks who are leaving, the Forest Service will be hiring many new employees. We will look to you to train our future leaders. So I would ask you to consider these suggestions:

  • Show your students ecosystems in crisis. Show them what is happening on the ground today and explain how decisions made long ago affect what is going on. This will give your students the perspective they need to be future leaders.
  • Train students in the scientific method. Help them learn how to create new science. Show them how to use science as a foundation for management decisions. This will give your students the knowledge they need to practice science-based land management.
  • Show the students how to work effectively with landowners and land managers to solve problems on the ground. Help them develop their interpersonal skills. Give them experience working in teams. Demonstrate to them the power of collaboration and the importance of building consensus with people from different backgrounds.

As you admit students, search hard for women and minorities. America needs a Forest Service that reflects all the gender and ethnic diversity we see across the country. Right now, we don't have the diversity in our workforce that we need if we are to serve all Americans well. You can help. Without you, we will not succeed in having a workforce that represents all Americans.

For this reason, the Forest Service has adopted specific universities for targeted recruitment efforts. You'll be seeing us on your campuses more frequently than in the past. When we come, please have us conduct seminars. Let us help expose students to the changing public needs and ecological conditions of today.

Great Partnership

In closing, I'd like to commend America's state universities and land grant colleges for doing so many things over the years—for supporting our research at forest experiment stations, for educating future generations of natural resource managers, and for helping us to look more like the ordinary Americans we serve. I appreciate your scientific, educational, and visionary contributions.

I think we've had a great partnership, and I look forward to continuing it far into the future. I'm sure there are ways of working together we haven't even thought of yet. I'll leave you with one example, a creative approach by a researcher at the University of Arkansas. This researcher got a grant to look at how the Forest Service might better integrate our Rural Community Assistance Program with our forest planning process. That kind of project makes a lot of sense; ultimately, it can help a lot of people. If we work together through projects like this, if we leverage our mutual resources, I believe the sky is the limit on what we can accomplish together.


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