The Forest Service’s Role in Fostering Sustainability
It’s a pleasure to join you here today. I feel honored to address the National Capital Chapter of the Society of American Foresters. I am proud to be a forester and proud of the forestry profession.
My View of the Forest Service
I’ve worked for the Forest Service for 35 years. And I was raised in the Forest Service. My earliest memories include riding with my Dad while he was doing inventory work. So my years with the agency really include all these years of experience. These early years did leave me with the impression that the Forest Service is a good outfit.
As a Forest Service employee, I’ve had several different positions in the agency with experience in both the field and the Washington Office — as a forester, district ranger, forest supervisor, deputy staff director and regional forester. Given this experience, I hope to bring a grounded background to my work as Chief.
Short-Term Focus on Internal Matters
Employees are doing good work. And they have great skills. We need to remove any restrictions that unnecessarily impede them and provide the encouragement they need to do their work.
In the short-term, I will focus on internal matters. We need to get our act together internally to be an effective public service organization. We need to build stronger and better connections between the field and the national headquarters. We need to better understand how work in and the priorities of the Washington Office affect the field. I believe more dollars need to get to the ground. We need to build better connections among State and Private Forestry, Research and Development, the National Forest System, as well as Business Operations, the Chief Financial Officer and International Programs. And we need to give greater attention to our performance accountability as well as our financial accountability.
Early in my career, I remember dreading management reviews and inspections. We’ve dropped the ball on doing reviews in recent years and are instead letting the General Accounting Office and the Office of Inspector General find the problems for us.
Finally, decisions need to be made at the lowest level that they can. We need to build better relationships with local communities and with states, tribes and others. In my opinion, we’ve really constrained the decision space of local managers and have seriously impaired their ability to work with communities. This is not about local control. To be effective, we need local input and knowledge. And we need to find local solutions to real issues by working more collaboratively.
So it’s fair to say I have a lifetime of being part of the Forest Service culture, traditions, changes and dialogue about managing America’s forests and rangelands. It’s a great honor for me to serve as the 15th Forest Service Chief. I am humbled to be included among those who have previously served as Chief.
Sustainability as the Long-Term Goal
I know the Society of American Foresters is currently reviewing the many facets of “sustainability” and I appreciate this opportunity to share my views. I applaud the steps SAF is taking to advance sustainability within the forestry profession. There is a lot we can do, and it doesn’t have to be controversial.
Now I’d like to take a few minutes to suggest an approach for turning a policy of sustainable development into action. I think we need to do three things:
- First, we need to agree on what sustainability is.
- Second, we need to agree on how to measure sustainability.
- Third, we need to agree on how to manage for sustainability.
First, let’s talk about what sustainability is. Although there are many definitions, I think we already have general consensus on what it means. Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot put it this way: “the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.” Then, in 1987, the international Brundtland Commission stated that sustainable development “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of further generations to meet their own needs.”
Last year, the Forest Service incorporated these ideas into an updated expression of the agency’s mission in our new long-term Strategic Plan. The Strategic Plan states: “The mission of the USDA Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.” I think it’s fair to say that sustainability ideas have always been part of the mission of the Forest Service, but it’s also important to recognize that our knowledge about what it means keeps evolving.
We also recognize that the Forest Service is part of a much larger effort internationally and domestically to foster sustainable forest and resource management. Since the Earth Summit in 1992, the United States and 11 other nations with temperate and boreal forests have agreed to use the Montreal Process Criteria and Indicators as a common framework for thinking about sustainable forest management and measuring progress. Nationally, we value the work of the Roundtable on Sustainable Forests to use the Montreal Process Criteria and Indicators as a common framework in the United States. Even though there are many challenges to measuring sustainability, we agree the Montreal Process Criteria and Indicators make sense. They are a good starting point. And, in my opinion, there really is nothing better.
So how do we manage for sustainability in the 21st century? What is different? Sustainable resource management means connecting environmental, social and economic concerns in dealing with real issues in real places with real people. We are using science to understand management options in more comprehensive ways; and we have laws that help us deal with all three concerns. The institutional parts also have to fit. We need to improve our capability to apply locally what we know, and we must integrate our efforts at different scales.
We cannot hope to achieve sustainability on an isolated piece of land. We need to be concerned about how we affect each other across ownerships and boundaries.
Local Solutions and National Responsibility
Conservation begins and ends on the ground. A whole range of collaboration is possible. We will be judged by what we actually accomplish. Unless people on the ground and in communities manage and use natural resources in sustainable ways, then what we say and do at the national and regional levels means little.
Many of our actions focus on improving local resource conditions and management practices in sustainable ways. For example:
- Through the National Fire Plan, we are integrating programs to protect communities and natural resources from wildland fires and invasive species. Restoration work requires removing small-diameter material. To be sustainable, we must integrate the restoration work with science and technology, business opportunities and community development.
- The roadless rule is being further evaluated by the Department of Agriculture and the courts. I am confident this issue will get resolved with a focus on how to adjust this broad protection measure to address local specific conditions and needs.
- The Administration, with our help, is also reevaluating the National Forest System planning rule to ensure a higher likelihood of implementation success. Our new planning rule will be designed to streamline some of our processes so we can move forward with projects that will be good for the ecosystem and good for communities.
At the national level, I do intend to continue to support sustainability. We are advancing use of the Montreal Process Criteria and Indicators as a common framework for measuring progress. For example, we are applying the Criteria and Indicators to local conditions on six national forests to test their usefulness and better understand how to integrate processes across scales. We are working with states (such as Oregon and Maryland) to shape state resource planning using the Montreal framework. And more work is underway at the ecoregional, national and global levels. The key is to integrate our local to global efforts in ways that make sense.
Success in the 21st Century
I believe our actions demonstrate our commitment to sustainable development. Our success — and conservation in the 21st century — depend on making connections and investments every day across ownerships and boundaries. We are part of a much larger quest to achieve sustainable forest and resource management. Challenges do exist related to recreation demand, watershed conditions, data issues and information tools, collaboration capabilities, and more. However, “sustainability” can be defined, measured and applied. “Sustainability” is not just a slogan to the Forest Service.