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Meeting Cross-Boundary Challenges to Forest Health

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Canada – U.S. Forest Health Summit
Ottawa, Canada
March 26, 2013 at 9:15am

Welcome! It’s a pleasure to be here. Given the scope and the scale of the forest-related challenges across our continent, I think more bilateral efforts like this are needed. So I welcome this opportunity, and I thank you for joining this dialogue.

Canada and the United States have a long history of working together on forestry issues. Last November, we celebrated 50 years of continuous collaboration on wildland fire management. We have long engaged informally on a range of forestry issues through our scientists; since 1958, together with Mexico, we have also engaged formally through the North American Forestry Commission.

North America’s forests are enormously important to our citizens—and to the world. Together, Canada and the United States account for more than 15 percent of the world’s forests. Together, according to the FAO, we accounted for more industrial roundwood production in 2005 than the next eight greatest wood-producing nations combined, including Russia, Brazil, and China. Then there are all the other values and benefits from forests that our citizens want and need—clean air and water, habitat for native fish wildlife, opportunities for outdoor recreation, and more.

So these values and benefits are critically important to both of our nations socially, economically, and ecologically. Today, these values and benefits are at risk. Drought, invasive species, catastrophic wildfires, rising outbreaks of insects and disease—such stresses and disturbances are affecting North America’s forests and watersheds on an unprecedented scale.

Partly, they are driven by the effects of a changing climate. We are seeing global evidence of climate change, with impacts that cross our borders on an unprecedented scale. Changes in temperature and precipitation, in the timing and magnitude of weather events, are altering ecosystems and fire regimes. And these developments in turn contribute to climate change by releasing more carbon into the atmosphere, causing a positive feedback loop.

Part of the problem is severe drought, resulting in extreme fire weather and very large fires and fire seasons. During the 2011 fire season in Ontario, for example, more than 635,000 hectares burned. That set a new provincial record. The Richardson Fires in Alberta exceeded 500,000 hectares, accounting for more than 20 percent of the total area burned in Canada in 2011. That’s huge!

In the United States, since 2002, at least ten states have had their largest fires on record, and some have had their records broken more than once. In 2000, for only the first time since the 1950s, almost 3 million hectares burned nationwide; last year, almost 4 million hectares burned. Some experts predict that fire seasons could return to levels not seen since the 1940s, reaching 5 to 6 million hectares.

Climate-related changes in weather have set the stage for huge outbreaks of bark beetles, especially mountain pine beetle. From 1998 to 2011, mountain pine beetle killed more than 710 million cubic meters of pine in British Columbia. That’s more than 50 percent of the province’s commercial pine inventory.

In the United States, forest density and homogeneity, coupled with changes in climate, have created conditions for severe outbreaks of western forest pests. Since 2000, infestations of mountain pine beetle and other forest pests have reached almost 18 million hectares across all ownerships in the West.

As you know, weakened trees are more prone to disease. Across Canada, for example, Armillaria root disease has affected 203 million hectares of forest. An example from the United States is sudden oak disease, first discovered in California in 1995. The disease is caused by an invasive water mold, probably brought in on imported nursery plants. The pathogen has killed tens of millions of oak and tanoak trees in California.

I could go on. These examples highlight the scope and the scale of the challenges we face. To meet the challenges, Tom and I have asked our staffs to organize these invitation-only summits to explore new ways of collaborating across our joint border to improve our response to the continent’s forest health crises. The first summit last June, at the Canadian embassy in Washington, DC, gave us a good start, and we have gotten great support from Carlton through the U.S. Endowment for Communities and Forestry.

Our work here is designed to build on what we are already doing, together with Mexico, through the North American Forestry Commission. The commission is currently working in seven different areas: atmospheric change; fire management; insects and diseases and invasive plants; silviculture; forest inventory and monitoring; and forest genetic resources. In our meeting here, you will see some deliberate overlap.

The discussion here will focus on seven different topics: agroforestry; forest genomics; wildland fire; forest inventory; forest product markets; pests; and communications. For each topic, a team of experts from each country drafted a basic background document, based in part on inputs from our partners at universities and other agencies.

Here’s what we hope to accomplish: With your help, we hope to identify two or three topics where we can focus our limited human and financial resources to best address the forest health issues of the 21st century.

One of our primary goals at the Forest Service is to restore healthy, resilient forests and watersheds. In this era of climate change, with unprecedented forest stresses and disturbances, our goal is to restore systems that are capable of delivering clean air and water, habitat for wildlife, and all the other values and benefits that our citizens want and need from their forests. I am confident that we can, and this summit is a step in that direction. With your help and support, we can work toward reaching our restoration goals.

Again, welcome to this summit! And thank you for all you do.

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