Opportunities for Forestry Partnerships
I'd like to thank you for inviting me. It's an honor to be here in Mississippi, in the heart of the Deep South. I haven't seen much of the South, having spent most of my life out West. But in the past few days, I've finally had the opportunity to travel a little in the South. It sure is beautiful country. As a forester, I'm especially impressed by the rich variety of forest types here.
Forests and forestry are what bring us together here today. I'm proud to be a forester. I'm the son of a forester; I guess you could say forestry is in my blood. I believe that forestry is an honorable profession with honorable people doing good things on the ground.
With that said, foresters can sometimes have honest differences about the goals of forestry on public lands. That's why we need opportunities like this for dialogue. We at the Forest Service might not always see eye to eye on everything with all of you here. But it's important, in my view, that we have an open, honest dialogue. So I'm really glad to be here.
I'd like to talk a little about where I see the Forest Service headed and where I see some problems and opportunities. Before I start, let me just say I know that the Council represents many interests. I'd like to keep my initial remarks pretty general, then address your specific concerns later, maybe during Q&A. And if they involve things I don't know about personally, I hope you give us the chance to get back to you later.
Our mission at the Forest Service has always been sustainable forest management. Basically, that means using natural resources in a way that doesn't compromise their use by future generations. There's an analogy to the laws some states have for regulating water use. Those laws say you can use the water that flows onto your land so long as the water that flows off your land has the same quality. I think that makes sense. In the same vein, sustainable forestry means you can use your forests so long as the forests you pass on to your children have the same quality.
So how can we use the public lands and still conserve their quality for future generations? The answer to that question has changed over time. At one time, sustainable forestry meant a sustained yield of timber. Today, it means more. It means sustaining all the values and uses associated with the national forests and grasslands. It means sustaining things like clean water, good recreation opportunities, abundant fish and wildlife, and — yes — timber, range, and other renewable resources. So our mission has shifted away from large-scale commodity production. Our mission is now on outcomes, not outputs. Our focus is on ecosystem health and restoration, working in partnership with communities and individuals. We understand that, and I'm sure you do, too. The real question is, what are the opportunities in that?
Sustainability does not mean locking up public lands. Sustainability has three components: social, economic, and ecological. I think we need to strike the right balance among the three. It's true that healthy forest ecosystems are essential for community health. But the converse is also true — healthy communities are essential for ecosystem health. Local communities are the caretakers of healthy ecosystems. If our communities are healthy economically, they will find ways to take care of the land. If they are not, the land will suffer.
A key task before us is to balance the need for a healthy environment with the need to use some of our natural resources in intelligent ways. I think we need to accomplish our land stewardship goals by looking for creative new ways to get needed work done on the land, get products from it, and build communities together. Those are the real opportunities I see.
Part of that is engaging the American public in honest and straightforward talk about the relationship between the environment and resource consumption. Americans consume twice the amount of wood per capita as other developed countries and three times the amount of the world as a whole. Our national appetite for wood is growing: Per capita consumption of wood rose by 16 percent between 1970 and 1997. We export a lot of wood products, but we import even more.
We need to begin a national dialogue on how we can live within our means. Obviously, we are still going to do a lot of exporting and importing; but when people say that we shouldn't cut any trees on the national forests or drill for any oil or extract any minerals, they need to be very clear about what they are saying. Because what they are really saying is that we should get a lot of the stuff we use everyday from somebody else's backyard. And that just doesn't make sense to me. I think we need a national dialogue on this.
One problem has been convincing folks that active management is needed. A lot of people who look at the land and see lots of trees think everything must be just fine. They think all we need to do is to sit back and let nature take care of itself. I wish it were that simple.
Many forests today are much different than they originally were. I think that's true for the South as well. Before the South was settled by Europeans, there was a lot more fire, so the forests were generally more open. There were savannahs and prairies in some areas. I've even heard that bison ranged from Virginia down to Georgia.
Since then, the landscape has evolved. In the South, the forests were almost all cut down at one time or another. In fact, most of the national forests in the South are on cutover forest land or played-out farmland. We restored healthy native forests on those lands, and I'm proud of that.
But we still have problems. Fire exclusion gradually took hold in the forests that remained or were restored. Some fire-dependent forest types declined; on the Coastal Plain in the South, longleaf pine is a familiar example. Other forest types became more dense than they were historically, when fire opened them up. The result has been overcrowding, weakening trees and making them more susceptible to pests such as the southern pine beetle.
Nature has something to do with that, but not as much as human activity. In fact, a lot of the changes we've seen over the centuries have come from a combination of human activity and neglect. So the answer isn't Mother Nature. Just leaving the land alone won't make the problems we have go away. We need active management to restore our forests to health. That's one of the big tasks I see ahead for us: Communicating with the American people about what's going on in the woods and what we need to do about it.
In fact, nationwide we have a forest health problem of enormous proportions:
- On the national forests alone, about 73 million acres are at risk from wildland fires that could compromise human safety and ecosystem integrity.
- About 70 million acres in all ownerships are at severe risk from 26 different insects and pathogens.
- Other symptoms of a forest health crisis include the spread of invasive species and the degradation of riparian habitat.
These problems affect us all. We know what to do, and we've made a start. On national forest land, we're returning fire to the ecosystem and using thinning to help open up our vegetation-choked forests. We also have vigorous pest management and watershed restoration programs, often in collaboration with state and private partners.
However, at the rate we're going, it will take more than 50 years just to treat the 73 million acres at the most risk from fire on the national forests. That's just not acceptable. We are going to have to pick up the pace. The scale of our forest health problem means we are going to need huge and sustained investments for active management. The GAO has cited a figure of $30 billion over the next 10 years just to deal with the fuels problem on federal lands.
Congress has made a start by funding the National Fire Plan. We've begun expanding our forest health treatments, especially in wildland/urban interface areas, in municipal watersheds, and in areas adjacent to neighboring lands. We've also developed some large-scale watershed projects to help us better coordinate with our neighbors. So even though we have a long way to go, I think we're on the right track. It's something I'm absolutely committed to.
That brings me to another problem. As professional foresters with some of the best forest science in the world, we know what we need to do and we have the will to do it. But often we are still not able to get the work done because of institutional barriers. Too often, we spend so much time just trying to comply with laws, regulations, and procedures that we can't do the necessary work on the ground. This problem is sometimes called "analysis paralysis."
For example, the NEPA initiation and appeals phase for a project, from scoping through the end of the administrative appeals process, might take more than a year. That could be followed by another two years of litigation, for a total of more than three years before the project can go forward. By then, it might be too late; maybe a fire has already come through, for example, and destroyed what the project was supposed to protect.
Another example is this. It might take 5 to 10 years to complete a 15-year forest plan. Meanwhile, the landscape might have changed or new information might have emerged. Suddenly, the assumptions we made early on are no longer valid, and back we go to the drawing board.
The way things are set up, someone with a good lawyer and an axe to grind can keep things tied up for a long time. We might win in the end — our record in court has gotten better all the time — but by then, it might be too late. Meanwhile, we are forced to spend scarce resources on process instead of getting work done on the ground, and the problems in the field just keep getting worse.
So I think there's a lot of agreement that the system is broken. With that said, I remain absolutely committed to meeting the requirements of our environmental laws. Besides, I think it's good that the American people value the environment and have gotten more directly engaged. I just think we ought to find a way to get back to the original intent of the law. We ought to rescue the spirit of our environmental laws from the way they have been twisted to serve a few narrow interests.
How can we get there? I think we need to start thinking about other ways of working together. I have put together a high-level team in the Forest Service to explore ways of streamlining processes. I think we need a national dialogue on this problem. We're wide open for ideas!
We have already begun to make some progress. For example, we have some proposals for categorical exclusions that we're moving through the Federal Register and public comment:
- One policy change would modify the definition of extraordinary circumstances and clarify the policy on recognizing that the presence of a listed reference condition, such a TES species, would automatically preclude the use of a CE.
- Three CEs will be added that would streamline the process for changing or reissuing special use permits.
- We're adding at least one CE to let us move ahead more efficiently with treating small-diameter materials for forest health and fuels reduction, for example under the National Fire Plan.
We're also doing work on appeal regulations to make them more effective. This, along with the CE changes, will allow us to be more responsive to natural disasters and salvage needs.
In addition, we have some relief on projects under expired forest plans. As part of the Appropriations Act, Congress insulated the Forest Service from litigation for violating the statutory requirement for new forest plans every 15 years. In exchange, we are providing Congress with a report showing that we are moving expeditiously with revising forest plans. A forest plan revision schedule is being published in the Federal Register this month.
That brings me to some of the opportunities I see. Let me just say, first off, that I think we need a healthy forest products industry. The Forest Service is not set up to handle a lot of the treatments we need for fuels management and forest health. We're going to need help. I see a lot of win/win situations out there on the land, provided we can come to some agreements.
I think it's clear we're going to need to do a lot of thinning and even some salvage cutting on national forest land. I understand that's been a concern in Mississippi. Most of it won't produce high-value sawlogs. But there are commercial uses for some of the small-diameter materials we need to remove, and a high priority for our Forest Products Lab is to discover more. The biomass industry holds great promise, for example.
Through the National Fire Plan, we are working with local communities to restore ecosystem health on private and public lands. That means more jobs for local communities. Here in Mississippi alone, the Forest Service is spending almost $7.7 million in National Fire Plan funds this year. Most of that goes into firefighting preparedness and hazardous fuel treatments. Some goes into forest health projects and community assistance.
That brings me to a major point I'd like to make. I think we have a historic opportunity to establish a consensus based on what unites us, not what divides us. In times of crisis, Americans have always pulled together. We see it happening again after the events of 9/11. I think it's time we got together behind a common agenda for restoring the national forests to health.
Our goal should be to strike the right balance between social, economic, and ecological sustainability using approaches that are citizen-centered, results-oriented, and market-based. For example, I think we can use community-developed restoration and monitoring projects to stimulate new businesses and create new jobs on the national forests. I think the Southern Forest Resource Assessment that was recently released for public comment will be a valuable tool in helping us strike the right balance.
When I was watching the election returns last year, those red-and-blue maps they used really struck me. Our rural and urban populations are ideologically divided. As foresters, we serve both constituencies. That gives us an opportunity to help bridge the gap between them.
I think those of us interested in the future of forestry need to start thinking more about what unites us and less about what divides us. As a basis for what unites us, I would offer this: What we leave on the land is more important than what we take away. If we can start working together based on what unites us — for the health of the land — I think we can get to where we need to go.