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Partnerships for Landscape-Scale Conservation

Landscapes: Northeast Megaregion
New York, New York — June 19, 2012

I’m excited to be here. Thank you for inviting me! This is a great occasion for sharing some thoughts about how we can work together to conserve forested landscapes in the Northeast.

Forest Service Overview

Landscape-scale conservation has been part of our work at the U.S. Forest Service for more than a hundred years. Our roots go back to the creation of USDA by President Abraham Lincoln 150 years ago. Early conservationists like George Perkins Marsh recognized the link between farms, forests, streams, and economic prosperity … and, in 1876, Congress created a Division of Forestry within USDA.

Out of those early beginnings came more than a century of forest-related research at the Forest Service. Today, we have more than 30,000 publications online for use by private landowners and land managers around the country … and around the world. We’ve also worked for more than a century with the State Foresters and with private forest landowners to foster sustainable forest management here in this region … and across the nation.

By 1900, however, America’s forested landscapes were in decline. Following the Civil War, forests were severely cut over to support the booming growth of farms, cities, and industries. By 1907, less than half of the original forests remained here in the Northeast.

And that led to serious problems. When forests were cut down, erosion resulted, silting up harbors. Water quality suffered, and huge floods washed away parts of Pittsburgh and other towns. Huge fires resulted from logging debris; there are still places where forests have never recovered from fires that happened a hundred years ago or more.

All this led Congress to authorize the acquisition of degraded lands as national forests. Today, the Forest Service manages 17 national forests in the Northeast and Midwest. These lands cover about 12 million acres, an area twice the size of Massachusetts. They protect water supplies and wildlife habitat in the region, and they are playgrounds for all kinds of outdoor recreation. In 2009 alone, we got about 16 million recreational visits in this region.

Since 1900, many degraded lands in the Northeast have been restored to healthy, resilient forests; in fact, the overall area of forest in the Northeast and Midwest has grown by about 28 percent. For the last hundred years, forest conservation in the East has been a remarkable success story because people like you have gotten together to make it happen.

Challenges to Forestry

But challenges to forested landscapes remain in this region—and they are growing. The states have addressed the challenges, preparing statewide action plans that assess the forest values at risk and the protective measures needed. The Forest Service is using these plans to help conserve forested landscapes in this region.

For example, our Northern Research Station is using the state action plans to help prepare an outlook on the future 50 years from now. It’s called the Northern Forest Futures project, and you can find the results online. I will briefly summarize some of the findings, then describe some of what the Forest Service is doing in response.

The 20-state northeastern and midwestern region is the most densely populated part of our country. Forty-two percent of the region is forested; 74 percent of the region’s forests are privately owned, and there are 5 million private forest landowners.

Eighty percent of the population lives in urban areas, which grew by 4 million acres from 1990 to 2000. Rhode Island, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut led the way. As you know, the population will continue to grow; by 2040, the 13-state megaregion from Virginia to Maine is expected to grow by 21 percent, adding 15 million people and expanding urban areas even more.

In the corridor from Washington to Boston, we expect up to 50 percent of the remaining forest land to be converted to urban uses by 2050. Many watersheds have water quality problems tied to urbanization, and unless we work together to solve them, they will only get worse. Locations of major concern include watersheds in Maine, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire.

In addition to forest fragmentation and parcelization, there are very few young forests and very few old forests remaining in the Northeast. That severely narrows the range of remaining habitat for wildlife. Forests in the region are also threatened by invasive species such as gypsy moth, emerald ash borer, and hemlock woolly adelgid. In the next 15 years, we expect to see forest dieback of 25 percent or more in many parts of the Northeast.

Due to habitat loss, the Northeast and Midwest have more extinct species than anywhere else in the country. Fifteen percent of the forest-associated species are at risk. These stresses and disturbances are made worse by climate change. Under one scenario, by the end of the century summer in New Hampshire would feel like summer in Virginia—and oak and hickory would replace northern hardwoods like maple and birch in most of the Northeast.

Need for Landscape-Scale Conservation

Historically, our nation has addressed the loss of forested landscapes through government action authorized by legislation. Though effective, such approaches have limits. Austerity measures are currently affecting the ability of local, state, and federal governments to invest in conservation.

For example, the Forest Service is authorized to add to the National Forest System through the Land and Water Conservation Fund. In 2011, we hoped to invest almost $75 million in the fund, but Congress enacted only $40 million, although the amount has since gone up a little.

Of course, outright purchase isn’t always necessary to protect forested areas at risk. Through the Forest Legacy Program, the Forest Service works with the states to buy conservation easements from willing private forest landowners. So far, we’ve protected more than 2.2 million acres in 43 states, especially here in the Northeast, where the program originated. But funding for the program has fallen from a historic high of $76 million in fiscal year 2010 to $53 million in fiscal year 2012, less than half of the President’s budget request of $135 million.

Let’s face it: Government investments alone will not meet the need. In the Northeast and Midwest, only 16 percent of the forested landscapes are in some kind of protected status—and only 8 percent are federally managed. In this region, landscapes are typically in mixed ownership, with the vast majority in a variety of private landownerships. The only workable solutions for conservation require coordination among many different landowners, land managers, and regional planners … and the engagement of citizens. We need to pool our resources and work together across jurisdictions to protect the landscapes shared by all.

Activities in the Northeast

To that end, the Forest Service has been working with the states to support sound forest planning on private forest lands. Across the Northeast and Midwest, 10 percent of the nonindustrial private forest land is managed under stewardship plans.

But that, too, isn’t enough. Every part of the landscape is vitally important for forests, including urban and community forests. Since 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, their main experience of forests is here. If we are going to reach our citizens and engage them in conservation, this is the place to do it. At the Forest Service, we are working with everyone concerned to sustain healthy, resilient forests across rural and urban areas alike, partly through educational programs designed to get more kids outdoors, up close and personal with nature.

We have a range of opportunities. Water is the foundation for sustainable communities and healthy ecosystems, and here in the Northeast it typically comes from forested areas upstream. If we lose 10 percent of the forests in a watershed, the cost of treating drinking water rises by 20 percent. Urban waters, rural waters, and mountain waters are all part of the same landscape.

The federal government is pooling its resources to help restore watersheds through the Urban Federal Waters Partnership. Twelve federal agencies have joined forces with private and other organizations to conduct seven pilot projects around the country. The idea is to help urban communities restore their rivers, lakes, wetlands, bays, and oceans. The Forest Service is taking the lead on the Baltimore Second Harbor Project in Maryland. This is a 5-year assessment of wildlife habitat in the harbor. It will help address water quality, biodiversity, recreational opportunities, and adjoining community development issues such as job growth and education.

Forest Service scientists are also working with partners in the greater Philadelphia area to improve water quality and wildlife habitat across urban and suburban landscapes. We established a Philadelphia Urban Field Station to promote adaptive management, technology transfer, and science to improve people’s lives in the Greater Philadelphia Region. The station is both a physical place for research and technology transfer and a virtual network of relationships among scientists, educators, practitioners, university cooperators, and facilities for urban ecology. 

Urban forestry is vital in the region. Urban and community lands in the Northeast and Midwest have an average tree cover of 39 percent, and Forest Service scientists have helped to develop a great tool for supporting urban forestry. It’s called i-Tree, and it’s really a whole suite of science-based tools that are easy to use. It can help people understand the value they get from urban forests in terms of carbon storage, pollution control, stormwater runoff, and other benefits. Urban planners can use i-Tree to make investment decisions affecting urban forests.

One investment decision the Forest Service is supporting is MillionTreesNYC—planting trees right here in New York City. The Forest Service supports similar initiatives throughout the region. In fact, the Forest Service’s Urban and Community Forestry Program has provided assistance to over 7,000 communities across the nation, home to over 194 million Americans.

Partnerships and Collaboration

In this connection, the Forest Service is proud to support the Regional Plan Association in its cooperative efforts to inventory conservation initiatives and build on them, partly by hosting this conference. We are in the process of updating our own strategic plan for State and Private Forestry in the Northeastern Area, which covers most of the 13 state northeastern megaregion. We welcome your thoughts and concerns … your inputs and ideas.

The bottom line is this: We are committed to strengthening partnerships that yield measurable results. We encourage you to work with your state forestry agencies to leverage your efforts, and we are ready to join you in partnership wherever we can.


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