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Policy and Institutional Challenges: The Role of Forestry Administrations

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Forests and Food Security Conference
Rome, Italy
May 14, 2013 at 8:45am

As Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, one of the key responsibilities of my job is to inform the public and policymakers about the value of forests and the contributions they make to our economy, environment, and society. I believe one of the most important roles of a forestry agency is to make sure that message is effectively and consistently communicated outside of the forestry community; and that we build support for the sustainable management of forests.

We have heard from numerous speakers in the past day and half about the important role forests play in providing clean, abundant water; high-quality, productive soils; clean air; energy; nontimber forest products; medicines; and economic activity that sustains communities. All this is well understood in the forestry community—indeed, I have heard it throughout my career. No one I know seriously questions it, even outside the forestry community.

However, the true measure of how clearly this message is understood is not what we tell ourselves in forums like this. It is what society actually pays for in terms of the budgets that are passed and the land use decisions that are made. These policy decisions are largely made outside the forestry community.

As methods of natural accounting continue to develop, I believe they will help our citizens and policymakers better understand the value of forests to our economies and long-term sustainability. Back in 1968, the Director of the National Park Service in the United States, George Hartzog, summed up the challenge in this way:

“We haven’t learned yet to assess accurately the benefits to man of the sight of an alligator sliding into dark waters, or of a horizon free of smokestacks and overpasses, or an evening sky glittering with the flash of white wings catching the last rays of daylight; but our inability to measure them makes those values no less real.”

To avoid such market failures, researchers have started to measure such values in economic terms. My agency, the U.S. Forest Service, is among a number of entities in the United States that are conducting or sponsoring such studies. Specifically, we are interested in determining the full value of ecosystem services from the lands my agency manages, the national forests and grasslands. These lands comprise an enormous area, 37 million hectares all across our country.

One recent study was based on energy flows necessary to generate goods and services on the National Forest System. The study estimated the total value of the national forests and grasslands at $24 trillion. Now, I hasten to add that these are not “real” dollars; they are only a rough approximation. Nevertheless, this huge amount does give some idea of the enormous value that Americans get from the ecosystem services they derive from their public lands.

A more classic example of economic valuation is associated with water. More than half of the water Americans get originates on forested landscapes; almost a fifth in the contiguous United States comes from the national forests alone. That is a value estimated at $3.7 billion per year. The National Forest System—37 million hectares of land managed by the U.S. Forest Service for the American people—furnishes water for about 60 million Americans living in roughly 3,400 communities across the nation, including such major cities as Atlanta, Georgia; Denver, Colorado; and Portland, Oregon. In a sense, the U.S. Forest Service is America’s largest water company, and it is my agency’s job to maintain these forested municipal watersheds in a healthy condition. Water is critical to life—without it, we have no hope for food security.

In these hard economic times, forestry organizations cannot hope to secure resources without making a convincing case to their economic planning ministries about the benefits to people’s livelihood that result from work on forests. This may be in the form of jobs created from harvesting or conservation. In the national forests in the United States, our emphasis has been on restoration activities such as timber harvest to thin stands in order to restore forest resiliency, to restore healthy conditions, and to restore watersheds. Between 26 and 33 million hectares of our National Forest System are in need of restoration, while at the same time our budgets are flat or declining. But through increased efficiencies in planning, we are increasing the area restored each year. Just as important, we are generating jobs—one study has shown that every million dollars spent on restoration activities generates 12 to 28 jobs, which compares favorably to most other economic activities. Restoration is not only good for the environment; it is also good for communities’ livelihoods, which is directly connected to their ability to provide for their own food security.

The organization I lead, the U.S. Forest Service, is one of seventeen agencies in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The other sixteen agencies are primarily focused on food, agricultural commodities, livestock, and nutrition. It is therefore not hard to see how the agenda within the Department is dominated by the concerns of agricultural commodities and production.  When the topic of food security is discussed, it is normally a dialogue about agricultural productivity and nutrition monitoring. It is normally not about a long-term vision for ecosystem health and its contribution to food security.

One of the ways the U.S. Department of Agriculture has strived to recognize the beneficial relationship between trees and agriculture is by advancing agroforestry. Agroforestry isn’t conversion of agricultural lands to forests; rather, it is using trees in support of agriculture. There are five widely recognized categories of agroforestry practices in the United States: alley cropping, forest farming, riparian forest buffers, silvopasture, and windbreaks. In addition to making agricultural lands more resilient to climate change, agroforestry helps farmers and ranchers meet increasing demands for food, energy, and conservation while providing an array of other services like clean water, soil conservation, wildlife habitat, and feedstocks for producing renewable energy.

For example, in the southeastern United States, farmers and ranchers are establishing silvopastures where they manage trees, livestock, and forage together in a system that yields multiple crops and income streams—annually from livestock and longer term from high-value sawlogs, supplemented by periodic harvest of pine straw, a valuable landscaping mulch. The trees in turn provide shade that is critical to reducing heat stress in livestock during the hot summers in that region.

Since the early 1990s, much of our Department of Agriculture’s work to advance agroforestry has been carried out by its National Agroforestry Center, a cross-agency collaboration between the U.S. Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, another agency in the Department of Agriculture. In 2011, our Department released an Agroforestry Strategic Framework, which is now the agroforestry roadmap for all agencies in the Department of Agriculture. As a result of this new cross-agency collaboration, the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, a questionnaire completed by all agricultural producers every five years, has the first-ever agroforestry question. The responses to this question will help us gain critical information about the demographics of producers who have adopted agroforestry.

The future lies in creating much more cross-sectoral collaboration of this kind, where the aim is not competition, but integrated and sustainable land use systems across landscapes. Planning needs to become more cross-sectoral in nature, and bureaucracies need to find ways to structure themselves to quickly respond to and engage on a range of emerging issues.

The U.S. Forest Service, as an organization, has demonstrated both rigidity and flexibility over the years. In response to changing legal requirements and public demands, the Forest Service has needed to “reinvent” itself by making changes in its mission focus. Such changes have not always been easy for the agency, especially when they ran counter to the organizational culture or adversely affected key Forest Service stakeholder groups. But the agency has always had a culture of decentralized decision-making, and that has been a real strength for us, allowing us to adapt to changing needs at local levels. We are constantly challenged to find ways to better foster partnerships and community solutions, to be inventive and smarter about information technology and contracting, and to find ways to increase our flexibility.

Let me end by quoting Milton Friedman, the famous economist, founder of the Chicago School of economics that drives so much policymaking in the United States. In 1974, he wrote this:

Environment and safety are fine objectives, but they have become sacred cows about which it is almost heresy to ask whether the return justifies the cost.”

He wrote that almost forty years ago, and today it isn’t heresy at all—quite the contrary. Especially in these tough economic times, the policymakers who pass budgets and make land use decisions typically base their decisions on whether the returns justify the costs.

And therein lies one of the central challenges for forests and forestry today. It’s the challenge of persuading others that the returns from standing, working forests—including working trees on agricultural lands—are worth the cost of investing in them.

And the people we need to persuade are outside the forestry community. They are mainly motivated by a calculus that we ignore at our peril, the Milton Friedman calculus of “whether the return justifies the cost.”

So we need to find better ways to make that case. We need to make a compelling case that working forests are a cornerstone of long-term community prosperity, including food security.

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