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Putting the Challenge in Context

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Canada-US Forest Health Summit
Canadian Embassy, Washington, DC
June 28, 2012 at 12:00pm

Good morning.  Thank you, Tom, for hosting this summit.  It is important to have discussions like these between countries and partners.  We can learn so much from each other and hopefully leverage our joint resources to address the challenges our forests are facing today.

Forest Challenges

In terms of both scale and complexity, forestry in the United States faces some of the greatest challenges in history.  The challenges are associated with drought, wildfire, invasive species, and outbreaks of insects and disease—all made worse by climate change.

Since 2000, at least ten states have had record fires; nationwide, we’ve had some of our largest fire seasons since the 1950s. Research has shown that our growing fire seasons are partly due to warmer and drier conditions associated with a changing climate. By the year 2060, mean temperatures in the United States are expected to be about 3 degrees Celsius higher than now, according to a scientific report the U.S. Forest Service recently completed under the Resources Planning Act of 1974. Warming temperatures mean more energy in the atmosphere, which is consistent with severe fire seasons—and severe weather events, such as the tornadoes, blizzards, and hurricanes we’ve seen in the last ten years.

Many of our forests in the West are overly dense and homogeneous. Coupled with climate change, this has created conditions for severe outbreaks of pests and disease. As I’m sure you already know, mountain pine beetle is the main problem. But other bark beetles as well as western spruce budworm have contributed to forest mortality. Across the western United States, roughly 16 million hectares are affected.

Exotic pests and diseases have wiped out entire forest types in the United States, such as American chestnut in the East. Emerald ash borer is threatening the ash components of our forests in the Upper Midwest. Other species at risk range from white walnut, to eastern hemlock, to western white pine, just to name a few.

Other challenges are associated with population growth and urban expansion. By 2060, our population is expected to grow to somewhere between 400 and 500 million, and we expect to see a net forest loss of 10 to 15 million hectares. By 2030, we also expect to see housing density grow on about 23 million hectares of forest.

How will all this affect natural resources in the United States? Take the impacts on wildlife, for example. Twenty-seven percent of all forest-associated plants and animals in the United States, a total of 4,005 species, are at risk of extinction. Habitat degradation affects 85 percent of all imperiled species, and loss of open space means habitat loss and fragmentation.

The U.S. Forest Service cross-mapped two of the challenges we face—increased housing density and pressure from insects and disease. We found areas of high risk all across the country—for example, all along the Sierra Nevada, in much of the Upper Midwest, and across the eastern seaboard, from Massachusetts to Florida. In all of these areas, pressures on wildlife are growing.

And the risks are not just on private land.  The U.S. Forest Service manages 20 percent of our nation’s forests in a system of national forests and grasslands ranging from Alaska to Puerto Rico. Research has shown that these lands are some of the most important refuges for threatened and endangered species. But habitat degradation is a challenge even here. For example:

  • Invasive weeds such as kudzu, cheatgrass, leafy spurge, and spotted knapweed have infested about 2.4 million hectares of national forest land.
  • In 2002, we found that 29 million hectares of national forest land were at moderate to severe risk from uncharacteristically severe wildfires. That’s roughly 4 hectares in 10.
  • A recent U.S. Forest Service assessment showed that 48 percent of the watersheds on the national forests and grasslands had low to moderate functional integrity.
  • Severe outbreaks of western forest pests have affected 7.2 million hectares on the national forests.
  • We estimate that somewhere between 26 and 33 million hectares of national forest land are in need of restoration—up to 42 percent of the entire National Forest System.

So we have our work cut out for us. But there are some bright spots—namely, the strong relationship between our two countries and the strong commitment our peoples have to manage our forest resources to the best of our ability.

Restoration

I believe we can meet these challenges through ecological restoration. Working with partners, the U.S. Forest Service is focusing on restoring healthy, resilient forest and grassland ecosystems. Through restoration, we are helping ecosystems adapt to a changing climate by building resistance to climate-related stressors such as drought, wildfire, insects, and disease.  We are also working to increase ecosystem resilience, thereby minimizing the severity of climate change impacts. We have mapped the actions our units can take in response to climate change, and we are tracking our climate change response through score cards that our units periodically complete.

But no one of us can succeed alone, especially now, at a time of global economic crisis. The U.S. economy is only slowly recovering, and our national debt is high. Sustainable forest management needs to be sustainable economically. We will need new products and new markets, especially for the smaller diameter wood that needs to be harvested from our forests. We need to get smarter about how we use our scarce resources. We can leverage those resources by working with partners to achieve mutual goals.

The Forest Service is taking a series of steps to accelerate restoration, and one of them is to expand our partnerships. For example, we have something called the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. The Secretary of Agriculture periodically selects large-scale projects for long-term funding, mostly on national forest land, but also on adjacent private and other lands. These projects are public/private partnerships for high-priority ecological restoration on a landscape scale.

The fact is, we are all in this together. All of the challenges I mentioned have one thing in common—they affect landscapes without regard for ownership boundaries or borders. Our national effectiveness in treating lands affected by fire, invasive species, climate change, and landscape degradation should not stop at the border.

A Challenge for Today

So this is the challenge we face today: What restoration opportunities can we jointly pursue?

The challenges to forestry on our continent are great—but so are the opportunities. In this turbulent environment, with so many risks and uncertainties, our forestry organizations need to be open to change—to subject ourselves to scrutiny, to be ready to adapt to changing conditions, to become as resilient as the ecosystems we are charged with managing. 

Canada and the United States have a long and successful history of collaborating on various resource-related issues. Much of this work has occurred at the individual researcher or project level. Programs such as the Joint Science Fire Program and the collaboration between the U.S. Forest Service Forest Products Lab and the Canadian FPInnovations are a good example. Both nations now face a series of complex threats that cross our borders … that span the continent and the globe. Both nations have limited resources.

How can we build on our history of working together to better address our mutual needs—to better reach our mutual goals? How can we build effective, efficient, and results-oriented models, employing what has been called “science at the speed of need”?

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