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Restoration through Community-Based Collaboration

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Boise City Club
Boise, ID
November 30, 2012 at 12:00pm

It’s a pleasure to be back in Idaho. Thank you for inviting me. This is where I grew up and where my family roots are. This is where I started my Forest Service career.

I also came back here later on in my career. As you might remember, I served as regional forester for the Forest Service’s Northern Region, which includes part of Idaho. So I have a good understanding of the forestry issues here and how to deal with them effectively.

As regional forester, I focused on community-based collaboration—on finding solutions based on mutual goals. That was my experience as regional forester, and that’s  how I’ve served as Chief. It’s what I want to focus on today.

Purpose

The need for community-based collaboration is based on a clear understanding of what the national forests are for. The purpose of the national forests was outlined more than a hundred years ago by Gifford Pinchot, the first Forest Service Chief. As Pinchot said, the national forests are not there for individual profit but for the benefit of society as a whole. Accordingly, our management has been designed to deliver what people want.

For the first 70 years of our history, the Forest Service focused on helping our nation develop its natural resources. We envisioned a future of prosperity for all Americans, and we contributed to that future by helping Americans develop such resources as timber, water, forage, and minerals—and the jobs needed to produce them.

In the last 30 years, our focus has broadened to include a full range of the values and benefits that people get from their forests and grasslands, including jobs. Today, Americans understand that forests provide clean air and water, carbon sequestration, habitat for native fish and wildlife, erosion control and soil renewal, opportunities for outdoor recreation, and more. What Americans want from their national forests has expanded to include a broader variety of things.

In response, our mission focus has shifted. We still have a multiple-use mission, but our focus is on sustaining the ability of America’s forests and grasslands, both public and private, to deliver a full range of benefits—the full range of multiple uses—for generations to come.

Challenges

That ability is now at risk. Drought, invasive species, loss of open space, uncharacteristically severe wildfires, severe outbreaks of insects and disease—all these stresses and disturbances are affecting America’s forests and grasslands on an unprecedented scale. Partly, they are driven by the overarching challenge of climate change.

The changes will not all be gradual. Scientists tell us to expect the possibility of threshold effects—sudden changes in systems when critical limits are passed. We are already starting to see such effects: drastic outbreaks of insects and disease in the West … drastic weather events like tornadoes, hurricanes, and other storm systems … drastic flooding in the Northeast … drastic fire seasons here in Idaho and elsewhere. We are seeing increases in the frequency of disturbance events—of droughts, floods, rain on snow, wind events, tornadoes, hurricanes, insect and disease outbreaks, invasive species spread, and fire.

This year, we had another horrendous fire season, with a big part of it right here in Idaho. We no longer regard acres burned as acres destroyed, because we know that many ecosystems are adapted to fire. But we still use acres burned as a proxy for fire season severity, and more than 9 million acres have burned so far this year.

That continues a pattern of growing fire season severity. In 2000, for the first time since the 1950s, more than 7 million acres burned. Two years later, more than 7 million acres burned again. In 2004 and 2005, more than 8 million acres burned; in 2006 and 2007—and again this year—more than 9 million acres burned. Since 2000, the average annual fire season has been more than twice the annual average for the preceding 30 years. Some experts predict that fire seasons could return to levels not seen since the 1940s, reaching 12 to 15 million acres.

As fire sizes and fire seasons have grown, our firefighting costs have soared. Our costs now routinely exceed a billion dollars a year; in fiscal year 2012, our fire suppression costs exceeded $1.4 billion nationally. All fire-related activities together now routinely account for one-half of our entire budget; it used to be one-quarter. That means less money left over for nonfire programs such as outdoor recreation or habitat protection.

This year, Idaho suffered one of its worst fire seasons in recent memory. By August, we knew that drought and fuel conditions would mean higher than normal fire potential in most of Idaho, and that turned out to be right. This year, fires burned more than 1.6 million acres in Idaho alone, and we spent $156 million to fight them. Idahoans had to deal with two months or more of smoke and ash, with debilitating effects on both human health and environmental health.

Growing fire season severity is not because our fire organization has become less effective. We suppress roughly 98 percent of the fires we fight during initial attack, a phenomenal record. It’s because fuel and weather conditions have changed; the record low fuel moistures, the record low relative humidity, the low or no snowpacks … all this means that the 2 percent of our fires that escape initial attack tend to get much bigger much faster. This year, we had 14 fires over 100,000 acres in size; those fires alone accounted for 42 percent of the total area burned.

Maybe we need to expect extreme fire behavior as the new norm. In 2000, for example, we had the Los Alamos Fire in New Mexico, with fire spreading across 40,000 acres in 7 days. We thought that was extreme, but last year’s Las Conchas Fire in New Mexico spread across 40,000 acres in just 12 hours! The rate of fire spread has become 14 times faster. And that’s not just on the national forests, but on state and private lands as well.

Since 2000, at least 10 states have had record-breaking fires. Idaho would be among them if not for the Big Blowup of 1910; in 2007, the Murphy Complex Fire burned 652,000 acres. Two states, Arizona and New Mexico, had their records broken twice—and this year New Mexico had its record broken for the third time. These megafires are impossible to stop, and firefighters are largely limited to point protection around homes and communities.

The growing wildland/urban interface has made things worse. From 2000 to 2030, substantial increases in housing density are expected on 57 million acres of forest land nationwide. That’s an area larger than North and South Carolina combined. Roughly 55,000 communities are now at risk from wildfire, and less than 6,000 have a community wildfire protection plan. From 2002 to 2011, more than 30,000 homes, businesses, and outbuildings burned in wildfires.

We are used to thinking of fire seasons like this year’s as exceptional. We might need to start thinking of them as normal and to prepare ourselves accordingly. That also means preparing the public and Congress for what to expect—and what not to expect.

Restoration

One thing Congress and the public can expect is results from active management. Through burned area emergency rehabilitation, we can prevent some of the worst effects of severe fires, such as erosion and watershed degradation. And treating vegetation before a fire can reduce its severity. In August 2006, for example, lightning sparked the fast-moving Black Butte Fire on the Nez Perce National Forest. The fire moved a mile a day until it reached the site of a prescribed fire conducted earlier that year in the Robbins Creek drainage. After that, the fire slowed down, taking five days to go three-quarters of a mile. Firefighters were able to control it.

Another example comes from this year’s Mustang Complex Fire, which burned more than 340,000 acres and was threatening Highway 93 near the border with Montana. The fire was moving incredibly fast, sometimes burning 30,000 acres in a single day. Then it reached the Hughes Creek drainage, where the Lemhi County Forest Restoration Group had treated 13,000 acres back in 2006. The fire slowed down and dropped to the ground, allowing firefighters to finally get in and contain it.

The answer to ecological degradation is ecological restoration. Using prescribed fire and other vegetation treatments, we can restore overgrown forests and other degraded ecosystems. By restoration, we mean restoring the functions and processes characteristic of healthier, more resistant, more resilient ecosystems. We are striving to sustain and restore ecosystems that can deliver all the services that Americans want and need, including resistance to catastrophic fire.

The Forest Service is taking a series of steps to accelerate restoration, and they are outlined in this paper.

It describes our accelerated restoration strategy. I thought long and hard before we put this out earlier this year, but I wanted people to be aware of the magnitude of the problem and what we are doing to address the problem. We estimate that up to 42 percent of the National Forest System is in need of restoration—up to 82 million acres—and that 12.5 million acres need mechanical treatments. Here in Idaho, about 15 million acres are in need of restoration work, including 2 million acres of mechanical treatments.

In response, we are picking up the pace. Last year alone, the Forest Service completed about 3.7 million acres of restoration work. This year, we’re conducting restoration treatments on about 4 million acres. To help address the rising need for mechanical restoration treatments, we are prepared to raise timber harvest levels by 20 percent, from 2.4 billion board feet in 2011 to 3.0 billion board feet by fiscal year 2014.

So how are we doing all this with declining budgets?

  • We are expanding collaborative landscape-scale partnerships. We have identified 23 of these large-scale long-term projects across the country, and we have dedicated funding to restore over 50,000 acres through each project, on average. That includes three projects here in Idaho—the Selway–Middle Fork Clearwater Project, begun in 2010; and the Weiser–Little Salmon Headwaters Project as well as the Kootenai Valley Resource Initiative, both begun this year. The Selway–Middle Fork Clearwater Project, for example, has already completed thousands of acres of hazardous fuels reduction and noxious weed treatments.
  • We are also implementing the new planning rule through a number of forest plan revisions. That includes the forest plan for the Nez Perce and Clearwater National Forests, an “early adopter” of the new planning rule. The new rule will reduce our planning costs, shorten our planning time, and lead to more restoration.
  • In addition, we developed a Watershed Condition Framework to track the condition of 15,000 watersheds on the National Forest System. Using the framework, we have chosen 285 watersheds for high-priority restoration work, including 27 here in Idaho. For example, the Boise National Forest has a partnership to restore the Stolle Creek–South Fork Salmon River. Partners include the Nez Perce Tribe and Bonneville Power. By 2017, we aim to complete all kinds of restoration work, including road decommissioning, motorized trail reconstruction, and postfire reforestation.
  • We are also using the Watershed Condition Framework as a foundation for implementing a new budget line item for integrated resource restoration in three regions, including here in Idaho. This will let us get more restoration work done on a larger scale by using Forest Service funds that were previously stovepiped by functional area—fire, wildlife, engineering, and so forth.
  • We are also gaining NEPA efficiencies across large landscapes, such as the Weiser–Little Salmon Headwaters Project area here in Idaho, which has a lot of NEPA-ready work to go. A more flexible EIS process will allow us to move quickly to address insect and disease outbreaks, wind damage, and other events without additional reviews.
  • We are implementing a national Bark Beetle Strategy, targeting high-priority areas affected by the western bark beetle epidemic. The epidemic has affected more than 5 million acres here in Idaho alone. Our first priority is to protect the public from falling trees and wildfires, especially in the wildland/urban interface, followed by actions to help damaged forests recover and to restore their resiliency. In the Northern Rockies and the Intermountain West, including Idaho, we expect to treat almost 1.4 million acres by 2016.
  • In addition, we are expanding our stewardship contracting authority and improving the efficiency of our timber sales. Idaho and Montana have led the way in stewardship contracting, with other regions looking to the national forests here as models.
  • We are also expanding markets for woody biomass and facilitating green building on the National Forest System. This region has led the way, for example through the Woody Biomass Utilization Partnership in Idaho, which includes the Payette National Forest.

Community

Restoration enjoys broad public support. Restoration delivers benefits that people want and need, such as clean water, fire protection, habitat for wildlife, recreation opportunities—and, yes, jobs. Restoration work means jobs in rural areas, whether it’s a contractor doing some tree cutting or a construction company replacing culverts on headwater streams. The Selway–Middle Fork Clearwater Project, for example, expects to generate almost 400 jobs over ten years. A study in Oregon found that every million dollars invested in restoration activities generates from 13 to 30 direct, indirect, and induced jobs. Restoration also attracts more visitors to rural areas, generating even more local jobs through outdoor recreation.

A restoration opportunity can bring community stakeholders together to find common ground and agree on the actions needed to reach shared goals. A good example is the Selway–Middle Fork Clearwater Project on the Clearwater National Forest. Twenty years ago, this was ground zero in the timber war; now the Clearwater Basin Collaborative has joined the Forest Service in implementing the project, uniting sportsmen, local communities, environmentalists, the timber industry, the Nez Perce tribe, and an array of other stakeholders. Our nonfederal partners are bringing additional resources to the table, investing almost $54 million over ten years.

The good news is this: People get it. People from all over the country … people from all walks of life, representing all different interests … people get the connection between declining forest health and things they value, like water, wildlife, and outdoor recreation. They get the connection between ecological degradation and the need for restoration treatments, and they are willing to invest their precious time and hard-earned money in restoration treatments.

Collaboration means working together—creating an opportunity for people with diverse interests to come together for conservation. It means creating a space where values are not questioned, where individuals do not have to defend their values and views, where people seek to understand one another and to work together to find solutions. This is what we’re seeing in the numerous collaborative efforts around the country. Idaho has led the way through a number of collaborative groups, including the Payette Forest Coalition, Clearwater Basin Collaborative, Boise Forest Coalition, and Lemhi County Forest Restoration Group.

Rising to the Challenge

In the last few years, we have made tremendous progress. All across America, there are more and more places where people have come together in the spirit of collaboration, displaying a willingness to learn and understand, showing an unwavering commitment to finding agreement on what is right for the land—on what ecological restoration needs to occur and what is the right balance of uses from the national forests and grasslands.

It is in these places, in these communities—here in Idaho and elsewhere across the country—where you see conservation at its best. It used to be my dream, and now I see it as a reachable goal—that this spirit of collaboration, this spirit of conservation will become as commonplace across America as conflict has been in the past. Please join us in helping to make that happen.

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