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Restoring Forest Health: We Need to Pick Up the Pace

Tom Tidwell, Chief
School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University
New Haven, CT
March 28, 2012 at 12:00pm

It’s a pleasure to be here with the next generation of conservationists and environmentalists, the next generation of foresters. I started my career with the Forest Service in 1977, and I have worked with the agency in various capacities at all levels of the organization. I have worked on eight different national forests and in three different regions, plus the national office in Washington, DC.

So I am a career employee, not a political appointee. One of the things that distinguishes the Forest Service is that the Chief is typically a career employee. I want to start by telling you a little about the Forest Service, because, although some of you know us well, others might not know much about us.

Origins of the Forest Service

The Forest Service was founded in 1905 by the same family that founded the Yale School of Forestry, the family of James Pinchot, father to Gifford Pinchot, the first Forest Service Chief. The Pinchot family made a fortune from harvesting trees and selling timber. For centuries, such practices had been commonplace, and by 1900 America had cleared away a quarter of its original forest estate. Most of that clearing came during a period of rampant deforestation following the Civil War.

The Pinchots resolved to stop the loss by introducing forestry to the United States. They left us a legacy of conservation, a legacy still on display at Grey Towers, the Pinchot family home in Milford, Pennsylvania. That legacy is part of our heritage at the Forest Service and part of yours here at Yale. If you get a chance, I highly recommend a visit to Grey Towers, now a national historic site run by the Forest Service. The photographs of Yale’s forestry summer camp at Grey Towers are really something to see.

Today, partly thanks to the Pinchots, about a third of the United States is forested. We have the fourth largest forest estate in the world. The Forest Service manages about 20 percent of our nation’s forest lands in a system of national forests stretching from Alaska to Puerto Rico; some call the National Forest System the backbone of America’s forest estate. It covers more than 193 million acres, an area almost twice the size of California. Forty-four states have at least a piece of a national forest or national grassland; New England has the White Mountain National Forest and the Green Mountain National Forest to the north of here.

Not all of those 193 million acres are forested. We manage many kinds of ecosystems, including shrublands, rangelands, and canyonlands. We manage more than 16,000 recreation sites … a system of trails over 150,000 miles long … more than 400 different wilderness areas … and hundreds of municipal watersheds. We manage permits for ski areas, outfitters, and guides. We manage critical wildlife habitat for plants and animals of all kinds. The national forests and grasslands have become a last refuge for endangered species—some of the last places where they can find the habitat they need to survive. We collaborate with all kinds of communities to make decisions affecting these lands, to solicit ideas and address controversies.

Interestingly, most of the world’s forests are owned by governments. The United States is an exception; 56 percent of our forest lands are privately owned, and the federal government has little say about what private forest landowners do on their lands. Individual states govern private forestry through state forestry laws, which vary widely. Still, the mission of the Forest Service extends to all of the nation’s forests, both public and private. To promote sustainable forest management, we give technical and financial assistance to private forest landowners through the states. Every state has its own forestry agency, and we work with the State Foresters in all fifty-six states and territories to help landowners manage their lands sustainably—and to address issues like invasive species and conservation of open space.

Our focus is not just on rural landscapes, but on urban forests as well. America has 100 million acres of urban and community forests, an area the size of California. About 80 percent of our citizens live in urban environments; most people’s main experience of nature comes from their own backyards and neighborhood parks and streams. A city’s green infrastructure is every bit as important as its gray infrastructure. Trees filter rain and snow, regulate streamflows, and reduce stormwater runoff. Shade trees can reduce residential cooling costs by up to 30 percent. We work with municipalities across the country to protect and restore the nation’s urban forests.

The Forest Service also has one of the largest conservation research organizations in the world. We have 7 research stations, 77 research labs and other offices, 81 experimental forests and ranges, and decades of data on forest cover, water, wildlife, and other resources. We also work with other countries to share conservation knowledge—to better understand the context we all work in. We’ve had projects in 89 countries on 5 different continents, helping forest managers and forest landowners around the world.

Connecting our research with our other responsibilities gives us a strong forestry organization. Our research and land management professionals work hand in hand to create new knowledge and to use science to solve the most vexing conservation problems we face—and to open up new conservation opportunities. We have roughly 35,000 employees working all over the country, from remote wilderness areas in Alaska or Minnesota to great cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York.

The Role of the Forest Service

That, in a nutshell, is who we are. We have been working to sustain the nation’s forests for more than a century, and we have a very good understanding of America’s forests and grasslands and what the future might bring.

The bottom line is this: In the decades ahead, America faces enormous challenges on both public and private land. Climate change is gradually disrupting entire ecoregions, shifting plant and animal assemblages for generations to come. When the climate changes, many things change: temperature, precipitation, snowpack size, and runoff. Add to this population growth, land use changes, water shortages, water pollution, air pollution, invasive species, and a host of other challenges, and America’s land managers are in a whole new problem environment. Already, we are seeing major disturbances—devastating droughts, huge wildfires, and widespread insect outbreaks. Unless we come together around some common goals, the future of conservation looks bleak.

The Forest Service has a history of bringing people together around common goals. As foresters and conservationists, we stand on the shoulders of giants—people like Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and John Muir. They did not always agree, but they never lost sight of the land and what it needed. They pulled Americans together in the spirit of conservation, never losing sight of the greater good.

Gifford Pinchot, the first Forest Service Chief, had strong opinions, and he wasn’t shy about expressing them. But for all his fighting spirit, he was no ideologue. He was fundamentally pragmatic, and he listened to opposing points of view. In 1905, a popular point of view in the West was that the national forests were a federal land grab. Many Westerners despised the Forest Service. One cartoon even showed Pinchot as the Russian Czar, the world’s worst despot, sending his Cossack rangers to ride down innocent people.

So Pinchot really had his work cut out for him. He needed to bring folks together around some common goals, and in the early 20th century those goals centered on building a young nation … on helping people find ways to prosper. Pinchot posted district rangers in local communities all over the West, and he directed them to listen to local concerns, to help people solve local problems, to help them use public land in conservative ways. Gradually, the Forest Service won local support, building constituencies all over the West, and the future of the National Forest System was assured.

Decades later, the United States was plunged into its worst economic crisis, followed by its greatest foreign war. Again, the nation pulled together, drawing on the energy and ingenuity of what came to be called the Greatest Generation. The President called on the Forest Service to help. Through the Civilian Conservation Corps, we provided millions of jobs, helping to rebuild shattered lives and providing lasting service to the nation through fire control, reforestation, and construction. The CCC planted many forests that we still see today and built much of the recreational infrastructure we still use, including forest roads, bridges, trails, and shelters.

Today, the Forest Service has another opportunity to serve our country in the cause of conservation. The United States is slowly recovering from our worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Millions of people are still out of work, and our nation’s green infrastructure is badly in need of repair. Last year’s devastating floods across many northern states … the devastating droughts and fires across many southern and southwestern states … the devastating outbreaks of insects and disease across many of our western states … these are all part of a great national affliction that is putting our forests and grasslands at risk—on public lands, on private lands—on all lands nationwide.

The Forest Service is ideally positioned to help. Many of the communities most affected by the crisis are located near national forests. Our employees are woven into the community fabric; they know local needs, and they have the local capacity to provide training and employment. We already provide some of the best, most dependable rural jobs in America, and we have opportunities for many more, including millions of acres of needed restoration work and a huge backlog of projects related to roads, bridges, buildings, and recreational facilities. Already, we have put thousands of Americans back to work under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—building new trails, repairing degraded watersheds, decommissioning old unneeded roads, and restoring forests to health.

The Case for Restoration

Restoration is key. Healthy, resilient forests and grasslands provide a whole range of benefits to Americans—clean air and water, carbon sequestration, habitat for native fish and wildlife, erosion control and soil renewal, opportunities for outdoor recreation, and more. Our job at the Forest Service is to help sustain the ability of America’s forests and grasslands, both public and private, to deliver a full range of ecosystem services for generations to come. That ability is now at risk. Drought, invasive species, loss of open space, uncharacteristically severe wildfires, uncharacteristically 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.

That’s why restoration is so important for the Forest Service. We no longer focus on short-term outputs, such as board feet of timber … or miles of road built … or animal unit months for grazing. Yes, we still measure these things, but they are not our goal. Our goal is to restore healthy, resilient ecosystems—ecosystems capable of delivering all the benefits and values that Americans want and need, both now and for generations to come.

Everyone benefits from restoration. Healthy, resilient ecosystems provide intangible values, such as scenic beauty and habitat for wildlife; and the work we need to do to restore healthy forests also provides material values, such as clean water, jobs, and wood fiber for flourishing local economies. Three-quarters of the timber generated from the national forests is now the byproduct of projects for other purposes, such as restoration; one study has shown that every million dollars spent on restoration activities like stream restoration or road decommissioning generates from 12 to 28 jobs, which compares favorably to most other economic activities. Restoration is good for the economy, and by repairing our green infrastructure it is also good for communities. Restoration is where the social, economic, and environmental sides of sustainability come together, for the benefit of everyone concerned.

But the need is urgent, and we are going to have to pick up the pace. On the national forests and grasslands alone, somewhere between 65 and 82 million acres are in need of restoration. That’s about a third of the entire National Forest System. At the same time, our budgets are flat or declining, so we need to become more efficient; we also need to find ways to leverage our scarce resources.

One way is through partnerships. The challenges we face know no borders or boundaries; drought, fires, invasive species, outbreaks of insects and disease—these things extend across landscapes, affecting landownerships of every kind. Most landscapes in the United States are patchworks of ownerships; no one of us can meet these challenges alone. We are all in this together, and we can best leverage our limited resources by coming together and taking action for the benefit of the lands and waters shared by all.

The Forest Service is accordingly taking an all-lands approach. We are working with partners across boundaries and ownerships to address ecosystem issues on a landscape scale. If people continue to work in traditional ways—cut off from each other as private foresters on this piece of land, public servants on that piece of land—America will never fully tap its resources of knowledge, energy, and ideas to help meet the forestry challenges of the future. But if people come together to collaborate across landownerships and landscapes, then they will be able to address shared issues and concerns and to pursue common goals more effectively.

Steps to Accelerate Restoration  

So our challenge in the 21st century is to bring folks together across entire landscapes to work toward common restoration goals. The Forest Service is taking a series of management actions to make that happen by accelerating restoration on the national forests and grasslands. Together, these management actions will help set a new course to the future—a future of healthy, resilient forests and grasslands on a landscape scale. To illustrate our approach, I will briefly outline three of the steps we are taking.

One step is to expand our partnerships. Under our Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, for example, we select 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. Forest Service funding leverages funding from our partners, who help design and implement each project. In Arizona, for instance, we’re working with industry and environmental groups on a ten-year project to restore overgrown ponderosa pine forests across hundreds of thousands of acres. We’re also looking for other ways of investing in restoration through partnerships. For example, the water board in Denver, Colorado, is matching the Forest Service’s investment in restoring fire-damaged forests in Denver’s municipal watershed on a national forest in the Rocky Mountains.

Another step we’re taking is to restore degraded watersheds. More than half of the water Americans get originates on forested landscapes; almost a fifth comes from the national forests alone. The National Forest System 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 Forest Service is America’s largest water company, and it is our job to maintain and restore the municipal watersheds we manage.

To that end, we finalized a study last year classifying the condition of the 15,000 watersheds on the National Forest System. The good news is that more than half of these watersheds are already in class 1 condition; but many others need work. Through our Watershed Condition Framework, we identified 204 high-priority watersheds for treatment. Working with partners, we are developing watershed action plans for each of these watersheds, along with a schedule of actions.

A third management priority is to expand markets for the byproducts of our restoration treatments, including timber and woody biomass, which often have little commercial value. Struggling markets for timber are an obstacle to restoration. We are taking steps to develop new markets for wood, and we are promoting the use of wood as a green building material. Lumber for construction is 8 times less fossil-fuel-intensive than cement—and 21 times less fossil-fuel-intensive than steel. We have directed all of our units to increase the use of domestically harvested wood in all new Forest Service buildings and facilities.
 
Developing clean, renewable sources of energy is one of the great challenges of our times. By 2050, the world’s population will grow from 7 to 9 billion. As China, India, and other nations get richer, we are already seeing a rising demand for food—at a time when many agricultural resources are being diverted to energy production. The world will need to figure out how to meet both challenges: energy security and food security.

The Forest Service can help by developing new ways of utilizing woody biomass for energy production. Wood-to-energy has a number of advantages. It helps us get more restoration work done, and there is no conflict with food production. Wood-to-energy is also scalable, meaning that it is viable for heating individual homes or for supporting plants that can generate up to 40 megawatts of power. Wood-to-energy also offsets fossil fuel use, preventing carbon emissions and reducing our reliance on foreign sources of energy. The Forest Service has been working on providing a reliable and predictable supply of biomass for potential investors. In addition, we are working with other agencies on 12 wood-to-energy emphasis areas that will help create jobs.

Finding Common Ground

So these are some of the steps we are taking to pick up the pace of restoration. In taking these steps, partnerships and collaboration are key. Conservation is not a zero-sum game, where if one side is winning, then the other side must be losing. Conservation is sustainable where it is a win/win proposition for everyone concerned. The role of the Forest Service is therefore as a catalyst: We try to bring together all interested stakeholders, formulate some common goals, and work together to achieve them. In this, we follow the example of our founders and forebears, great conservationists like Gifford Pinchot … like Bob Marshall, a founder of the wilderness movement … like Aldo Leopold, the father of wildlife management and author of the land ethic.

These Forest Service leaders knew what we know today: that no one has a monopoly on good ideas. Before any ground-disturbing activity can take place on national forest lands, we need ideas, feedback, and support from the people we serve, including communities of interest as well as communities of place. People feel strongly about their public lands, and we welcome that. There is plenty of room for debate. Debate is normal and healthy, and the Forest Service welcomes the opportunity to help people sort through their differences and come to an agreement.

Collaboration—working together. Creating an opportunity for people with diverse interests to come together for conservation. A place 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.

Too often, though, that’s not been what has happened. Instead, rigid lines have been drawn, bitter accusations traded, appeals and lawsuits filed—and the land has suffered as a result. We see it in the broader public arena today. Shrill voices are oversimplifying the choices before us, posing complex social, economic, and environmental issues in stark moral terms, where the right thing to do is crystal clear to everyone except to those who wonder, who question, who try to see the other side—and whose motives are therefore suspect. Too often, Americans have reveled in conflict, demonizing each other, viewing those who disagree with us as evil—or at least as unbelievably obtuse.

It is time to reframe this debate once and for all. It is time to put aside the questioning of each other’s values and to heed the better angels of our nature, to come together for the greater good—and conservationists can lead the way. Our focus should be on what the land needs, on the goals we all share, on the outcomes we all want for our children. If we can agree on some common goals, on the ecosystem services we want forests and grasslands to deliver far into the future, then our job is nearly done. If we can agree on what, then it becomes merely a question of how—and, yes, let that debate continue—on how and where to best maintain and restore the resilience of our birthright, our national forests and grasslands.

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, 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.

Rising to the Challenge

The future belongs to you. My career and the careers of those in my generation are slowly drawing to an end. The future of forestry, of conservation, of environmentalism, that future belongs to the next generation. I hope that many of you consider a career in public service, maybe even in the Forest Service. There are opportunities in the Forest Service for all Americans, should you choose to take advantage of them.

However, no matter what you do in life, the national forests and grasslands belong to you. Ultimately, they are your birthright and your responsibility, the responsibility of every American to protect and conserve for future generations. I have tried to lay out some of the management challenges before you: climate change and a host of other issues; the urgent need to pick up the pace of ecological restoration; the need not to oversimplify complex issues, not to overcomplicate simple issues, to see the other side, to stay focused on what the land needs.

It will be up to you, the next generation of foresters and conservationists, the next generation of Americans—it will be up to you to rise to these challenges and more. I am confident that you will, in the best tradition of those who came before, those giants on whose shoulders we all stand. I am confident that you will bring Americans together for the greater good, that you will once again unite the nation in the spirit of conservation.

In that same spirit, I wish you well.

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