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State of the Forest Service

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Forest Service Reunion
Vail, CO — September 18, 2012

Greetings! It’s a pleasure  to be here today—to see so many people I grew up with in the Forest Service, so many who helped me along the way, who taught me so much of what I know. It’s also rather humbling, because I look up to so many of you.

Thank you for your service—for the foundations that you built, for the foundations that support us today, for the foundations that will support us in the future. One of the advantages of having the honor of being your Chief is that I get to see what this agency accomplishes. And from my view, it is incredible; the level of dedication and commitment to conservation is unsurpassed.  And for that you should feel proud.

Chief Bosworth used to joke, when he spoke at Forest Service reunions, that you made us what we are. So if you don’t like what we’re doing, then you have no one to blame but yourselves.

The point is, the foundations for what we are doing today were laid by those of you in this room. Our organization might be smaller than it once was, but our people have the same dedication—the same commitment to conservation. We are carrying on the same conservation traditions.

Shifting Balance

As you know, our mission at the Forest Service has always revolved around delivering the benefits that people want from their forests and grasslands. In 1905, Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson outlined the purpose of the national forests in a letter probably drafted by Gifford Pinchot. The letter said that the land was to be managed for, and I quote, “the permanent good of the whole people, and not for the temporary benefit of individuals and companies.” Our job at the Forest Service was to strike a balance among the various conflicting interests—to deliver, quote, “the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run.”

But what is “the greatest good”? Over time, it has changed. And it will continue to change.

Here’s what I think. The Forest Service has always been there for our nation based on what the public wants. As Gifford Pinchot put it in 1907, “The national forests exist to-day because the people want them.” That’s as true today as it was back then. The challenge is to listen to the public and then decide on the balance of uses. The National Forest System is not there for individual profit but for the benefit of society as a whole. Our management has therefore always been for the benefit of society as a whole—for what people want.

For the first 70 years of our history, we 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 20 to 30 years, our focus has broadened to include a full range of the goods and services, benefits and values 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.

In effect, “the greatest good” has expanded to include a broader variety of things—and, in response, our mission focus has shifted. We still have a multiple-use mission, but the balance we strike has changed. 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.


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 floods last year in the Northeast … drastic fire seasons caused, in part, by prolonged regional drought.  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.

We are used to thinking of such events 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.


The answer to ecological degradation is restoration. By restoration, we mean restoring the functions and processes characteristic of healthier, more resilient, more resistant ecosystems. That includes helping ecosystems adapt to the effects of a changing climate. We are striving to sustain and restore ecosystems that can deliver all the services that Americans want and need, even if they are not exactly the same systems as they were at the time of European settlement.

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

It describes our accelerating restoration strategy. I thought long and hard before we put this out, but I wanted people to be aware of the work we are doing—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. We have identified 12.5 million acres in need of mechanical treatments alone, and we are picking up the pace. In 2011, we completed about 3.7 million acres of restoration work.

That’s several times more than we did just 10 years ago—but, again, this is nothing new. You laid the groundwork for the kinds of restoration treatments we are doing today. All we’ve done is to pick up the pace in response to deteriorating conditions. In 2012, we plan to conduct 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 this with flat or declining budgets?

  • We are expanding collaborative landscape-scale partnerships. We have identified 23 of these large-scale projects across the country and dedicated funding to restore over 50,000 acres through each project.
  • We are finalizing the planning rule. The new planning rule will reduce our operational costs, reduce planning time, and lead to more restoration.
  • We developed a watershed condition framework. The framework tracks the condition of 15,000 watersheds on the National Forest System. It helps us prioritize needed restoration work to improve overall watershed condition.
  • We are implementing budgeting for integrated resource restoration.
  • We are gaining NEPA efficiencies across large landscapes, such as the Four Forests Restoration Initiative in Arizona or a 248,000-acre landscape in the Black Hills. 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 bark beetle strategy, spending more than $100 million to address threats to public safety from falling trees and wildfires.
  • We are expanding our stewardship contracting authority and improving the efficiency of our timber sales and stewardship contracts.
  • We are expanding markets for woody biomass and facilitating green building on the National Forest System.

We have found strong public support for this strategy. Restoration is designed to meet social, economic, and ecological needs. Everyone benefits from healthy, resilient ecosystems—from forested landscapes that are less likely to be ravaged by insect outbreaks and catastrophic fires—that are more likely to deliver plenty of clean water and other benefits—that are more likely to support a thriving local economy. Restoration creates rural jobs; a study in Oregon found that every million dollars invested in restoration activities such as hazardous fuels reduction 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.

And 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. A restoration opportunity can bring community stakeholders together to find common ground and agree on the actions needed to reach shared goals.

Wildland Fire Management

As you know, wildland fire management remains one of our biggest challenges. Our outfit was forged in the great fires of 1910, during the Big Blowup in the Northern Rockies. Maybe 50 million acres burned nationwide that year. But in the decades that followed, fire prevention and suppression steadily improved; from the 1970s through the 1990s, barely 3.2 million acres burned on average each year. For a time, a vision of fire control seemed within reach.

Then came the fires of 2000. For the first time since the 1950s, more than 7 million acres burned in a single year. Two years later, more than 7 million acres burned again. In 2004 and 2005, more than 8 million acres burned; in 2006 and 2007, it was more than 9 million. Since 2000, the average annual fire season has been 6.8 million acres, 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.

And that’s not because our fire organization has suddenly become less effective. We still 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.

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. Two states, Arizona and New Mexico, had their records broken twice—and the Whitewater–Baldy Fire on the Gila National Forest has just broken the New Mexico record yet again. 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. Almost 70,000 communities are now at risk from wildfire, and less than 6,000 have a community wildfire protection plan. From 2000 to 2008, almost 28,000 homes, businesses, and outbuildings burned in wildfires.

Our National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy has three main goals.

  • The first goal is to create fire-adapted natural communities. The key is ecological restoration—restoring healthy, resilient ecosystems capable of withstanding stresses and disturbances, including those associated with climate change.
  • An equally important goal is to create fire-adapted human communities by treating fuels in the wildland/urban interface and by helping people adopt planning and building practices that make homes and communities safer from wildfire.
  • Our third goal is to make safe, effective, risk-based wildfire management decisions. Many of America’s landscapes evolved with fire; sooner or later, they will burn. Fire protection requires an appropriate response to wildfire—not only suppression, but also, where safe and beneficial, the use of fire for management purposes.


Our connection to communities has always has been one of our main strengths. That is the reason we have always delegated decision making authority to the lowest level—to district rangers. We have always focused on local prosperity and quality of life through outdoor recreation and beautiful natural settings … by creating economic activity and jobs … by meeting the need for healthy forests and healthy grasslands.

All this highlights the need for partnerships and collaboration. 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, partly by sharing and leveraging resources. We are building on our strong traditions of community engagement to help mobilize resources across shared landscapes to reach mutual restoration goals.

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.


So we are building on our longstanding traditions of community engagement in our work. Another tradition we are building on is a focus on safety and health, beginning with the safety accomplishments of the past, such as the Fire Orders. We want safety to become even more than our first priority. We want to make a constant, relentless focus on safety the only way we work.

As you know, our safety record has not always been great, particularly in the fire community. Over the last 20 years, the number of fatalities in the federal fire community has gone up and down, but the trend has stayed about the same, averaging about 17 fatalities per year. We have got to do better, and that is why we are placing so much emphasis on safety. Our goal is to become a zero-fatality organization.

The goal is to become an organization where we no longer have work-related fatalities. We are working hard toward that end, building on the good work you did. But we are not always reaching all of our employees effectively enough, getting them to take that individual responsibility to work safely.

This year, there have been 12 fatalities, including Anne Veseth, who represents the Forest Service at its best. Clearly, we have more work to do.

For several years now, we have been making a learning journey to become a safer organization. We have been exploring our culture and history, comparing ourselves to high-reliability organizations that also work in high-risk environments, and working to change our safety culture by designing and building a learning-based safety system.


Another focus area for the Forest Service is inclusiveness—both in our workforce and in the communities we serve. At a time when 80 percent of our population lives in metropolitan areas, you can actually find children who don’t get the connection between a cow and milk … between a chicken and an egg … or between a tree and a home. Part of our job at the Forest Service is to help counter that trend by reaching out to urban and underserved communities. We want to give more people opportunities to get outdoors, up close and personal with nature. We are doing that through our Conservation Education programs. Last year alone, those programs reached more than 4 million people, mostly kids.

Part of inclusiveness is making our workforce look more like the face of America. As you know, the Forest Service was a very different place 30 or 40 years ago. There weren’t many women or people of color in our ranks, and the overwhelming majority of our employees were professional foresters—more generalist than today. That was in response to the issues and opportunities of the time, but it turned out to be shortsighted. We were missing out on the skills and abilities, the talents and contributions of the vast majority of Americans. Diversity of thought is key to successful organizations, and it comes from hiring people from all different backgrounds—rural and urban … male and female … with ethnicities, professions, and perspectives of all kinds.

In the past 20 or 30 years, we have made some progress. Today, thanks to your hiring policies and your hiring selections, more than 35 percent of our top leadership comes from ethnic minorities, and almost 60 percent of our top leadership represents either racial or gender diversity. That’s way above parity for the U.S. workforce as a whole, and it’s something we can be proud of as an agency. 

But there are still areas of underrepresentation, both in our workforce and in the communities we serve. So we are deliberately transforming our culture to become an employer of choice for all Americans. We want to broaden the circle of conservation—to make a connection to underserved communities all across America, especially in our urban areas—to build a workforce that truly reflects the face of America. We are designing our programs accordingly, and we are tailoring our recruitment and retention policies to the needs of young Americans from every background.

We have a compelling mission, and when you combine that with a reputation of being a fully inclusive organization ... our outreach and recruitment work will be easy, and we will continue to compete for the best thinking, the best leadership in conservation.

And that, again, builds on a tradition of inclusiveness going back to the time of Gifford Pinchot. As Pinchot describes it in Breaking New Ground, the Gilded Age was a time when the nation’s resources were being exploited largely for the benefit of the wealthy few. The national forests were based on a notion that was just the opposite—that these lands belonged to everyone … that everyone should benefit … that everyone should participate in their management. Out of that notion came our Forest Service traditions of working closely with local communities; many of you in this room helped to build and sustain those traditions. Building on your work, we are extending the notion of inclusiveness to underserved groups and communities of every kind.

Building on Past Foundations

So that, as I see it, is where we are today. Our primary focus areas are safety, inclusiveness, restoration, fire, and community. In many ways, the Forest Service has seen tremendous changes over the years; but fundamentally we are still the same organization. Our employees are still deeply committed to our conservation mission. We still face extraordinary challenges, and we still have limited resources; but we continue to work with the communities we serve to reach shared goals through partnerships and collaboration. We are still building on the foundations laid by those who went before us, conserving America’s natural resources for the benefit of generations to come.

And for that, I thank you for the job you did, for the support you provide today. Thank you.


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