We Need a New National Debate
Thanks, Stan, for that nice introduction. It's a great pleasure and privilege to be keynote speaker for the Izaak Walton League at your annual convention.
I'd like to start by saying a few words of appreciation about your president, Stan Adams. Stan goes way back with the Forest Service—he was a district ranger on the Ouachita National Forest in Oklahoma back in the 60s, at about the same time I joined the outfit. I understand that his job at the time involved chasing arson fires and feral hogs—not sure which was worse.
Stan retired in 1991 after a distinguished career with the Forest Service lasting some 30-odd years. He's been the State Forester for North Carolina ever since, including a stint in 2000 as President of the National Association of State Foresters. We've continued working closely with Stan in his State Forester capacity.
Stan has always given freely of his time for conservation. He's well respected by his colleagues and by civic organizations and conservation groups of all types. Stan, I applaud and congratulate you for everything you've accomplished in your career.
I think Stan's career is a fine example of how federal and state natural resource management intersects with conservationism in the private sector through organizations like the Izaak Walton League. As I see it, we're all in this together. In fact, a lot of our employees are Ikes or belong to similar organizations. We share the same commonsense, grassroots approach to conservation.
We also share the same concerns. A major goal for the Izaak Walton League, as I understand it, is "to assure long-term quality of life."1 That's a major goal for us, too. In fact, our National Leadership Team met a few weeks ago and talked about the need to protect air, water, habitat, and everything else that makes for a high quality of life for the American people.
For a number of years, Americans have faced growing threats to our quality of life. At the Forest Service, we've tried to promote a national dialogue about those threats. At our recent National Leadership Team meeting, we talked about four major threats: fire and fuels; unwanted invasive species; loss of open space; and the impacts of unmanaged recreation, particularly the unmanaged use of off-highway vehicles. Today, I want to say a little about those four threats.
But first, I want to acknowledge some of the ways we've worked together over the years. Last year, our two organizations signed a master challenge cost-share agreement. Among other things, the agreement will help us protect watersheds and wetlands. But the master agreement goes beyond just watershed conservation; it gives us a national framework for collaboration on all types of projects, including trail work, upland habitat improvements—you name it.
I also want to compliment the Izaak Walton League for your participation in the Public Lands Shooting Sports Roundtable, a collection of land management agencies and shooting sports organizations working together. And I applaud the MOU you recently signed with EPA on managing lead from spent ammunition at your shooting ranges. Our two organizations also signed an MOU on sharing resources to address recreational shooting needs.
So we have some good foundations for a strong conservation partnership. Of course, that doesn't mean we will always see eye to eye on everything. We all have strong opinions about how to manage the land, and with those opinions naturally comes debate. I think having a debate is good and necessary, particularly when it comes to public lands. We need to hash out any conflicts we might have so we can come to agreement about how to manage these lands.
So debate isn't the problem. The problem is the direction the debate has taken in recent years. I think the debate focuses on the wrong issues for the beginning of the 21st century. Times have changed; we should be focusing on four great threats-fire and fuels, unwanted invasive species, loss of open space, and unmanaged recreation. I'll say a little about each.
Fire and Fuels
One great threat is fire and fuels. In two of the last three years, we've had some of our biggest fire seasons since the 1950s.2 Four states had record fires last year, and a fifth came close. This year, parts of the West are again being threatened. For example, the Aspen Fire near Tucson, Arizona, has burned more than 80,000 acres and destroyed hundreds of homes.
The underlying issue is that so many of our forests have become overgrown and unhealthy. I don't want to oversimplify-many of America's forests are healthy, and some forest types were always dense.3 Big fires naturally occur in these forests, but not very often. But some ecosystems are not adapted to big stand replacement fires. Instead, they are adapted to low fires that used to come quite often. Some fire-adapted forests had fires as often as every few years.
Then came decades of fire exclusion and overgrazing in some areas, resulting in fewer low-intensity fires. A wetter climate in the West also favored woody plant growth, and in the last decade we've had declining timber harvest on most national forests. As a result of all these things, brush and small trees have built up in many areas. Just to give you some idea, in the Southwest-Arizona and New Mexico-annual growth is enough to cover a football field 1 mile high with solid wood, even after losses from mortality. Recent removals have been only about 10 percent of this.4
Today, there's a drought in many of these overgrown forests, and fires no longer stay low to the ground. Instead, they tend to burn up through the undergrowth and into the tree crowns. The entire forest might burn up. Both people and ecosystems are at risk.
On the national forests alone, 73 million acres adapted to frequent fire are at risk from wildland fires that could compromise human safety and ecosystem health.5 That's an area about half again the size of South Dakota-a pretty big chunk of ground. And it's not just on the national forests-it's all across America. In fact, some 397 million acres fall into the same category of moderate to severe fire risk-about a fifth of the contiguous United States. National forest land makes up only a fraction of that.
Americans must decide: We can remove some of the trees and lower the risk of fire danger; or we can do nothing and watch them burn. I think the choice is obvious: In a good part of the country-where fire-adapted forests are overgrown-we must return forests to something more like the way they were historically, then get fire back into the ecosystem when it's safe.
I mentioned the Aspen Fire near Tucson in Arizona. It's a good example of both the challenges and the opportunities we face. Before the fire came through, we'd done some fuels treatments in some areas. Some of them worked to make the fire less severe, and some didn't. But after the fire started, we did some burning out to protect homes in much the same way we do controlled burns for fuels management. In many of those burnouts, the fire did what we hoped. It dropped to the ground, and homes were saved. That just goes to show that our treatments can work.
Unwanted Invasive Species
The second great threat is the spread of unwanted invasive species.6 These include not just plants, but also animals and even disease-causing pathogens-things like West Nile virus or monkeypox. They are species that evolved in one place and wound up in another, where the ecological controls they evolved with are missing. They take advantage of their new surroundings to crowd out or kill off native species. In the process, they might alter key ecological processes, such as hydrology or fire return intervals.
Unwanted invasive plants alone give you some idea of the scope of the problem. Nationwide, invasive plants now cover an area larger than the entire Northeast, from Pennsylvania to Maine. Each year, they gobble up an area larger than the state of Delaware.7 Every region has its own major problem with invasive species-gypsy moth in the Northeast, kudzu vine in the South, white pine blister rust in the West. All invasives combined cost Americans about $138 billion per year in total economic damages and associated control costs.8
The ecological costs are even worse. The Nature Conservancy and NatureServe sponsored a recent study on the major causes of biodiversity loss in the United States. The study found that invasives have contributed to the decline of almost half of all imperiled species.9
So this is a huge issue for the Forest Service, and it should be for all Americans. Public lands-especially federal lands-have become a last refuge for endangered species-some of the last places where they can find the habitat they need to survive. If invasives take over, imperiled animals and plants will have nowhere else to go. We are losing our precious heritage.
Loss of Open Space
That brings me to the third great threat-loss of open space through urban development.10 Every day, we lose about 4,000 acres of open space to development.11 That's almost 3 acres per minute, and the rate of conversion is getting faster all the time.12
Our population is growing, especially in counties with national forests, which are huge retirement magnets.13 The pressures are especially obvious in the East, where about 4 out of 10 Americans live and where almost half of the nation's 20 largest cities are located. The Ikes are well represented in this part of the country, and I'm sure you've noticed the pressures on open space-the heavy use, the summer homes, the growing wildland/urban interface.
The South is seeing similar land use changes. Last year, we completed a major multiyear assessment of southern forest resources, and we found that urban land uses are rapidly expanding.14 We also found that rising urban use is altering forest structure in large parts of the South while limiting management options, such as prescribed fire.
Maybe the biggest threat is to wildlife. Urbanization eats away at forest interior habitat by eliminating large blocks of unfragmented forest. America is losing valuable corridors needed to connect parts of the national forests with other large undisturbed tracts of land. Animals like marten, bear, or cougar need large, relatively undisturbed forests to survive. Many birds also need forest interior habitat.
We're also losing rangeland habitat in the West. Developers often target the bottomlands adjacent to federal land. Millions of acres of open range have been converted to ranchettes, condominiums, and other developed land.15 That means we're losing the ecological integrity of the land as a whole. Elk, for example, depend on lower slopes and bottomland for winter range. Without it, they won't survive, no matter how good the habitat is on adjacent public land.
Unmanaged Outdoor Recreation
The fourth great threat comes from unmanaged outdoor recreation. In my years with the Forest Service, I have seen a tremendous growth in the amount of recreation on the national forests.16 I think that's great. It gives people a stake in the land and a stronger sense of place.
The issue is this: Back when we had light recreational use, we didn't need to manage it so much; but now that it's heavier, we do. There are still uses like blueberry picking that we don't need to manage much. But if every blueberry was picked, we would need to manage it more. At one time, we didn't need to manage mushroom picking much, but now we do in some areas.
At one time, we didn't much manage the use of horses or vehicles, either. But horseback riding has reached levels that are causing serious concern in some parts of the South and East. Nationwide, something similar goes for off-highway vehicles.17
OHVs are a great way to experience the outdoors, and only a tiny fraction of the users leave lasting traces by going cross-country. But the number of OHV users has just exploded in recent years.18 Even a tiny percentage of impact from all those millions of OHV users is still a lot of impact.
Each year, the national forests and grasslands get hundreds of miles of unauthorized roads and trails due to repeated cross-country use. We're seeing more and more erosion, water degradation, and habitat destruction.19 We're seeing more and more conflicts between users. We're seeing more damage to cultural sites and more violation of sites sacred to American Indians. And those are just some of the impacts. We've got to get a handle on that.
Those are the four great threats we face today-fire and fuels, invasive species, loss of open space, and unmanaged outdoor recreation. I don't mean to suggest that these are the only land management challenges we face or that they are entirely new. In fact, the Izaak Walton League has been addressing them for years. Your major policy publications discuss the same threats,20 and you put out a pamphlet last year making the same points about unmanaged OHV use.21
So I think we're on the same wavelength, and we have been making progress. Let me just briefly outline some of what we've been doing:
- Fire and fuels: The National Fire Plan and the Healthy Forests Initiative are working. With the help of the western governors and other partners, we have agreed on the need to focus our treatments on the areas most at risk, such as long-needle pine ecosystems near communities and in municipal watersheds. In fiscal year 2002, the federal agencies together treated about 2.26 million acres, a big increase over treatment levels a decade ago.
- Invasive species: When it comes to invasive species, I think we can all agree that prevention and control work best, but only if they are done across ownerships on a landscape level. The Forest Service has some good partnership programs with the states, such as "Slow-the-Spread" for gypsy moth in the Northeast.
- Urbanization: A good way to conserve open space is to keep ranches and working forests in operation, and the Forest Service has some programs for that. We've got conservation easements through the states so that willing landowners can keep their lands forested, and I was glad to see that the Ikes strongly support our Forest Legacy Program. We've also got forage reserves that ranchers can use to give their grazing allotments a rest. Through programs like these, we can work together across the landscape to keep the land whole.
- Unmanaged recreation: We encourage local programs to keep OHV use on designated roads and trails. National user groups such as the Blue Ribbon Coalition have pledged to work with us to promote responsible OHV use. The focus is on improving our own travel management through better inventory and maps, more public involvement, clear standards and guides in forest plans, clearer signage, better communication, and local partnerships for road maintenance.
So we are making progress, but there's still a long way to go. For example, although we've picked up the pace of our forest health treatments, they are still far below the levels called for in a strategy we prepared in 2000.22 Are we still falling behind on federal lands? And what about state and private lands? Such questions don't have easy answers. In fact, we're going to need to resolve them through a vigorous national debate.
So what's stopping us? Unfortunately, we're distracted by other issues. Too many folks are stuck in the past, still fighting the same old battles from 20 or 30 years ago. We're too focused on logging, some people tell us; we're too focused on building new roads. But it's just not true:
- Today, the national forests produce less than 2 billion board feet of timber per year. That's less than 15 percent of what we produced 15 or 20 years ago. In terms of sheer weight, Americans produce more woody yard waste than national forest timber.23
- In the last 5 years, for every mile we added to the forest road system, the Forest Service decommissioned 14 miles of road. Our road system is not growing, it's shrinking.
The fact is, our management is not what it was 15 or 20 years ago. Instead of mitigating damage from outputs, we now capitalize on activities for generating outcomes. That includes using vegetation removal as a tool for restoring healthy, resilient forest ecosystems. That's why the debate today-focusing on limits to diameter size of the trees we remove-misses the mark. Some people contend that forests are unsustainable if we remove any trees at all over a certain diameter size. To my knowledge, there is no science to support that.
In my view, the way to manage for clean air, clean water, and healthy habitat is to focus on what we leave on the land, not on what we take away. On a landscape scale, the number and size of the trees we remove doesn't matter. What matters is what we leave on the land to achieve healthy landscape conditions. The goal is to meet the desired future condition.
Last, Best Refuges
Okay, let me summarize so far: We've got four great threats facing us as we open this century-fire and fuels, invasive species, loss of open space, and unmanaged recreation. Unfortunately, we've also got some great diversions, like logging and road building. In that connection, let me mention a study on biodiversity loss by The Nature Conservancy and NatureServe.
The study ranks the causes of biodiversity loss.24 Invasive species are at the top of the list. Farther down come land conversion for development; outdoor recreation, including unmanaged OHV use; and disrupted fire regimes-fire and fuels. Toward the bottom of the list you finally get to the combined effects of logging and logging roads.
So why do we spend so much of our time debating logging and roads? Shouldn't we be focusing more on these other issues instead?
With that said, the study did find that logging and road building do affect some imperiled species. It's not necessarily on national forest land, because the study covered the whole United States. But I still think that's unacceptable. I would also be the first to admit that past management practices had some adverse impacts on national forest land.
- That's why the Forest Service is so careful about designing our vegetation management projects to achieve the desired future condition. In fact, our vegetation treatments are often wholly or partly designed expressly for that purpose-to protect long-term biodiversity.
- That's also why we're decommissioning unneeded roads as rapidly as we can. And it's why we're moving slowly and carefully to amend the roadless rule in order to protect roadless values in perpetuity while still providing flexibility at the state and local level.
- Finally, it's why we're working so hard on our ranger districts to reverse the adverse impacts from past management practices-to help the land heal and again become whole.
Is it working? Well, another study sponsored by The Nature Conservancy and NatureServe points out something interesting: The greatest number of imperiled species in the United States is not found on wildlife refuges or national parks, where some people might expect. It's found on the National Forest System. It's about a quarter of all imperiled species nationwide. It's about half of all the populations of federally listed species found on federal lands.25
Why? Not because of Forest Service mismanagement. It's because the national forests and grasslands have always been the best places for endangered species to make a final stand. That's why it's so important to address the great issues-fire and fuels, invasive species, loss of open space, and unmanaged recreation. These are the biggest threats to biodiversity, and we must actively manage them if we truly want to keep America's last, best refuges for biodiversity.
Focus on the Threats
In closing, I think it's time we focused on what's really at risk. I'm not saying we have all the answers-we don't. In fact, we need an open, productive debate on what to do about each of these threats. We must continue to welcome upfront public involvement in our decision making and constructive criticism of everything we do. But beyond that, we've got to stop debating the past and start looking to the future. It's time to move on.
I really believe you can help. The Izaak Walton League is one of the oldest and most respected environmental organizations in America. We really could use your help in focusing attention on the four greatest threats to our nation's forests and grasslands. We could use your help in jumpstarting a national dialogue.
These threats are scientifically and socially complex. They have multiple aspects. They affect both public and private lands. And they will take years to address. So let's get started now-there's no time to lose. In that spirit, I welcome your questions and comments, and I'd now like to open the floor.
1. "The Izaak Walton League of America: Conservation Policies 2000" (National Conservation Center, IWLA, Gaithersburg, MD), p. 6.
2. In 2002, 6.9 million acres burned, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, ID (http://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/fireInfo_statistics.html). That is more than in any year since the 1950s, when 9.4 million acres burned each year on average, except for 1963 (7.1 million acres); 1988, the year of the Great Yellowstone Fires (7.4 million acres); and 2000 (8.4 million acres).
3. In forests with a long fire return interval (200+ years), only 1 percent on national forest land show a severe deviation from the historical condition. These naturally dense forest types include spruce/fir and coastal Douglas-fir/western hemlock. See Kirsten M. Schmidt, James P. Menakis, Colin C. Hardy, Wendel J. Hann, and David L. Bunnell, Development of Coarse-Scale Spatial Data for Wildland Fire and Fuel Management (GTR RMRS-87; USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory, Missoula, MT), p. 14.
4. Marlin A. Johnson, "Combining Social and Ecological Needs on Federal Lands: A Global Perspective" (unpublished paper; USDA Forest Service, Forestry and Forest Health Staff, Albuquerque, NM), p. 4.
5. Classified as condition classes 2 and 3 (moderate to severe deviation from historical condition) in fire regimes I (low-severity fires every 1 to 35 years-e.g., pine, oak, pinyon/juniper) and II (stand replacement fires every 1 to 35 years-e.g., grassland, chaparral, sagebrush), these lands are considered priority areas for treatment. See Schmidt and others, pp. 12-14.
6. Unwanted invasive species include both native and nonnative forest and rangeland pests that are likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health. They usually spread unchecked by environmental controls such as native predators, displacing native species through competition, predation, parasitism, or by other means.
7. Invasive plants now cover about 133 million acres in all ownerships nationwide, and they are expanding at the rate of about 1.7 million acres per year. USDA Forest Service, "Destroying the Silent Invaders," p. 2.
8. David Pimentel, Lori Lach, Rodolfo Zuniga, and Doug Morrison, "Environmental Economic Costs Associated With Nonindigenous Species in the United States" (unpublished paper, 12 June 1999; College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY), p. 14.
9. David S. Wilcove, David Rothstein, Jason Dubow, Ali Phillips, and Elizabeth Losos, "Leading Threats to Biodiversity: What's Imperiling U.S. Species," in Bruce A. Stein, Lynn S. Kutner, and Jonathan S. Adams (eds.), Precious Heritage: The Status of Biodiversity in the United States (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 242.
10. In this context, habitat fragmentation is the division of habitat in both forest and rangeland ecosystems into smaller, more isolated patches, posing a threat to the health and sustainability of ecosystems.
11. From 1982 to 1997, the net increase in developed land was 21.8 million acres, almost totally due to converted forest-, crop-, pasture-, and rangeland. Because so much pasture-, crop-, and rangeland also converted to forestland, there was a small net gain in forestland overall. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Natural Resources Inventory Summary Report (http://www.nrcs.usda.gov/technical/NRI/1997/summary_report/table5.html).
12. By 1997, the rate of development had doubled in just 5 years. H. Ken Cordell and Christine Overdevest, Footprints on the Land: An Assessment of Demographic Trends and the future of Natural Lands in the United States (Champaign, IL: Sagamore Publishing, 2001), p. 98.
13. By 2020, the U.S. population is expected to grow by 50 million. Of the 80 high-growth retirement destinations nationwide, 74 percent abut or contain national forest land. Cordell and Overdevest, p. 58, 129.
14. David N. Wear and John G. Greis, The Southern Forest Assessment: Summary Report (Asheville, NC: USDA Forest Service, Southern Research Station, 2002).
15. From 1982 to 1997, 3.2 million acres of rangeland were converted to developed land. NRCS, table 5.
16. Since 1946, the number of visitors to the national forests and grasslands has grown 18 times. USDA Forest Service, "National Forest Recreation Use, 1924-1996" (Washington, DC: Recreation, Heritage and Wilderness Staff, 1997). Visitation data collected before 2000 are not absolutely reliable, but because they were consistently collected in the same way, they do measure the growth in recreational use.
17. In this context, OHVs are wheeled motorized vehicles capable of traveling cross-country (i.e., away from established roads and trails).
18. The number of users has climbed from about 5 million in 1972 [Executive Order 11644 (President Richard M. Nixon, 1972]), to 19.4 million in 1983, to 27.9 million in 1995, to 35.9 million in 2000 (H. Ken Cordell, Jeff Teasley, Greg Super, John C. Bergstrom, and Barbara McDonald, Outdoor Recreation in the United States: Results from the National Survey on Recreation and the Environment [Asheville, NC: USDA Forest Service, Southeastern Research Station], ch. 2: Outdoor Recreation Participation, p. 8, table 2.1; NSRE 2000, table 2).
19. Patricia A. Stokowski and Christopher B. LaPointe, "Environmental and Social Effects of ATVs and ORVs: An Annotated Bibliography and Research Assessment" (unpublished paper; 20 November 2000, School of Natural Resources, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT); Richard B. Taylor, "Literature Review: The Effects of Off-Road Vehicles on Ecosystems" (Certified Wildlife Biologist, Texas Parks and Wildlife [http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/texaswater/rivers/]).
20. On urbanization, see "Conservation Policies 2000," p. 63; on invasives, forest health, and outdoor ethics, see Izaak Walton League of America, "Annual Report 2001" (National Conservation Center, IWLA, Gaithersburg, MD), pp. 10-11, 13, 16-17, 20-21.
21. Izaak Walton League of America, "Caught in the Treads: Unethical Advertising in the ATV Industry" (Gaithersburg, MD), pp. 22-23.
22. The 15-year treatment schedule called for ramping up treatments to 4.2 million acres per year on national forest land (Forest Service, Protecting People and Sustaining Resources in Fire-Adapted Ecosystems: A Cohesive Strategy [Washington, DC: Forest Service, Washington Office, 2000], p. 40), compared to 1.3 million acres actually treated in fiscal year 2002 (USDA Forest Service, Report of the Forest Service: FY2002 [Washington, DC: Forest Service, Washington Office, 2002], p. 27).
23. David B. McKeever and Kenneth E. Skog, "Urban Tree and Woody Yard Residues: Another Wood Resource" (unpublished draft paper, 9 January 2003; Madison, WI: USDA Forest Service, Forest Products Laboratory).
24. Wilcove and others, pp. 242-247. The study found that the two leading causes of biodiversity loss on all ownerships nationwide are habitat loss and degradation (affecting 85 percent of the species studied) and invasive species (49 percent). Because habitat loss and degradation are caused by 11 different activities, the largest single cause of biodiversity loss can be said to be invasives. Within habitat loss and degradation, land conversion affects 35 percent, recreation affects 27 percent (including OHVs-13 percent), disruption of fire ecology affects 14 percent, and logging/logging roads combined affect 12 percent.
25. Craig R. Groves, Lynn S. Kutner, David M. Stoms, Michael P. Murray, J. Michael Scott, Michael Schafale, Alan S. Weakley, and Robert L. Pressey, "Owning Up to Our Responsibilities: Who Owns Lands Important for Biodiversity?" in Bruce A. Stein, Lynn S. Kutner, and Jonathan S. Adams (eds.), Precious Heritage: The Status of Biodiversity in the United States (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2000), pp. 280, 282.