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Working Through Partnerships to Sustain Forest Resources

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Allegheny Hardwood Utilization Group, Annual Dinner
St. Marys, PA
June 14, 2013 at 12:00pm

It’s a pleasure to be here tonight. Thank you for inviting me. I understand that this is the first time a Forest Service Chief has come here to speak with you. I appreciate this opportunity for a dialogue.

Your group has a mission that dovetails with our own. The mission of the Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. We do that by working with partners like you to sustain America’s forest resources, in part by finding new uses for forest products and by building public understanding and appreciation for America’s forests through educational initiatives such as Project Learning Tree. We have these goals in common, and I thank you for your support.

Values and Benefits from the National Forest System

As you know, the Forest Service manages the national forests and grasslands. These lands cover about 193 million acres in 44 states and Puerto Rico. That’s an area about twice the size of California, or about 8 percent of our nation’s total land area. The Allegheny National Forest is a prime example, with some of the world’s finest black cherry and northern red oak.

We manage the national forests and grasslands for a full range of values and benefits for people, including jobs. What Americans want from their public lands includes clean air and water, carbon sequestration, habitat for native fish and wildlife, and more.

One obvious benefit is outdoor recreation. Hunting, fishing, and other outdoor activities are a big part of many people’s lives, and the national forests and grasslands are a magnet for retirees and others, mainly for all the amenities they provide. The lands we manage attract about 166 million visits per year. For example, we manage about 60 percent of the downhill skiing capacity in the United States, and about half of America’s blue-ribbon trout streams are on lands managed by either the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management.

Outdoor recreation creates a lot of jobs and economic activity. We estimate that recreational activities on the lands we manage support about 205,000 jobs, contributing about $13.6 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product each year. If you add the jobs generated from all the other activities on the national forests, like timber harvest and watershed restoration, the total is far higher. In fiscal year 2011, for example, all activities combined supported nearly 450,000 jobs and contributed over $36 billion to America’s gross domestic product.

Part of that comes from the forest products industry. The generation of forest products on the National Forest System supports about 42,000 jobs; each year, it contributes about $3 billion to America’s gross domestic product.

Timber harvesting on the national forests peaked in 1987 at about 12.7 billion board feet. Annual timber sales fell off after that to less than 2 billion board feet, but in recent years sales have ticked up again to over 2.5 billion board feet. And that is partly in response to the need for active management to address growing forest health issues.

Challenges to Conservation

In terms of both scale and complexity, forestry in the United States faces some of the greatest challenges in our history. The challenges are associated with drought, wildfire, invasive species, and outbreaks of insects and disease—all made worse by the global changes we are seeing in climate. Stresses and disturbances are affecting the National Forest System on an unprecedented scale. For example:

  • Invasive weeds such as kudzu, cheatgrass, leafy spurge, and spotted knapweed have infested about 6 million acres on the National Forest System. That’s an area the size of Massachusetts.
  • Invasive insects and diseases have wiped out entire forest types, such as American chestnut in the East. Emerald ash borer is threatening the ash components of our forests in the Upper Midwest. As you know, hemlock woolly adelgid and gypsy moth are threatening parts of the Allegheny National Forest.
  • High tree density and forest homogeneity, coupled with changes in climate, have created conditions for severe outbreaks of western forest pests. On the national forests alone, the area affected has reached 32 million acres. That’s an area larger than Pennsylvania.

We estimate that 65 to 82 million acres on the National Forest System—up to 42 percent of the entire system—are in need of treatments ranging from reforestation, to watershed restoration, to hazardous fuels reduction.

Part of the problem stems from severe drought, resulting in extreme fire weather and very large fires and fire seasons. 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. Warming temperatures mean more energy in the atmosphere, which is consistent with severe fire seasons—and severe weather events, such as tornadoes, blizzards, and hurricanes.

Restoration

In response to such challenges, the Forest Service is working to restore the ability of forest and grassland ecosystems to resist stresses, recover from disturbances, and continue to deliver all the benefits that Americans want and need, including jobs and economic benefits. We have therefore launched an Accelerated Restoration Initiative, taking a series of steps nationwide, including on the Allegheny National Forest.

For example, we are stepping up the pace of watershed restoration. Forests are great at absorbing water, purifying it, and slowly releasing it into streams. About 18 percent of our nation’s water supply in the lower 48 states originates on the national forests and grasslands. These lands protect the headwaters of the nation, including some of the headwaters of the Ohio River on the Allegheny National Forest. We supply about 60 million Americans living in 3,400 communities with drinking water, including great cities like Pittsburgh.

Most watersheds on the national forests are healthy, but many are not. Forty-eight percent have low to moderate functional integrity, including most watersheds on the Allegheny National Forest.

In 2011, we developed a Watershed Condition Framework to track the condition of more than 15,000 watersheds on the National Forest System. Based on the framework and available funding, we chose 285 watersheds for high-priority restoration work, including the Bear Creek and Sugar Run-Allegheny River watersheds on the Allegheny National Forest. Our watershed work includes things like road decommissioning, culvert replacement, and postfire reforestation.

Wood Utilization

Our Accelerated Restoration Initiative also includes stepping up the pace of fuels and forest health treatments. From 2001 to 2011, for example, the Forest Service treated about 27.6 million acres for hazardous fuels. That’s an area about the size of Pennsylvania. We have identified 12.5 million acres in need of mechanical treatments on the National Forest System; given sufficient funding, we plan to raise timber harvest levels to 3 billion board feet per year.

The Allegheny National Forest has a long history of providing timber in this region, and the forest’s timber program has been fairly stable since 1999. For fiscal year 2013, the forest plans to sell 33 million board feet; similar amounts are planned for sale in the next two to three years. We are working with the local forest products industry as a partner in achieving desired vegetation conditions, meeting land management objectives, and enhancing and restoring forest ecosystems.

Nationally, the timber program has faced numerous challenges in the past ten to twenty years. Even before the Great Recession, our forest products industry was in trouble in places like California and the Southwest. The recent downturn has made things far worse: From 2005 to 2009, more than a thousand sawmills closed nationwide, and almost 300,000 full-time jobs were lost—fully 26 percent of America’s jobs in the forest products industry.

This region is not exempt from such challenges, and we share your concerns. Our State and Private Forestry field office in Morgantown, West Virginia, has funded a study for the state of Pennsylvania to determine how many sawmills have closed in recent years. The study only just began in April, and it isn’t complete yet, but here’s what we’ve found so far.

In the 1990s, there were around 1,500 mills in the state. Since then, a substantial number have closed. When they started the survey in April, they had about 550 mills to contact.

The timber staff on the Allegheny National Forest has also faced reductions. The forest has lost timber expertise as people have retired, and two timber sales were recently delayed due to a lack of timber markers.

Still, we are committed to doing everything we can to support local timber industries and mills, especially during these difficult economic times. In May, the Allegheny National Forest hired seven new timber markers, and they will be hard at work by the end of June. We have also filled other positions, so our timber program is well on its way toward being fully staffed.

We can also get more work done by becoming more efficient. At the national level, we are making our timber contracts more efficient and cost-effective in order to get more restoration work done. For example, we are streamlining timber sale preparation through “designation by description” and other techniques.

Another step toward accelerated restoration is to expand markets for timber and woody biomass. Wood is the greenest building material there is. Wood makes up almost half of all building materials in the United States, yet it accounts for only a tenth of the energy used to manufacture building materials. Wood is roughly twice as carbon-efficient as concrete and steel. That’s partly because wood in building materials stores so much carbon.

But wood has gotten a bad rap; there’s a widespread misconception that building from cement or steel is better for the environment than using wood. We need to dispel those misconceptions.

One way of doing that is through the life-cycle analyses and reports that Forest Service researchers have been releasing. We are also working through partnerships to raise awareness of the benefits of using wood in buildings. For example, we support the international WoodWorks program to raise awareness among architects and engineers of the benefits of using wood—not just in family homes, but also in nonresidential buildings.

We are also setting an example—practicing what we preach. We have more than 15,000 administrative buildings around the country, more than 6,000 recreational facilities, and more than 800 buildings to house our researchers. We replace, restore, or repair hundreds of these buildings every year, and we have directed all of our units to increase the use of domestically harvested wood in all new Forest Service buildings and facilities.

Many of the materials we remove to help restore forests have little or no value. By finding new uses for biomass and small-diameter materials, we can get more work done. At our Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, the Forest Service is constantly exploring new ways to utilize wood—and new ways to market new uses. For example, woody biomass can now be used to develop cross-laminated timber. The cross-lamination technology creates a stable and structurally sound panel that is used for building components such as floors, walls, ceilings, and more. Completed projects have included the use of these panels for 10-story high-rise buildings!

We see a fundamental need for an integrated forest products industry that generates an integrated stream of high-value and low-value woody materials on a variety of different markets, including energy markets. Forest Service researchers are hard at work in this area. Our Bioenergy and Biobased Products Research Program is leading the way in researching wood-based energy and products. We are working with partners to reduce risk for investors and thereby contribute to our national energy security while improving our environment and our economy.

Stewardship Contracting

Another part of our Accelerated Restoration Initiative is stewardship contracting. As you probably know, a stewardship contract provides materials such as timber in exchange for restoration work, thereby obviating the need for restoration funding through congressional appropriations. At the national level, we have improved our stewardship contracting mechanisms, making them a viable choice for restoration treatments. But our congressional authority for stewardship contracting ends later this year; we need to make it permanent.

Stewardship contracting has increased across the Allegheny National Forest in partnership with the timber industry and many local contractors. A forest wide Stewardship Task Force develops stewardship strategies and manages the stewardship program, with input and support from an external Stewardship Working Group. Stewardship contracting has increased our capacity for site preparation and herbicide application to help establish seedlings, leading to final regeneration harvests. We welcome your feedback as we refine and expand the program.

Invasive Species and Forest Pests

Stewardship contracting has also increased our capacity on the Allegheny National Forest to address invasive species, particularly invasive weeds. Several workshops and field visits were recently held with prospective vendors to share information on the kind of work needed to address invasive species.

As I mentioned earlier, hemlock woolly adelgid is a threat to eastern hemlock across the landscape. A large working group of partners has formed to prepare a landscape-scale management strategy to address the threat of infestation by hemlock woolly adelgid. I understand that many of you here are partners in this effort, and I thank you for all the work you do.

Gypsy moth populations have also grown in some areas, and we are monitoring them and making plans to suppress them if populations remain high next year.

As you probably know, heavy deer browsing threatens forest regeneration. In response, the Allegheny National Forest the forest joined Forest Service scientists and other partners in the Kinzua Quality Deer Cooperative. The cooperative is a 12-year effort between private and public landowners to implement an adaptive management program to improve the quality of hunting and habitat.

Results have been remarkable. Reductions in deer density across the Allegheny National Forest have nearly eliminated the need to fence regeneration harvests. Habitat is steadily improving, with greater understory and tree seedling diversity.

Nevertheless, somewhere between 60 percent and 90 percent of our regeneration harvests require herbicide application and other reforestation investments in order to develop natural tree seedling regeneration. We plan to treat nearly a thousand acres in fiscal year 2013.

The Allegheny National Forest is also expanding its prescribed fire program to restore oak-hickory forest. So far this year, we used prescribed fire on about 150 acres. We intend to expand the use of prescribed fire as conditions permit and trained personnel are available.

Restoration Opportunities

Our various restoration programs afford opportunities for working together to leverage our mutual resources. We need a strong forest products industry to help us restore forests to health, and we look forward to building our partnership with you. I think we have a lot in common.

We face some very serious challenges on the national forests and grasslands. But working together, we can meet the challenges of the future, both on the Allegheny National Forest and across the nation. Working together, we can provide jobs, timber, healthy forests, clean rivers, and more for generations to come.

So I’ve said my piece. Hopefully, what I’ve said will stimulate some questions and dialogue. Now I look forward to listening to you.

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