Working Together for the Health of the Land
I’d like to thank Assemblyman Cogdill for arranging this meeting and for giving me the chance to be here. It’s a pleasure to be back in California. I grew up here in California on the national forests; my father was a forest supervisor. I guess my earliest professional experience was during summers as a teenager fighting fires for the California Department of Forestry. Later, I spent some time in the Forest Service’s regional office in California, which was in San Francisco at the time. So I have some familiarity with the land here in California and with national forest issues.
Before I start, let me just say that there are over 200 pending administrative appeals of the Sierra Nevada Framework Amendments in my office. Under the appeal rules, it is inappropriate for me to discuss the merits of the appeals and the Sierra Framework with you while the appeals are still pending. It is also inappropriate for me to answer any questions from you related to the Framework. The decision on the appeals will be issued within the next month or so. My remarks today will therefore be generic as to the kinds of issues facing the Sierras.
In fact, as special as the Sierras are, a lot of the issues affecting the Sierras are pretty generic. Issues like fire and forest health, the wildland/urban interface, invasive species, and clean water and air affect our private and public lands all across America. I’d like to start by talking a little about what I see as the Forest Service’s role in addressing these issues. Then I’d like to describe some of the opportunities I see for solving the problems we face by working together.
Our National Forest System is almost a century old. The first Forest Service Chief was Gifford Pinchot, and in 1905 he wrote the first Use Book for the national forests. It was so short and simple it could fit inside your pocket. It was a blueprint for managing the national forests as a model of sustainable forestry for the nation. It called for things like grazing and timber cropping on a sustained-yield basis.
Over the years, sustainable forestry has evolved to mean more. Sustainability has come to mean sustaining ecosystem health as well as multiple products and uses. We have come to realize that without healthy ecosystems, we cannot sustain the products and uses that our communities need for their health and stability. Our central mission in managing the national forests and grasslands has shifted from producing timber, range, and other outputs to restoring and maintaining healthy, resilient ecosystems.
Now, that doesn’t mean ignoring social and economic needs; in fact, it means the opposite. As strange as it might sound, healthy ecosystems need healthy communities. Here’s why: Local communities are the caretakers of healthy ecosystems. If our communities are healthy economically, they will find ways to take care of the land. If they are not, the land will suffer.
As I see it, our mission is to work with local individuals and communities to protect and restore the health of the land. Partly, that means finding intelligent, far-sighted ways of using some of our natural resources. Partly, it means working together to diversify economies while putting people to work for the health of the land. I think we need to accomplish our land stewardship goals by looking for creative new ways to get needed work done on the land, get products from it, and build communities together. Those are the real opportunities I see.
Okay, so how do we go about working together for the health of the land? We can’t get there by doing nothing. One problem has been convincing folks that active management is needed. When people see lots of trees, they tend to think everything must be just fine. They think all we need to do is to sit back and let nature take care of itself. They don’t see the long-term changes to the land caused by a combination of human activity and neglect. They don’t see the problems that have resulted and the potential for even greater problems in the future.
A few weeks ago, I was in the Tahoe Basin. Much of the basin was clearcut a century or more ago, but today it’s covered again with trees. Some people see that and think it’s all pretty pristine. But we know from old stumps and old photos what the original forest was like. The forests were much more open than today. The trees were bigger and a whole lot healthier. In fact, some 40 percent of the trees in the Tahoe Basin today are dead or dying from overcrowding.
What can we do? If we do nothing, Lake Tahoe will continue to deteriorate in terms of water quality and clarity. The native cutthroat trout will never recover. The forests will continue to wither and die. Enormous wildfires will sweep through places that, historically, seldom saw large fires. The consequences for communities and for the lake itself are potentially catastrophic.
You can see similar catastrophes brewing all across the Sierras, and not just there. You can see them brewing throughout the Interior West, and, indeed, all across the nation. The big fires last year were a wakeup call. The scope of our forest health problem today is enormous:
- On the national forests alone, about 73 million acres are at risk from wildland fires that could compromise human safety and ecosystem integrity.
- About 70 million acres in all ownerships are at severe risk from 26 different insects and diseases. About 47 percent of that is national forest land.
- Other symptoms of a forest health crisis include the spread of invasive species and the degradation of watersheds.
- These problems are interlinked. Decades of fire suppression have often produced overcrowded vegetation in our forests, weakening trees and rendering them more fire prone and more susceptible to pests, diseases, and displacement by invasive species. Too often, the result is soil erosion and habitat degradation, especially in sensitive areas such as streams, lakes, and wetlands.
These problems affect us all. Catastrophic fire and insect infestations don’t respect jurisdictional boundaries. For years, we’ve had controversy over active management on the national forests and grasslands. We’re seeing it spill over onto state and private lands. State and private folks are also worried about the impact on their own lands if we can’t do the work we need to do on the national forests. I think we are going to have to do a much better job of communicating with the American people about what’s going on in the woods and what we need to do about it.
As professional foresters with some of the best forest science in the world, we know what needs to be done and we have the will and the ability to do it. On national forest land, we’ve made a start. We’re returning fire to the ecosystem, and we’re using thinning to help open up our vegetation-choked forests. We also have vigorous pest management and watershed restoration programs, often in collaboration with state and private partners.
However, at the rate we’re going, it will take more than 50 years just to treat the 73 million acres at the most risk from fire on the national forests. That’s just not acceptable. We are going to have to pick up the pace. The scale of our forest health problem means we are going to need huge and sustained investments for active management. The GAO has cited a figure of $30 billion over the next 10 years just to deal with the fuels problem on federal lands.
Congress has made a start by funding the National Fire Plan. The western states, working together with federal, tribal, and local partners, have drafted a collaborative 10-year strategy for restoring our fire-adapted ecosystems to health. On the national forests, we will greatly expand our forest health treatments, starting with the areas most at risk—the wildland/urban interface, municipal watersheds, and areas adjacent to neighboring lands. So I think we’re on the right track. I am totally committed to the National Fire Plan.
But there’s another problem. Even if we know what to do and we are ready to do it, we can still be stopped by institutional gridlock. Too often, we spend so much time just trying to comply with laws, regulations, and procedures that we can’t do the necessary work on the ground.
The way things are set up, someone with a good lawyer and an axe to grind can keep things tied up for years through administrative appeals and litigation. We might win in the end—more and more court cases are decided in our favor—but by then, it might be too late. Meanwhile, we are forced to spend scarce resources on process instead of getting work done on the ground, and the problems in the field just keep getting worse.
For example, the NEPA initiation and appeals phase for a project, from scoping through the end of the administrative process, might take more than a year. That could be followed by another two years of litigation, for a total of more than three years before the project can go forward. By then, it might be too late; maybe a fire has already come through, for example, and destroyed what the project was supposed to protect.
Another example is this: It might take 5 to 10 years to complete a 15-year forest plan. Meanwhile, the landscape might have changed or new information might have emerged. Suddenly, the assumptions we made early on are no longer valid, and back we go to the drawing board.
Part of the problem is that the laws sometimes overlap. A federal judge in California saw that happen in a case he ruled on back in 1984. He called it “the crazy quilt of apparently mutually incompatible statutory directives.” He said it was enough to drive any Secretary of Agriculture to drink.
Another problem is that agency responsibilities overlap. There’s bipartisan agreement on that. For example, when former President Bill Clinton started researching the northern spotted owl controversy in 1992, he said he found that there were six separate government agencies involved and that they had five different positions under the same administration.
When the National Forest Management Act passed in 1976, Senator Hubert Humphrey said it was “designed to get the practice of forestry out of the courts and back in the forests.” Instead, the opposite has happened. Resource management decisions are made by judges based on points of law, not on conditions out in the field.
Again, there’s bipartisan agreement that this perverts the original intent of the law. Here’s what Kathleen McGinty, who was CEQ Chair under President Clinton, had to say about it: “How could we have gotten it so wrong? … How could it be that, for 5 years, 10 years—sometimes for a quarter of a century or more—when it comes to natural resources we have literally been a country in receivership. The courts have managed our forests; our rivers; our rangelands.”
So I think there’s a lot of agreement that the system is broken. With that said, I remain absolutely committed to meeting the requirements of our environmental laws. Besides, I think it’s good that the American people value the environment and have gotten more directly engaged. I just think we ought to find a way to get back to the original intent of the law. We ought to rescue the spirit of our environmental laws from the way they have been twisted to serve a few narrow interests.
How can we get there? I think we need to start thinking about other ways of working together. If we’re ever going to solve America’s forest health problems, then I think we’re going to need to find other ways of doing things than we have in the past. I have put together a high-level team in the Forest Service to explore ways of streamlining processes and maybe propose some alternative approaches for pilot testing. I think we need a national dialogue on this problem. We’re wide open for ideas!
That brings me to some of the opportunities I see. Let me just repeat, first off, that I think we need thriving communities for healthy ecosystems, and vice versa. We can’t do it alone. We’re going to need your help, your ingenuity, your investments to restore the Sierras to health. I see a lot of win/win situations out there on the land, provided we can come to some agreement.
The National Fire Plan opens up a lot of opportunities. That includes thinning projects on national forest land. Most of the thinning won’t produce high-value sawlogs. But there are commercial uses for some of the small-diameter materials we need to remove, and a high priority for our Forest Products Lab is to discover more. The biomass industry holds great promise, especially here in California. Through the National Fire Plan, we’re funding a series of biomass utilization feasibility studies in the area around Lake Tahoe. We’re also funding a biomass-to-ethanol and electricity cogeneration project near Quincy to create a market for wood from removed hazardous fuels.
There will also be large-scale forest health restoration projects, including prescribed burns and large-scale monitoring projects. So there will be more and more opportunities for working with local communities on all kinds of projects designed to maintain and restore ecosystem health on public lands.
We already have some special authorities for the work we need to do. For example, the Forest Service’s stewardship projects are an alternative to traditional timber sales. They give us more flexibility for removing small trees for healthier forests. We also have large-scale watershed projects that let us work with partners to restore healthy watersheds on a landscape level. We need more tools like these to bypass the gridlock. If we can work together on a landscape level for the long-term health of the land, then we can avoid ESA listings and the problems that follow—those stark, divisive choices we have become all too familiar with over the years.
In closing, let me just summarize my main points:
- First, our focus has shifted from outputs to outcomes. Today, the role of the Forest Service is to restore and maintain healthy ecosystems to meet the needs of present and future generations.
- Second, the outcomes are too often not what we want. Many national forest lands are healthy, but many are not. In fact, the scope of our forest health problems is enormous.
- Third, as professional land managers we know what the land needs. Too often, though, we can’t do the needed work because we’re tied up in procedures that are beyond our control.
- Fourth, we need to get beyond the gridlock if we want healthy lands. We need new ways of working together for a desired future condition on the land, for outcomes that all Americans want.
That brings me to my final point. I think we have a historic opportunity to establish a consensus based on what unites us. In times of crisis, Americans have always pulled together. We’re seeing it happen again after the tragic events at the Pentagon and World Trade Center.
We face a forest health crisis. I think it’s time we got together behind a common agenda for restoring the national forests to health. Our goal should be to strike the right balance between social, economic, and ecological sustainability using approaches that are citizen-centered, results-oriented, and market-based. For example, I think we can use community-developed restoration and monitoring projects to stimulate new businesses and create new jobs on the national forests.
In the past, when America has put its mind to something and simply told its public servants, “Go to it! You figure it out,” we’ve always had great success: The TVA, NASA, and the Manhattan Project all come to mind. I think it’s time we did something similar for our public lands. If we can start working together based on what unites us—for the health of the land—I think we can get there.