The Forest Service was created over a hundred years ago to address the damage caused by uncontrolled logging. Concerns for water supply and river navigation were paramount.
During the last century, America’s forests, grasslands and waterways have recovered and our forested land area remains relatively stable.
We met the conservation challenges of our early years.
Today our forests and grasslands face new threats – from climate change.
Fires are a natural part of forested landscapes, but each year the fire season comes earlier and ends later.
Fires burn hotter and are more damaging and dangerous.
Insects are also a natural part of forested landscapes, but now destructive pests are spreading more rapidly. Winter cold isn’t knocking back some populations.
Warmer winters also affect our water supplies. The snow packs are thinner and they melt earlier in spring, so the water runs out from the forest earlier in summer.
Extended droughts make trees more vulnerable to fire and insects and reduce the amount of water available for fish, wildlife, communities and agriculture.
The impacts of rising temperatures on aquatic systems are a major concern. Many species, such as the Bull Trout, are highly susceptible to temperature increases that could result from climate change.
These impacts threaten the capacity of our forests to provide all kinds of ecosystem services that people have come to expect, including clean air and water, habitat for fish and wildlife, and opportunities for hunting, fishing, skiing, and other kinds of outdoor recreation.
The changes in climate we are now experiencing are strongly influenced by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Since the Industrial Revolution, and particularly in the 20th century, CO2 emissions have increased dramatically.
What if we had a machine that soaked up carbon from the atmosphere? A device that would lock up CO2 for a long time.
Of course, it would have to be environmentally friendly. It would also have to be efficient, reliable, cheap and easy to produce.
Here’s what it might look like.
Trees and forests play a crucial role in regulating our climate.
Through photosynthesis they remove CO2 from the atmosphere, binding it and storing the carbon as wood.
The carbon is held in the forest biomass – in the trunks, branches, foliage, and roots and in the soil as organic carbon.
The process is constant and is going on all around us.
In young forests, carbon is soaked up, or sequestered, quickly. In mature forests sequestration slows and is eventually is almost equaled by decomposition. The carbon balance changes little from year to year.
At this point the forest doesn’t absorb much carbon but has become a vast carbon reservoir.
But if the trees are destroyed, they release carbon into the atmosphere thus becoming a source of greenhouse gas emissions.
Forests cover almost one third of the world’s total land area.
They account for 90 percent of the annual interchange of carbon between the atmosphere and the land.
The carbon stored in these ecosystems is the equivalent of about 4.5 trillion tons of CO2.
That’s more than the total carbon contained in the world’s remaining oil stocks.
More, in fact, than the total amount of carbon in the atmosphere itself.
So it’s no surprise that forests can be a big part of the answer to the problem of climate change.
But forested lands are being lost worldwide.
The pace of deforestation, mainly due to human population growth, has accelerated in recent decades.
The Forest Service works with partners in many parts of the world to promote sustainable forestry practices.
Here in the United States, the Forest Service has three main roles in responding to climate change.
Mitigation includes those actions that can help reduce the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere.
Adaptation involves preparing forests and rangelands for the increasingly stressful effects of climate change as they occur in the coming decades.
And sustainable operations mean that we will do our part to reduce our agency’s “ecological footprint.”
Our mitigation efforts focus not only on National Forest System lands – but also on providing leadership for the nation’s forests -- 57% of which are in private ownership.
By conserving and managing existing forests we can protect and maintain the carbon they store.
By planting new forests, we create new carbon sinks.
Planting trees in urban areas decreases the so-called “heat island” effect that occurs when solar energy is absorbed by roofs and pavement. This reduces energy use for air conditioning.
Another thing we can do is promote the use of wood in our every day lives.
Wood used for energy is bio-energy – sustainable energy that can replace fossil fuels and the emissions they produce.
For example, the Fuels for Schools program helps schools in the Western States use woody biomass as an energy source for economical heat.
The Forest Products Lab is developing a number of new ways to use wood fiber from our forests
When it comes to constructing homes and other buildings, wood has the lowest energy consumption and the lowest CO2 emission of any commonly used building material.
Designing buildings to use more wood instead of concrete, plastic and steel could result in a significant drop in greenhouse gas emissions.
Forest Service researchers are developing new processes for converting wood to ethanol and other liquid fuels. Wood has the potential to produce fuel more efficiently than corn, and could replace a significant portion of our demand for transportation fuels.
By using wood more efficiently, particularly the smaller trees, we are able to both manage for a healthier forest and lock up the carbon stored in that wood.
While we must take measures now to curb greenhouse gas emissions, the benefits of these actions won’t be realized for some time.
Changes to our climate over the next 30 to 40 years, caused by past emissions, are largely inevitable.
For decades, Forest Service scientists have been studying and assessing climate change effects on forests, rangelands and watersheds.
This focused research will help build the firm scientific foundation for our management actions.
We will need to be adaptive in our management of forests and grasslands, helping them become more resilient to the stresses caused by climate change.
Many migratory bird species, such as the Kirtland’s Warbler, may be vulnerable because of their highly specialized habitat requirements. Understanding the implications of climate change for threatened and endangered species is a high priority.
We must also consider the impacts of climate change on people, and on the ecosystem services we depend upon.
Throughout much of the arid West, water shortages will be worsened by climate change. Operation of ski areas on Forest Service lands may be altered as snow conditions change.
Managing watershed functions of forests and grasslands will be critical as we try to maximize how they collect, filter, store and release water.
Repairing degraded meadows and fixing roads makes watersheds more resilient and able to function better under a warmer climate with longer droughts.
Many actions, such as thinning overly dense forests, will be win-win solutions – increasing forest health, while at the same time decreasing susceptibility to catastrophic wildfires – a major source of CO2 emissions.
Although we don’t know all the ways our management will adapt in the face of climate change – we know it will. And we are committed to using the best science available, and to being flexible in our responses.
The Forest Service is already taking action to reduce our impact on the environment.
We must be thoughtful about the office supplies we use, the energy and water we consume, the efficiency of the vehicles we drive, and so much more.
Across the Service, groups of employees are forming “Green Teams” to craft local solutions to sustainable operation.
We are using energy and water more efficiently and shifting towards renewable energy sources such as solar power and biomass.
We’re changing our travel practices and using hybrid vehicles and alternative fuels when we can.
By reducing our “environmental footprint” we can operate more sustainably and conserve natural resources in our forests and grasslands, and in our workplaces.
It’s not only about ‘changing light bulbs’ – it’s about changing attitudes and behavior.
We also have a responsibility to teach each other – and our communities –about the effects of climate change – and about how we can all be part of the solution.
If we are to be conservation leaders, we must lead by example and each do our part.
The Forest Service was created in response to the destruction of forests and waterways in the late 19th Century.
Throughout the 20th Century, we met other great challenges such as the Dust Bowl and the need for housing in the post-war baby boom.
Tackling climate change will "require" the best ideas and efforts from every part of the Service.
Trees, forests and forested ecosystems are key to addressing climate change. The Forest Service is uniquely qualified to address this challenge. We have a significant land base, a professional and committed work force, many years of research, and strong relationships with private, State and international natural resource managers. The Forest Service, and you, have a vital role to play.
Future generations will judge us on how we respond to the great conservation challenge of the 21st Century.