An Agenda for Conservation in the 21st Century

Tom Tidwell, Chief
National Association of State Foresters, Annual Meeting
Orlando, FL
— September 18, 2010

As usual, it is a pleasure to be here.  The State Foresters are the most important partners we have in restoring and maintaining forest health on a landscape scale.

Partnership Accomplishments

I would like to start by congratulating you for completing the statewide assessments and strategies.  It’s been two years since the Farm Bill stated the requirement, and in that time you have made a tremendous effort.  You have identified the critical concerns of our times and the critical landscapes for our future.  By focusing on all lands—state, private, Tribal, and federal—you have laid the groundwork for great things to come.  You have strategically assessed the forest areas with the greatest need, the highest value, or the largest potential for innovation, where we will get the most bang for the buck.  The result will be healthier and more resilient landscapes … better and more fire-adapted communities … improved habitat, air, and water quality … and a host of other public benefits that come from actively managed forests.

Just as important as the results was the process.  In preparing the assessments and strategies, you engaged a wide range of partners, taking into account a wide range of views, building trust and a basis for future collaboration.  Thanks to you, every part of our country will have a meaningful account of America’s forests, a targeted plan for addressing them, and a firm foundation for collaborative action.

I would also like to thank you for helping us implement the Recovery Act.  This is an unprecedented effort to jumpstart our economy, to create or save millions of jobs, and to put a down payment on addressing long-neglected challenges such as infrastructure improvements, energy independence, and climate change.  The Forest Service had $1.15 billion in Recovery Act funds, and—in the spirit of landscape-scale conservation—many of the projects were collaborative efforts with the states.  Here in Florida, for example, we worked with the Florida Division of Forestry to apply more than $7 million in Recovery Act funds for the Florida Community Fuels Management Program.  Funds went toward mitigating hazardous fuels, building Firewise communities, and preparing community wildfire protection plans.

We have also worked together through the Recovery Act and other instruments to protect and restore the nation’s urban forests.  America’s urban areas cover about 70 million acres, an area the size of Nevada, with an average tree cover of 27 percent.  Cooling effects can lower temperatures, reducing the need for air conditioning and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions.  With almost 4 billion trees, our urban forests also store and sequester a lot of carbon.

Forests in Trouble

And that’s vitally important, because America’s forests are in trouble, not least due to climate change, but also due to land use conversion from growth and development.  America’s private forest landowners own most of our forests, 56 percent.  They contribute a vast array of public goods and services, such as clean water, timber, wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunities.  But these goods and services are at risk from development.  We estimate that over 57 million acres of rural forest land could experience a substantial increase in housing density from 2000 to 2030.  That’s an area larger than Utah.

And the forests that remain are being steadily degraded, partly due to invasive species.  You all know the story:

  • Chestnut blight has removed the American chestnut, once an icon of our forested landscapes in the East.
  • The American elm, once the symbol of small-town America, has virtually disappeared from Main Street.
  • White ash, green ash, black ash—these major components of America’s forests are threatened by emerald ash borer.
  • White walnut—or butternut—has been mostly killed off by an invasive fungus. And now black walnut, too, is threatened by thousand cankers disease.
  • And let’s not forget invasive weeds—especially kudzu here in the South, but across the nation also saltcedar and junipers, knapweeds and starthistle … the list goes on.

Invasive pests like gypsy moth and hemlock woolly adelgid are further ravaging our forests in the East.  Southern pine beetle has made problems here in the South, and mountain pine beetle has spread into new areas in the West, placing already threatened forest types at risk, such as whitebark pine and other high-elevation five-needle pines.  

Especially in the West, bark beetle outbreaks have added to fuel buildups and growing fire danger.  So far this year … knock on wood … we have had a fairly light fire season, with the acreage burned well below the ten-year average.  But the longer term trends do not bode well.

In 2000 and 2002, for the first time since the 1950s, more than 7 million acres burned in a single year.  In 2004 and 2005, more than 8 million acres burned; in 2006 and 2007, more than 9 million.  Today, some fire managers foresee the possibility of fire seasons on the order of 12 to 15 million acres.  From 2000 to 2008, at least nine states had record-breaking fires, megafires on a scale rarely seen before.  And with so many communities mushrooming in the WUI, nearly 28,000 homes, businesses, and outbuildings have burned in wildfires in the last ten years. The Fourmile Canyon Fire near Boulder, Colorado, is a fresh reminder of how dangerous the WUI has become.  The Fourmile Canyon Fire, now 100-percent contained, burned 6,181 acres and destroyed 172 structures.

Drought-stressed forests … catastrophic fires … outbreaks of insects and disease … partly, these are symptoms of a changing climate.  Changes in temperature and precipitation, in the timing and magnitude of weather events, are altering ecosystems and fire regimes.  Milder winter temperatures are letting bark beetles reproduce faster and spread upslope and northward.  One study estimated that the current mountain pine beetle outbreak, by 2020, will cover more than 92 million acres across North America. That’s an area almost the size of Montana.  Think of climate change as the common backdrop for all these developments.  And these developments in turn contribute to climate change by releasing more carbon into the atmosphere; scientists call it a positive feedback loop.

Climate change and its associated stresses all have devastating consequences for watershed health—for our water supplies and all the other goods and services that Americans want and need from their forests.  It is no exaggeration to say that land managers today face challenges as great as any in our nation’s history.

At the Crossroads

So we find ourselves at a crossroads.  The question is, which way do we go?  What do we do?

Secretary Vilsack is keenly aware of the challenges before us, but also of the opportunities.  He has addressed both in major speeches, most recently last August, when he projected a vision for the nation’s private forests.  Building on the Secretary’s vision, we have an opportunity to create the foundation for conservation in the 21st century.

The Secretary looks to us, in particular to State and Private Forestry, in partnership with NRCS and the State Foresters to realize our common vision for the future of America’s forests.  None of us are alone on the landscape.  Even in the East, where 80 to 90 percent of the forest land is privately owned, private lands are only part of the landscape.  Forest ecosystems typically form mosaics—mosaics of plant and animal communities and mosaics of landownerships.  In the East and in the West, the critical issues are the same, especially in an era of climate change—forest health, invasive species, fire and fuels, water quantity and quality, and wildlife habitat connectivity.  Such issues neither begin nor end at boundary lines.  We are all in this together.

That’s why we are taking an all-lands approach.  Cross-boundary partnerships for landscape-scale conservation are the only approach that makes sense.  With that in mind, the Forest Service is writing a new planning rule based on a process that is open and collaborative, taking a broad range of stakeholder concerns into account, concerns that range across the landscape.

Our Tribal partners call the lands they manage anchor forests.  That’s a useful concept, one that we might learn from.  We want our forest plans to take the broader context into account, to help anchor the broader landscape.  The national forests play a role that extends beyond the green line.  They affect the health of adjoining state, private, and Tribal lands, and we want to manage them for ecosystem health and resilience across the landscape.

In wildland fire management, we are also taking the opportunity to work together on a landscape scale.  We owe a debt of gratitude to the State Foresters for supporting passage of the FLAME Act of 2009.  That Act authorizes a more sensible, more effective allocation of suppression dollars in response to changing conditions on the ground.  We are deeply grateful to finally have that authority and those additional resources.  It will make a huge difference in the years to come.

But the FLAME Act also did something else.  It directed the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior to develop a Cohesive Wildfire Management Strategy. The Wildland Fire Leadership Council has coordinated strategy development through a series of forums across the nation, with input from hundreds of stakeholders representing a wide range of interests and viewpoints.

The Cohesive Strategy will build on the success of the National Fire Plan and other foundational documents, such as the Ten-Year Comprehensive Strategy and Implementation Plan.  Our Cohesive Strategy has three parts:

  • First, restoring ecosystems on a landscape scale—in other words, building fire-adapted natural communities.
  • Second, building fire-adapted human communities. A good example is the national Firewise program.
  • Third, responding appropriately to wildfire.  That includes putting out wildfires that threaten lives, homes, and critical natural resources, no matter what the cause.

We will implement the Strategy in three phases.  Phase 1 is a report to Congress in November.  In Phase 2, we will tailor the Strategy to each region, and we hope you will take the opportunity to participate in the corresponding regional discussions. Phase 3 will roll up the regional strategies into a single national strategy.

Last April, the President announced America’s Great Outdoors, an initiative to reconnect Americans to the forests and grasslands that sustain us all.  The President asked the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, along with EPA and CEQ, to host a series of listening sessions around the country and to develop a series of recommendations based on them.  A report to the President is due in November.  Among other things, it will focus on the importance of landscape-scale conservation and the federal role in conserving working forests and ranches.

Setting a New Agenda

But what are the most critical landscapes?  That gets back to the statewide assessments and strategies.  Through your contribution, you have helped set the stage for a new conservation agenda in the 21st century.

In the broad scheme of things, the stars are aligned.  The Weeks Act first brought us together through the need for cooperative wildland fire management.  We have a joint conservation legacy of forest restoration—think of the national forests in the East and South, a restoration success story—think of the way we worked together with private landowners to stabilize America’s forest estate in the early 20th century, an even greater success story.

Now we have Secretary Vilsack’s vision for sustainable forest management focused on restoring the health and resilience of ecosystems … America’s Great Outdoors … the Farm Bill of 2008 and the upcoming Farm Bill in 2012 … the statewide assessments and strategies … Forest Service redesign of State and Private Forestry … the Cohesive Strategy.  These things are all coming together for a new national dialogue on conservation.  And next year is the International Year of Forests declared by the United Nations, where we will have an opportunity to carry the dialogue onto a world forum.

Together, we can build on a century of success to set the stage for conservation for a hundred years to come.  We can set an agenda geared to the idea of restoring healthy, resilient landscapes across borders and boundaries … an agenda of working landscapes … of keeping working forests as forests … of avoided deforestation, avoided forest fragmentation.  Together, we can create a culture that values well-managed forests for all the benefits they confer … a culture of making investments in the right places so that people can continue to benefit for generations to come.


W.A. Kurz, C.C. Dymond, G. Stinson [et al.], Mountain Pine Beetle and Forest Carbon Feedback to Climate Change (Nature 452 [April 2008]: 987-990).