Is America on Track Toward Sustainable Forests?

Dale Bosworth, Chief
Society of American Foresters, Annual Convention
— October 26, 2003

Thanks for that generous introduction. As a professional forester and a member of the Society of American Foresters for almost four decades, it's a great honor to address you here today.

I was asked here today to discuss the future direction of the Forest Service. For almost a century now, we have pursued sustainable forest management, and I believe that same pursuit will continue to drive our future. So I'll discuss our future by raising a basic question: Are we on a trajectory toward sustainable forests in America? I'll approach this question in two ways:

  • First, I'll discuss the recently released National Report on Sustainable Forests.
  • Second, I believe that the report shows that we face four major threats to sustainable forestry. So I'll close with a plea for informed dialogue leading to action against the four threats.

National Report

The National Report on Sustainable Forests is the first in a series of similar reports to be released on a regular basis. The reason for the report is simple: To know whether we are on track toward sustainability. For that, we need to know the extent and condition of the forest resource. We also need to know how the biological condition relates to our economy and society. In other words, sustainability depends on how its social, economic, and ecological components interrelate. That idea is so important that it has earned a name of its own—the "triple bottom line."

The purpose of the National Report on Sustainable Forests is to tell us whether the triple bottom line is in the red or in the black. The report culminates years of multinational efforts to measure and monitor indicators of forest sustainability. Through the Montreal Process, we agreed on 67 indicators of forest sustainability organized under 7 criteria for sustainable forest management.

For many of those 67 indicators, our information is far from complete. But we do have good information about some of the indicators, and we know something about all of them. Looked at in their entirety, the indicators tell us something about the triple bottom line.

The report tells some interesting stories about forests in the United States. In the last four centuries, about a quarter of our original forest area has been converted to other uses. But for the past hundred years, there has been no net loss. Yet our population and economy have continued to grow-in fact, the growth has been rather impressive. There are several reasons why:

  • First, conservation awareness, beginning in the late 19th century, led to a vastly different attitude toward forests. Forests came to be viewed as a resource that could provide benefits forever if they are carefully managed and used.
  • Second, the environmental awareness of the late 20th century carried this thinking forward. In recent decades, we've seen remarkable improvements in some aspects of forest sustainability, such as species protection, water quality, and timber productivity.
  • Third, improvements in technology have helped. For example, we've greatly increased how fast we can grow wood in intensively managed forests. We've also reduced the amount of raw material that is wasted in producing lumber and other wood products, and we've increased the amount of wood fiber that is recycled. Our agricultural productivity has also increased, making it possible for many croplands to revert to forest.

Threats to Sustainability

To me, the progress we have made is remarkable, given the many demands of our growing society and economy. However, we still face four major threats that can throw us off course.

One major threat is loss of open space. Urban sprawl, transportation corridors, and changes in forest ownership are fragmenting the forest estate. That makes it difficult to meet the multiple demands on forests, even though the total forest land base is stable.

For example, we no longer satisfy all our wood needs domestically. The United States is a net importer of wood products, to the tune of about 20 percent of our domestic demand. There's an upside to that—our willingness to buy wood products internationally helps us sustain our own forests for nonconsumptive uses, such as aesthetic enjoyment and ecological services. But there are also a couple of downsides:

  • Domestically, the forest products industry is a shrinking part of our national economy. That changes incentives for land ownership, making forest parcels smaller. Parcelization in turn affects how forests are managed and what goods and services they can provide.
  • Internationally, if we import forest products from countries with fewer environmental protections, then we run the risk of exporting our environmental problems to them. If we are truly serious about sustainable forests, then we'd better take a hard look at the choices we are making, including our consumption choices and our "not-in-my-backyard" philosophy.

Another unintended consequence of globalization directly influences biological aspects of forest sustainability. Imported diseases have all but destroyed two of America's favorite forest trees—American elm and American chestnut. Other tree species have suffered similar fates, such as western white pine. The rate at which we are importing forest insects, diseases, and invasive plants is growing. It poses one of the greatest threats to forest sustainability.

A third major threat is fire and fuels. During the 20th century, we got extremely good at fire control. That made our forests more dependable for timber production and other uses. But, as you know, fire exclusion in some forest types helped throw many areas out of balance. Today, hundreds of millions of acres nationwide are at risk from uncharacteristically severe fires.

Coupled with the growing wildland/urban interface, the fire and fuels situation today has become a national emergency, as the huge fire seasons of 2000 and 2002 demonstrated. The fire and fuels situation critically affects many aspects of forest sustainability, including biodiversity, productivity, water quality, carbon sequestration, and social and economic expectations.

The fourth major threat is unmanaged outdoor recreation, particularly the unmanaged use of off-highway vehicles. OHVs are growing in popularity, and they are a legitimate use of national forest land. Tens of millions of OHVs are now in use—far more than just 10 years ago.

Most OHV users are responsible, but the tiny percentage of problem users have left hundreds of miles of unauthorized roads and trails. We are seeing some terrible effects: streambanks collapsed, trails washed out, sensitive meadows destroyed. If we're serious about sustainable forests, we're going to have to extend and improve our management of recreational uses.

Mixed Picture

At the outset of my remarks, I asked a basic question: Are we on a trajectory toward sustainable forests in the United States? We think so—but, to be honest, we just don't know.

Partly, we don't know because we don't yet have a full picture. For many of the indicators of forest sustainability, we simply lack information. A prime example is nontimber forest products. With the exception of recreational use, we know very little at the national or regional scale about the productivity, supply, and demand for these goods and services. We also have very incomplete information about the condition of soil and water resources in forests.

But even where we do have good information, the sustainability trends do not always tell the same story. For example, the trends for total forest land area, timber growth, wood product manufacturing efficiency, and recycling all point toward sustainability. But other trends are cause for deep concern, including the trends for biodiversity; for loss of open space; for outdoor recreation; and for fire and fuels as well as insects, disease, and invasive species.

So I think our future is cut out for us in the Forest Service. If we're serious about sustainability, we've got to spend a lot of time and effort on gathering the information we need to round out the picture. But the main thing we've got to do is to focus on the four big threats—loss of open space, invasive species, fire and fuels, and unmanaged outdoor recreation.

In closing, I want to make a plea for informed dialogue and decisive action. I am confident that my view is based on sound information, but I realize that it is my view. The diversity of land ownership in the United States means that the path we choose to take toward sustainability must be based on informed dialogue. There will be plenty of opportunities for dialogue here at this convention, and more will be coming soon through the national Roundtable on Sustainable Forests. Please take those opportunities. We need a vigorous national debate on the four threats for the future of our forests.