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Speech

The Challenges Facing the Nation’s Forests and the USDA Forest Service

Tony Tooke, Chief
Seminar Speech, Mississippi State University
Starkville, MS — February 2, 2018

It’s a pleasure to be here back on campus at Mississippi State. I appreciate this opportunity to reach out to some of the future leaders in forestry and forest-related fields … maybe even some of the future leaders of the Forest Service. I am very grateful for Mississippi State and all the opportunities I had because of my time here.

I’d like to share a little bit about my own background. Then I’d like to talk about the importance of forests for the people of the United States and some of the challenges we’re facing. Those challenges are huge: some say they are the greatest challenges the Forest Service has ever faced. Finally, I will talk about some of what we are doing at the Forest Service to meet the challenges and share with you my vision for the future.

 

Professional Background

I began learning about forestry and silviculture while growing up on a farm in Alabama. We managed many woodlots and took care of our timber. My uncles practiced prescribed burning. We did things for wildlife, and we still do. We took care of the springs and practiced conservation by maintaining the terraces in our fields and the hedgerows for quail.

I went on to get a forestry degree here at MSU, and I’m very grateful to MSU for all the opportunities I was afforded here. I strengthened my work ethic, learned time management, got an extraordinary education, built relationships, and got a good job. I joined the Forest Service to work on the national forests in May 1980, and my early years with the agency were spent marking timber, firefighting, tree planting, prescribed-burning, overseeing silvicultural contracts, and writing prescriptions.

As a district ranger, I provided oversight for some of the largest restoration and prescribed fire programs we had in the Forest Service. I woke up every day to manage the land and do it the right way by using sound science, good data, commonsense, and working with partners. I loved it and I still love it.

Most of my 26-year field career with the Forest Service was spent here in the South. I became Regional Forester in charge of the national forests here in the South and also in charge of the State and Private Forestry programs. Before that, I spent many years in the Forest Service’s national office in Washington, DC, in many different assignments. I worked really hard to learn about the forests and grasslands all across the country, especially in the West, where the issues and cultures are so different. Eighty-six percent of the forests in the South are privately owned, which is much different than in most western states.

I’ve seen firsthand and have a keen understanding of all the benefits that people get from forests across the country, not just from the National Forest System but also from state and private forests, as well as those owned by local governments, tribes, and industry. The nonfederal forests make up the majority of forest land across the nation. This is a fact not lost on me, as I am one of the proud private landowners who make up 86 percent of the forest landownership in the South.

At the Forest Service, our mission is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generation. That includes the national forests and grasslands, an area almost twice the size of California, with at least one national forest or national grassland in almost every state.

But our mission goes beyond the National Forest System to include all of the nation’s forests. We work with the states and with other partners to help private landowners and local communities manage their forests sustainably. And we have one of the largest conservation research organizations in the world. Our researchers help give the nation’s landowners and land managers the science they need for sustainable forest management nationwide. We also work with forest researchers and forest managers around the world.

 

Importance of Forests

It is hard to overstate the importance of forests. Forests contribute to agricultural production by protecting water, controlling erosion, and providing habitat for wild pollinators and predators of agricultural pests, like bats. America’s forests create fertile soils that support timber and forage, food and fiber. Forests store vast quantities of carbon, thereby mitigating the effects of a changing climate. Forests take up about 12 percent of the carbon dioxide that Americans emit each year. And forests furnish much of the water we drink. In fact, more than half of our nation’s surface water originates on forested landscapes, and half of our citizens in the West get their drinking water from a national forest.

America’s forests, grasslands, and other open spaces are vital to the social, ecological, and economic well-being of our nation. America’s forests play a vital role in providing public benefits such as clean air and water, environmental security, green infrastructure, habitat for fish and wildlife, places of historic value, sacred sites of spiritual value, and opportunities for solitude and outdoor recreation.

Many communities also rely on forests for jobs and economic security. Some jobs come through forest products and outdoor recreation; other jobs come from the work we do to sustain and restore healthy, resilient forests. According to one study, every million dollars invested in forest-restoration-related activities generates from 13 to 29 jobs and more than $2 million in economic activity. That compares favorably to other kinds of economic investment.

And let’s not forget the value of urban forests. Today, more than 80 percent of our citizens live in metropolitan areas, a number that will surely rise. Most people connect to the outdoors first and foremost through their neighborhood trees and local greenways, through their local parks and forested creeks. Our urban areas make up about 3 percent of our land area, but they contain roughly 3.8 billion trees covering almost 140 million acres of urban and community forests.

These lands are of tremendous benefit to our citizens. Urban trees give shade, reduce windspeed, and save energy. Trees improve air quality, store carbon, and reduce stormwater runoff. One study of five U.S. cities has shown that for every dollar invested in urban forest management, annual benefits range up to three dollars.

In short, no matter where you live in the United States—no matter where you go—forests and other open spaces are the green infrastructure we all rely on for our community well-being. But like anything else of value, forests take a lot of care to remain healthy and resilient. A lot is at risk if we don’t improve the condition of the nation’s forests. A lot is at stake, whether we know it or not, for everyone in this room—for everyone across the country.

 

Challenges to Forests

And the challenges to our nation’s forests are growing. The challenges include America’s growing metropolitan population and loss of forest land due to urban growth and development. That is reflected here in the South, where over 20 million acres of forest land are projected to be lost over the next three decades. The challenges include the spread of invasive species and the loss of forest components like American chestnut, butternut, and eastern hemlock. The challenges include the effects of a changing climate, worsening fire seasons, and epidemics of forest pests and diseases.

The challenges also include lack of capacity to keep our forests healthy and resilient. Caring for forests takes work. It takes investments, and public lands lack sufficient resources for forest management and restoration. Funding for the research we need to take care of the land is also going down. We have to actively manage forests to restore them to health and resilience. Our priority is not only to increase awareness of the value of the nation’s forests but also to raise understanding of what it takes to take care of forests and to expand participation from citizens and communities who have not been involved.

Another challenge is markets. We need to strengthen existing markets for wood and to find new ones.

Every region faces these challenges, to one degree or another, but they play out differently in each region. I will focus on the South for a moment just to illustrate some of the broader challenges we face.

As I mentioned, we need sound science to help us understand the challenges we face and what to do about them. Here in the South, we have a group of top Forest Service researchers working on the Southern Forest Futures Project. This is a long-term scientific effort to analyze forests across the southern United States so we can see the long-term trends.

One trend is population growth. By 2060, the population in this region will probably be 40 to 60 percent higher than today, and that means urban growth. Another trend is changing forest landowner demographics. Forest parcels are becoming smaller and smaller and forest landowners are becoming more willing to sell to developers.

Growing populations will bring rising demand for wood products, both for new construction and for bioenergy. The South alone produces most of the nation’s timber, and I don’t see that changing. However, most studies show landowner values diversifying to including wildlife, recreation, and many more.

These trends point to changes in forest composition and to loss of forest land across the South. By 2060, up to 23 million acres of forest could be lost, the equivalent of all the forests in Georgia or Alabama. More people will be living in this region, and the demand for forest amenities like outdoor recreation will grow. At the same time, however, the land base for outdoor recreation will be smaller.

Forest loss and fragmentation will mean loss of habitat for wildlife. Another driver of forest change here in the South is invasive species—both plants and animals as well as insects and diseases. Invasive species mean further loss of habitat for our native wildlife here in the South and further loss of healthy native forests for amenities like outdoor recreation.

Another driver of long-term forest trends here in the South is the effects of a changing climate. By 2060, we could see average annual temperature increase by as much as 3.5 degrees. That will lead in some area to more frequent drought and more pressure on water resources from a growing population. We could see more frequent and more devastating wildfires. We will likely see changes in forest composition, including further loss of habitat for native species.

Put together, these trends raise challenges for the future of forests in the South. We have to work together through partnerships across the region to keep working forests working and to restore healthy, resilient forests with plenty of habitat for our native wildlife. Our native southern forests are a regional resource for people to use and enjoy, and we need to protect it.

We are seeing some of these same trends and challenges elsewhere across the nation. One challenge in particular, especially in our western states, is the growing severity and duration of wildfires and fire seasons, which are now 70 days longer than they were a generation ago. California has experienced record drought and tree mortality in recent years. We have significant tree mortality from insects and disease in the Intermountain West. About 80 million acres on the National Forest System are at risk nationwide, and about a third of that area is at high risk.

Just like here in the South, populations are growing across the West; homes and communities are pushing into forested landscapes that are adapted to seasonal fires and that will periodically burn, whether we like it or not. That puts ever more people and communities at growing risk.

As a result, we are seeing a “new normal” in fire. In the fall of 2016, parts of the Southern Appalachians had one of their worst fire seasons in decades. Thousands of acres burned in the Appalachian Mountains. And that severe fire season continued right into 2017, spreading into the Southwest, the Northern Rockies, California, and the Pacific Northwest. We had high levels of fire activity in different parts of the country almost nonstop for most of last year. More than 10 million acres burned last year, about 34 percent more than the 10-year average. And the 10-year average is more than twice the average number of acres burned from 1970 to 1999.

California had its largest fire in recorded history, with dozens of lives lost and thousands of homes burned—and many more lives lost and homes destroyed in debris flows when the heavy winter rains came. Nationwide, the number of lives lost and homes destroyed last year by fires or by mudslides linked to fires was far greater than normal. In terms of structures destroyed alone, it’s by far the greatest we’ve ever seen.

Many more lives would have been lost and homes destroyed if not for the skill and courage of our fire personnel. I traveled to fires in California, Oregon, and Montana late last summer and in early fall, and I saw firsthand how effective we were—but also how thin we were stretched. Together with our interagency partners, we had over 28,000 people supporting firefighting activities during the peak western fire season. That maxed out our available resources, although we were able to get support from the military.

As a result, our suppression costs are soaring. Forest Service suppression costs exceeded $2.4 billion last year, more than ever before. Fire alone accounted for 56 percent of our budget. At the rate things are going, suppression will take up 67 percent of our budget by 2021. And we exceeded our fire appropriations by 50 percent last year, so we had to transfer funds from other agency programs. 

All this growing fire-related spending has greatly disrupted other Forest Service programs and services. In the last two decades, the number of national forest employees has dropped from 19,000 to 11,000. By comparison, the number of firefighters has doubled. This affects many other parts of our agency mission—grazing, recreation, law enforcement, roads, infrastructure, research and science, and the very forest management work we need to do to address threats from fires, insects, and diseases in the first place.

That means we simply don’t have the resources for the active management we need to make our nation’s forests healthier and more resilient, better able to withstand the effects of fire. The less proactive work we do, the worse the fires get; and the worse the fires get, the more funds we have to pump into firefighting and the less we have for active management.

The bottom line is that we are in a vicious cycle.

 

Meeting the Challenges

So what do we do?

One thing is to fix the vicious cycle, and we know how to do it. The Forest Service is the only federal agency that is required to fund its entire emergency management program through its regular appropriations. Almost all of the fires we fight are small, and we can handle them through regular appropriations. What’s eating up our budgets are the very few fires that escape and get huge. About 30 percent of our spending goes toward 1 to 2 percent of the fires we fight—the megafires that burn tens or hundreds of thousands of acres.

These are national disasters, and they should be treated as such. A true fire funding fix would do two things. First, it would stop fire from siphoning off funds and personnel from other Forest Service programs. Second, it would pay for fighting the largest and costliest fires from an emergency fund outside of our regular appropriations.

We are working with Congress and the administration to find a solution. Congress is considering several legislative fixes to fire budgeting, and I am optimistic that we will get there. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue is working very hard.

We also need to get more work done on the ground through active forest management to sustain and restore the forests entrusted to our care on public lands. To truly make a difference, we need to pick up the pace and increase the scale of our work, because the challenges are just so vast. About 80 million acres of the National Forest System across the nation are at risk from insects, disease, and wildfire. About one-third of these lands are at very high risk.

We are working hard to improve the condition of these lands through active management, using every tool in the box. Active management includes tools such as mechanical treatments, timber sales, grazing, prescribed burning, and managing natural ignitions from wildfires. We use all these tools to make landscapes more resilient to stressors such as drought, insects and disease, and catastrophic wildfires.

We are making progress, for example through our Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. The amount of collaboration success continues to grow. Collaboration is the foundation for our ongoing work in restoring healthy, resilient forests and rangelands.

Here in the South, we have several examples, but I’ll give you just one. The native forest type across much of the Coastal Plain is longleaf pine. Longleaf pine has disappeared across most of its range, even though it is better adapted to storms and fires than other forest types. As a result, 29 species that depend on longleaf forest are federally listed as threatened or endangered, like red-cockaded woodpecker or gopher tortoise.

The Forest Service is working with a wide range of partners across the Coastal Plain to restore as much longleaf pine forest as we can, including partners in government, industry, NGOs, universities, and others through the America’s Longleaf Restoration Initiative. It takes active management, like removing some of the existing vegetation and using prescribed fire on the rest. Working with partners through Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration projects like the one here in Mississippi on the De Soto National Forest and another one in Florida, we are achieving results like restored longleaf pine, jobs, and economic opportunity.

We need increased results and outcomes like these across the nation, and we have momentum. Over the past two years—in 2016 and 2017—we’ve seen more forest management results on the National Forest System than in any two-year period in well over two decades. For example, over 6 million acres were treated on the National Forest System and 5.9 billion board feet of timber were sold.

And we are gaining momentum with prescribed fire in the West, which is one of our most effective management tools. The area prescribe-burned in the West has been steadily growing since the 1990s, as has the entire area of hazardous fuels treatments, including mechanical thinning. This year, we are looking to increase the area of hazardous fuels reduction nationwide through prescribed fire and mechanical treatment by 15 percent, and I think we’ll get there.

But we can’t do it alone. The landscapes we manage at the Forest Service are often in the same watersheds as other ownerships, whether private, tribal, state, or federal. We face the same challenges across landownerships, and we have many of the same goals. To be truly effective, we have to share stewardship across ownership boundaries. That’s part of being a good neighbor.

Being a good neighbor means working with others, working with our partners across entire landscapes to meet shared needs and goals. It means recognizing the rights, values, and needs of stakeholders across the spectrum, including states, tribes, counties, communities, and private landowners. Above all, it means working with our neighbors through partnerships.

So we are using new authorities to expand our forest restoration work with partners, such as our Good Neighbor Authority under the 2014 Farm Bill passed by Congress. We now have 151 GNA agreements in over 31 states. That has let us pool resources for all kinds of fuels and forest health treatments on federal lands as well as for projects related to wildlife habitat, soil and water, and data collection. Last year, the Forest Service made more than $3.6 million in cash and noncash contributions to GNA projects. For their part, the states and other partners made more than $1.8 million in contributions.

Under GNA, we have master agreements as well as agreements for specific projects. About half of the GNA project agreements have forest health or timber harvest as their main objectives. The other half are for managing hazardous fuels, improving habitat, treating invasive weeds, or otherwise improving watersheds.

Unfortunately, we face barriers to shared stewardship. Some of those barriers have to do with the way we do environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act and other environmental laws and regulations. To increase our capacity to improve the condition of forests and rangelands, the Forest Service has launched an effort to improve our environmental analysis and decision-making processes. Our goal is to increase the amount of work we accomplish by improving our processes and procedures and by increasing the number of acres covered by environmental analysis and decisions. Our work will stay grounded in sound science, using good data and keeping our commitments to collaboratives. We are now getting public comments on this initiative to raise the scale of our work.

 

New Opportunities

We have tremendous opportunities to do more active management. The United States produces … and uses … more wood products than any other nation in the world. The South alone is the world’s leading wood producer. Most homes in the United States are made from wood, and the average size of homes has been growing. According to one study, per capita annual wood use in the United States around 2000 was twice that of other developed countries … and three times the world average.

Scientists tell us that demand for timber and biomass for energy is only going to grow, which creates opportunities for long-term investments. We need investments in forest research to come up with new commercial uses for woody material, especially the low-value materials that we need to remove for healthy, resilient forests on public lands. That will give forest landowners incentives to keep their forests working rather than converting them to development. Stronger and more diversified markets are critical to forest conservation and to meeting the challenges we face on the nation’s forests.

And working forests are good to have because wood is a renewable resource. Wood from sustainably managed forests is a green building material. As a building material, wood uses less energy and emits less carbon and pollutants than either steel or concrete.

One breakthrough is cross-laminated timber technology, or CLT. Through CLT, we can use low-value woody materials to construct high-rise buildings—truly beautiful buildings made almost entirely of wood. These mass-timber buildings can be 12 stories high or more.

 

Vision for the Future

So forests and forestry face tremendous challenges in the United States, but we also have tremendous opportunities for partnerships and shared stewardship with our neighbors, partners, and volunteers. My vision is one of a broad coalition across the country for conservation. Almost everyone, directly or indirectly, has a stake in the future of America’s forests. Our job at the Forest Service is bringing all of these forest stakeholders together to work toward shared goals of sustainably managed forests, for the benefit of generations to come.

So thank you all for being here. And, once again, it’s an honor to be back on campus and in Bulldog country. I will always be grateful to MSU.

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