Changing Public Land Uses: A Tale of Two Debates

Outdoor Writers Association of America, 76th Annual Conference
Columbia, MO
— June 17, 2003

Thanks for that generous introduction. It's a real honor to be here. I have a great deal of respect for the outdoor writers of America. Those of us who spend our careers in federal land management know you all to be an extremely knowledgeable group of people when it comes to outdoor issues on federal lands. These issues are complex, and it takes not only great skill at writing, but also perseverance in research to get the story right. As a group, you all do that better than anyone else.

It's a pleasure and privilege to be here together with Deputy Director Fran Cherry of BLM. It's fitting that we're here together, since the two of us go way back, some 20 years or so. Early in my career, I was with BLM, and I worked closely with Fran. But that's another story.

Getting the Story Right

I'm here today to talk about the story of how uses have changed on public land. It's a story that I think every American has a need and a right to know. That's where you come in. Most Americans get their information about environmental issues from stories in the media.1 You all can tell at least part of the story. So far, the story isn't being told well enough. We believe that the telling of that story is critical to the protection of our treasured resources in this country.

Let me tell you another story to illustrate what I mean. A few weeks ago, the Forest Service Chief, Dale Bosworth, and I were doing an interview with a reporter from a wire service. We were talking about last year's huge fire season. Four states had their biggest fires in history, and California came close with the McNally Fire.

Chief Bosworth mentioned to the reporter that we almost lost a grove of giant sequoia in the McNally Fire. I guess you know there are only a few dozen giant sequoia groves left in the world. Some are at risk from fire because vegetation is coming up underneath, particularly white fir. Due to exclusion of fire for so many years, the understory thickets are getting so dense-and the individual trees so big-that in a drought fire can climb into the sequoia canopy, killing the whole grove. By the way, white fir out-competes young sequoia, so over time it will replace the sequoia unless something is done.

So we've got an ecological problem, and Chief Bosworth said that we might need to remove some 14-inch white fir to protect the sequoia groves in the future. The next day, the headline in a major national newspaper read, "Forest Service Chief Favors Logging Bill." Even worse, Chief Bosworth was quoted as saying that we need to cut giant sequoia 14 feet thick for fire protection.

We challenged, but the reporter stuck by his story-until he checked his notes. He ultimately apologized, and the wire service ran a correction. But you can see the problem we face. Here we present the story about the ecological threat to one of our nation's most beloved ecosystems, the giant sequoia. But instead, we got a fictitious story about how the Forest Service wants to cut giant sequoia. What's so disturbing-why I tell you this story is not to complain about how misquoted or misunderstood we are-what's so disturbing to us is that anyone could think we would want to cut a 14-foot sequoia for any reason. If people can think us capable of that, it shows how really deep the divide is in this country. We've got a huge task ahead to bridge that divide.

This is a beautiful example of the two debates-the one we used to have, perpetuating the divide, and the one we should be having to bridge the divide. We talked to the reporter about how critical it is to protect ecosystems like giant sequoia from threats such as fire and fuels. But what the reporter heard was totally different. What that reporter heard was, the Forest Service will log whenever it can, or even, "The Forest Service is in bed with the timber industry." And that's the debate we used to have-the debate about logging, the debate that's so divisive today-and, more importantly, the debate that is diverting us from a dialogue about other critical issues facing us. More on those in a minute.

Changing Land Use

That gets me back to how public land use has changed. People have always used national forest land for many different things-water, wildlife, timber, forage, and recreation, to name a few. For decades, timber wasn't used much at all. That changed after World War II, when demand grew for national forest timber.

The use of national forests to meet that public demand was expressed through economic and political processes. Timber harvest levels were set in a bipartisan manner by Congress in each annual appropriations bill. The Forest Service was always concerned about keeping timber harvest sustainable, so we limited harvest levels, and we had some big battles with the timber industry and others over that.

Originally, we had a huge area we could harvest from-what we called the timber base-and we set allowable cut levels accordingly. But Americans increasingly wanted more than just timber. They wanted more land managed for recreation, wildlife, and wilderness. Tensions increased. Public pressure was coming for both more timber and more areas off-limits to timber harvest. Growing amounts of timber were wanted from a declining timber base.2

Something had to give, and it was ultimately timber. Today, timber harvest on national forest land is only about 13 percent of what it once was.3 Yet public demand for wood is still growing-just look at all the mansions popping up across every rural landscape.4 Most timber needs are met by state and private suppliers, but imports are growing. Let me read you a quote from a recent feature in the Sacramento Bee:

The logging never really stopped; it just moved to Canada. In throttling the harvest of wood from its own back yard, while continuing to devour forest products, California is not merely turning to America's largest trading partner, Canada, to fill the gap. It is buying wood from a nation where up to 90 percent is harvested through clear-cutting … and where two-thirds of the cutting occurs in old-growth stands.5

Out of sight, out of mind-and not just in California. The same could be said for the rest of America. I think that poses an ethical dilemma for our nation: If we are truly serious about ecosystem health, then we'd better take a hard look at the choices we are making, including our consumption choices.

What's At Risk?

With that said, our focus today in the Forest Service is no longer on logging and road-building. In the last 5 years, for example, we decommissioned 14 miles of road for every mile of road added to our forest road system. And where we do cut timber, it is usually a byproduct of forest health projects-like cutting 14-inch white fir to protect giant sequoia groves.

We have learned that what we leave on the land is more important than what we take away. Today, our focus is on forest and rangeland restoration and stewardship. Sometimes there is a way to capture some value from the materials we thin, especially as new technologies are found to use small-diameter wood. But often, we pay people to remove it. It's not about logging in the traditional sense.

Today, our focus is on community-based forestry. We sit down together with all interested stakeholders and decide on mutual goals-what we want the land to look like in 20 years or so. Then we work with partners to achieve the desired future condition.

That means overcoming the threats to long-term ecosystem health. And that's the critical story that isn't being told as well as it should. Today, the nation's forests and grasslands face four great threats that get lost in the debate over logging and road-building: These are fuel buildups and large fires, loss of open space, unwanted invasive species, and unmanaged outdoor recreation. Before closing, I'll say a little about each.

I've already touched on fire and fuels. Many of our fire-adapted forests have become overgrown and unhealthy. In a drought, the excess vegetation can fuel a big, dangerous wildfire. Think of it as an environmental debt, like a toxic dump. It will take decades of action to clean up.

Another threat comes from urbanization. Every day, we lose about 4,000 acres of open space to development-about 3 acres per minute. We are losing the large, relatively undisturbed forests that animals like marten, bear, and cougar need to survive. We're also losing rangeland that many plants and wildlife species need to survive. Well-watered ranchlands are ecologically tied to drier uplands under federal management. Species all across the landscape depend on both.

After habitat loss and degradation, invasive species are the greatest threat to the nation's biodiversity. America has thousands of plants, animals, and disease-causing microorganisms in places where they didn't evolve and where there are few or no environmental controls. Many are displacing or destroying our native species. We are losing our precious heritage-at a cost that is in the billions.

A fourth great threat is unmanaged outdoor recreation. Americans are playing outdoors in record numbers, and that's good. It gives them a stake in the land, and most care about the land a great deal and are careful to protect it. But a few are not, so we've got to manage that use.

Let me illustrate what I mean through the example of off-highway vehicles. This is a legitimate use of national forest land. Managed properly, it can provide great recreational opportunities for many people, and it's growing in popularity. Tens of millions of OHVs are now in use-far more than even 10 years ago. With all those millions of users, even a tiny percentage of problem use presents us with a big and growing problem. Each year, unmanaged OHV use leaves hundreds of miles of wildcat roads and trails, causing damage to meadows, streambeds, and other sensitive areas. We have got to better manage this use to protect our natural resources.

Each of these threats is growing, partly because of the demographic trends that Fran described earlier. Think about what a growing population in the West means for fire danger. Think about what it means for invasive species, loss of open space, and rising recreational pressures on the land. Time is not on our side.

Productive Debate

In closing, I think it's time we focused on what's really at risk. I'm not saying we have all the answers-we don't. In fact, we need an open, productive debate on what to do about each of these threats, and we must continue to be open to critique of everything we do. But beyond that, we've got to stop debating the past and start looking to the future. It's time to move on.

I really believe you can help us with this. You have a great responsibility in the work you do, as do federal land managers. As a group, you all do an excellent job, which helps us do ours. But we really could use your help in focusing attention and elevating the public dialogue on these very real threats facing our national forests and grasslands-and other lands as well.

These threats are scientifically and socially complex. They have multiple aspects. They affect both public and private lands. And they will take years to address. These are hardly the ingredients of an easy-to-write, attention-grabbing, "glitzy" story. But it is an important story, and it needs to be told by many voices.

Thanks for your attention and for all that you do.


1. According to the March 2003 Roper Green Gauge report by the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation, television is a major source of environmental information for 62 percent of Americans, newspapers for 57 percent, radio for 28 percent, magazines for 23 percent, and the Internet for 23 percent.

2. The timber base has fallen from 97 million acres in 1963 to 47 million acres today.

3. Timber harvest has fallen from a peak of 12.7 billion board feet in 1987 to 1.7 billion board feet in 2002.

4. Total wood consumption in the United States rose by 50 percent from 1965 to 1997. Per capita wood consumption rose by 16 percent from 1970 to 1997. Per capita, Americans consume almost three times more wood than the global average.

5. Tom Knudson, "State of Denial," Sacramento Bee, 27 April 2003.