Environmental Services: Making Conservation Work

Outdoor Writers Association of America
Spokane, WA
— June 22, 2004

It’s a pleasure to be here again and to speak before such a knowledgeable audience. Outdoor writers have a huge impact on the natural resource values that our society preserves and protects. You play an enormous role in framing issues for social and political consumption.

Four Threats

Last year when I spoke at this convention, I talked about how critical it is for those of us who care about conservation to focus on the real threats to our nation’s forests … the real threats to biodiversity … to clean air and water … to wildlife habitat. I talked about four major threats facing our nation’s forests—fire and fuels, invasive species, loss of open space, and unmanaged outdoor recreation. We have related material at our display in the main hall, and I encourage you to take a look at it.

We are talking about these threats because we see an urgency in addressing them. We really believe that unless we focus our time and resources on these issues, the forests we love so much will be lost.

Today, I want to focus on just one of these threats: loss of open space, specifically the loss of our forests. Let me just say this: When we lose a forest, we don’t just lose the value of the wood. We lose all the values that come with a forest—clean water, stable soils, habitat for wildlife, carbon sequestration, flood control, and endless others.

To make conservation work—to keep forests from being developed—we are going to have to find ways to account for these values—to make forest values such that private forest owners are able to stay on the land and manage their forests sustainably.

What most people do not know is that the Forest Service has a role in promoting the sustainable management of all forests in the United States, both public and private. And most forests in the United States are in private hands. Even before the creation of the national forests, we were helping private landowners manage their forests sustainably. It continues to be a vital part of our mission. But you can’t manage a forest—sustainably or otherwise—if it isn’t there anymore. And you can’t address the loss of open space unless you look at the full scope of this issue. That’s what I’ll do with you today.

Forest Loss

Are we really losing our forests? The answer is yes. In the last four centuries, we’ve lost about a quarter of our original forest estate of about a billion acres. Since the early 1900s, the number of forested acres has been roughly stable, mainly because the number of acres of agricultural land stabilized. But the picture isn’t all that reassuring. Since 1953, we’ve had a net loss of almost 10 million acres of forest land. That’s an area larger than the state of Maryland. And if we project forward half a century, then we expect the loss to more than double to 23 million acres—an area larger than Maine. The rate of loss is growing.

Why is this happening? No, it’s not because of timber harvest. In fact, national forest timber harvest is a mere whisper of what it once was. Where we once met 25 percent of our national timber demand, today it’s less than 5 percent. And most of that is byproduct from treatments for other purposes. And it’s not because of timber harvest on private lands, either.

Today, the main cause of forested acreage loss is conversion to urban use. In the last 20 years, the area of developed forested and non-forested land has grown by roughly 50 percent. The rate of development has been rising, but let’s just take the 20-year average of 1.7 million acres per year. At that rate, we would have almost 200 million acres of developed land in the United States by the middle of the century. That’s an area almost twice the size of California—1 acre in 10 in the Lower 48.

There’s also been a decline in the value of our forests for timber production. Jim DeCosmo, a vice president at Temple-Inland Forest Products Corporation in the South, compared the recent cost of producing lumber plus the cost of transporting it to Baltimore, Maryland, for a number of foreign countries and for the American South. He found that cost plus freight to Baltimore is lower from Europe, South America, and Canada than from Atlanta, Georgia.

To me, that’s stunning. DeCosmo attributed the United States’ competitive weakness to lower taxes in other countries. It might also have to do with lower labor costs there and a high dollar exchange rate in recent years. Whatever the reason, it is predicted that foreign imports will continue to grow.

As foreign imports gain market share, forest land in the United States becomes less attractive to forest owners and investors. That’s simple economics. Private forest owners have been selling forest land for some time, and the buyers have often been developers. That’s the long-term trend we’re seeing.

Values Lost

You might ask, what’s wrong with that? Why do we need so much forest land if we can import so much of the timber we need?

There are at least two problems with that. One problem has to do with the impact of our consumption on the forest resources of other nations. By importing so much of our wood, are we driving unsustainable forestry practices in other countries … illegal logging … deforestation?

The other problem has to do with the loss of non-timber forest values here at home, like clean water and wildlife habitat. When forest landowners, large or small, cannot reap a profit from managing forests for wood products, they are often forced to sell their land. We lose something especially dear to the hearts of many of us here—scenic beauty, a sense of naturalness, and opportunities for outdoor recreation.

Let’s just focus on outdoor recreation for a moment. Most of the potential new opportunities for outdoor recreation are on private land. About 6 acres in 10 of our forest land nationwide are in private hands, and in some regions it’s far higher.

In the South, the vast majority of the opportunities for outdoor recreation in forested landscapes are on private land, especially hunting and fishing opportunities. But only about 7 percent of that is open to the public. If you drive through the South, you see “No Trespassing” signs posted everywhere, and the number of them is growing. That’s because a growing number of private landowners are closing their lands to the public. For example, the number of private campgrounds is shrinking. We’re seeing the same trend nationwide.

At the same time, demand for outdoor recreation is growing nationwide. In the last 20 years, the number of Americans 12 and older participating in some form of outdoor recreation has grown from 188 million to 229 million. That’s an increase of 18 percent—almost 2 million more users per year.

Unsustainable Pattern

Do you see a pattern emerging? Rising urbanization means that forests are being sold for development. Meanwhile, private forest owners are closing their lands to the public. So supply is shrinking at the same time that demand for recreation is growing.

You can see the same pattern for other environmental services and amenities: Rising urban development … loss of open space … a growing population … and rising demand for services that only natural landscapes can provide—clean air, pure water, native wildlife, lots of trees, and more.

Let’s look at one more example—water. Forested landscapes are like a highly efficient, highly valuable water-purifying machine. They naturally filter rainwater on its way to those who will drink it. The machine worked beautifully until fairly recently, when we began to see signs of mechanical failure.

The trouble has come from relentless development—roads, subdivisions, and second homes; failed septic tanks, lawn chemicals, and irresponsible use. There is growing concern about the safety of our drinking water. In 1993, an outbreak in Milwaukee sickened 400,000 people and killed more than 100. The Centers for Disease Control now advise people with immune deficiencies to boil their drinking water, no matter where it comes from.

Adding Value

Forests can help—but only if we truly recognize their value. The traditional way of economically valuing a forest was through timber. We need to complement the timber value with something more. Forests are like natural capital that pays daily dividends in clean water, flood protection, opportunities for outdoor recreation, and more. But we are liquidating our capital because the work that Nature does for us has failed to win the respect of the marketplace.

I believe that we can no longer afford to think of this work as free. The current approach of relying on philanthropy or limited government payments for conservation is not enough. I believe that we need to consider attaching a dollar value to the services and amenities that trees give us as part of healthy, functioning forests. Forest owners should be able to reap financial rewards from sustainable forestry beyond the commercial production of forest products. For people to work for conservation, conservation must work for people.

We’re starting to see places where this is working, where people are finding ways of making conservation pay. One example comes from New York City. A water filtration plant would have cost the city more than $5 billion. Instead, they spent $1.5 billion on a watershed conservation program. Money went to pay private landowners for reduced-impact logging, retiring environmentally sensitive croplands, and reforestation.

Another example is the Hancock Natural Resource Group, a division of John Hancock, the insurance giant. The Group invests internationally in newly planted forests for a long-term retirement fund. Investors receive dividends based on returns from timber harvests and on credits for the carbon absorbed and stored by growing forests. International markets are emerging for carbon sequestration, an environmental service that pays.

Outdoor recreation can also pay. International Paper developed a fee-based program for hunting and camping on timberlands that resembles the approaches you’ll find on public lands. And just last night at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, I learned about some great approaches to opening private farms and woodlands to hunting and fishing through payments to farmers.

New Approaches

There are ways in which we can help private landowners realize the full value of their forests, along with the value of their timber. An incentive-based approach to preventing loss of forested land based on environmental services is really only in its infancy. Very little is written about it, apart from the emerging carbon market. But it does offer some hope in the quest to find viable economic alternatives for forest landowners.

We will continue to need some more traditional approaches, like zoning at state and local levels and tax incentives. And market incentives will continue to include income from traditional forest products if we can keep our domestic producers competitive in an ever more globalized market.

The last few years have added even more great examples of incentives:

  • The Natural Resources Conservation Service has a Conservation Reserve Program and a new EQUIP program offering incentives to forest and agricultural landowners to protect and preserve biodiversity, wildlife habitat, and water quality.
  • The Forest Service’s Legacy Program offers landowners ways to sell a conservation easement on their property in exchange for managing the land and trees sustainably.
  • Many landowners are having their lands “certified” as being managed sustainably, thereby opening niche markets for some forest products. And we can’t overemphasize the incredible role that NGOs and foundations have been playing to broker the protection of critical landscapes, not just in America, but worldwide. There’s The Nature Conservancy, for example, and a plethora of land trusts.

All of these ideas and approaches, whether publicly or privately funded, serve to add value to the land, allowing a landowner to continue to manage it as an open forested landscape.

It’s really about finding creative new ways of translating all the values society gets from forests into income for forest owners. That includes income from a whole array of environmental services.

You outdoor writers can help. Our researchers have loads of information we can give you on loss of open space, habitat fragmentation, outdoor recreation and ways to value these environmental services, and global markets for environmental services. By pursuing these stories and framing these issues for public consumption, you can help stimulate the national dialogue we need on this immensely important topic.

Next year, we are celebrating our centennial at the Forest Service. We are using the occasion to build the national dialogue I just mentioned on this and other issues related to our mission at the Forest Service. A whole host of events are planned, from regional and national congresses to a featured event on the Washington Mall, where the Forest Service’s hundred-year history is presented as part of the National Folklife Festival. Along with all of this will be our celebration of the forty-year anniversary of the Wilderness Act. I welcome you to join in these events—lots to write about!

Future Outlook

I’ll conclude by saying this.

Today, I’ve been talking about the challenges we face as a nation in sustaining our open forested landscapes, something that touches our very soul as a nation. As we look towards our future—towards the Forest Service bicentennial a hundred years from now—we need to do three things.

First, we need to look hard at the management of our 192 million acres of national forest land, what people want and expect from their national forests in the next century in restoration and recreation.

Second, we need to look just as hard at the management of our state and private forests—to see how we can help these lands be managed as sustainable forested landscapes. This is a key part of our Forest Service mission and a critical part of this nation’s legacy.

And finally, we need to look beyond our borders to the global implications of our management and consumption choices and to the impact of those on sustainable forestry internationally. This is another critical part of the Forest Service mission. I believe that our nation’s environmental legacy a hundred years from now will be determined not just by what we do inside our borders, but also by what we offer to—and learn from—the rest of the world, with the best of intentions and the greatest humility.