Issues Affecting the Future of Forest Conservation in America

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Retirees Reunion
Missoula, MT
— September 10, 2009

Good morning! Thank you for inviting me. It’s a real pleasure to be back in Missoula … to visit with so many old friends … to see so many of you who helped me along over the years.

As you know, the Secretary of Agriculture has asked me to serve as Forest Service Chief. This is a great honor, and I am beyond humbled to have been asked to serve. It is also a great honor to follow in the footsteps of Chief Abigail R. Kimbell. I would like to take this opportunity to again express my heartfelt thanks and my deepest appreciation to Chief Kimbell for all she has done for the Forest Service throughout her long and illustrious career.

As Chief, Gail helped us move forward on the issues. She took up the focus on climate change and made it an emphasis area for the Forest Service, helping to lead the way on this cross-cutting issue for the rest of the federal government. She took up the water issue and made it another emphasis area for the agency. And she recognized the importance of reconnecting Americans to nature through kids, who have the most to offer and the most to gain from conservation. Our agency owes a debt of gratitude to Chief Kimbell for helping us move forward in so many ways.

Chief Kimbell will be a tough act to follow, just as Chief Dale Bosworth was for her. But I understand from Gail and Dale that you all will keep a sharp eye on me and let me know when I mess up. Just remember, you’re the ones who coached and mentored me, so if I mess up, don’t worry—nobody will blame you.

Secretary’s Vision

The first thing I would like to do this morning is to share my thoughts on Secretary Vilsack’s recent speech—his vision for America’s forests and the Forest Service. I cannot tell you how pleased I am that the Secretary not only understands the Forest Service mission, but understands the importance of that mission and fully supports where the agency needs to head.

As we continue to implement the Secretary’s vision, the Forest Service will be increasing its focus on restoration of our forest and grassland ecosystems—restoration to increase resiliency to ensure that these systems are able to adapt to changes in climate. Restoration includes putting large woody debris back into salmon streams in Oregon to reverse channelization; liming trout streams in Virginia to neutralize acidification caused by chemical deposition from the atmosphere; using fire to eradicate invasive weeds from rangelands in Wyoming; repairing damage by off-highway vehicles to upland meadows in Colorado; converting old farmland in Illinois into something resembling the original tallgrass prairie; and returning degraded pine woodlands in Arizona and oak savannas in Indiana to a semblance of their pre-settlement condition.

The Forest Service also needs to provide sustainable flows of abundant, clean water—water that people depend on in their daily lives. But climate change may make that more difficult. Out here in the West, we will likely see smaller snowpacks and more winter flooding in the future, with earlier snowmelts contributing to lower summer stream flows. Today, the EPA estimates that 3,400 communities and 123 million people in the United States get their water from NFS lands. Our focus on restoration can make sure that this continues well into the future.

Our restoration focus will help us connect wildlife with their habitat. Climate change is expected to cause wildlife distribution patterns to shift north, which poses a problem for species that are unable to migrate quickly or are blocked due to habitat fragmentation. Here our immediate need is for more research to evaluate and determine the most appropriate adaptation strategies to be implemented.

Restoration work needs to structure fuels so that when fires start our treatments have helped to moderate fire behavior so our suppression efforts are successful. Our scientists now believe that climate change is contributing to fire season severity across the West, partly due to earlier snowmelt and drier summer soils. I will have more to say about fire in a moment. My point here is that we need to understand—our communities need to understand—the dynamics of wildland fire suppression and understand that fire has a role to play on the landscape.

To do all of this, the Secretary is asking the Forest Service to expand its mission and adopt a more “all lands” approach to addressing restoration. Through our State and Private Forestry programs, we have the responsibility to provide support and assistance. But we need to expand our efforts to ensure that we are using all USDA and other federal programs to address restoration issues across broader landscapes using a collaborative approach. Forest and grassland health, water, fire, and wildlife habitat connectivity are all issues that have never stopped at the boundaries of the National Forest System. The Forest Service now has the Secretary’s support to better address these issues across landscapes that are large enough to make a difference.

During the Chief’s Review of the Northeast and Midwest this past summer, participants agreed that the mission of the Forest Service, the states, and others could best be achieved through this all-lands approach—otherwise known as landscape-scale conservation—an approach to managing land at the level of watersheds, ecoregions, or broad geographic areas. Framing problems and solutions at the landscape scale allows for a comprehensive rather than piecemeal approach to multiple issues by coordinating goals and activities of the Forest Service—working collaboratively with other landowners and land managers.

This is true not only in the East but out here in the West as well, where the critical issues are same—healthy forests and grasslands, water, fire, wildlife habitat connectivity. These issues have never stopped at NFS boundaries. Even in the West, where NFS lands make up a large part of the landscape, we still need an all-lands approach, a landscape-scale approach, using collaboration to engage our communities.

In that same spirit, I want us to always focus on how we leave these lands for future generations. That is a core value of mine and a responsibility I take very seriously. I will continue to focus on bringing people together. Landscape-scale conservation … collaboration across borders and boundaries … I believe these are the keys to our future.

Now I will switch gears and address three other issues before taking your questions. First, what is the situation with fire and fuels? Second, what’s the situation with employee morale? And finally, how are we addressing our reforestation needs?

Fire and Fuels

With respect to fire and fuels, we are in a whole new era and have been for 10 years. As you know, all but the wettest forest types naturally burn at intervals ranging from a few years to a few centuries. Before the era of fire control, vast areas of our country regularly burned, especially in the West. In the 1930s, for example, 39 million acres burned on average each year—about six times more than today.

Then fire control became effective, and we got more pulses of wet weather in the West. From the 1970s through the 1990s, the area burned on average each year fell to a little over 3 million acres. For a time, the vision of fire control seemed within reach.

But the Yellowstone Fires of 1988 signaled a change, and the turnaround came in the summer of 2000: For the first time since the 1950s, more than 7 million acres burned in a single year. In 2002, more than 7 million acres burned again. In 2004 and 2005, more than 8 million acres burned; in 2006 and 2007, more than 9 million acres burned. This year, more than 5 million acres have burned, and by current standards it has been a relatively mild fire season. The trajectory is up. We can foresee fire seasons that might reach 12 to 15 million acres.

The reason, of course, is worsening fuel conditions. A Forest Service study in 2002 found that almost 400 million acres in all ownerships nationwide were at moderate to high risk of uncharacteristically severe fires. That’s an area four times the size of California. It includes 73 million acres on the National Forest System and 54 million acres on other federal lands.

To some extent, we are victims of our own success. Where vegetation naturally might have burned, fire exclusion let it continue to accumulate, and the pulses of wet weather we had in the second half of the 20th century also stimulated a lot of new growth. Now we have entered a much drier period in the West. Open ponderosa pine woodlands, for example, were once regulated by frequent surface fires, but now many are choked with small trees. Those ladder fuels can fuel huge fires, like Rodeo-Chediski in 2002.

Milder winter temperatures are also letting bark beetles reproduce faster and spread upslope and northward. As you know, whole pine landscapes are dead or dying from beetle attack, from piñon pine to whitebark pine, from Arizona to British Columbia. Alaska has billions of trees killed by insects and other effects of a warming climate, and all this contributes to fire danger.

Another huge complication is the spread of the wildland/urban interface. We are releasing a new report in October called “Private Forests, Public Benefits.” In it, we estimate that 57 million acres of forest land will see rising housing density between 2000 and 2030. Four-tenths of that new growth will occur within 10 miles of a national forest. Homeowners who choose to live in fire-prone forests expect firefighter protection from wildfires, even when they do not treat the vegetation around their own homes.

Under these conditions, the era of fire control is over. We are in a whole new era. Make no mistake: We are still firmly committed to initial attack, and our fire organization is as good as it ever was, maybe even better. Every year, we suppress 98 percent of our fires on initial attack. That’s a phenomenal record, and we have every reason to be proud of it.

But the 2 percent of the fires that escape initial attack, under today’s fuel conditions, can become huge—much bigger than anything even we were experiencing 20 or 30 years ago.

And, given the growing WUI, those large fires are getting harder and harder to suppress. The most we can often do is point protection around communities. Our fuels and forest health treatments have gone way up in the last 10 years: From fiscal years 2001 through 2008, the interagency land managers treated more than 29 million acres. That’s 3.6 million acres on average each year, and the trajectory is up. But we still have a huge backlog of fuels and forest health treatments.

I want to be clear—our commitment to aggressive initial attack has not changed. We will continue working closely with our interagency partners, other cooperators, and our communities. Our first priority is firefighter and public safety. We are committed to protecting resources at risk and to using the latest science, information, and tools to make the best possible decisions on the fireline.

That includes taking into account our effectiveness. We will not take actions for show—actions that have no likelihood of success. Why build a fireline if we know that an advancing fire will just blow right over it? Why drop retardant if we know it will have no effect? It does not make sense to put firefighters and the public at risk, pilots at risk, when suppression actions are ineffective. Furthermore, why tie up resources taking ineffective actions when we might need those resources where they can be effective?

Employee Morale

That brings me to employee morale, because our fire and fuels situation affects it. As you might know, the employee survey on the best places to work in federal government put the Forest Service near the bottom this year. It was our worst showing ever.

My initial response was no—this must be some other Forest Service.

To me, that is disappointing and concerning, especially because our employees are so passionate about their work. Just like you, if needed, our folks come in early and stay late. They give up their weekends. They make a lot of personal sacrifices because they care so much about our mission, and I want them to feel as good as they possibly can about the sacrifices they make—the level of dedication they bring to work every day. But this survey indicates that maybe they don’t.

The Forest Service ranking for 2009 was 206 out of 216 agencies surveyed. That is much worse than in the past. Two years ago, for example, the Forest Service came in 143 out of 222. Our showing this year was also much worse than for similar agencies. For example, NRCS was ranked 61, BLM was ranked 150, and the National Park Service was ranked 160. So the results do seem significant. They signify areas of weakness that we need to tease out and address.

But the survey also surfaced areas of strength. For example, the overwhelming majority of Forest Service respondents indicated strong job satisfaction. They like their jobs, they think what they are doing is important, and they get a sense of personal accomplishment. The overwhelming majority also indicated good teamwork in the workplace, and they appreciated the flexibility they have to balance work with family issues. I could go on—there is much to celebrate.

But there are also a number of red flags. The two areas of greatest concern to me have to do with resources and leadership. More than half the respondents indicated that they do not have enough resources to get their jobs done. And a third to half indicated dissatisfaction with senior leadership. As you know, the role of senior leadership is partly to make sure that employees have the resources they need, so these two areas of concern might very well be linked.

The survey does not tell us why. We can guess, but without further inquiry we really don’t know for sure. So we are treating this as an opportunity to reach out to employees to help identify problems and find solutions. I am personally dedicated to committing time and resources to this.

For example, we have formed an agencywide sensing group. This is a representative group of about two dozen employees from every part of the agency, at various levels of the organization. I am holding a monthly conference call with the group. Our first call was a little more than a week ago.

We are also arranging times when employees from across the agency have the opportunity to call the Chief to discuss their concerns. Both of these efforts are designed to surface issues and share thoughts on how we might do things differently.

Reforestation Needs

Now I will turn to the question of our reforestation needs. As you might know, this issue has been growing in importance. Both are a central part of restoring degraded landscapes and sustaining healthy forest ecosystems.

Reforestation is critical to our mission. The Organic Act of 1897 calls on us to “improve and protect the forest within the boundaries.” Historically, reestablishing forests has been one of our most important activities, whether on cutover, burned-over, farmed-out, beetle-killed, or disease-ravaged lands. The National Forest Management Act of 1976 specifically required us to eliminate our reforestation backlog, which stood at about 3 million acres at the time. By 1985, we had done so.

Since then, however, our reforestation needs have been growing. We now have about 991,000 acres in need of reforestation. Those needs are not associated with timber harvest, which are covered by K-V funds. Rising wildfire severity is the main problem, especially in long-needle pine types, mixed conifer, and Douglas-fir. Appropriations have never kept pace. In the 1980s and into the 1990s, we were able to cover 40 to 50 percent of our reforestation needs each year. During that period, harvest levels were higher and K-V funds were available to cover the needed reforestation treatments. But with a decrease in K-V collections has come a higher reliance on appropriated funds. As a result, since about 2002 we have been able to address about 20 percent or less of the reforestation needs, with appropriated funds accounting for the great majority of those treated acres.

Reforestation is vital to sustainable land management. Failure to act promptly can lead to erosion and changes in soil properties. It can reduce critical wildlife habitat, imperil fisheries and watersheds, and threaten municipal water supplies. It can result in the long-term loss of a landscape’s aesthetic beauty and recreational opportunities. Reforestation is especially important in an era of climate change. Through carbon sequestration and storage, America’s forests offset about 12 percent of the carbon dioxide that Americans emit each year. Reforestation is the means by which we ensure that future generations will enjoy all the goods, values, and services people get from healthy, adaptable forest ecosystems.

We’ve been addressing our reforestation needs partly through the budget process. Beginning in fiscal year 2007, our budget justification has included national guidance specifically aimed at reforestation needs. The regions have also established direction for prioritizing use of reforestation funds, and we’ve directed forests to give highest priority to reforestation in using funds available for forest vegetation management, especially in view of climate change.

At the same time, we are working with partners on cooperative reforestation projects. We maintain challenge-cost share agreements for reforestation with American Forests, the Arbor Day Foundation, the National Forest Foundation, and others. For example, NFF helps fund regular planting projects as well as several reforestation projects through its Carbon Capital Fund.

We are conducting a review of the efficiency of using Forest Service nurseries that includes their role in producing not only traditional planting material but also native grasses, shrubs, and other vegetation used in restoration projects.

Forest Service Priorities

I think we’re on track to address these and other critical issues. We will increase our focus on restoring healthy, resilient ecosystems capable of adapting to climate change while delivering a full range of ecosystem services. Water is key, so we will continue to address issues related to water quantity and quality. And we will address restoration, water, and other issues by working collaboratively with the State Foresters and other partners for long-term outcomes across borders and boundaries. Our land base isn’t big enough, even in the West, to keep conservation on track all by ourselves; nobody’s is. We have got to focus on landscape-scale conservation.

Now I would like to open it up to discussion.