Meeting the Bonn Challenge in the United States

Tom Tidwell, Chief
World Conservation Congress
Honolulu, HI
— September 2, 2016

It is a pleasure and an honor to be here among the world’s foremost champions of forests. I feel privileged to be speaking to you today. I would especially like to commend the Global Partnership on Forest Landscape Restoration and IUCN for their outstanding leadership on restoration.

Today, I will outline what we are doing in the United States to meet our part of the Bonn Challenge. But first, some context about forests in the United States and the work we do. Our national contexts will undoubtedly vary, but we share overarching conservation themes, and there are lessons we can learn from one another and apply in the work we do.

Conservation Roots

When Europeans began settling what is now the United States, they found more than 400 million hectares of forest land. With little thought to the future, they cleared forest land for farms and to build cities. They also gave little thought to the knowledge of indigenous people who had been managing forests across the continent for thousands of years.

By 1900, we had lost over a quarter of our forests, about 100 million hectares, an area larger than Venezuela. People finally acted to stop the loss. Conservation organizations joined with government agencies to stop deforestation in the western United States and to reforest abandoned farmlands in the East. We stabilized our forest estate at about 300 million hectares, or about one-third of our total land area. We also turned America’s forests from a net carbon source into a net carbon sink.

My agency, the U.S. Forest Service, is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and we were part that first conservation movement. We began in 1905 based on the recognition that forest conservation was vital to our national prosperity. But our beginnings as an agency weren’t perfect. We left out many groups—indigenous people, minorities, women—and we had much to learn about the role of fire in our forests. Thankfully, together with a diverse set of partners, we have been able to learn and evolve over time.

Today, the United States has the world’s fourth largest forest estate, including some of the most productive forests in the world. About 43 percent of our forest land is in protected areas under local, state, tribal, and federal management. The U.S. Forest Service manages about 20 percent of the forests in the United States for multiple uses and societal values.

But most forest land in the United States—56 percent—is privately owned. In our forest-rich eastern states, it is even more: 83 percent of the forest land in the East is in private hands. Our fifty individual states regulate private forest management, and their regulatory frameworks vary widely. The U.S. Forest Service works with the states and with private landowners to give technical and financial support for sustainable forest management.

Challenges to Sustainable Forestry

So we have a patchwork of forest landownerships across the United States. And although our forest estate has stabilized since 1900, we still face many challenges.

Almost all of the forests that the U.S. Forest Service manages are fire-adapted forests. In many forest types, small-scale fires at regular intervals play a critical role in forest health. Indigenous peoples across North America used wildland fire to manage forests, but professional foresters in the 20th century thought they knew better. For almost a century, we tried to exclude fire from these fire-adapted landscapes. As a result, many of these forests today are degraded and prone to insect epidemics and catastrophic wildfires. Climate change has made things even worse.

Another challenge has to do with urban growth. Housing developments are spreading into rural areas across the United States, and many private forest landowners are selling their lands to developers. For the first time in a century, the United States is again at risk of a net loss in our forest estate, which is also at risk of conversion from a net carbon sink to a net carbon source.

The Bonn Challenge is therefore timely, and the United States has pledged to restore 15 million hectares of forest land by 2020. I will now outline the progress we are making.

Forest Landscape Restoration Approaches

Already, we are more than halfway there. Since 2011, the United States has implemented restoration activities across 9.5 million hectares of lost or degraded forest land.

By restoration, we mean restoring the ecological functions associated with healthy, resilient forests—forests that are capable of delivering a full range of ecosystem services, even in this era of climate change. Forest landscape restoration is where the social, economic, and ecological sides of sustainability come together, for both ecosystems and communities.

Fortunately, we have sound frameworks for forest governance and landownership, whether at the local, state, tribal, or federal level. We also have a wealth of tribal and local knowledge we can draw on, and we have a growing network of partners to work with us.  

For the United States, given our patchwork of landownership patterns, partnerships are key. Restoring forests means engaging local communities and bringing diverse groups together to pool resources and work across shared landscapes toward mutual goals. We call it an “all-lands” approach. 

Part of our strategy is to retain forests as forests. We do that by giving private forest landowners financial and other incentives to keep their lands forested and sustainably managed. 

Another element is restoring the health and resilience of degraded forest lands through community-centered initiatives. For example, part of our Bonn Challenge work is our Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. Under the program, community members across the country join together to propose projects based on a shared vision: large landscapes of healthy, resilient forests and communities at far less risk of catastrophic fire. Since 2009, we have started 23 of these large-scale projects across the United States, each lasting 8 to 10 years and covering at least 20,000 hectares. From 2010 to 2015, these projects treated almost 730,000 hectares while creating and maintaining an estimated 4,900 jobs per year.

A third element in our national restoration strategy is reforestation. Following severe wildfires and other disturbances on the national forests, for example, the U.S. Forest Service replants areas with trees and other vegetation to prevent erosion and encourage forest regrowth. In some areas, foresters plant special vegetation for wildlife habitat or biodiversity; in others, they remove invasive plants and reforest the area with native vegetation. The U.S. Forest Service also offers financial and technical support for reforestation on private land.

Tools and Lessons Learned

In every instance, we have brought people together to work toward mutual restoration goals. We are fortunate to have sound forest governance in the United States. But we are making it better at the U.S. Forest Service by engaging more partners and communities in our work and by better integrating our programs. In addition, our Congress has expanded our authority to work cooperatively across landownership boundaries with states, tribes, and private landowners. By removing barriers and sharing resources, we can get more restoration work done.

Over the years, we have learned several valuable lessons:

  • We have learned the importance of engaging the scientific community—of formulating a sound scientific basis for everything we do. That includes monitoring our restoration work to see what’s working and what needs adjustment.
  • We have learned the importance of a landscape-scale approach. The challenges are too great to tackle on a project-by-project, hectare-by-hectare basis.
  • We have learned the importance of partnerships and collaboration. By bringing together diverse perspectives, we create a shared community vision for restoration. This in turn helps to build public support for restoration while also ensuring that social, economic, and ecological needs are met.
  • We have learned that it takes time to build effective community relationships. Much of the actual restoration tends to happen towards the end of a project. But that is time well spent, because collaboration builds long-term trust in government to deliver on promises and make a difference.
  • We have also learned the importance of learning from others, such as benefiting from local and tribal knowledge. That also includes learning from our global partners about what works and what doesn’t in other countries and then seeing if we can apply those lessons at home. 

And on that note, I will end. Whenever the challenges we face seem too great, I always remind myself that we are not alone. When people come together, we tap a vast reservoir of knowledge, energy, and ideas to meet the forestry challenges of the future. Together, we can create healthy and resilient forests around the world, for the benefit of generations to come. Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today, and I look forward to learning from all of you.