Moving Forward with Collaborative Restoration

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Collaborative Restoration Workshop, History Colorado Center
Denver, CO
— April 26, 2016

Thank you! And thank you to the National Forest Foundation for hosting this workshop. It’s a real pleasure to be here today—to be with so many people who are committed to working together to restore landscapes across the national forests and grasslands on behalf of the American people.  

Over the next three days, we will have a remarkable opportunity to listen to one another … to learn from each other’s challenges and successes … and to take those lessons forward … to build on the last seven to ten years of restoration work. You are on the leading edge of collaborative restoration, and I look forward to the insights that will emerge from your fruitful conversations.

Value of Forests

And as we start these conversations, it is good to step back and remind ourselves of what we stand for and what we are working toward.

As everyone here knows, forests provide tremendous values and benefits to the American people. Forests contribute to agricultural production by protecting water, controlling erosion, increasing soil quality, and providing habitat for wild pollinators and predators of agricultural pests. And forests furnish much of the water we drink. In fact, more than half of our nation’s surface water originates on forested landscapes.

Many communities also rely on forests for jobs and economic security. Some jobs come through forest products and outdoor recreation; other jobs come from restoration work itself. According to one study, every million dollars invested in restoration-related activities generates from 13 to 29 jobs and more than $2 million in economic activity. That compares favorably with investments in other sectors, such as oil and gas production.

Challenges We Face

But as you know, we cannot take all these values and benefits for granted. Our forests are facing unprecedented challenges, some of the toughest in the history of this agency. Take wildland fire, for example. Since 2000, at least thirteen states have had their largest fires on record. We are also seeing other elevated stresses and disturbances … regional drought … invasive species … epidemic outbreaks of insects and disease … all driven, in part, by a changing climate.

In addition, homes and communities are spilling into rural areas right up to edges of the national forests, in some places. From 2010 to 2060, the United States is expected to lose up to 31 million acres of forest outright. That’s an area larger than Pennsylvania. Twenty-seven percent of all forest-associated plants and animals in the United States, a total of 4,005 species, are at risk of extinction.

The growing WUI is also making wildland fire management exponentially more complex. More than 46 million homes—about 40 percent of our nation’s housing units—are in fire-prone parts of the WUI. Almost 70,000 communities are now at risk from wildfire, and less than 15,000 have a community wildfire protection plan. 

Collaborative Restoration

So how do we tackle these challenges and protect all the values and benefits that people get from forests? The key is ecological restoration. Restoration means restoring healthy, resilient forests capable of delivering all the ecosystem services and other benefits that people get from them.

We are taking steps to pick up the pace of restoration. Restoration is never easy; collaboration takes hard work. But by building trust, we can get more work done across larger landscapes, in part by getting the license we need to streamline our NEPA processes.

And we are making good progress. From 2001 to 2010, for example, the Forest Service treated an average of about 2.5 million acres per year. Our projection for 2011 was to complete 3.7 million acres, but we actually accomplished 4.2 million acres. By 2014, we increased that by 9 percent to 4.6 million acres.

We are not in this alone. The Forest Service manages about 20 percent of our nation’s forests. Another 56 percent are privately owned, and the rest are under state, tribal, local, or other federal management. Landscapes are often in mixed ownership, so we have to work across boundaries to reach shared goals.

The good news is this: People get it. People from all over the country … people from all walks of life, representing all different interests … people get the connection between declining forest health and things they value, like water, wildlife, and outdoor recreation. They get the connection between ecological degradation and the need for restoration treatments, and they are willing to invest their precious time and hard-earned money in restoration treatments.

We can build on that reservoir of trust and willingness by bringing folks together around shared goals … by combining our mutual resources and knowledge to find common solutions across the landscapes we all share. Our greatest success comes when people work together through partnerships and collaboration to reach shared restoration goals.

For example, you all know about the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. The CFLRP works through local partnerships, usually local community groups that care deeply about their public lands. They work together toward long-term restoration goals on the national forests and grasslands, but also on adjacent state, private, and other lands.

Twenty-three CFLRP projects are now underway. Since the CFLRP projects began, they have treated more than 1.8 million acres for fuels and more than 1.6 million acres for wildlife habitat. They have also generated 1.7 billion board feet of timber and $800 million in local labor income. And they have supported an average of 4,900 jobs per year.

A prime example is the Four Forests Restoration Initiative, or 4FRI. The initiative covers ponderosa pine landscapes across four national forests in Arizona. Many stands are overgrown and degraded, making them prone to devastating wildfires. A major goal is to restore natural low-severity fires by removing some of the vegetation.

Over ten years, 4FRI will treat almost 600,000 acres through mechanical treatment and prescribed burning. It will decommission 860 miles of roads, restore aspen on almost 1,500 acres, restore more than 56,000 acres of grassland, and restore springs and stream channels.

It isn’t always easy. 4FRI is the national restoration leader in terms of scale, and we have seen setbacks on 4FRI. We have also taken away some valuable lessons learned. The key is persistence. Collaboration doesn’t help us get there faster, but it does take us farther than any of us could go alone. 

Congress has recognized our collaborative success through new legislation, a compliment to all our hard work. The CFLRP itself is one example. Another is Good Neighbor Authority under the latest Farm Bill, letting us get more work done in collaboration with our state, tribal, and other partners. Colorado has been a leader on Good Neighbor Authority, and we welcome its pending legislation to support our mutual restoration work.

We have also placed collaboration at the center of our forest planning. As you know, we adopted a new planning rule in 2012 after an extensive process of engaging communities across the country. We listened to people from all walks of life, and we took what we heard to heart.

And if we keep working together in this way, through partnerships and collaboration based on mutual trust, then we can get Congress to consider additional bills to help us work together toward our mutual restoration goals.

Doing the Hard Work 

As you know, working through partnerships and collaboration is hard work. Every partner brings their own individual interests to the table, and everyone’s interests may not smoothly align. It often takes a lot of time and energy and mutual trust to reach an agreement, and then that agreement may need to be renegotiated as new information emerges.

That is why we are here today … to expand and build upon our past collaborative work … to have frank conversations about what is working and what is not. We are here to share our experiences and insights … to think together and work out some creative strategies for streamlining processes, gaining efficiencies, and making even greater changes across landscapes.  

These conversations are incredibly important, because our future depends on them. To achieve “the greatest good of the greatest number in the long run,” we need strong connections to our local communities so we can work collaboratively to restore our landscapes, build public trust, and forge lasting partnerships to take us into the future.

So over the next few days, I challenge you to listen closely, to learn from each other, and to use the information you gain to lead out on collaborative restoration. Thank you for your time, and I look forward to our discussions.