Pacific Southwest Centennial Forum, The Forest Service: A Story of Change

Centennial Forum
Sacramento, CA
— November 5, 2004

Welcome! It’s a pleasure to be here today with so many of our partners and collaborators. We’re here to commemorate a hundred years of service and to prepare for the next hundred years by seeing what we can learn from the past.

I’ve had a chance to look over the agenda. You’ll be covering a lot of ground in this forum, all of which will be great preparation for the delegates going to the Centennial Congress in January. Right now, I’d like to help set the stage by saying a little about our past in the Forest Service, about where I see us today, and about the challenges ahead.

A Century of Change

We’ve gone through enormous changes in the last hundred years, both here in California and across the nation. At the turn of the last century we faced—as a nation—a crisis caused by unrestrained exploitation of our natural resources. Wildlife such as elk and grizzly were going extinct; we were seeing disastrous fires and floods; and most of the eastern seaboard was devoid of trees, a result of rampant harvesting. The Forest Service and the conservation movement grew out of this crisis.

For three-quarters of a century the goal of the Forest Service was custodial management, restoration, and—especially during and after the Great Depression—jobs and social responsibility. Think CCC, which built a lot of our infrastructure in California and elsewhere. Post-World War II, we entered a new period characterized by timber production. From the 1960s to 1980s, every administration, with strong congressional support, called for more timber harvest from the national forests, with the goal of replacing the depleted stocks of private and state timber as a result of the war effort.

In the early 1990s, that changed again. Today, we’re in a new period of ecological restoration and recreation. Maybe more than ever before, we are focusing on delivering values and services like clean air and water, scenic beauty, habitat for wildlife, and opportunities for outdoor recreation. Not only do Americans want these things from their national forests, but this shift is also essential to cope with some huge threats to the sustainability of these forests.

Future Challenges

Not all of these threats are everywhere, but they’re in enough places to be severe national problems. The threats will all be familiar to you here in California … threats like:

  • fire and fuels—we know all about that here in California;
  • invasive species—you’ve got plenty of those here, too;
  • resource degradation through recreational use that isn’t properly managed;
  • a huge backlog in restoration projects and facilities maintenance;
  • oversubscribed water resources—a legendary problem here in California; and
  • substances in the atmosphere—from ozone to carbon dioxide—that are threatening the long-term health of our ecosystems.

Any one of these problems alone would be huge. When you put them all together, you get some idea of the sheer scale of what we face. I believe that the Forest Service is at a crucial moment in history, both here in California and nationwide. In the past century, there’ve been only a few similar moments where we’ve faced challenges on a similar scale. Meeting these challenges will lay out a career’s worth of work for the next generation of Forest Service employees.

Community-Based Forestry

I believe that the only way we can rise to the challenge is by working upfront through collaborative partnerships for long-term ecosystem health. A hundred years ago, Gifford Pinchot recognized the need for working in partnership with local communities if we were to succeed. He planted the seeds of partnership in our first Use Book by directing our employees to work closely with local communities to promote conservation.

Ever since then, we’ve always been committed to fulfilling our mission through partnerships. Today, the scale of what we face leaves us no other choice: We have got to work together.

But the way we work with people has changed over time. We’ve learned the need for more upfront public involvement in our decision making. We’ve still got a ways to go before we get the kind of full upfront collaboration with our partners we want, but we’ve made progress. In this new century, partnerships, collaborations, and community-based forestry will be essential to the way the Forest Service carries out its mission. I was pleased to see from your agenda that you’re devoting a whole chunk of time to this important topic.

Long and Broad View

The Centennial Congress in Washington will not be about the issues we deal with every day, like what to do about roadless areas or whether the planning rule for national forests should be this or that. These are indeed critical issues, but they don’t rise to the level we envision for this Congress. We expect the Congress to take the long and the broad view—the view across decades and centuries.

We can inform that view through what you accomplish here at this forum. Today, we look back a hundred years, and we marvel at the vision of leaders like Gifford Pinchot and President Theodore Roosevelt. If we do a good job at these forums, then maybe a hundred years from now Forest Service employees will look back on the Centennial Congress of 2005 and marvel at our vision. I think that’s a goal worth striving for.