Good afternoon! It’s such a pleasure to be here for this event. Thanks to Becky, Ross, and the whole National Wild Turkey Federation for inviting me! This has become a wonderful opportunity to celebrate our collective conservation achievements.
The Forest Service mission is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests for the benefit of current and future generations. Part of our work is on lands belonging to the American people across the country. These lands, the national forests and grasslands, are for the use and enjoyment of the people we serve, the American people. We work with the states, with NGOs like the NWTF, and with other partners all across America to protect these federal lands. But we also work through partnerships to protect state, private, and other forest lands for all benefits people get from them.
That includes using and enjoying these lands in great American traditions like hunting and fishing. Part of what makes these lands special is the native wildlife they support, including deer, elk, bison, bear, and more. And no species is more fundamentally American than wild turkey. Wild turkey is native to most of the United States, and the federation has helped to restore the species to most of its original range and beyond.
Part of our job at the Forest Service is to conserve habitat for wild turkey and other native wildlife. But it’s a job we have never been able to do alone—we have always needed partners. From our very beginnings more than a century ago, we worked with local communities and other partners to achieve our nation’s conservation goals, including the conservation of wildlife habitat.
At the Forest Service, we renewed our pledge to work through partnerships by adopting five national priorities last year, all of which revolve around partnerships. Our national priorities include being a good neighbor and sharing stewardship for the lands entrusted to our care. That is especially important here in the South, where landownerships are so mixed. But it is also important in other parts of the country, including the West. If we want high-quality habitat for thriving populations of wild turkey and other native wildlife, then we have got to work together, sharing stewardship for the landscapes and watersheds around us. That means sitting down together with partners, communities, citizens, volunteers, and others and working to achieve the results and outcomes we all want across the landscape.
One of our oldest partners in this endeavor has been the National Wild Turkey Federation. For more than 40 years now, we have worked with the federation toward our mutual goals of conserving habitat for wild turkey and preserving our national hunting heritage. Hunting our native wildlife is part of traditions on this continent that go back for thousands of years. We have worked to restore opportunities for Americans from all backgrounds, young and old, to enjoy their heritage of the Great Outdoors. Part of that heritage is hunting wild turkey.
NWTF is helping us achieve our mutual goals. They have become the living embodiment of shared stewardship. We work together with the federation through the Making Tracks Program, which aligns with the federation’s Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt. Through Save the Habitat. Save the Hunt, the federation focuses on habitat restoration, public access, and creating hunters. In the last six years, the federation has exceeded its goal of opening public access. The federation has also achieved over 73 percent of its goals for habitat restoration and 85 of its goals for creating hunting. That’s truly impressive, and I commend you for leading the way!
We share resources to reach our shared goals. Staff from both our organizations make up the 15-member Making Tracks Steering Committee. The committee has representatives from every part of the Forest Service and from every region in the contiguous United States. Since 1995, the committee has included a full-time Forest Service liaison. Kelle Reynolds is our Making Tracks Program Coordinator. Kelle is a full-time Forest Service employee who works out of the Southern Region’s office in Atlanta, Georgia.
The NWTF has 13 employees serving as project wildlife biologists/foresters who are jointly funded and serve to build capacity on the National Forest System as well as on state and private lands. Yes, they are boundary spanners! We’ve had 113 challenge-cost share agreements for shared positions, habitat improvements, and other purposes, and 28 of them are currently active.
The federation also continues to lead the way in stewardship contracting, a critical tool for restoring wildlife habitat. We have partnered together on over 114 stewardship agreement projects across six regions, with 28 agreements currently active and ten in development. These stewardship agreements have resulted in over 72,000 acres treated, with an investment of more than $39 million from the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Forest Service, and other partners. Again, we are deeply grateful for your leadership and vision.
The National Wild Turkey Federation has given us vital support at the national level as well. For too long, the Forest Service’s system of budgeting for wildland fire management has been broken. As a result, we have been siphoning funds from other program areas to support fire. Under Becky’s leadership, the federation stepped in to support a national fire funding fix, and last year Congress finally passed it. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for your support, and I look forward to working together far into the future to meet our mutual goals.
The federation has also supported both the Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service in our Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Partnership projects. You have partnered with both of our agencies and with other federal partners like the Bureau of Land Management to improve the health and resilience of forest ecosystems where public and private lands meet across our nation. I know we all thank you for your support.
All this has paid off in helping to maintain and restore high-quality habitat for wild turkey. Various banquet events have raised NWTF State Chapter Super Funds on the order of hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. These funds go toward improving wildlife habitat on the national forests and grasslands.
Partnerships like this have been a central part of my career. I started my career in 1980 as a wildland firefighter in the state of Washington, and I spent 26 years working for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. I served as Washington State Forester and then as Arizona State Forester before joining the Forest Service in 2010. As a Forest Service partner for my whole career and as Forest Service Chief since last year, I am deeply committed to shared values like conservation, service, interdependence, diversity, and safety. My personal passion is connecting people with their natural resources, whether as partners, as volunteers, as hunters, or just as citizens.
A great way of making those connections is through partnerships like this, where we have decades of shared stewardship for the lands we cherish. Last August, the Forest Service launched a Shared Stewardship Initiative with support from the administration and Congress. New scientific breakthroughs have given the Forest Service new tools and technologies for placing fuels and forest health treatments across landscapes in ways that will be more effective than ever before. It’s called an outcome-based investment strategy. Where we decide to make the corresponding investments depends on the outcomes we decide on together for the landscapes we all share.
Our approach will be to work with the states and other partners—through partnerships like Making Tracks—to use the right tools in the right places at the right scales for outcomes that meet shared goals across shared landscapes. We are now holding talks with partners across the country about the tremendous potential of this new approach to land management.
Before I close, I want to again express my gratitude. I thank the federation for your ongoing partnership and support, and I commend you on your success. Thanks to your partners, volunteers, and professional staff, the NWTF has facilitated the investment of nearly $500 million in the twin goals of wildlife conservation and the preservation of our nation’s hunting heritage. The NWTF has improved about 20 million acres of wildlife habitat to date. The federation has also introduced about 100,000 people to the outdoors each year.
The results speak for themselves. When the National Wild Turkey Federation was established in 1973, there were about 1.5 million wild turkeys left in all of North America. Thanks to the federation’s efforts—thanks to great partnerships like Making Tracks—wild turkey populations are now estimated at greater than 6 million.
Speaking of Making Tracks, we are here today to recognize four recipients of awards. The awards are in two different categories—for program accomplishments benefiting wild turkeys over multiple years; and for strengthening and expanding the partnership between the Forest Service and the National Wild Turkey Federation.
In closing, I want to acknowledge the awardees and the importance of their accomplishments in improving habitat for wild turkey and in establishing the strong partnership foundations that make those improvements possible. People like these embody the values of conservation and service that have always inspired us at the Forest Service. It will take all of us, through partnerships like Making Tracks, to inspire a future of shared stewardship for the lands we manage on behalf of the citizens we serve.