Thanks, George, for that warm introduction. This is a great occasion to celebrate conservation, and I want to personally thank the Environmental Excellence Award winners for giving us this opportunity—
- Camilla Herlevich, founder of the North Carolina Coastal Land Trust and winner of the Conservation Award; and
- Melanie Phelps and Joyce Webb, winners of the Environmental Education Award for their educational work in the Colorado River watershed.
Your work exemplifies the partnerships we will need for the future of conservation and sustainable forestry, and I thank you and commend you for that.
I’d like to take this opportunity to talk about the role we play at the Forest Service in conservation and sustainable forestry. I’ll say a little about who we are, where we’ve been in the past, and where I think we’re going in the future.
Who We Are
Most of you probably know that the Forest Service is celebrating our centennial next year. For a hundred years, we’ve had the same mission of caring for the land and serving people. We’ve always tried to deliver the values that Americans want from their forests and grasslands, and we’ve always done that through partnerships—whether with timber producers and ranchers, with local homeowners and communities, or with conservationists and environmental groups.
Our mission includes managing the national forests and grasslands. But it also includes promoting sustainable forestry on state and private lands, and we have a whole array of programs for that. We also have maybe the largest research and development organization in the world devoted solely to conservation. So that’s who we are and what we’re about—caring for the land and serving people through partnerships all across America.
But what Americans have wanted from the land has changed over time, and in response the Forest Service focus has shifted. Let me just talk about that in terms of the National Forest System, although it applies to our State and Private Forestry and Research programs as well. It will give you some idea of where we’ve come from and where I think we’re headed.
Where We’ve Been
In the past century, we have been through three very different eras of national forest management, and now we are in a fourth. A century ago, our nation faced a crisis caused by unrestrained exploitation of our natural resources. Bison, elk, and other wildlife species were almost extinct, and we were seeing disastrous fires and floods. There were also widespread fears of a timber famine.
Conservation came out of that crisis. The National Forest System was established in 1905, and the Forest Service was charged with managing it. We went in and put the multiple uses for the first time under careful management. For example, overgrazing had been a problem, and we got that under control. We also protected the game and started to get the fires under control.
The next era came with the Great Depression in the 1930s. The New Deal ramped up our social responsibility, especially through the Civilian Conservation Corps. Every national forest had at least one CCC camp, where we gave jobs to thousands of unemployed Americans. The CCC built a lot of our infrastructure—roads, trails, campgrounds, ranger stations, and so on. The CCC planted trees and helped us control many more fires.
World War II ended the CCC, but I guess you could say the era of social responsibility continued through the war effort, which we strongly supported. A lot of our employees enlisted, and we ramped up timber supplies needed by our troops.
The 1950s were a period of transition into the timber era. From the 1960s through the 1980s, every administration, with strong congressional support, called for more timber from the national forests. In those 30 years, we went from producing very little timber to meeting 20 to 25 percent of our nation’s sawtimber needs. We helped millions of Americans fulfill the American dream of home ownership.
The first Earth Day in 1970 signaled another major shift in public values. In response, our management began to change. By the 1990s, we were no longer focusing primarily on timber production. Instead, our main focus was on ecosystem health and capitalizing on the multiple uses to get there. Today, we use timber harvest primarily to restore forest health. The national forests produce only about a sixth as much timber as before, mostly as a byproduct of treatments for other reasons. And our road system is now shrinking. From 1998 through 2002, we obliterated 14 miles of road for every mile of new road we built.
Where We’re Going
That brings me to where we’re going. We have entered a new era of ecological restoration. We manage the land for long-term ecosystem health while meaningfully engaging the public in our decision making. We believe that what we leave on the land is more important than what we take away.
Today, the main values that Americans want from their public lands are clean air and water, habitat for wildlife, scenic beauty, and plenty of opportunities for outdoor recreation. The main threats to these values aren’t timber harvest or livestock grazing or road building. The main threats are fire and fuels, invasive species, loss of open space, and unmanaged outdoor recreation. Consider:
- In the West, we face some of our worst wildland fires in history.
- Nationwide, invasive species have contributed to the decline of up to half of our imperiled species.
- We are rapidly losing our open spaces. Every minute, Americans lose about 4 acres of open space to development.
- And recreational uses have been rising so fast that we haven’t always kept up. In particular, we’re seeing unacceptable resource damage from the unmanaged use of off-road vehicles.
Given all this, our focus has got to be on ecological restoration. I met with the forest supervisors a few months ago, and I can tell you that they “get it.” They are fired up and ready to get on with the job of ecological restoration.
How We’ll Get There
That brings me back to partnerships. Whether it’s restoring our longleaf pine ecosystems in the Southeast or the Colorado River watershed in the West, we can accomplish ecological restoration only through partnerships. I think the Environmental Excellence Award winners here today could tell you that, and our forest supervisors and district rangers understand that, too.
We’re trying to do that through a community-based collaborative approach. The idea is this: We sit down with people from the community and anyone else who might be interested, and together we formulate some shared long-term goals for the land. Then we figure out how we can work together to get there.
I’d be the first to admit that we don’t always do that so well. In a lot of places, we’ve got a ways to go before we’ve got this kind of full upfront collaboration with our partners. But we’re getting some help. Through the Healthy Forests Initiative and Healthy Forests Restoration Act, we’re streamlining our processes so we can deliver on our promises and get more done on the ground. For example, if we can work upfront with communities to get community fire plans in place, then under HFRA we can get more fuels reduction work done for community fire protection.
Sometimes our own agency culture can put obstacles in the way. That’s where I think our proposed new planning rule can help. We want our line officers to focus on getting local agreement in place long before we reach the project stage. Then our NEPA processes won’t hold us up so much.
Our expanded authority for stewardship contracting holds a lot of promise along these lines. For example, we might contract with a business or community group to restore a fire-adapted forest while obliterating roads, replacing old culverts, and utilizing biomass to heat local schools. The community drives the process, and everyone wins. I think that’s the gist of where we’re headed.
Community Forestry Is Key
In closing, we’ve come a long way since the beginnings of the conservation movement a century ago. Values have changed and so have the challenges we face, but we’ve always been committed to partnership. Today, that means working upfront through collaborative partnerships for long-term ecosystem health.
For that, we’re going to need help from our partners. Community-based forestry is relatively new for us, and we’re still working it out. I invite you to work with us to help make it a success.