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Speech

Partnerships for Forest Conservation

Interim Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen
Idaho Forest Group, Annual Contractors Meeting
Moscow, ID — March 27, 2018

It’s a pleasure to be here today. I am here on behalf of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service to reaffirm our commitment to sound forest stewardship through the partnerships we have here in Idaho—partnerships for forest conservation. The Secretary values his relationships with the forestry community here, and so does the Forest Service. This forum is a wonderful opportunity for exchange and dialogue, and I look forward to it.

Thank you for your support of the fire funding fix and helpful forest management provisions in the omnibus appropriations bill for 2018.

 

Background

First, a few words about me. As you might know, I am serving as Interim Chief of the Forest Service, a position I have been in for all of three weeks. But I am not new to the Forest Service. I have been with the Forest Service for 7 years and a partner for my entire career.

I am a trained forester, originally from Washington state. I worked as a forester and wildland firefighter for nearly 27 years at the Washington Department of Natural Resources, where I eventually served as State Forester for Washington and then Arizona before joining the Forest Service in 2010, most recently serving as Deputy Chief for State and Private Forestry.

So I have a bit of firsthand knowledge of the challenges we face at the Forest Service, and I have extensive firsthand experience with the challenges here in the West. The solutions involve active forest management to protect communities from catastrophic fire and to restore forests to health.

And that takes partnerships for conservation—for active forest management—across the landscapes and watersheds we all share. Our partnerships are based on mutual goals, including the goal of restoring healthy, resilient landscapes while also meeting our nation’s need for jobs and economic opportunities.

 

National Priorities

The Forest Service has a long history of working through partnerships with citizens and communities here in Idaho. We’ve had good success in working with coalitions, collaboratives, and other partners across landownerships, and I commend you for it. Together, we have launched more than 35 current and planned large-scale restoration projects here in Idaho, including on lands on every national forest in the state. As you might know, project goals range from restoring watershed function to a better condition class to removing hazardous fuels and restoring healthy, resilient forests.

These kinds of partnerships are key to the success of our mission delivery at the Forest Service. To help consolidate and extend our partnership success, the Forest Service has adopted a series of national priorities.

One national priority for the Forest Service is being good neighbors and excelling at customer service. We are committed to working with efficiency and integrity, with a focus on the people we serve, through a broad, diverse coalition for conservation. We envision working across boundaries, leveraging resources with our partners, and using all the tools and authorities we have.

A related priority is promoting shared stewardship by increasing partnerships and volunteerism. We need others to help us make a difference across the landscape, so we are committed to working with partners and volunteers to accomplish work on the nation’s forests in the spirit of shared stewardship. We believe that joining together across shared landscapes and around shared values is critical for the future of conservation.

Another priority for the Forest Service is improving the condition of forests and grasslands. The condition of forests and rangelands goes to the very core of our Forest Service mission, and we have seen growing challenges in recent decades. One challenge in particular, especially here in the West, is the growing severity and duration of wildfires and fire seasons. Last year, we had a historic fire year, including fire activity far above normal in the Northern Rockies. As you know, we have also had insect and disease epidemics in many parts of the West, including 4 million acres affected by mountain pine beetle here in Idaho. About 80 million acres on the National Forest System overall are at risk, and about a third of that area is at high risk.

We are committed to using every tool and every authority available to make a difference for healthy, resilient forests and grasslands. To that end, we are using a whole range of active management tools, including prescribed burning, timber sales, stewardship contracts, managed natural wildfire ignitions, herbicides, and noncommercial mechanical fuel treatments.

And we have momentum. Over the past two years—in 2016 and 2017—we’ve seen more active management results on the National Forest System than in any two-year period in well over two decades. More than 6 million acres were treated on the National Forest System and 5.9 billion board feet of timber were sold.

We are also gaining momentum with hazardous fuels treatments. This year, we are looking to increase the area of hazardous fuels reduction nationwide through prescribed fire and mechanical treatment by 15 percent, and I think we’ll get there.

But we can’t do it alone. The landscapes we manage at the Forest Service are often in the same watersheds as other ownerships, whether private, tribal, state, or federal. We face the same challenges across landownerships, and we have many of the same goals. To be truly effective, we have to share stewardship across ownership boundaries. That’s part of being a good neighbor.

Being a good neighbor means working with others, working with our partners across entire landscapes to meet shared needs and goals. It means recognizing the rights, values, and needs of stakeholders across the spectrum, including states, tribes, counties, communities, and private landowners. Above all, it means working with our neighbors through partnerships.

So we are using new authorities to expand our forest restoration work with partners, such as our Good Neighbor Authority under the 2014 Farm Bill. Under GNA, we have signed master agreements as well as agreements for specific projects. About half of the GNA project agreements have forest health or timber harvest as their main objectives. The other half are for managing hazardous fuels, improving habitat, treating invasive weeds, or otherwise improving watersheds.

Through GNA, we can pool resources for these kinds of treatments on federal lands as well as on adjacent state, private, and tribal lands. Last year, the Forest Service made more than $3.6 million in cash and noncash contributions to GNA projects. For their part, the states and other partners made more than $1.8 million in contributions.

And GNA is growing by leaps and bounds. In just four short years, we have signed 128 GNA agreements in over 31 states, and Idaho has helped lead the way. In fact, this very group, the Idaho Forest Group, has taken the lead. You brought together industry partners to provide the state of Idaho with the seed money needed to help stand up Good Neighbor Authority projects and capacity. I would like to commend Mark Brinkmeyer and Bob Boeh for leading the way in this initiative. 

Your support has been crucial. With your support, the Idaho Department of Lands could leverage a grant from the Forest Service to help Idaho become one of the leaders in using GNA. There are currently 11 active GNA projects in Idaho and 20 more in the works. This is a great example of how we can accomplish more by working together. 

Unfortunately, we face barriers to shared stewardship. Some of those barriers have to do with the way we do environmental analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act and other environmental laws and regulations.

 

Promising Opportunities

To increase our capacity, the Forest Service has launched an effort to improve our environmental analysis and decision-making processes. We are doing some spring cleaning and delayering our lengthy processes. We have six major change efforts underway to increase the amount of work we accomplish by improving our processes and procedures and by increasing the number of acres covered by environmental analysis and decisions. Our work will stay grounded in sound science, using good data and keeping our environmental commitments while also raising the scale of our work.

Our six major change efforts are designed to align our practices, policies, and guidance to make us more efficient, agile, and adaptable as an organization. For example, one of our six change efforts is called Forest Products Modernization. By modernizing our processes in this area, we can seize new opportunities for forest products delivery in a way that helps us do even more to improve forest conditions while also sustaining rural economies.

The reason that is so important is that we have promising new opportunities for growth in the forest products industry, and we need to be nimble enough as an organization to take advantage of them. One example of a revolutionary new technology is cross-laminated timber, which allows buildings 12 stories tall or higher to be constructed almost entirely from wood. Mass timber buildings are going up in Portland and other parts of the country, and mass timber production facilities are starting up as well…including here in the Inland Empire.  

Mass timber presents us with new opportunities, and we are working with partners to make them a reality. At the Forest Service, we have not significantly changed our forest products systems and technology in 30 years, and many of our production processes and policies are still based on the sale of high-value timber. As you know, forest health treatments today are often focused on low-value timber, so we are updating training for our employees, examining and reforming our policy, and gaining efficiencies through better use of technology. We are also changing project management and delivery systems as well as changing the way we do business to get more work done on the ground. In fact, we are exploring change opportunities in all aspects of the forest products delivery system.

And we are starting to see results, one of them a partnership right here with the University of Idaho. The university is planning a new basketball arena here in Moscow, a one-of-a-kind engineered wood structure highlighting Idaho’s wood products industry. In 2017, the university received a $250,000 grant from the Forest Service’s Wood Innovations Grant Program for design and engineering work on the arena. Wood products industry partners have pledged to provide manufactured lumber from sawmills, in-kind hauling of wood, and manufacturing of trusses for the arena, and the university’s experimental forest will be one source of raw material for construction. The Idaho national forests are exploring authorities for donating or exchanging wood products for this unique structure. We are working with partners to showcase the full spectrum of the benefits people get from Idaho’s forests.

So I see exciting new opportunities ahead for partnerships to sustain and restore healthy, resilient forested landscapes, both here in Idaho and across the West. Idaho has been a leader in collaborative large-scale projects across watersheds, landscapes, and landownerships. At the Forest Service, we commend you for your leadership, and we are committed to doing everything we can to help along the way. One way is by finding new markets for wood and other forest products, and we are doing what we can to improve our processes accordingly. We are working to expand our capacity for capitalizing on new technologies to build new partnerships for forest conservation, for the sake of healthier forests and more prosperous rural communities.

The bottom line is this: we are all in this together. We have been from the start more than a century ago, when the Forest Service started working with local communities to sustain the forests around us while also creating jobs and economic opportunities.

Gifford Pinchot, who founded the Forest Service in 1905, put it this way: “The Vast Possibilities of our great future will happen only if we make ourselves responsible for that future.”

In that same spirit, let’s realize our future possibilities by taking full responsibility for forest conservation through partnerships in the years ahead.

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