A Regionwide Vision for Retaining Forests as Forests

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Southern Forest Products Export Conference
Charleston, SC
— October 17, 2016

It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for the opportunity to join you here today to say a few words.

As you know, forest products are key to sustaining forests across the United States, but especially here in the South. Exports are a big part of that. To that end, the Forest Service is recognizing National Forest Products Week through a series of events, including the opportunity for me to join you here today. National Forest Products Week is from October 16th to the 22nd; it includes National Bioenergy Day on October 19th.

The Importance of Forests

Our mission at the Forest Service is simple: sustaining the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests for the benefit of present and future generations. People get a tremendous range of benefits from the nation’s forests. Our job is to sustain the nation’s forests for all the benefits people get from them.

One way we can work together to sustain the nation’s forests, especially on state and private lands, is through a healthy forest products industry. The products that people sell from private forest lands in particular help them sustain their livelihoods. That is a primary incentive for private forest landowners to keep their lands in working forests.

Most forest products go toward consumption of obvious things like paper products of all kinds … or lumber products for homes. Less obvious are products such as packaging. Think about it: Almost everything we use comes in wood-derived packaging at some point in its product cycle, whether it’s shipping crates and pallets … whether it’s cardboard boxes … whether it’s fancy packaging in a store.

Or think about energy. Many communities rely on wood products for part of their energy. A third of the children in Vermont now go to schools heated by wood.

Or think about something as esoteric as the cellulose gums that go into toothpaste. Most people don’t know it, but organic chemical compounds derived from wood find their way into a surprising number of products.

Then there are nonwood forest products of all kinds, such as mushrooms and other foods … or wreaths and other decorative materials. And there are all kinds of additional ecosystem services people get from forests. 

One of the most important is water, the key to all life. Fifty-three percent of Americans get their drinking water from surface runoff that comes from the nation’s forests. Other ecosystem services include clean air … carbon storage … climate regulation … biodiversity and habitats for native fish and wildlife … opportunities for outdoor recreation … the list goes on.  

One of our roles at the Forest Service is to work with partners across the country to ensure a stable flow of benefits of all kinds from the nation’s forests. That is especially important here in the South, the “wood basket” of the nation. Southern forests are incredibly productive. Although they make up only 2 percent of the global forest cover, the forests here in the South produce 12 percent of the world’s industrial roundwood and 19 percent of its pulp and paper products—far more than any other nation. In 2011, the South alone accounted for 63 percent of the total timber volume harvested in the United States.

So forests are an economic engine for this region. Forestry and the forest products industry in the South generate about $250 billion per year, or about 2.7 percent of the region’s total economic output. In 2012, forest-related activity generated about $54 billion in job-related income and a total of about 1.1 million jobs, or about 2 percent of the jobs in the South.

Threats to Forests

So forests and forestry are a vital part of our national heritage. Forests and forestry are part of our nation’s lifeblood socially, economically, and ecologically. They are a vital part of our regional well-being here in the South, underpinning so many jobs and so much economic activity. They are a vital source of our nation’s water, the very wellspring of life.

And yet all of this is now at serious and growing risk. When you think about it, it’s almost unbelievable that we should risk losing a cornerstone of our nation’s health and well-being. Yet here we are, and some of the gravest risks we are facing are here in the South.

The threats to our nation’s forests include climate change … regional droughts and large-scale flooding … worsening fires and longer fire seasons … invasive species as well as epidemics of native forest pests and diseases … and land use conversion as our population grows and spreads into the wildland/urban interface.

In terms of fire and fuels alone, we are seeing record-breaking fires across the nation … and fire behavior more extreme than many fire managers have ever seen before. Past management practices have allowed fuel buildups, and climate change has really tipped the scale. In 2007, for example, Georgia had by far its biggest fire on record, the Big Turnaround Complex at 386,722 acres. That’s more than 2,400 square miles of fire perimeter!

And in the South? With some of the most humid forests in the nation? Twenty years ago, I never would have believed it!

But an even greater threat to our nation’s forests might be land use conversion, especially here in the South. The Forest Service has been tracking our nation’s rising rates of land use conversion to developed uses. During the 30-year period from 2000 to 2030, one study projected increases in housing density on 57 million acres of forest land nationwide. That’s an area larger than North and South Carolina combined.

We are deeply concerned about the future of forests and forestry, so our scientists at the Southern Research Station created a series of forecast models as part of their Southern Forest Futures Project. They predicted that between 11 million and 23 million acres of southern forests and as much as 17 million acres of cropland will be urbanized by 2060. The area at risk of land use conversion in the South alone could be as much as one-quarter larger than the entire state of Louisiana.

Here are some other Southern Forest Futures forecasts:

  • Urbanization will result in rising carbon emissions and stresses to other forest resources.
  • Water resources in the South will be threatened in terms of both availability and quality.
  • An extended fire season combined with obstacles to prescribed burning due to urban growth could increase fire hazards.
  • Invasive species will create the potential for further ecological changes and economic losses.
  • Growing populations will increase demand for forest-based recreation on a shrinking base of available forest land.
  • Threats to species of conservation concern will be especially concentrated in the Coastal Plan and Appalachian-Cumberland subregions.

As you know, private landowners control the future of forests in the South, because 83 percent of forests lands are in private ownership in the East. But ownership patterns could change, and that could in turn mean rising rates of land use conversion.

Meanwhile, wood has gotten a bad rap. For complicated reasons going back forty years or more, many Americans do not want to see any trees cut at all, even when it makes social, economic, and ecological sense—even when it’s for the long-term good of the land.

Keeping Forests as Forests

So we have our work cut out for us. For one thing, we need to reinforce incentives for private forest landowners to keep their lands forested and sustainably managed.

For that, we need to expand traditional markets for wood … and to create new ones. The United States consumes more wood per capita than any other nation. Accordingly, the bulk of our own production supplies our own markets for wood products, and that’s fine. It’s also not likely to change. Market expansion starts at home.

The Forest Service is uniquely poised to help. On the national forests, we have millions of acres desperately in need of fuels and forest health treatments. Often, that means removing some of the trees to restore healthy, resilient landscapes. Here in the South, it often means restoring open pine landscapes, particularly longleaf pine.

So we have tons of low-value biomass and small-diameter woody materials to remove. Our scientists are working hard at our Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin, to find new uses for those materials so we can recover some of the costs to taxpayers of our fuels and forest health treatments.

One way is through wood-to-energy projects, and we are proud of our leadership in this area. In Alaska, for example, we helped schools replace fossil fuels brought in from the Lower 48 at great expense by using locally harvested wood. The wood heating systems worked so well that schools in Alaska are now adding greenhouses for students to grow food for their lunches. Over 40 hospitals across the country are now heating with wood, and we have worked with the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to convert some of their facilities to wood energy. A strong market for biomass energy could bring wood demands that are large enough to trigger changes in forest conditions, management, and markets, including here in the South.

Another area of opportunity is tallwood building through cross-laminated timber technology. CLT comes from Europe, but the Forest Service is working hard to capitalize on its potential for the construction industry here in the United States. We have a great partnership between our Forest Products Lab and our State and Private Forestry staff who are making this happen through grants, training, exchanges, conferences, and other incentives of all kinds. We have seen CLT buildings eight to ten stories high constructed in several states, with more in the planning stages. We have a national partnership with WoodWorks to train thousands of architects and engineers in how to build with wood. Our work has resulted in the conversion of hundreds of commercial-scale buildings to wood—buildings that would otherwise have been made with traditional materials like cement and steel.

And let’s not forget—wood is the only large-scale building material we have that is wholly renewable. If we as a nation are truly serious about sustainability and mitigating climate change, then we need to stop building with materials that are carbon intensive and energy intensive, like cement and steel. We need to start building instead with wood. We are working hard with WoodWorks and other partners to finally give wood the respect and recognition it deserves.

Our Forest Products Lab is also pursuing other forest product technologies like biochar, nanotechnology, and torrefaction to better use wood in our communities. Through nanotechnology, for example, we might be able to start using wood in cars and other vehicles. Wood is lighter than steel, and by manipulating its nanoproperties we might be able to make it stronger than steel.

We are also looking for potential new overseas markets for our wood products. If we can generate foreign revenue streams for our forest landowners, we can generate more income and strengthen local economies. For a healthy forest products industry, we need to expand our export capacities.

A Regional Approach
In closing, one final point: The South is extremely fragmented and diverse in its forest landownerships. The good news is that federal, state, and local agencies are all working together to keep working forests working, along with nonprofit organizations and many others. But the sheer diversity and extent of these individual programs can stand in the way of overall progress.

If we can develop a regional vision for retaining forests as forests and then map the opportunities out there, we might be able to tie individual efforts into a broader approach aligned with a set of common goals. That would build a common framework for funding, create shared enthusiasm and support, and close gaps in our current forest retention programs. 

The Range-wide Conservation Plan for Longleaf Pine gives us a proven model for a successful all-lands approach in the South. Developing a unified plan resulted in clear metrics, improved efficiency, and heightened public awareness. Communication and coordination grew dramatically, and we got lots more funding for restoration and management.

So as we look to the future, that might be a model worth considering: a regionwide plan for retaining working forests as forests.