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Responding to Climate-Related Disasters

Tom Tidwell, Chief
NCSE 2013 Conference: Disasters and Environment
Washington, DC — January 16, 2013

It’s a pleasure to be here. In view of climate change effects and the storms we’ve seen in recent years, this is a timely event. I appreciate this opportunity for dialogue.

The USDA Forest Service manages a system of Federal lands almost twice the size of California—193 million acres in 44 States and Puerto Rico. Our job at the Forest Service is to ensure that Americans get all the values and benefits they need from forests and grasslands, along with the associated jobs and economic benefits.

We work through partnerships and collaboration to make that happen, not just on the National Forest System, but on other lands as well. As the nation’s leading forestry organization, we support the sustainable stewardship of 80 percent of America’s forests. That includes state, private, and tribal forest land as well as 100 million acres of urban and community forests.

We also have the world’s largest research organization devoted entirely to conservation, and we have contributed to the work of the IPCC by researching the effects of climate change on forest and grassland ecosystems. The IPCC recently issued a report on managing the risks associated with extreme weather events and the ensuing disasters. According to the report, climate change affects the frequency, intensity, extent, duration, and timing of extreme weather events. Widespread damage can result, disrupting communities for long periods of time.

In the last two years alone, we have seen blizzards, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, heat waves, and a massive drought affecting more of our country than any drought since 1988. Hurricane Sandy alone caused more than $60 billion in estimated damages.

These events have broad implications for human well-being and for our ability to fulfill our mission. Other factors also play a role: invasive species have altered many landscapes; a legacy of fire exclusion has contributed to fuel buildups and growing wildfire severity; severe outbreaks of native insect pests and diseases have occurred, such as mountain pine beetle in the West; and population growth and urban development have led to growing loss of open space.

These factors have interacted in multiple ways. Together with climate change, they have created unprecedented challenges for land and resource management in the United States.

In response to such challenges, the Forest Service is focusing its efforts in three areas: restoring ecosystems; managing wildland fires; and strengthening communities while providing jobs.

Ecological restoration is part of the Forest Service’s response to climate change. Building on climate change science, we formulated a national strategic response and charted a corresponding roadmap for its implementation. We are taking a twofold management approach.

First, we are helping ecosystems adapt to the effects of climate change, for example by restoring open park like landscapes in fire-adapted forest types such as ponderosa pine. Second, we are taking action to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, for example by facilitating carbon sequestration through reforestation.

The approaches are linked. So long as forest ecosystems can adapt to the effects of a changing climate, they will help mitigate climate change by taking up and  storing vast quantities of carbon in trees, wood products, and forest soils.

Our central goal is to restore the ability of forest and grassland ecosystems to resist climate-related stresses, recover from climate-related disturbances, and continue to deliver values and benefits to our citizens. By restoration, we mean restoring the functions and processes characteristic of healthier, more resistant, more resilient ecosystems, even if they are not exactly the same systems as before.

Restoration is key to our National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. Working with the Department of the Interior, we brought together the entire wildland fire community in developing a joint long-term strategy for managing wildland fire. Our strategy has three core components: restoring fire-adapted ecosystems; building fire-adapted human communities through community wildfire protection plans and programs like Firewise; and responding appropriately to wildfire in a way that effectively manages risk.

Through effective wildland fire management and ecological restoration, we benefit the communities we serve. They also benefit in other ways, not least through jobs. The Forest Service has longstanding traditions of providing jobs, training, and community support.

Outdoor recreation on the National Forest System alone supports about 224,000 jobs, contributing about $13 billion to the Nation’s gross domestic product each year. We create thousands of jobs more through public/private partnerships for ecological restoration. According to a study in Oregon, every million dollars invested in restoration-related activities creates 13 to 29 direct, indirect, and induced jobs and generates more than $2 million in economic activity.

The 21st-century challenges to conservation are enormous, but they are also opportunities. We have a chance to restore healthy, resilient forest and grassland ecosystems, ensuring that Americans continue to get vital benefits and services. We can raise the level of collaboration in the wildland fire community to new heights, working together to restore ecosystems, build fire-adapted communities, and improve our response to wildfires. Finally, we have a chance to bring more jobs and services to America’s communities, for the benefit of generations to come.

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