Restoring America's Forests through Landscape-Scale Conservation

Tom Tidwell, Chief
2009 National Convention, Society of American Foresters
Orlando, FL
— October 2, 2009

It is a pleasure and an honor to address this gathering. We are here in the spirit of Gifford Pinchot, who founded both the Society of American Foresters and the Forest Service more than a century ago. He charged us with pursuing conservation based on a simple premise: that forests are vital to the well-being of our country.

Before Pinchot, there were no working forests as we know them today. Yet G.P. still understood the critical importance of forest conservation for the future of our country. Today’s forests in wilderness areas … in roadless areas … and in working landscapes—it takes all of them together to meet the needs of our nation.

Forests of all kinds provide ecosystem services of all kinds. Forests are responsible for much of our nation’s primary production, the conversion of sunlight into life-giving energy. Forests build soils and protect them from erosion. Forests provide 53 percent of the nation’s runoff for drinking water and other uses. Forests take up 12 percent of the carbon dioxide that Americans emit each year from fossil fuel use. Forests shelter fish and wildlife and offer aesthetic beauty and spiritual renewal for people. Forests bolster our economy through recreation and tourism, through the creation of green jobs, and through the production of wood products and energy. Forests are part of our cultural heritage as Americans. They are a national treasure, to be protected and preserved for generations to come.

Forest Destruction

But many forests today are in trouble. Conservation originated a century ago in response to that same concern. In January 1905, people gathered in Washington, DC, for the first American Forest Congress. President Theodore Roosevelt addressed the Congress, and he spoke of forests in trouble. He spoke of timber profiteers whose only idea was, and I quote, “to skin the country and go somewhere else.” He spoke of a possible timber famine.

Such fears, at the time, seemed very real—Americans had only to look around them. In 1905, America had lost 168 million acres of forest land in the previous 50 years alone. Entire landscapes, entire regions had been stripped of their once lush forests.

But the generations that followed, generations of foresters and conservationists, rose to the challenge. They founded SAF in 1900 and the Forest Service in 1905. Exactly a century ago, they founded the Ocala National Forest here in Florida … and the national system of experimental forests and ranges. This year is the centennial for both.

In the century that followed, America’s forest estate stabilized overall. Recent decades have even seen a slight expansion. There are no better examples of restoration on the planet than “the lands nobody wanted”—millions of acres of farmed-out, abandoned, eroded land in the South, Northeast, and Midwest that are now flourishing forests.

Now, however, we’ve found subtler ways of skinning the country. If you drive in any direction from any city, you will soon see signs of it. Farms, fields, and forests are giving way to development. The Forest Service is releasing a new report this fall called “Private Forests, Public Benefits.” In it, we estimate that 57 million acres of forest land will see rising housing density between 2000 and 2030. Here in the South, the Southern Forest Resource Assessment foretold a loss of about 30 million acres of forest land by 2040, mainly due to urbanization.

Forest Degradation

Loss of open space is only one reason for concern. In terms of fire and fuels, we are in a whole new era. The turnaround came in the summer of 2000: For the first time since the 1950s, more than 7 million acres burned in a single year. In 2002, more than 7 million acres burned again. In 2004 and 2005, more than 8 million acres burned; in 2006 and 2007, more than 9 million acres burned. Two years ago, fires in southeastern Georgia and northern Florida, fueled by extreme drought, burned over half a million acres, sending smoke all the way to Atlanta and even Nashville.

The trajectory is up. We can foresee fire seasons that might reach 12 to 15 million acres.

To some extent, we are victims of our own success. Where vegetation naturally might have burned, purposeful fire exclusion let it continue to accumulate, and the pulses of wet weather we had in the 20th century also stimulated a lot of new growth. Now we have entered a much drier period, partly due to climate change. Changes in temperature and precipitation, in the timing and magnitude of weather events, are altering ecosystems and fire regimes.

Milder winter temperatures are also letting western bark beetles reproduce faster and spread upslope and northward. Drought has helped southern pine beetle reach epidemic proportions. The draft National Report on Sustainable Forests shows a threefold increase in insect mortality over the last decade. As you know, whole pine landscapes are dead or dying from beetle attack and disease, from piñon pine to whitebark pine, from Arizona to British Columbia. Alaska has billions of trees killed by insects and other effects of a warming climate.

All of these changes have enormous impacts on drinking water, greenhouse gas emissions, local economies, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, and places that so many Americans cherish. It is no exaggeration to say that forestry today faces challenges as great as any in our nation’s history.

Common Vision

What is to be done?

For one thing, let’s recognize the silver lining. Climate change is not only an overarching threat to America’s forests, but also a source of new opportunities. Already, it is creating new markets for carbon storage and biomass energy. We can harness those opportunities on behalf of sustainable forest management.

But to do it, we need a common vision—one that has too often eluded our nation. A century ago, T.R. recognized the public divisiveness that corrodes our common purpose. He said that our biggest problems come when competing factions are, and I quote, “so cut off from each other that neither appreciates the other’s passions, prejudices, and, indeed, point of view.”

Sound familiar?

In fact, the debate about the future of our forests and about forest policy has long been highly polarized. For too long, we have ascribed to each other nefarious motives, trying to change each other’s values, never realizing how corrosive that can be—how futile and counterproductive.

In his farewell address to the Senate, Vice President Joe Biden said he’d learned an important lesson when he first started out in the Senate: Never question another person’s motive. Question their judgment but never their motive.

That’s still good advice. Given the threats to our forests today, Americans must move away from polarization, and we can start by accepting the basic decency in each other, the mutual desire to do the right thing. We can work toward a shared vision based on healthy, flourishing ecosystems—ecosystems that can provide all the services that Americans want and need while creating jobs and local economic opportunities, supporting communities of all kinds.

That vision is based on mutual respect. Again, T.R. put it well. He said that the solution was to promote, and I quote, “the mutual respect, the sense of common duties and common interests, which arise when [we] take the trouble to understand one another, and to associate together for a common object.” It’s all about finding common ground in pursuit of a common goal.

Ecological Restoration

I believe that Americans who love their forests can coalesce around the common goal of ecological restoration. Under my leadership, the Forest Service will focus on that goal.

Let me be clear: By restoration, we do not mean a mythical golden age of pristine nature. Restoration is based on the understanding that forests are dynamic. For thousands of years, forests have been changing due to a combination of natural and human effects.

By ecological restoration, we mean restoring the ecological functions associated with healthy forest ecosystems—systems that remain resilient under drought conditions, despite assault by fire, insects, and disease—systems that remain capable of delivering the ecosystem services that Americans want and need. Many of those systems have been degraded, damaged, or even destroyed. Many are under siege today, partly due to the effects of a changing climate.

That’s why climate change will play a prominent role in our restoration focus. Our goal will be to understand climate change and its effects on forests down to the local level. In fact, we are  already engaged in forecasting future conditions and evaluating likely climate change effects through our regional Forest Futures Projects here in the South and also in the Northeast and Midwest.

Under the effects of climate change, we are at risk of losing entire species. In the West, for example, whitebark pine is vitally important. Other species depend on it for survival, including grizzly bear. But warming temperatures are pushing mountain pine beetle upslope to attack whitebark pine. We need to factor such knowledge into the decisions we make to help systems adapt to new stressors so that we do not lose species. Our restoration goal is to take the actions needed so that future generations will have that same ability to respond to new challenges and opportunities that we have today.


Reforestation is also an important part of restoration. There is rising concern about the growing reforestation backlog on our national forests, mainly on burned-over lands. In the 1980s and into the 1990s, we were able to cover 40 to 50 percent of our reforestation needs each year. But K-V funds from timber sales have fallen, and appropriated funds have not covered the shortfall from worsening fire seasons. As a result, since about 2002 we have been able to address about 20 percent or less of our reforestation needs.

I want to take a moment to address that concern. Beginning in fiscal year 2007, our budget justification has included national guidance specifically aimed at reforestation needs. We have established regional direction for prioritizing the use of reforestation funds, and we have directed the individual national forests to give highest priority to reforestation in using funds available for forest vegetation management, especially in view of climate change.

At the same time, we are working with partners on cooperative reforestation projects. We maintain challenge-cost share agreements for reforestation with American Forests, the Arbor Day Foundation, the National Forest Foundation, and others. For example, NFF helps fund regular planting projects as well as several reforestation projects through its Carbon Capital Fund. We are deeply grateful to our partners for their support.

Landscape-Scale Conservation

In fact, partnerships are the cornerstone of ecological restoration. Restoring forests means bringing people together, pooling resources, and working across borders and boundaries. The mission of the Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests, not just the national forests. Working with partners, the Forest Service will take an all-lands approach that goes beyond the National Forest System. Under my leadership, we will focus on landscape-scale conservation.

That includes using all USDA resources and authorities, in collaboration with the State Foresters, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and other partners, to sustain the entire matrix of federal, state, tribal, county, municipal, and private forests. Examples of those collaborative authorities include the Environmental Quality Incentives Program, which extends to nonindustrial private forest landowners; the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, which extends to woody biomass producers on nonfederal land; and the Wyden Amendment, which authorizes watershed restoration and enhancement agreements with state, private, and other partners.

My point is this: We cannot sustain the nation’s forests by focusing just on the national forests. Fifty-seven percent of America’s forests are in private landownership, and another 23 percent are in state, tribal, county, municipal, and other federal ownerships. Here in the South, about 90 percent of all timberland is privately owned, intermingled with 6 percent on national forest land. Forest ecosystems typically form mosaics—mosaics of plant and animal communities and mosaics of landownerships. This is true not only here in the East, but also in the West, where the critical issues are the same—healthy forests and grasslands, water, fire, wildlife habitat connectivity. These issues have never stopped at national forest boundaries.

Under my leadership, our focus on restoration will be closely tied to our focus on landscape-scale conservation. Especially in an era of climate change, we need to restore the resilience of America’s forests to disturbances of all kinds. The treatments needed will improve watershed health, increase water quantity, improve water quality, build community prosperity, and meet our shared vision of healthy, sustainable forests.

But none of this can happen on a piecemeal scale. It has to be on a scale that transcends landownership or jurisdiction. Landscape-scale conservation will bring land managers, landowners, and stakeholders together across boundaries to decide on common restoration goals for the landscapes they all share. It will bring them together to achieve long-term restoration outcomes.

One of the key benefits will be synergy. Our nation has untapped resources of knowledge, energy, and ideas that could help us meet the forestry challenges of the future. If we continue to work in traditional ways—cut off from each other as foresters on this or that piece of private land, as land managers on this or that piece of public land—we will never tap those resources. But if we bring people together to collaborate across landscapes … to address shared issues and concerns … to pursue common goals based on mutual respect … then we will build on our mutual capacity and capabilities, making a whole that is far greater than the sum of the parts.

With those synergies unleashed, we need not fear what the future might bring. But without them, I am not so sure. Our collective responsibility as foresters is to work through landscape-scale conservation to restore the nation’s forests—to ensure that Americans continue to get all the ecosystem services they need and want from their forested landscapes.

A good example of landscape-scale conservation is right here in the South. Longleaf pine once covered 90 million acres in the Southeast, but now it’s down to 3 million acres. Longleaf pine provides critical habitat for red-cockaded woodpecker and other wildlife. It is also better adapted to drought, fire, and storms than other southern pines—to the stressors associated with climate change. Recognizing its importance, public and private organizations joined together to form America’s Longleaf Initiative, with the goal of increasing longleaf pine by 5 million acres in the next 15 years all across its historical range. It’s a great model of an all-lands approach.

The Greatest Good

In closing, I return to our common foundation, the foundation of American forestry in the wisdom and leadership of Gifford Pinchot. G.P. gave us a common vision of conservation as, and I quote, “the foresighted utilization, preservation, and/or renewal of forests, waters, lands, and minerals, for the greatest good of the greatest number for the longest time.”

“For the greatest good.” I believe the goal of forest restoration through an all-lands approach, through landscape-scale conservation, captures the spirit of “the greatest good.” Americans from all walks of life who care about their forests can come together behind that goal, in that same American spirit of working toward something greater than ourselves, for the greater good.

Working together, we can restore America’s forests. And by restoring America’s forests we can realize all the opportunities we have in a forested world. As American foresters, we owe ourselves, we owe each other, we owe future generations nothing less.


Biden said that Senator Mike Mansfield (D-MT) gave him this advice (“Joe, never question a man’s motives. Question his judgment but never his motives.”) Mansfield was echoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said, “Never question another man’s motives. His wisdom, yes, but never his motives.”