Restoring Forest Health Through Partnerships

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Western Forestry Leadership Coalition, Spring Meeting
Flagstaff, AZ
— May 18, 2017

Good afternoon! It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

This is a great opportunity for dialogue on managing the nation’s forests in the West. We share these landscapes, and we share responsibility for managing them across landownerships for the benefit of the people we serve, both now and for generations to come. So I’m glad to have this opportunity to be here with Vicki for a dialogue about some of the issues that affect us all.


Critical Issues

As you know, many issues have to do with the loss of benefits from forests in the West—what some call ecosystem services. We are deeply concerned about the loss of clean air and clean water … the loss of timber and carbon storage … the loss of habitat for native fish and wildlife … the loss of America’s great heritage of outdoor recreation … the list goes on.

These values and benefits are all associated, directly or indirectly, with jobs. They are associated with healthy, flourishing communities who care about the lands and waters around them … who care about the places where they live.

These values and benefits are central to what all Americans want and need from their forests. They are central to the social and economic fabric of rural communities. They are central to the tripod of sustainability, the principles of social, economic, and ecological sustainability that underpin our multiple-use mission at the Forest Service.

Why are we losing these values and benefits—these ecosystem services from forests? Again, we all know the reasons. They include a changing climate … regional drought … changing environmental conditions for plants and animals. They include epidemics of forest pests and disease … more extreme burning conditions … bigger fires and fire seasons … changing landscapes, changing hydrology, and changing vegetation cover.

Other factors figure in, like the spread of invasive species … like the rise of the wildland/urban interface, the spread of homes and communities into fire-prone forests. The WUI affects our ability to manage wildland fire and to sustain healthy, resilient forests for generations to come.

The WUI is at growing risk from wildfire, and we are seeing a “new normal” in fire. Since 2000, the 10-year annual average number of acres burned has more than doubled, from about 3.3 million acres in the 1990s to 6.7 million acres in the last 17 years. Fire managers with decades of experience are seeing the most extreme fire behavior in their entire careers. In the last 20 years, the National Interagency Fire Center has recorded 177 megafires ranging in size from 100,000 to 1.3 million acres. From 2002 to 2015, at least 13 states had their largest fires on record, and several states had their records broken more than once, including the state of Arizona.

The “new normal” of fire means growing complexity in wildland fire management. Our wildfire systems now include social, financial, and environmental factors unheard of 30 or 40 years ago. That growing complexity puts firefighters and communities at ever-growing risk, with rising challenges of risk management and safety.

Not least, our costs are rising exponentially at a time of flat or declining federal budgets. In 2015, suppression accounted for about 52 percent of the total Forest Service budget, up from just 16 percent in 1995. That has left a falling amount of funding for nonfire purposes, including pass-through funds for state programs.

All of these factors affect every one of us. They affect everyone living and working in the West. They affect every community, large and small. Everyone loses when the values and benefits people get from forests go away.


Shared Solutions

So if the problems are shared, then so must be the solutions. We are all in this together. With management authority comes responsibility, and if we share management authorities—as I think we must if we are to meet the challenges we face across shared landscapes—then we must also share the responsibilities. We must pool our resources and work together to meet the forest management challenges we face on such a vast scale in the West.

For that, we don’t need more government regulation. We need more people with a land ethic, more people working together for the good of the land. Aldo Leopold spent his early career with the Forest Service, and he supported the role of government in conservation. But he came to see that a land ethic cannot be regulated from without … it must come from within.

As you might know, Leopold was an avid hunter, and he often used hunting analogies. He once had a dog who, when he couldn’t find pheasants, would find meadowlarks or rails or other birds and pretend like it was a great thing—you know how dogs get, all excited and smiley and proud.

In a similar way, instead of working together across shared landscapes to achieve common goals, some people look for narrow parochial gains. Just like Aldo Leopold’s dog, they find a “false pheasant.” They are all smiley and proud because they stopped a vegetation treatment or maybe stopped a road from being decommissioned.

I don’t mean to sound flippant. People care strongly about these issues because they care so passionately about their public lands. We want people to engage; we welcome dialogue and diverse points of view.

But defending narrow parochial interests and getting your own way does not meet the broader challenges we face across shared landscapes. Small victories are meadowlarks, not pheasants.

Yet some people are so happy to see meadowlarks that they don’t even notice the pheasant getting away. They don’t notice that forest health is declining … that fires and insect outbreaks have gone way beyond what is normal and healthy … that we’re losing habitat critical for wildlife, processes critical for healthy, functioning watersheds … that every day we lose more than 6,000 acres of working farms and ranches to development … that every day the WUI is making it harder to manage lands that are the birthright of every American.


Partnership Opportunities Through GNA

Fortunately, in this forum we are after pheasants. The Forest Service has a long history of working with state partners on multiple levels to meet shared goals, not least through the Western Forestry Leadership Coalition. Working through partnerships, we have taken advantage of opportunities to meet the challenges we face—to maintain and restore healthy, resilient forest landscapes all across the West.

We are bagging pheasants, not meadowlarks, and the good news is that we are taking advantage of partnership opportunities and looking for ways to create more. A major opportunity is Good Neighbor Authority in the 2014 Farm Bill, which we got in good part thanks to you.

Since GNA took effect in June 2015, we have signed 72 agreements in 27 states. That has let us pool resources for all kinds of fuels and forest health treatments on federal 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.

Under GNA, we have master agreements as well as agreements for specific projects. For example, the Idaho Department of Lands has a master agreement with Forest Service Regions 1 and 4, with specific project agreements on the Payette, Nez Perce-Clearwater, and Idaho Panhandle National Forests.

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.

For example, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is managing timber sales on the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. In 2016, Wisconsin sold almost 18 million board feet from the forest and generated about $2 million to cover state costs. Over two years, the sales will support about 80 jobs and add about $6.5 million annually to the gross domestic product.

We’re also looking for ways of using GNA to create new opportunities. In Nevada, for example, we are developing a master agreement involving three state agencies, Forest Service Regions 4 and 5, and the Bureau of Land Management. We’re also working with the states to overcome barriers to GNA projects, like needless restrictions on road reconstruction. In addition, we are designing Webpages to improve access to GNA training, policy, and lessons learned.


Partnership Opportunities in Connection With Fire

Many partnership opportunities revolve around wildland fire management, especially now, with the “new normal” of fire. As you know, the Forest Service has worked with the entire wildland fire community to prepare and carry out a National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. Our national strategy is based on partnerships for restoring fire-adapted landscapes and for building fire-adapted human communities. We need to learn to live with fire.

For that, we need to pick up the pace of fuels and forest health treatments nationwide. The Forest Service is reducing the risks from severe wildfires through a combination of mechanical thinning, prescribed fire, and wildfires managed for resource benefits. In fiscal year 2016, the Forest Service used some combination of these three approaches on over 3 million acres.

In some fire-adapted landscapes, particularly in long-needle pine types, we are using both mechanical thinning and prescribed fire to restore fire to the land. In other landscapes, particularly in wilderness areas but also elsewhere, we are using wildfire itself to restore healthy, resilient ecosystems. In fiscal year 2016, we used wildfire for restoration purposes on more than 800,000 acres. That’s more than in any previous year.

We are also working with partners to create fire-adapted human communities. We know that fuels treatments in the WUI work. Since 2006, the Forest Service has monitored more than 1,400 sites where fuels treatments were followed by wildfires. More than 80 percent of the treatments were effective in modifying fire behavior, helping to reduce firefighting costs and damage from wildfires.

Most of our fuels treatments are in the WUI. Since 2015, we have worked with partners under the Cohesive Strategy to choose projects that include partner investment and cross-boundary coordination. Located in high-risk areas, these projects reduce fire risk while contributing to landscape and community resilience. Through strategically located partnership projects, we have treated more than 158,000 acres of land on the National Forest System. 

I’ll give you just a couple of examples of successful projects in the WUI.

In Oregon, the Deschutes National Forest worked with partners to complete more than 6,000 acres of fuels treatments and 3,000 acres of restoration treatments outside the city of Bend. The work included nearly 1,000 acres of prescribed fire, difficult to do in the past because of citizen concerns and smoke management. Partners included local landowners as well as municipal agencies and various local organizations. Everyone has a stake in creating fire-adapted communities, and by working together the citizens of Bend got it done.

In Montana, the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest worked with partners in the Helena Valley to reduce hazardous fuels and protect municipal water supplies. Partners included city, county, state, and federal agencies as well as NGOs and private citizens. The partners put up funds, established agreements, and planned out high-priority treatment areas. All this enabled the forest to treat hazardous fuels not just on the National Forest System but also across boundaries within the WUI. The partnership thereby protected a watershed that supplies drinking water to over 30,000 residents in the city of Helena.


Restoring Healthy, Resilient Forests

These are pheasants, not meadowlarks. And the way we bag the right game is through partnerships—by working together to restore shared landscapes and protect the communities we serve. These are communities that many of us at the Forest Service live in ourselves.

In the process, we establish lasting relationships and create new jobs through the work we do, helping to stabilize and revitalize local communities. And in the process, we also ensure that our citizens continue to get all the values and benefits they want and need from healthy, resilient forests, both now and for generations to come.