Restoring Hope: The U.S. Forest Service’s Economic Recovery Program

Gail Kimbell, Regional Forester, Northern Region
COFO Panel, Economics and Forestry
Rome, Italy
— March 20, 2009

Thank you, Mr./Madam Chair. It is a pleasure to join this panel on the global economic crisis in relation to the world’s forests. I will focus on the role of forests and forestry in the Economic Recovery Program developed by my agency, the United States Forest Service.

As you might know, the United States is in its worst economic crisis since the 1930s. Financial markets are frozen, huge banks have failed, and economic pillars like General Motors are struggling just to survive. Stocks have plunged, and millions of people have lost their jobs, their savings, and their homes. Mortgage foreclosures have reached record highs, and the unemployment rate is the highest in 25 years—and still rising.

Our nation has seen hard times before. During the Great Depression, the President of the United States called on the U.S. Forest Service for help. We helped run the Civilian Conservation Corps, one of the most successful public works programs in history. We hired millions of unemployed citizens, helping to rebuild shattered lives and providing a lasting service to the nation. The CCC planted many of the forests we still see today and built many of the facilities we still use, including forest roads, bridges, trails, and shelters.

Now we have a similar opportunity to serve our country in the cause of conservation. The President of the United States has signed economic stimulus legislation to help put people back to work, and we are in an ideal position to help. The U.S. Forest Service manages a system of national forests and grasslands covering 77 million hectares, about 8 percent of our land area. These public lands are spread across 43 states and territories, from Alaska to the island of Puerto Rico. Many of the communities most affected by the economic downturn are located near the national forests and grasslands we manage. Our employees are woven into the community fabric; we know local needs, and we have the local capacity to provide training and employment.

With about 30,000 employees, we already provide some of the best, most dependable rural jobs in the United States. We have opportunities for many more in the private sector, including millions of hectares of needed forest restoration work and a huge backlog of shovel-ready projects related to roads, bridges, buildings, and recreational facilities. We also have Job Corps training centers all over the country, with roots in the Civilian Conservation Corps. These centers have training opportunities in place and ready to go.

The purpose of the economic recovery legislation signed by our President is to create as many jobs as quickly as possible—to get money flowing through the economy again. Our Economic Recovery Program is guided by that same purpose. Our nation is investing more than a billion dollars in our program, and we expect to put tens of thousands of Americans back to work. We will focus on projects that are ready to go, and we will begin our work promptly and complete it within 2 to 3 years for most activities. We are only just beginning, but we have already targeted 10 percent of our program’s funds toward four types of projects.

First, we will improve a range of resources on public lands. Some projects will improve critical access roads; others will improve water quality in our lakes and streams; still others will improve critical fish habitat and passage. Such projects tend to be capital- and labor-intensive. By providing work for highly skilled equipment operators and construction workers in rural areas, these projects will not only help working families, they will sustain a critical sector of our economy—the construction skills and equipment needed to rebuild our national infrastructure.

Second, we will improve a range of recreational sites on public lands. Using local labor, we will repair storm damage, improve restroom facilities, remove hazard trees, and make trails passable again. These jobs will put people back to work at a variety of skill levels, bridging hard times for working families. Even more: Many of our recreational facilities have been closed due to storm damage and for lack of restroom facilities. By reopening them, we will revitalize recreational use, stimulating local businesses and benefiting rural communities.

Third, we will create opportunities for youth. We should not forget young people at a time when so many families are forced to choose between paying the mortgage, the doctor, or the grocer. Promising young scholars must delay college because their families can no longer afford tuition. The least we can do is offer them work. The U.S. Forest Service is doing so through the Youth Conservation Corps and other youth organizations, providing young people with much-needed pay—and more. By rebuilding trails, restoring forests, and making communities safer from wildfire, they will learn new skills and gain new experiences and new insights into conservation. By investing in them, we are investing in the future of our nation.

Fourth, we will reduce fire risk to communities. Fire seasons in the United States have been getting worse, with catastrophic fires of 200,000 hectares or more, costing billions of dollars in damage to homes and communities. In 2004 and 2005, more than 3 million hectares burned; in 2006 and 2007, it was more than 3.5 million. Under current conditions, fire seasons could reach 5 million hectares per year. We can reduce the risk through fuels reduction projects and forest health treatments. Such projects create critical jobs in rural areas, and the biomass removed can be used for wood products and bioenergy, creating additional jobs. Funds that would have gone toward rebuilding burnt homes and communities can be put to use to help recover our economy.

Projects like these—rebuilding our infrastructure, putting our young people to work, restoring our forests to health, and protecting our homes and communities—offer hope for the future. We have targeted these projects all over the country, in 16 states ranging from Alaska, to Arizona, to Florida, and we are only just beginning. For 90 percent of the funds in our Economic Recovery Program, we are still in the planning stages.

But we are confident of success, because we have succeeded before. Like the old Civilian Conservation Corps, we will be putting people back to work, helping families bridge hard times, and getting money flowing through the economy again. But we will also do more. We will restore hope in the communities we serve, a spirit of optimism and enterprise. That “can-do” spirit is central to who we are at the U.S. Forest Service and who we are as a people.

Maybe best of all, we will be investing in the future. Like the old CCC, we will provide lasting benefits to the people we serve. We will leave healthy, resilient forests and grasslands, delivering a whole range of ecosystem services for generations to come.


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