The Spirit of Conservation: Coming Together for the Greater Good

Gail Kimbell, Regional Forester, Northern Region
School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, Yale University
New Haven, CT
— February 19, 2009

It’s a pleasure to be here with the next generation of conservationists and environmentalists, the next generation of foresters. I have my own forestry degree from the University of Vermont and a Master’s in forest engineering from Oregon State University. I started my federal forestry career as a seasonal employee in 1973 with the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon, then went to the Bureau of Land Management, then back to the Forest Service, where I’ve been ever since.

So I am a career employee, not a political appointee. One of the things that distinguishes the Forest Service is that the Chief has almost always been a career employee. I want to start by telling you a little about the Forest Service, because, though some of you know us well, others might not know much about us.

The Role of the Forest Service

The Forest Service was founded in 1905 by the same family that founded the Yale School of Forestry, the family of James Pinchot, father to Gifford Pinchot, the first Forest Service Chief. The Pinchot family made a fortune harvesting trees and selling timber. For centuries, such practices had been commonplace, and by 1900 America had cleared away a quarter of its original standing forest estate.

The Pinchots resolved to save America’s remaining forests by introducing forestry to the United States. They left us a legacy of conservation, a legacy still on display at Grey Towers, the Pinchot family home in Milford, Pennsylvania. That legacy is part of our heritage at the Forest Service and part of yours here at Yale. If you get a chance, I highly recommend a visit to Grey Towers, now a national historic site run by the Forest Service. The sites of the photographs of Yale’s forestry summer camp at Grey Towers are particularly something to see. Perhaps the greatest legacy the Pinchot family gave to forestry was Gifford Pinchot himself.

Today, partly thanks to the Pinchots, about a third of the United States is forested. It is the fourth largest forest estate in the world. The Forest Service manages about 20 percent of our nation’s forestlands in a system of national forests stretching from Alaska to Puerto Rico. Some call it the backbone of our national system of public lands. It covers more than 193 million acres, an area almost twice the size of California. Almost every state has at least a piece of a national forest or national grassland; New England has the White Mountain and Green Mountain National Forests north of here.

Not all of those 193 million acres are forested. We manage many kinds of ecosystems, including shrublands, rangelands, and canyonlands. We manage a system of trails over 133,000 miles long … 36 million acres of the National Wilderness Preservation System … hundreds of municipal watersheds. We permit use for ski areas, outfitters, and guides. We manage critical wildlife habitat for mammals, reptiles, anadromous fish, insects, and plants. The national forests and grasslands have become a last refuge for some endangered species—some of the last places where they can find the habitat they need to survive. We collaborate with communities of interest to make decisions affecting these lands, to solicit different ideas and address controversies. I’ll come back to that point toward the end of my remarks.

Interestingly, most of the world’s forests are owned by governments. The United States is an exception; 57 percent of our forests are privately owned, and the federal government has little say about what private forest landowners do on their lands. Individual states govern private forestry through state forestry laws, which vary widely. Still, the mission of the Forest Service extends to all of the nation’s forests, both public and private. To promote sustainable forest management, we give technical and financial assistance to private forest landowners through the states. Every state has its own forestry agency, and we work with the State Foresters in all fifty states and all five territories to help landowners manage their lands sustainably—and to address issues like invasive species and conservation of open space.

The Forest Service also has one of the largest conservation research organizations in the world. We have research stations, research labs, shared positions with many universities, 81 experimental forests nationwide, and decades of data on forest cover, water, wildlife, wilderness, rangelands, and other resources. We work with other countries to share conservation knowledge—to better understand the context we all work in.

Connecting our research with our other responsibilities gives us a strong forestry organization. Our research and land management professionals work hand-in-hand to create new knowledge and to use science to solve the most vexing conservation problems we face—and to open up exciting new conservation opportunities. We have roughly 35,000 employees working all over the country, from remote wilderness areas in Alaska or Minnesota to great cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York. Some are posted overseas.

Intelligent Consumption

That, in a nutshell, is who we are. We have been working to sustain the nation’s forests for more than a century, and we have a very good understanding of America’s forests and grasslands and what the future might bring.

The bottom line is this: In the decades ahead, America faces enormous challenges on both public and private land. Climate change could disrupt entire ecoregions, shifting plant and animal assemblages for generations to come. When the climate changes, many things change: temperature, precipitation, snowpack size, and runoff. Add to this population growth, land use changes, and then water shortages, water pollution, air pollution, invasive species, and a host of other challenges, and America’s land managers are in a whole new problem environment. Already, we see major disturbances—devastating droughts, huge wildfires, and widespread insect outbreaks. Unless we come together around some common goals, the future of conservation looks bleak.

We can no longer wait. For more than a generation, our nation’s attention has too often been distracted by lesser things. As a nation, we have faced hard choices, and we have failed to make them. We have talked a good game, and anyone listening might have thought we were very green, a beacon of hope for humanity. But our actions as a nation have spoken more loudly than our words, and too often our practice has not been what we preached.

Make no mistake. Americans have done some great and noble things in the cause of conservation. In the last hundred years, we have stabilized America’s forest estate. We have cleaned the air we breathe and the water in many of our rivers and lakes. We have established a network of protected areas, of national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges, that is the envy of the world. We have set aside millions of acres of wilderness areas and other lands, special places where Americans can find peace, solitude, and a measure of wildness known for thousands of years to the First Peoples, the American Indians. We have protected vast areas of ancient forest containing redwood, Douglas-fir, giant sequoia, and many, many more species. Children of all ages will gaze spellbound at these landscapes in all of their parts, large and small, for generations to come. In the best tradition of Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold, we have observed a land ethic, protecting habitat for threatened, endangered, and sensitive species ranging from red-cockaded woodpecker, to grizzly bear, to cutthroat trout, to Robbins’ cinquefoil. Today, we shelter and nurture “the meanest flower that blows,” in the eloquent words of Aldo Leopold.

All of these things are great accomplishments, arguably worth any sacrifice. Curiously, however, Americans made little or no sacrifice to accomplish these things. A land ethic has, as its logical corollary, a consumption ethic. But instead of tightening our belts and changing our habits, we patted ourselves on the back and went on with our lives as usual. We bought more and bigger cars—minivans and SUVs. We built more and bigger houses—homes and second homes with huge footprints, thousands of square feet. We bought up farmland, ranchland, and forestland, spreading out into the countryside and up into the mountains. We ate more resource-intensive foods, such as corn-fed feedlot-raised beef. We insisted on fresh berries in January, and we got them. We used more water and more energy, generating more waste. We bought more and more gadgets, especially for our kids, who spent more and more of their time indoors instead of visiting those places in nature we’d fought so hard to protect. And when we do visit those places, we find ourselves bringing those gadgets with us.

Conservation comes at a cost, and too often that cost has been borne by others, out of view, far from where we live, far from our hearts and minds. To protect habitat for wildlife or for other reasons in the United States, we stopped harvesting so much timber and producing so much wood, but we didn’t stop using so much wood. In fact, Americans used more wood than ever. From 1965 to 1997, our wood consumption rose by 50 percent. We simply imported more of it from other countries.

Today, America imports 30 to 40 percent of the wood we use, often from countries with fewer environmental protections. Illegal logging is a huge and growing problem in the world. It accounts for an estimated 5 to 10 percent of global roundwood production, depressing global prices for wood by 7 to 16 percent and costing taxpayers worldwide $16 billion per year. Eighty percent of the logging in Indonesia and about 75 percent in the Russian Far East is thought to be illegal, mostly for booming wood markets in China. What does China do with all that illegal wood? China has become the largest producer of wood furniture sold in the United States.

In a way, it is rank hypocrisy. We decry forest destruction and degradation in Asia, Africa, and South America. We wring our hands over poor forest governance in other countries, proudly proclaiming our own protected areas, our own environmental legislation—heedless of our own culpability in this age of global markets. In exchange for the wood we import, we have simply exported the environmental problems we claim to have solved. Out of sight, out of mind.

Closer to home, part of the cost has been borne by the rural communities affected by declining timber harvest in America’s forests. They, too, are far from our hearts and minds, far from the metropolitan areas where 80 percent of us now live. In the Southwest, for example, the forest products industry virtually collapsed after federal timber sales declined in the 1990s. That brought not only hardship and disruption to rural families and communities, but also a loss of critical capacity.

Only now, in the wake of devastating megafires like Rodeo-Chediski, which alone burned nearly half a million acres in Arizona … only now, after unprecedented bark beetle outbreaks that, in Arizona alone, have killed millions of acres of pine … only now has it finally dawned on us that maybe we need that capacity. Only now are we slowly rebuilding the infrastructure and facilities needed to reduce hazardous fuels and restore overstocked forests of pine and mixed conifer. That capacity is especially important in an era of climate change, when we need treatments such as thinning and burning to help ecosystems adapt to a changing climate by increasing their resistance and resilience to drought, wildfire, and insect attack.

Zero-Sum Game

Ecosystems are enormously complex. One of my predecessors as Forest Service Chief, Jack Ward Thomas, often said that ecosystems are not only more complex than we think, they are more complex than we can think. In an era of climate change, with its new problem environment, those complexities and uncertainties are only going to grow. With uncertainty and risk at every turn, the course to chart is harder than ever to know.

Yet too often Americans have oversimplified the choices before us. For more than a generation, we have posed complex social, economic, and environmental issues in stark moral terms, where the right thing to do is crystal clear to everyone except to those who wonder, who question, who try to see the other side—and whose motives are therefore suspect. For more than a generation, we have reveled in conflict, demonizing each other, viewing those who disagree with us as evil—or at least as unbelievably obtuse.

Some, for example, have insisted that the axe is needed to support jobs and communities. Others insist that the axe has, for generations, gone region by region, timber boom by timber boom, with each boom followed by a devastating bust. The axe, they argue, has done too much damage and should be banned.

Each argument has merit, and reasonable people can disagree. There is room for both points of view, yet positions hardened into ideology. Each side professed moral authority, and each refused to budge. In the process, Americans lost sight of what the land needs, because our focus was so much on defeating the other side.

That wasn’t always the case. As foresters and conservationists, we stand on the shoulders of giants—people like Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, and John Muir. They did not always agree, but they never lost sight of the land and what it needs. They pulled Americans together in the spirit of conservation, never losing sight of the greater good.

Gifford Pinchot, the first Forest Service Chief, had strong opinions, and he wasn’t shy about expressing them. But for all his pugnaciousness, he was no ideologue. He was fundamentally pragmatic, and he listened to opposing points of view. In 1905, a popular point of view in the West was that the national forests were a federal land grab. Many Westerners despised the Forest Service. One cartoon even showed Pinchot as the Russian Czar, the world’s worst despot, sending his Cossack rangers to brutally ride people down.

What did Pinchot do? Did he rally his troops, man the trenches, demonize his opponents? No. Whenever he could, he went to his opponents and spoke to them at their rallies. He posted district rangers in local communities all over the West, and he directed them to listen to local concerns, help people solve local problems, help them use public land in conservative ways. Gradually, the Forest Service won local support, building constituencies all over the West, and the future of the National Forest System was assured.

Decades later, the United States was plunged into its worst economic crisis, followed by its greatest war. Again, the nation pulled together, drawing on the energy and ingenuity of what came to be called the Greatest Generation. The President called on the Forest Service to help. Through the Civilian Conservation Corps, we provided millions of jobs, helping to rebuild shattered lives and providing lasting service to the nation through fire control, reforestation, and construction. The CCC planted many forests that we can still see today and built much of the recreational infrastructure we still use, including forest roads, bridges, trails, and shelters.

Today, the Forest Service has another opportunity to serve our country in the cause of conservation. The United States is facing its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, designed to put people back to work. On Tuesday, the President signed the Act, and he expects the Forest Service to help.

Why the Forest Service? We are ideally positioned to help. Many of the communities most affected by this crisis are located near national forests. Our employees are woven into the community fabric; they know local needs, and they have the local capacity to provide training and employment. We already provide some of the best, most dependable rural jobs in America, and we have opportunities for many more, including millions of acres of needed restoration work and a huge backlog of shovel-ready projects related to roads, bridges, buildings, and recreational facilities. Through our own Economic Recovery Program, we anticipate creating 30,000 jobs over the next two years.

There is no doubt in my mind that our nation can rise to this challenge, as we did before—if we as Americans are not distracted by lesser things—if we can look beyond petty grievances and moral self-righteousness—if we can ask ourselves, first and foremost, not whether the other side seems to be winning or losing, but what does the land need? How can Americans work together, in an era of climate change, in a new problem environment, to leave the nation’s forests and grasslands in a better condition? How can we ensure that future generations will continue to enjoy all the ecosystem services they want and need—clean air and water, habitat for wildlife, wood products of all kinds, opportunities for outdoor recreation, and more?

That brings me back to the axe. The axe is just a tool. Axe and fire have been with us for thousands of years—yes, American Indians used both. Where we have excluded both, the results have often been ecological damage, degradation, and destruction. Axe and fire can both destroy, but both can also heal, and used judiciously they can help us achieve long-term ecosystem health. In fact, 75 to 80 percent of the timber removed from national forest land today is the byproduct of projects for nontimber purposes, such as ecological restoration, habitat enhancement for wildlife, and hazardous fuels removal near communities.

I understand those who argue that we should not interfere with natural processes, and I am in partial agreement with them. Those 36 million acres of designated wilderness areas I mentioned earlier are largely managed so as not to interfere with natural processes. Those areas and many other remote natural areas together comprise nearly half of the National Forest System. But in an era of climate change, with all the resource pressures around the globe, we need to reexamine what the term “natural” really means.

Forests can help. Forests and grasslands can be managed to take up and store more carbon, taking care to balance carbon sequestration against other ecosystem services. Forests and grasslands can also be managed to help them adapt to a changing climate. The Forest Service has developed a strategic framework for responding to climate change, with mitigation and adaptation at its core, and we will be implementing our strategy not least through our Economic Recovery Program.

But we can’t do it alone, and this brings me back to what I said at the outset about collaborating with communities. Before any ground-disturbing activity can take place on national forest lands, we need ideas, feedback, and support from the people we serve, including communities of interest as well as communities of place. People feel strongly about their public lands, and we welcome that. There is plenty of room for debate. Debate is normal and healthy, and the Forest Service welcomes the opportunity to help people sort through their differences and come to an agreement.

Too often, though, that’s not been what has happened. Instead, rigid lines have been drawn, bitter accusations traded, appeals and lawsuits filed—and the land has suffered as a result.

It is time to stop. It is time to put aside childish things, to heed the better angels of our nature, to come together for the greater good. Our focus should be on what the land needs, on the goals we all share, on the outcomes we all want for our children. If we can agree on some common goals, on the ecosystem services we want forests and grasslands to deliver far into the future, then our job is nearly done. If we can agree on what, then it becomes merely a question of how—on whether and where to use the tools at our disposal … including, where appropriate, the axe.

Rising to the Challenge

The future belongs to you. My career and the careers of those in my generation are in their Golden Years. The future of forestry, of conservation, of environmentalism, that future belongs to you in the next generation. I hope that many of you consider a career in public service, maybe even in the Forest Service. Some of you already have. There are opportunities for all Americans, should you choose to take advantage of them.

However, no matter what you do in life, the national forests and grasslands belong to you. Ultimately, they are your birthright and your responsibility, the responsibility of every American to protect and conserve for future generations. I have tried to lay out some of the management challenges before you: climate change and the new problem environment; the need to balance a land ethic with a consumption ethic; the need not to oversimplify complex issues, not to overcomplicate simple issues, to see the other side, to stay focused on what the land needs.

It will be up to your generation, the next generation of foresters and conservationists, the next generation of Americans—it will be up to you to rise to these challenges and more. I am confident that you shall, in the best tradition of those who came before, those giants on whose shoulders we stand. I am confident that you shall bring Americans together for the greater good, that you shall once again unite the nation in the spirit of conservation.

In that same spirit, I wish you well.