State Foresters: More Than Partners

Tony Tooke, Chief
National Association of State Foresters, 2017 Annual Meeting
Charleston, WV
— September 20, 2017

It’s a pleasure to be here today. I really appreciate being invited.

There’s nothing more important than our relationships with the State Foresters. Our teamwork goes back to our very beginnings more than a century ago. I will do everything I can as Chief not only to sustain but also to strengthen and deepen our bonds.

As the Forest Service’s Regional Forester in the South, I missed only one meeting with the Southern Group of Regional Foresters, and I think it was because Tom Boggus and Robert Farris changed the dates on me. Our relationships and work with all of you amount to far more than just another partnership. I greatly appreciate, cherish, and hold in high regard the laws that bind us, the values we share, and the work we do together. It is extraordinarily important to the Forest Service, to our employees, and to me personally. We are all in this together, working to help people continue to get benefits from forests across the nation.

The practice of forestry is critically important. Increasing active forest management is vital. We have to do more. Forests clean the air; they house drinking water for millions of Americans; they provide wildlife habitat; they furnish recreational opportunities and sacred places; they are home to historic sites; they provide benefits, products, and jobs. They serve as green infrastructure. They should protect people and communities.

We have to take care of the nation’s forests and do the necessary work to tend them, to get them working. We have to increase active management to restore healthy, resilient forests and properly functioning ecosystems.

This afternoon, I’d like to share a little bit about my background. I’d also like to stress the importance of our relationships in the Forest Service with the State Foresters and NASF, as well as my own full commitment to those relationships. I also want to underscore the situation we find ourselves in when it comes to the nation’s forests and a wide range of emergency events. Finally, I want to highlight our work together and the steps the Forest Service is taking to increase active forest management and the opportunities we have together to get increased results.


Professional Background

I began learning about forestry and silviculture while growing up on a farm in Alabama. We managed many woodlots and took care of our timber. My uncles practiced prescribed burning. They often made my father very nervous because he had a fear of fire. We did things for wildlife, and we still do.

I went on to get a forestry degree from Mississippi State University. My early years with the Forest Service were spent marking timber, firefighting, tree planting, prescribed-burning, overseeing silvicultural contracts, and writing prescriptions.

As a district ranger, I provided oversight for some of the largest restoration and prescribed fire programs on the National Forest System. I woke up every day to manage the land and do it the right way using sound science, good data, commonsense, and working with partners. I loved it and still love it.

Most of my Forest Service career has been spent in the field in the South. However, before becoming Regional Forester, I spent many years in Washington, DC, in many different assignments. I worked really hard to learn about the forests and grasslands in the West—the issues, the challenges.

I’ve seen firsthand and have a keen understanding of all the benefits that people get from forests across the country, not just from the National Forest System but also from state and private forests, as well as those owned by local governments, tribes, and industry. The nonfederal forests make up the vast majority of forest land across the nation. This is a fact not lost on me, as I am one of the proud private landowners who make up 86 percent of the landownership in the South.

As all of you know, our Forest Service mission is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generation. This mission dovetails with yours. All of you are key to delivery of forest benefits to people and communities by managing public lands and also by working with private forest landowners for sustainable forest management across landownerships of all kinds. As I said earlier, our teamwork goes back for more than a century.


Unusual Situation

Our teamwork is especially needed right now. We are in a highly unusual situation, with national emergencies in several parts of the country—and around the world, with so many victims of earthquakes, monsoons, flooding, hurricanes, and wildfires.

Here at home, we have seen an unprecedented event: two category 4 hurricanes striking our homeland in the same year … and, of course, Maria is bearing down on Puerto Rico. In the Caribbean, parts of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands are completely destroyed. The human suffering extends to Texas, Louisiana, Georgia, and Florida, and the road to recovery will be long. It will take more than weeks or even months; it will take years.

Through FEMA and our USDA sister agencies, we are partnering with your agencies and with local governments to help with response and recovery. We have several incident management teams on the Gulf Coast. I thank you for joining us in collective efforts to help each other when in need. I thank you for the tremendous coordination among our agencies.

And then there is the fire season. Late last year, parts of the South had one of their worst fire seasons in decades. Thousands of acres burned in the Appalachian Mountains. I witnessed firsthand the strong cooperative response by local, state, and federal agencies. It was tremendous.

The long fire season of the last 12 months continued in the West. Right after being assigned to the Chief’s job, I visited fires in Oregon and Montana. I also got a detailed briefing about the California fires during another visit to the West. I saw firsthand the enormous impact on people, communities, and firefighters.

As of September 17, we had been at preparedness level 5 for almost 40 days, although we just dropped to 4. We had 1.6 million acres of active fire and about 21,000 firefighters deployed, which is at or above record levels. The 10-year average was 5.5 million acres burned, and we already had 8.3 million acres burned nationwide. That was about 50 percent higher than the 10-year average.

For the Forest Service in particular, this is an exceptionally severe fire season, as it is for many states. Our fire organization is under tremendous strain, and I’m worried about cumulative fatigue. Already, more than 2 million acres have burned in areas under Forest Service fire protection. The last time that happened was in 2012, and before that it was in 2007. So this is a highly unusual situation for us.

Of course, we’re all in this together in the fire community, and we deeply appreciate the close cooperation we get from the states. Again, that goes back to cooperative agreements between us that are in some cases more than a century old. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your help and support during this year’s fire season. Again, you are more than partners for the Forest Service.

Still, this fire season has been especially hard on the federal agencies. Forest Service suppression costs alone have already exceeded $2 billion this year, more than ever before in our history. And fire season isn’t nearly over yet.

As a result, the Forest Service has already surpassed our budget for wildland fire suppression. As you know, we can’t just shut down and go home, leaving the fires to burn. That means we have to draw funds from other accounts.

The good news is that Congress has already acted to get those funds repaid. The bad news is that nonfire programs will still be temporarily disrupted.

As you know, this is a longstanding issue for the Forest Service and for the states. Since 2002, we have exceeded our budget for fire suppression in all but 4 years, and the underlying causes won’t go away. In 1995, just 16 percent of our budget went toward wildland fire suppression; today, fire takes up well over half our budget. All of this is well documented.

About 30 percent of our spending goes toward 1 to 2 percent of the fires we fight. These are the fires that escape initial attack and become huge and costly. We have proposed a way to move forward, and we have support from the administration. We also appreciate all your help and support for a fire funding fix. Secretary Perdue is working really hard and I’m working really hard to get this done.

The outcome we seek is to move emergency funding for suppressing the most complex fires out of our regular budgetary process. That way, our budgets won’t be skewed toward fire at the expense of our nonfire programs. That way, fire funding transfers won’t keep disrupting our nonfire programs year after year.


Active Management

A fire funding fix will definitely help, but we have to do more when it comes to healthy, resilient forests and properly functioning ecosystems. We must increase active management and restore landscapes.

All of you are well aware of the situation. The challenges are daunting. Prolonged drought in the West and past management practices have led to fuel buildups in many fire-prone forests. We’ve also seen widespread tree mortality in the West due to drought and to the spread of mountain pine beetle. In parts of the South as well, we’re seeing renewed outbreaks of southern pine beetle, especially in Mississippi. New York and New Jersey have also seen unusual amounts of southern pine beetle activity.

The key is to increase active management, for example to get safe, high-quality outcomes with meaningful results. Thinning and longleaf pine restoration are effective against southern pine beetle in the South. Similarly, thinning and ponderosa pine restoration are effective against catastrophic fire in many western forests. Thinning can also reduce the impacts of mountain pine beetle. We have seen how effective restoration can be, for example through our Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Projects.

Active management also produces jobs, and it supports infrastructure for recreational access. According to one study, every million dollars invested in restoration-related activities generates from 13 to 29 jobs and more than $2 million in economic activity. That compares favorably with investments in other sectors, such as oil and gas production.

Infrastructure for recreational access is key to creating jobs. Outdoor recreation on the national forests and grasslands is by far the greatest source of jobs from the National Forest System. Visitor spending sustains about 143,000 full- and part-time jobs, and it contributes about $10.3 billion to the nation’s gross domestic product each year.

Our top priorities are increasing forest management and accelerating restoration work, along with addressing crumbling infrastructure. One way of doing all this is to make decisions and authorize restoration projects in a much timelier manner. I have a team working right now on ways to do just that: ways to reform our NEPA, our analysis, and our decision-making processes. The goal is to eliminate unnecessary steps and processes that get in the way of our doing urgently needed work on the ground. Increasing the scale of analysis and the amount of on-the-ground work covered under a single EA or EIS, for example, is critical.

There is much science, data, and collaborative support for these steps—for example, for the 80 million acres or so of the National Forest System at moderate to high risk of insect and disease epidemics and catastrophic fire. The science and data are there for taking aggressive action, which is supported by a wide range of stakeholder groups.

There are opportunities to accelerate restoration by finding new uses for woody materials—the materials we need to remove to restore healthy, resilient forests. Since the Great Recession, we have had growing success in removing excess materials. One sign is the rising volume of timber sold from the national forests. In 2018, our goal is to sell 3.2, maybe 3.4 billion board feet of timber and to increase the acres treated for fuels and ecological restoration.

Innovations in wood use can also help, particularly innovations in the use of low-value woody biomass and small-diameter timber. The Forest Service has helped introduce new wood-based technologies to the U.S. market through wood innovation grants and other measures. Our wood innovation grants promote wood-to-energy projects as well as the construction of tall buildings using cross-laminated timber. CLT and wood-to-energy can create markets for hazardous fuels from forest treatments while also creating rural jobs.

The outcome we want affects the entire area of forest land in the United States. Our goal is for forests across our nation to be healthy and resilient—able to withstand drought, wildland fires, and other stresses and disturbances—able to continue to give the American people wood, clean air, drinking water, wildlife, outdoor recreation and all the other values and benefits they get from forested lands.    

Another outcome we want is jobs and economic activity in rural areas. Related to that is energy security and cutting-edge construction practices using CLT. The United States can be the world leader in green energy and in the construction of buildings from wood.


Shared Stewardship

I think we have a common vision for the future. We are all in this together, with the same goals for the American people, the people we serve. We share the same landscapes and watersheds, we share the same hardships and face the same challenges. We can meet the challenges and achieve our goals by getting all forest landowners on the same page.

That means sharing stewardship for the landscapes and watersheds around us. It means sitting down with communities and stakeholders of all kinds and working shoulder-to-shoulder toward common goals. A priority for the Forest Service will be more work together across landownerships for the health of the landscapes entrusted to our care and for the benefit of the people we serve.

Part of that is being a good neighbor, and that will be a major focus for the Forest Service. My goal is for our neighbors to respect the Forest Service for the work we do on national forest land and also to look to us for help and support in sustainably managing their own lands—for people to want to partner with us even more.

To that end, we will use every authority under the Farm Bill for being a good neighbor, particularly our Good Neighbor Authority. Under GNA, we have signed 115 agreements with 31 states to perform a variety of services. For example, we have signed master agreements with Kentucky, Ohio, and Virginia, and we are working with West Virginia to find a proper fit.

These agreements are of various kinds at various scales. In California, for example, CalFire partnered with the Sierra National Forest to treat hazardous fuel buildups due to drought and insect attack. The work includes felling and removing trees, chipping, masticating, and piling. GNAs in Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota, Georgia, and Texas include marking timber and administering timber sales. So will the ones in Oregon and Washington, I believe.

Another example of working together across landownerships is the Joint Chiefs’ Landscape Restoration Partnership. In one case, we have blended GNA with our Joint Chiefs’ efforts to meet restoration needs in New Hampshire. Through Joint Chiefs’ projects, we can advance the State Forest Action Plans. We can also encourage the use of landscape stewardship plans.  

Through cross-boundary efforts like these, we can meet our shared goals for healthy, resilient landscapes.


What, Why, How

The Forest Service’s mission, what we do, is to sustain the nation’s forests and grasslands based on sound science and good data. The why we do it is to sustain people’s lives. And the how we do it is by crossing boundaries and sharing stewardship with others.

The State Foresters in particular and NASF in general help us deliver the what, the why, and the how. You are more than partners for the Forest Service. So today, I make this pledge: Under my leadership, the Forest Service will do everything we can to sustain, strengthen, and deepen our relationships, for the benefit of generations to come.

Thank you again for inviting me.