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State of Forests and Forestry in the United States

Tom Tidwell, Chief
World Conservation Congress
Honolulu, HI — September 4, 2016

Thank you, and welcome to the United States! I hope you are enjoying the Aloha State!

I am so happy to be here with colleagues from around the world. I always enjoy learning about the challenges and opportunities that face our forests around the world. I am also happy to have this opportunity to talk about what’s happening with our forests in the United States.


First, a little background. The United States has the fourth largest forest estate in the world, including about 8 percent of the world’s forests. We have about 304 million hectares of forest land covering about a third of our land area. These lands range from boreal forests in Alaska; to deciduous forests in the eastern United States; to pine plantations in the southern United States; to dry coniferous forests in the western United States; to temperate rainforests on the West Coast; to the tropical rainforests of Puerto Rico and here in Hawaii.

Fifty-six percent of our forest lands are in private ownership. The rest are managed by local, tribal, state, and federal governments. My agency alone, the U.S. Forest Service, manages about 20 percent of the forest land in the United States. The U.S. Forest Service manages about 77 million acres of federal land called national forests and national grasslands. Most states have at least one national forest or national grassland.

Most forests in the United States are in the eastern half of our country, where 83 percent of the forest land is in private ownership. People are sometimes surprised to hear that the U.S. government has no direct role in regulating private forest land. Individual states govern private forestry through state forestry laws, and state laws vary widely.

However, the U.S. Forest Service does give technical and financial assistance to private forest landowners. Every state has its own forestry agency, and we work with the State Foresters to help private landowners manage their lands sustainably.

The U.S. Forest Service also has our nation’s largest conservation research organization. We have 7 research stations and 81 experimental forests nationwide, representing 85 percent of the forest types in the United States. That includes an experimental forest on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Our research records go back for more than a hundred years. We have decades of data on forest cover, water, wildlife, wilderness, and other resources, much of it relevant to climate change. Many of our scientists work on climate-related issues, and we have sound baselines for measuring the impacts of climate change across the country. Science is the foundation for our forest management in the United States; science gives us opportunities to meet the challenges we face.

Our dedication to science dates to the beginnings of forestry in the United States in the late 1800s. Forestry in the United States was built on the older forestry traditions of other countries. The first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service was Gifford Pinchot, who served from 1905 to 1910. As a young man, Pinchot studied forestry in France, Germany, and Switzerland. He later traveled the world, including parts of Russia, Asia, and the South Seas seeking insights into forests and forestry. Gifford Pinchot believed that war was due to conflict over natural resources and that conservation was the key to peace. In that same spirit, the U.S. Forest Service works with partners in dozens of countries around the world on a wide range of conservation issues, including issues related to climate change. We gain a tremendous amount from these partnerships.

Forestry Challenges

A century ago, our main forest-related problem in the United States was deforestation. Deforestation threatened our timber supplies … our water supplies … our rich forest resources … our habitat for native wildlife. In response, we set aside protected areas like the national forests and grasslands. Even more important, we created sound structures of governance for managing forests sustainably on both public land and private land.

Today, our forest estate is stable, but we face a host of other issues. Many challenges are associated with drought, wildfire, invasive species, and outbreaks of insects and disease—all made worse by climate change. Warming temperatures mean more energy in the atmosphere, which is consistent with severe weather events, such as floods, tornadoes, blizzards, ice storms, and hurricanes. The United States has seen all of these in recent years, including disastrous flooding in Louisiana just this summer, with damage to 40,000 homes.

In Alaska, the signs of climate change are obvious, particularly the receding sea ice. But we are also seeing declining snowpacks and thawing permafrost. Alaska yellow-cedar is one of Alaska’s most valuable trees; melting snow cover is exposing the roots to spring freezes and killing yellow-cedar forests on a massive scale. Water limitations and heat stress associated with climate change are also damaging Alaska’s interior spruce forests.

Climate change has contributed to beetle outbreaks in many western states. Winter cold is no longer limiting bark beetles, resulting in beetle infestations on a massive scale. On the national forests alone, the area affected has reached almost 13 million hectares. In California alone, there are now an estimated 66 million dead trees.

Part of the problem is worsening drought, which weakens the trees, making them unable to fight off beetle attack. It is tempting to think of drought as temporary, but in an era of climate change, that is wishful thinking. One expert put it this way: “You can’t call it a drought anymore, because it’s going over to a drier climate. No one says the Sahara is in drought.”

Severe drought has resulted in extreme fire weather. Fire seasons are getting longer and wildfires are spreading faster and burning hotter than anyone can remember. Just last year, we had our largest fire season in more than 50 years, with more than 4 million hectares burned. Since 2000, we’ve had record fires in many states, including a fire in Arizona that burned 215,000 hectares; a fire in Texas that burned 360,000 hectares; and a fire in Alaska that burned 520,000 hectares—just think of that: more than half a million hectares.

Many of these wildfires are burning into communities and destroying homes. Last year, for example, a total of 4,636 structures burned in wildfires across the United States, including 2,676 homes. In the 1960s, 207 structures burned on average in wildfires each year, compared to 2,915 structures since 2000. That’s an increase of 1,400 percent in 50 years.

Part of the reason is population growth and urban expansion in wildlands. Another challenge facing the United States is the conversion of forests to developed uses—and the spread of homes and communities into fire-prone forests. By 2060, our population is expected to grow to somewhere between 400 and 500 million, and we could see a net forest loss of up to 15 million

hectares. For the first time in more than a century, the United States is facing a net forest loss.

People moving into wildlands have brought species with them that have become invasive all across the United States. Here in Hawaii, one of them is mesquite—what the locals call kiawe [kee-YAH-vay]—which has taken over many dry landscapes. The Polynesians brought pigs, and feral pigs are the greatest threat to native forests besides development. Land use conversion for ranching has taken over forests dominated by koa, a type of acacia that the Hawaiians used to make outrigger canoes. 

Restoring Benefits from Forests

Fortunately, projects are underway here in Hawaii to restore koa forests, partly because koa is so culturally and commercially valuable. Researchers are finding ways to reforest old abandoned pastureland with koa and other native species. Meanwhile, private organizations such as The Nature Conservancy are working with federal partners in the National Park Service to eradicate feral pigs from some landscapes to help native tropical forests recover.

Here in Hawaii and all across the United States, we are rising to the challenges facing our forests through ecological restoration. By restoration, we mean restoring the ecological functions associated with healthy forests—forests that are capable of delivering a full range of ecosystem services, even in this era of climate change. Our goal is to restore healthy, resilient forests, and we are working hard to pick up the pace. From 2001 to 2010, the U.S. Forest Service treated an average of about 1 million hectares per year. In 2011, we accomplished 1.68 million hectares. By 2014, we increased that by 9 percent to 1.84 million hectares.

Everyone benefits from restoration. Healthy, resilient forests provide ecosystem services like carbon sequestration … climate regulation ... air and water purification ... flood protection ... wildlife habitat ... and more. And restoration creates jobs. One study has shown that every million dollars spent on restoration activities like stream restoration or road decommissioning generates from 13 to 29 jobs and more than $2 million in economic activity. That compares favorably with investments in other sectors, such as energy or construction.

Forests also have economic value, generating wealth through recreation and tourism, through the creation of green jobs, and through the production of wood products and energy. But wood has gotten a bad rap; there’s a widespread misconception that building from cement or steel is better for the environment than using wood. We need to dispel those misconceptions, because putting wood to good use is a key strategy for climate mitigation. Wood both stores carbon and replaces more carbon-intensive materials. Lumber is 8 times less fossil-fuel-intensive than cement for example —and 21 times less fossil-fuel-intensive than steel.

Many of the materials we remove to help restore forests have little or no value, but by finding new uses for biomass and small-diameter materials, we can get more restoration work done. For example, researchers at our Forest Products Lab have helped to find ways to use small-diameter materials in cross-laminated timber. The cross-lamination technology creates a stable and structurally sound panel that is used for building components such as floors, walls, ceilings, and more. Completed projects have included the use of these panels for 10-story high-rise buildings!

We are also developing new ways of utilizing excess woody biomass for energy production. Wood-to-energy offsets fossil fuel emissions and does not conflict with food production like corn-based ethanol does. Wood-to-energy can heat individual homes and can also support plants that can generate up to 40 megawatts of power. The U.S. Forest Service has been working on providing a reliable and predictable supply of biomass for potential investors. 

Dollar Value of Benefits

Unfortunately, many of our citizens do not fully appreciate the many benefits they get from forests. It comes down to money. Our economic systems are set up to protect what has cash value and to take for granted what does not. Many of the benefits from forests have no recognized market value, so they are at risk of being undervalued and lost.

We can avoid such market failures by placing people and the benefits they receive from nature at the center of the conversation, especially if we can place a market value on the benefits. For example, forests deliver pure, clean water to people. More than half of the water our citizens get in the contiguous United States originates on forested landscapes, and 18 percent comes from the national forests alone. That 18 percent has a value estimated at $3.7 billion per year.

Trees also improve air quality. Our scientists estimate that across the United States urban trees remove about 784,000 tons of pollutants each year. Without those trees, we would have to spend $3.8 billion each year to remove the same amount of air pollution. Urban trees give people other benefits as well, such as stormwater control and cooling during hot summer months. One study of five U.S. cities has shown that for every dollar invested in urban forest management, annual benefits range from $1.37 to $3.09. 

At the U.S. Forest Service, we have a web-based tool called i-Tree for measuring those benefits. Using i-Tree, the city of Providence, Rhode Island, found that its 415,000 trees provide $4.7 million in environmental benefits each year. i-Tree has been used in more than 100 countries and has had about 12,000 users. Tools like i-Tree help citizens and policymakers understand the tremendous benefits they get from investing in green infrastructure.

But not all values and benefits associated with healthy, resilient forests have a dollar value. People get so much more from their forests, such as cultural values, aesthetic enjoyment, spiritual fulfillment, and recreational pleasures. These benefits have no dollar value, but they can be some of the greatest of all. Back in 1968, the Director of the National Park Service in the United States, George Hartzog, summed it up in this way, and I quote:

We haven’t learned yet to assess accurately the benefits to man of the sight of an alligator sliding into dark waters, or of a horizon free of smokestacks and overpasses, or an evening sky glittering with the flash of white wings catching the last rays of daylight; but our inability to measure them makes those values no less real.

The challenge for all of us is to pass these values on to future generations. In the United States, we are firmly committed to conserving all the values and benefits people get from their forests. We are rising to such challenges as climate change, fire and fuels, invasive species, and loss of open space by working to retain our forests as forests. Our citizens are coming together around restoration opportunities to reach mutual goals for healthy, resilient forested landscapes.

We hope to work together with people around the world toward the same restoration goals. If we can learn from each other and capitalize on our mutual resources, then we can meet the climate-related challenges we all face, protecting and restoring forests around the world for the benefit of generations to come.

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