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Three Areas of Opportunity

Tom Tidwell, Chief
North American Forest Commission
Campeche, Mexico — January 11, 2016

It’s a real pleasure to be here with my colleagues from Canada and Mexico. I am honored to have the opportunity to represent the United States and to learn from you this week.

Forestry Challenges

In terms of both scale and complexity, forestry in the United States faces some of the greatest challenges in our history. Many challenges are associated with drought, wildfire, invasive species, and outbreaks of insects and disease—all made worse by climate change. Other challenges are associated with the conversion of forests to developed uses—and with the spread of homes and communities into fire-prone forests.

I will use my limited time to focus on three general trends.

  • First, our forested landscapes are at risk of losing their ability to take up and store carbon.
  • Second, our urban and community forests deliver benefits to people that are often overlooked, including the uptake and storage of carbon.
  • Third, our focus today is on making our forests more resilient—better able to withstand the stresses of climate change and to recover from the associated disturbances.

Forest Loss

In the first three centuries of our history, the United States lost a quarter of our entire forest estate. In the process, we lost such major forest components as American elm and American chestnut due to nonnative invasive diseases. But in the twentieth century, we turned things around. We stabilized our forest estate at around 300 million hectares, and we are beginning to reintroduce disease-resistant American chestnut into our eastern forests.

Yet now our forests are once again at risk. As our urban areas expand, working forests on private land are being converted to developed uses. From 2010 to 2060, the United States is expected to lose up to 12 million hectares of forest. Twenty-seven percent of all forest-associated plants and animals in the United States, a total of 4,005 species, are at risk of extinction.

Other ecosystem services are also at risk, including carbon uptake and storage. Forests in the United States absorb at least 12 percent of the carbon dioxide that our citizens emit each year. But climate change is tied to rising forest disturbances, especially in the western United States. Every 10 years, disturbances from insects, diseases, and wildfires affect more than 30 million hectares—and damage from weather events affects another 20 million hectares.

Most of our forests are in the eastern United States, where forest restoration on old abandoned farmland over the last 80 years has been a huge success story. But now those forests are reaching maturity, and their carbon uptake has slowed.

It’s a vicious cycle. We’re seeing climate-related stresses and disturbances, especially in the West. We are also seeing vast swaths of eastern forests reaching maturity and land use changes that reduce our forest cover nationwide. Overall, our forests are losing the ability to take up and store carbon; and more greenhouse gases lead to more climate change. Over the next 25 years, our forest carbon sinks could well decline; by 2060, our forests in some regions could become a net source of carbon dioxide emissions.

None of this has to be, and I see this as a call to action. Through forest retention and restoration, the United States can generate major gains in carbon sequestration in the next 25 years.

Urban Forestry

Forest loss is partly due to a growing population. Today, about 81 percent of our citizens live in metropolitan areas, a number that will surely rise. Yet as our urban areas expand, we are adding a valuable resource: urban and community forests. Our urban areas make up only about 3 percent of our land area, but they contain roughly 3.8 billion trees covering about 40 million hectares of urban and community forests. These lands are of tremendous benefit to our citizens.

  • Urban trees give shade, reduce windspeed, and save energy. Trees in our urban areas save as much as 30 percent of summer electric cooling costs.
  • As you know, trees improve air quality. Urban trees in the United States remove about 784,000 tons of pollutants each year, with a value of $3.8 billion.
  • Urban trees also store about 770 million tons of carbon, valued at $14.3 billion.
  • Trees reduce stormwater runoff; in Washington, DC, alone, trees on public land save $3.7 million annually.
  • Urban trees abate noise. They also provide habitat for wildlife—birds of all kinds … squirrels, rabbits, even deer … occasional predators like foxes and coyotes.
  • Trees have proven health benefits for our citizens. Trees raise home values and contribute to community well-being. Urban trees are a wellspring of conservation; our urban citizens connect with nature mainly in their neighborhood greenways and their own backyards.
  • And urban forests create green jobs in arboriculture, landscaping, and other professions. Urban forestry contributes almost $148 billion to our economy each year.

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. The future of conservation and sustainable forest management in the United States lies partly in our urban areas. That’s why the federal agencies in the United States are working with urban neighborhoods to build green infrastructure through programs like the Urban Waters Federal Partnership.

Restoration Focus

Our urban and rural forests alike are threatened by climate change. Across most of our forested landscapes, the key is ecological restoration. Working with partners, the U.S. Forest Service is protecting forests from land use conversion—and helping forests adapt to climate-related stresses and disturbances. Restoration means restoring healthy, resilient forests capable of delivering all the benefits that people get from them—clean air and water, carbon sequestration, habitat for native fish and wildlife, opportunities for outdoor recreation, and more.

We are taking steps in the United States to pick up the pace of restoration. From 2001 to 2010, for example, the U.S. Forest Service treated about 10 million hectares, for an average of about 1 million hectares per year. Our projection for 2011 was to complete 1.48 million hectares, but we actually accomplished 1.68 million hectares. By 2014, we increased that by 9 percent to 1.84 million hectares.

We are making progress by working across shared landscapes. Our most successful programs are not when this or that agency is off by itself working on its own lands. Our greatest success comes when people get together in partnerships and collaboratives to improve conditions across landscapes shared by all. Examples include the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program … the Watershed Condition Framework … the Forest Legacy Program … agreements with municipal utilities to restore watersheds … I could go on.


The good news is that people get it. People are willing to come together around restoration opportunities to reach mutual goals for healthy, resilient forested landscapes, especially now that we face so many climate-related and other challenges to forest health.

And therein lies a tremendous opportunity to rebuild our green infrastructure through active management. Studies suggest, for the United States, that forestry activities could potentially increase carbon sequestration by 100 to 200 million tons of carbon per year. By restoring forest health, retaining private forests, and reforesting areas quickly, we can provide benefits such as clean air and water, habitat for native wildlife, opportunities for outdoor recreation, and more. We can also provide jobs, forest products, and an array of other economic benefits. Everyone benefits from working together to restore healthy, resilient forests.

Our three countries might jointly benefit from such opportunities. So I would like to end by challenging you to think of new ways we might work together. In these three areas alone—loss of forested landscapes … urban and community forestry … and ecological restoration—are there ways of reaching across our borders to work toward shared goals?

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