Toward Healthy Forests: Leadership, Vision, and Action

Tom Tidwell, Chief
North American Forest Insect Work Conference
Washington, DC
— June 1, 2016

Thank you! It is a pleasure to be here today. This conference is for people who care about our nation’s forests. You know the problems facing our forests and other natural systems, and you are on the forefront of finding solutions. So I am humbled to be here today, and I am glad to have the opportunity to say a few words.

Value of Forests

Why should Americans care about their forests and grasslands? As you know, people get tremendous values and benefits from these landscapes.

These lands purify the air we breathe and deliver more than half of our water supplies. They store carbon and regulate climate. They form soils and control runoff and erosion. They protect biodiversity, providing habitat for wildlife. They furnish rich opportunities for collecting wild foods … for hunting and fishing … for outdoor recreation, spiritual renewal, and aesthetic enjoyment.

These lands also provide jobs, forest products, and an array of other economic benefits. Some jobs come through commercial resource extraction and outdoor recreation; other jobs come from the work we do to maintain and restore healthy, resilient ecosystems. That includes keeping forests and other landscapes in balance with native insects and diseases … and, where we must, with invasive species.

Challenges We Face

As you know, forests and other ecosystems have always been changing and they always will. And insects and diseases are important parts of these ecosystems, as are introduced species. But the rate of change and the magnitude of insect and disease outbreaks go beyond what we have seen historically, partly due to climate change.

Take bark beetles, for example. They have evolved with America’s forests for thousands of years, and beetle epidemics are not unusual when conditions are right. There was a big outbreak of mountain pine beetle in the 1970s. In 1950, after a big winter blowdown in the Northern Rockies, there was a huge outbreak of spruce beetle. Like fire, beetles play a natural role in the ecosystem, and the forests eventually recover.

But since 2001, western bark beetles of all kinds have affected huge and growing areas at all elevations and latitudes, from low-elevation pinyon pine to high-elevation whitebark pine, from Arizona to Alaska. Fir engraver, spruce beetle, pinyon ips, Douglas-fir beetle, western pine beetle, you name it … the list goes on.

Due to fire exclusion and even-age timber management over most of the 20th century, we have dense homogenous stands that are particularly vulnerable to beetle attack. Climate change has made things worse. Because winters are warmer, they are no longer knocking the beetles back. And drought-stressed trees are more susceptible to damage. The stars have aligned for what one author has called “the perfect plague.”

We also have hemlock woolly adelgid wiping out eastern hemlocks. Dogwood anthracnose is affecting understories in both East and West. Thousand canker disease is threatening eastern walnut plantations. White pine blister rust has damaged or destroyed thousands of western white pine stands.

Insect and disease outbreaks have economic impacts. Take Asian longhorned beetle, for example. Along with climate change, ALB is now threatening the maple sugar industry in New England, potentially costing thousands of jobs and tens of millions of dollars each year. Emerald ash borer will cost federal and local governments and private citizens billions of dollars to remove and replace dead trees.

Beetle-killed trees can also fuel immense fires, raising safety concerns. Amenities and cultural values are affected. For example, sudden oak death in California has killed trees in neighborhoods where more than 6 million people live, work, and play. This disease also affects the cultural practices of American Indians, who use acorns, bay leaves, and berries in their rituals.

Science-Based Management

I could go on, but you are well aware of the insects and diseases that are challenging our forests and the many different impacts they can have. I think it is even more important to emphasize what we are working towards and what we can achieve.

At the Forest Service, our vision is to create healthy, resilient forests that can resist the stresses associated with a changing climate and recover from related disturbances, such as outbreaks of insects and disease. So the question is: How are we addressing these challenges to achieve our vision of healthy, resilient forests?

You here in this room are the answer. We rely on the scientific solutions that you and the rest of our scientific community devise. 

As you know, the Forest Service is a science-based organization. Through our Research and Development branch and our Forest Health Protection program, we have the largest group of forest entomologists and pathologists in the world. Our scientists work with universities and other partners to give us the tools and technology we need to support America’s forest management activities.

We have been conducting long-term research since our beginnings more than a century ago, and our data goes back a century or more. So we have the means to cope with emerging issues, even insect and disease outbreaks on an unprecedented scale.  

For example, our scientists and land managers have been working with partners to identify new, potentially invasive species, and we find about one new beetle species every year. Then we develop trapping technology and control measures, and we learn all we can about the beetle’s biology and ecology so we can pinpoint weaknesses in its life cycle.

Where an invasive species has already become established, the Forest Service works with partners for control and management, which can really pay off. For example, we have kept gypsy moth out of the West for 30 years now through our gypsy moth partnership. The slower the bug moves, the longer we can protect America’s forest resources from gypsy moth attack. Thirty years of research has developed and refined the tools we use.

We also research ways of mitigating pathways of forest pests, such as those in wood packaging materials. For example, our scientists proved that small bits of bark on packaging materials pose very little risk. We were able to build this criterion into the international standard for wood packaging materials, saving millions of dollars in unnecessary treatment costs.

Importance of Partnerships

Despite all the progress we have made, our forest health problems are enormous, especially in an era of climate change. Now, more than ever, we need to work together through partnerships. The challenges facing our forests, like climate change … like wildland fire … like epidemic outbreaks of insects or disease … these problems do not recognize landownership boundaries. We have to work together to meet challenges across the landscape, taking an all-lands approach.

That means pooling our resources across multiple ownerships so we can manage outbreaks of insects and disease on a landscape scale. And we need better science-based protocols and strategies to prioritize our actions. When people come together—like you have come together today—to share knowledge and pool resources, then we build on our mutual capacities. Synergies are key to the future of conservation.

Tapping Our Resources

Fortunately, America has untapped resources of knowledge, energy, and ideas to help meet the forestry challenges of the future, including invasive species … including epidemic outbreaks of insects and disease, even in an era of climate change.

So as I stand here today, I am encouraged. I am encouraged by the work that you are doing … by the creativity, intelligence, and scientific rigor that you bring to your work … by the willingness you show to work together towards common solutions.

You are providing the knowledge and leadership we need to manage our forests for health and resilience, both now and for generations to come. Thank you for inviting me, and I am happy to take any questions you might have.