Wildlife Conservation: Partnerships Are Key

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Partnership Workshop
Nashville, TN
— February 12, 2016

I am happy to be here. Thank you for bringing us together to discuss the opportunities we have to work together for the health of the lands and waters that mean so much to the American people.

Our work is important because America’s forests, grasslands, and other open spaces are integral to the social, ecological, and economic well-being of our nation. America’s forests play a vital role in providing public benefits such as clean air and water … carbon storage … habitat for fish and wildlife … and opportunities for outdoor recreation, including opportunities to strengthen our nation’s proud hunting traditions.

One study has estimated the value of ecosystem services from the nation’s forests at from $96.5 billion to $5.7 trillion annually. That’s an annual benefit of up to $17,857 for every American. It’s a benefit that our nation cannot afford to lose.

Forests at Risk

Yet now our forests are at risk. Invasive species are spreading; drought coupled with climate change is worsening wildfires and outbreaks of insects and disease. Since 2000, at least 13 states have had their largest fires on record, and some have had their records broken more than once.

And those states aren’t just in the West; they include Georgia and Texas here in the South. Forest Service scientists predict that fire seasons could return to levels not seen since the 1940s, exceeding 12 to 15 million acres annually.

Worsening wildfires, the spread of invasive species, worsening outbreaks of insects and disease—these and other stresses and disturbances are putting forests nationwide at risk. We estimate that somewhere between 65 and 82 million acres of the National Forest System alone are in need of restoration treatments. Just to give you some idea, 82 million acres is an area about three times the size of Tennessee.

The spread of homes and communities into fire-prone areas is another growing challenge. More than 70,000 communities are now at risk from wildfire, and less than 15,000 have community wildfire protection plans. And as our urban areas expand, working forests on private land are being converted to developed uses. Each day, about 6,000 acres of open space are lost. From 2010 to 2060, the United States is expected to lose up to 31 million acres of forest, an area the size of Pennsylvania. 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 70 million acres—and damage from weather events affects another 50 million acres.

Most of our forests are here 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.

Partnership Solutions

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.

But the Forest Service can’t do it alone—no single agency or entity can. Particularly when it comes to fire, our costs are rising at a time of stagnating budgets. Fire funding has gone from 16 percent of the Forest Service’s budget in 1995 to 52 percent today. In most years, we are forced to borrow funds from other programs to cover the soaring costs of firefighting. At the rate we are going, fire alone will account for 67 percent of our budget by 2025. Two out of every three dollars we spend will go toward fire alone!

It will take partnerships and collaboration to keep working forests as forests and to restore the lands entrusted to our care. Restoration is at the core of the Forest Service’s strategic plan, and collaboration is key to restoration. We need to strengthen our partnerships wherever we can with everyone here—with other federal agencies … with state agencies … with nongovernmental organizations. 

Making Tracks Program

The partnership between the Forest Service and the National Wild Turkey Federation is a great example. We are working together through the Making Tracks Program. This year, the program is celebrating thirty years of conservation collaboration.

We formalized our partnership through an MOU in 1986, and we updated the MOU last September. The MOU established a framework for joint planning and mutually beneficial projects, programs, and activities. Through the years, we have worked together on both national forest land and other lands to sustain and increase wild turkey populations and to improve habitat for turkey and other wildlife.

Last year, we revitalized the Making Tracks Committee through a new charter and operational plan. We also put together a Strategic and Annual Action Plan that outlines specific programmatic priorities. The priorities include ongoing leadership in stewardship contracting by the National Wild Turkey Federation; pursuing partnership opportunities through emerging Farm Bill authorities; and increasing public access to federal lands for outdoor recreation and hunting.

To date, the National Wild Turkey Federation has partnered with the Forest Service on 83 stewardship contracts across the country. That includes 29 stewardship contracts on projects that are currently underway.

The National Wild Turkey Federation is a valuable partner for the Forest Service in other ways as well. The federation has 11 employees serving as project wildlife biologists/foresters. These positions are jointly funded, and they build our capacity to better manage wildlife habitat on federal, state, and private lands. We’ve also had a total of 63 challenge-cost share agreements with the federation for shared positions, habitat improvements, and other purposes, 19 of which are still active.

So the Making Tracks Program is a great example of how we can work together to achieve more of our shared conservation goals than any one of us can achieve alone. This partnership program features tools like stewardship contracting and challenge cost-share agreements. I hope this workshop will bring out other opportunities we might have as well, such as grants available to achieve our mutual goal of restoring forest health on state and private lands.

We have other partnership tools as well, such as the Forest Service’s Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program; the Joint Chiefs Initiative that the Forest Service launched together with the Natural Resources Conservation Service; the Wyden Amendment authority; and the Good Neighbor Authority under the latest Farm Bill. We can use all these tools to pool our resources and accomplish our mutual goals.

We are all in this together. By working together to keep forest as forest and to restore the health and resilience of forests across the landscapes we all share, we can all succeed together. We can ensure that Americans will have flourishing habitat for a rich variety of native wildlife—including wild turkey, a symbol of America—for generations to come.