Winged Messengers for Landscape-Scale Conservation

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Wings Across the Americas, 2010 Awards Ceremony
Milwaukee, WI
— March 25, 2010


Good evening, everyone! I am happy to be with you tonight here in Milwaukee. We are here to recognize the outstanding work from our award winners and their partners in conserving birds, bats, and butterflies across the Americas.

The mission of the Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. One way we fulfill our mission is by protecting and restoring habitat for birds, bats, and butterflies around the world. These animals contribute to the health of the larger ecosystems we depend upon. Birds are critical to insect control and seed dispersal, and they have inspired millions of Americans all over the country to get outdoors and become bird watchers.

Birds are often capable of doing things we humans can only dream of. Researchers using geolocators recently discovered that the annual migration of arctic terns is the longest in the animal world, averaging about 44,000 miles. Some arctic terns can fly the equivalent of three journeys to the moon and back in the course of their lifetimes.

Bats were once little known and widely feared, but today they are increasingly appreciated for their valuable ecological roles. Like birds, they help control insects, disperse seeds, and pollinate plants. When they emerge from hibernation each spring, farmers welcome their help in controlling crop pests. Bats thereby make a vital contribution to our economy.

Butterflies might be small and short-lived, but they also play a critical ecological role as pollinators. Butterflies depend on native plants for food and shelter, and in turn many plants rely on them for reproduction. Their talent for mimicry through protective coloration and the spectacular migrations of some butterfly species have long fascinated scientists. Their beauty and proximity, along with their remarkable life cycle, are a source of fascination for kids, a great way of connecting kids to the outdoors.

All of these species are important to us, not only for their ecological roles, but also for their intrinsic beauty and the roles they play in human culture. Unfortunately, many birds, bats, and butterflies face conservation threats, mostly due to habitat loss. Up to 25 percent of the bird species in the continental United States need urgent conservation action. Bat populations are declining globally, mostly due to habitat destruction, but also due to a new disease. White-nose syndrome, first discovered in New England in 2006, has rapidly spread and shows no sign of stopping. Butterflies like the migratory monarch butterfly have also seen a drastic decline in their habitats.

Climate change threatens habitat for all of these species. We have already seen changes in migratory activity as animals respond to a changing climate. In response, the Forest Service has adopted an all-lands approach to conservation. Climate change highlights the need for broad-scale approaches—for conservation on a landscape scale. Landscape-scale conservation is an approach to managing land at the level of watersheds, ecoregions, or broad geographic areas. It gives land managers the scope and the flexibility to address the full spectrum of complexity, risk, and uncertainty associated with a changing climate. The goal is to maintain the ability of landscapes to adapt to changes shaped by climate, demographics, global markets for wood, and other large-scale drivers.

This cannot happen on a piecemeal basis. In most of the country, landscape-scale conservation requires working with partners across borders and boundaries; and birds, bats, and butterflies are the perfect winged messengers for landscape-scale conservation. No species more clearly demonstrate the value of—and the need for—an all-lands approach than migratory animals like these. It does no good to protect summer habitat for them in one place without also protecting winter habitat in another, sometimes thousands of miles away. These animals teach us the need for working together with partners at scales ranging from regional, to national, to international, to intercontinental. At all these scales, people share common goals for the landscapes used by wildlife species cherished by so many, including birds, bats, and butterflies.

The Forest Service is committed to conserving these animals through a variety of strategies, including monitoring and habitat management projects on the national forests and grasslands and beyond, both domestically and overseas. The Forest Service is a prominent partner in many migratory bird joint ventures. Together with partners, we recently developed the Monarch Joint Venture to meet the objectives of the North American Monarch Conservation Plan, which is designed to conserve and restore habitat for the monarch butterfly along its migratory flyway.

Tonight’s awardees have implemented both site-level conservation and cutting-edge projects in landscape planning and design. They have worked in a range of habitats, from the savannas of northern Michigan to the tropical forests of Nicaragua. Some have painstakingly trapped and released bats into the wee hours of the morning; others have brought together partners to balance recreation and habitat for the rare Bicknell’s thrush. You will hear more. In any case, each of these projects has required commitment, vision, creativity, and many hours of long and hard work, often under challenging conditions.

Our successes reflect the dedication of many people, both Forest Service employees and a wide range of partners. Our partners include nonprofit organizations, states, volunteer groups, and universities. Increasingly, our projects involve capacity building, like training volunteers to restore habitat and conduct bat surveys … or training university students and local NGO staff in bird conservation methods and sustainable community-based tourism. Tonight’s awardees have been truly successful in working with partners to increase our conservation impact. We also recognize and honor the invaluable contributions of our partners tonight, for they are truly the key to ensuring long-term conservation success.

As Chief of the Forest Service, I offer my heartfelt thanks to all these dedicated conservation leaders. You are truly an inspiration to us in fulfilling our conservation mission. Now I would like to introduce Logan Lee, Deputy Regional Forester for the Forest Service’s Eastern Region. Logan is tonight’s master of ceremonies.