Working Together for the Greatest Good

Tom Tidwell, Chief
World Forestry Museum Event
Portland, OR
— November 3, 2009


It is a pleasure to be here this morning, and thank you for inviting me. I think everyone in this room shares a common vision for the future of forestry in the United States. We believe that the future depends, to a considerable degree, on America’s privately owned forests and on the health and well-being of our forest-reliant communities.

Challenges to America’s Forests

You know better than anyone the challenges facing family forest owners and forest-reliant communities: loss of traditional sources of income … loss of working landscapes to development … invasive species of all kinds … growing fire seasons and wildfire severity, plus devastating outbreaks of insects and disease … and, compounding every challenge, the overarching effects of climate change.

To meet these challenges, our nation needs a clear and compelling vision for the future. In August of this year, in Seattle, Washington, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack delivered a speech outlining his national vision for America’s forests. The Secretary’s vision is based on a few simple truths: that forests are vital to the future of our nation … that America’s forest stewards, the farmers, ranchers, and others who own and manage the nation’s forests, are key to sustaining the ecosystem services that Americans get from their forests.

Perhaps the most important of those services is water. Americans tend to take their drinking water for granted, and most of our drinking water comes from rural areas, from our forests, farms, and ranches. In fact, forests, farms, and ranches provide 87 percent of the surface supply of drinking water in America.

I can’t think of a more compelling reason to manage these lands sustainably. Yet our water supplies, not to mention all the other ecosystem services that people get from forests, are increasingly at risk as we lose our working forests and as the health of our remaining forests declines.

Forest Restoration

A shared vision has to begin with the restoration of our nation’s forests. Restoration is based on the understanding that forests are dynamic. For thousands of years, forests have been changing due to a combination of natural and human effects.

By ecological restoration, I mean restoring the ecological functions associated with healthy forest ecosystems—systems that are capable of delivering the ecosystem services that Americans want and need. Many of those systems have been degraded, damaged, or even destroyed. Many are threatened, partly due to the effects of a changing climate. Our goal will be to restore healthy, functioning ecosystems capable of delivering all the services people need … pure, clean water … habitat for wildlife and fish … opportunities for outdoor recreation … working landscapes capable of supporting healthy rural economies and communities.

Landscape-Scale Conservation

The Forest Service has been working for decades to restore healthy, resilient forest ecosystems on the National Forest System. But that isn’t enough. Our mission at the Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands, not just the national forests and grasslands.

Fifty-seven percent of America’s forests are in private landownership, and another 23 percent are in state, tribal, county, municipal, and other federal ownerships. Forest ecosystems typically form mosaics—mosaics of plant and animal communities and mosaics of landownerships. This is true not only here in the West, but also in the East, where the critical issues are the same—healthy forests and grasslands, concerns with water, fire, wildlife habitat connectivity. These issues have never stopped at national forest boundaries. Even here in the West, where national forest lands make up a large part of the landscape, we still need an all-lands approach, a landscape-scale approach, using collaboration to engage our partners and our communities.

Our restoration focus at the Forest Service will be closely tied to a focus on landscape-scale conservation. Especially in an era of climate change, we need to restore the resilience of America’s forests to disturbances of all kinds. The treatments needed will improve watershed health, increase water quantity, improve water quality, generate rural prosperity, and meet our shared vision of healthy, resilient forests and local economic opportunities. But none of this can happen on a piecemeal scale. It has to be on a scale that supersedes ownership. Landscape-scale conservation will bring landowners and stakeholders together across boundaries to decide on common goals for the landscapes they share. It will bring them together to achieve long-term outcomes. Our collective responsibility is to work through landscape-scale conservation to restore the nation’s forests—to meet public expectations for all the services people get from forested landscapes.

That includes using all USDA resources and authorities, in collaboration with the State Foresters, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and other partners, to sustain the entire matrix of federal, state, tribal, county, municipal, and private forests. Examples of those collaborative authorities include the Environmental Quality Improvement Program, which extends to nonindustrial private forest landowners; the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, which extends to woody biomass producers on nonfederal land; and the Wyden Amendment, which authorizes watershed restoration and enhancement agreements with state, private, and other partners.

Climate change is not only an overarching threat to America’s forests, but also a source of new opportunities. Already, it is creating new markets for carbon storage and biomass energy. We can harness those opportunities on behalf of sustainable forest management. Working together, we can increase our capacity for restoration. Our nation has untapped resources of knowledge, energy, and ideas that could help us meet the forestry challenges of the future. If we bring people together to collaborate across landscapes … to address shared issues and concerns … to pursue common goals based on mutual respect … then we will build on our mutual capacity and capabilities, making a whole that is far greater than the sum of the parts.

The Greatest Good

Collaboration will be key. To restore the nation’s forests through landscape-scale conservation, we will need a common vision—one that has too often eluded our nation. A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt recognized the public divisiveness that corrodes our common purpose. Our biggest problems, he wrote, come when competing factions are, and I quote, “so cut off from each other that neither appreciates the other’s passions, prejudices, and, indeed, point of view.”

Sound familiar?

In fact, the debate about the future of our forests and about forest policy has been highly polarized for a long time. But given the threats to our forests today, Americans must move away from polarization. We must work toward a shared vision based on healthy, resilient forests—forests that can provide all the ecosystem services that Americans want and need while supporting a forest economy that creates jobs and local economic opportunities.

That vision is based on mutual respect. Again, T.R. put it well. The solution, he wrote, is to promote, and again I quote, “the mutual respect, the sense of common duties and common interests, which arise when [people] take the trouble to understand one another, and to associate together for a common object.” For conservation, it’s all about finding agreement that respects each other’s values.

In closing, I appeal to the foundation of American forestry in the wisdom and leadership of Gifford Pinchot, the first Forest Service Chief. G.P. liked to think of himself as the father of American forestry. That might be a stretch, but he did give us a common vision of conservation as, and I quote, “the foresighted utilization, preservation, and/or renewal of forests, waters, lands, and minerals, for the greatest good of the greatest number for the longest time.”

“For the greatest good.” I believe the goal of forest restoration through an all-lands approach, through landscape-scale conservation, captures the spirit of “the greatest good.” Americans from all walks of life, Americans of every persuasion, can come together behind that goal, in that same spirit. Working together, we can restore America’s forests. As American foresters and conservationists, we owe it to ourselves to bring various programs and policies together, and we need for private forest landowners to join in. What do you need? What are your ideas on an all-lands approach? How can we make it work for private landowners?