Youth and the Future of the World’s Forests

Tom Tidwell, Chief
World Conservation Congress, Young Leaders Welcome Reception
Honolulu, HI
— September 1, 2016

Thank you. As Chief of the U.S. Forest Service, it is my pleasure to help welcome you to the World Conservation Congress, held this year here in the United States. I hope you enjoy the beautiful Aloha State of Hawaii!

My agency, the U.S. Forest Service, is responsible for managing a system of federal lands called the national forests and grasslands. But we also work with the states and with private forest landowners for sustainable forest management on all lands nationwide. And we have one of the world’s largest research organizations dedicated solely to conservation. We base everything we do on sound science.

I am a career Forest Service employee. I grew up in the state of Idaho and got a degree in forestry from Washington State University. I started my federal forestry career as a seasonal firefighter. I have worked at all levels of the Forest Service in various parts of the United States. Since 2009, I have had the honor of serving as Forest Service Chief.

In the course of my career, I have worked closely with private, state, tribal, local, and federal partners across the United States. Perhaps the greatest collective challenge we face with our partners is climate change. Forests are a huge global asset for meeting the global challenge.

Take carbon, for example. In the United States today, forests are a net carbon sink. Our forests take up 12 to 13 percent of the annual emissions of carbon dioxide in the United States. We are working to sustain and even expand the capacity of our forests to take up and store carbon. We are doing that by protecting and restoring our nation’s forest resources.

Forests are also tied to our water resources. In the United States, 53 percent of our surface water runoff comes from forests, even though they cover just 33 percent of our land area. Forests supply many of our major cities with their drinking water—cities like Denver or San Francisco. Here in Hawaii, forest soils take up rainfall and replenish the aquifers that give us the water we drink. There’s a saying here in Hawaii: “The rain follows the forest.”

We need water not just to drink but also to grow the food we eat. Forests feed the streams, rivers, and aquifers that give farmers the water they need for irrigation. Forests themselves grow much of the food we eat; many people in the United States and around the world depend on hunting, fishing, and gathering in forests. Here in Hawaii, people depend directly on the ocean for much of the food they eat. It’s said that a healthier forest means a healthier ocean.

And forests are home to animals that crops need to grow and survive; think of pollinators and insect predators like birds and bats. In the United States, bats alone eat tons of insect pests each year. Their annual value to our agriculture is estimated to be up to $3 billion.

Carbon … water … food … these are vital ecosystem services that people get from forests. These are things that everyone needs to survive and thrive as we rise to the challenge of climate change in the years ahead.

And we will continue to have these vital ecosystem services only so long as we can bring young people to the cause of conservation. One of the most important things we do as an agency is to connect with young people across our country, ranging from small children to young people just entering their careers.

One way we do that is through what we call conservation education. For example, we give kids from poor urban communities opportunities to get outdoors, whether for fun with their families or through jobs and outdoor projects like replanting trees. Each year, we reach an average of more than 5 million people with conservation education programs.

Here in Hawaii, we work with a nonprofit organization called Kupu. In Hawaiian, kupu means to sprout or grow, like the kupukupu fern, which is one of the first plants to return after a lava flow. Kupu works with young people who learn work skills while serving the community.

The Forest Service has a strong relationship with Kupu through its successful Hawaii Youth Conservation Corps, which we help to fund. In 2015, Kupu worked with 323 young people and helped 13 of them receive their high school diploma equivalency. Through volunteer work to preserve natural and cultural resources, Kupu’s programs had an economic benefit to the community last year of more than $14 million.

We sponsor similar programs all across the United States for young people from 15 to 35 years of age. A great example is the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps. This initiative engages young people all across the country, including former military service members. They get involved in projects to protect and restore our public lands in the United States. Through our related partnerships and programs, the Forest Service employs 10,000 young people every year.

The 21st Century Conservation Service Corps is a pathway for employment in our own workforce at the Forest Service through special hiring authorities. Since 2015, we have hired more than 30 young people into our permanent workforce, and we plan to increase that number.  

The future belongs to young people like these—to people who work here in Hawaii with the Kupu program—to people like you in this room. The future of forestry, of conservation, that future belongs to you in the next generation.

And that’s a huge responsibility. Our global forest resources are your birthright, the responsibility of everyone around the world to protect and conserve for future generations. It will be up to you to bring people together for the greater good, to unite the world in the spirit of conserving our global forest resources, for the benefit of generations to come.

In that same spirit, I wish you well.