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Four Threats

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Four Threats to the Health of the Nation's Forests and Grasslands

Healthy forests make for a healthy nation.

In the 21st century, the nation’s forests and grasslands face four threats. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth names them as: (a) fire and fuels, (b) invasive species, (c) loss of open space, and (d) unmanaged recreation.

Fire and Fuels

[graphic] An image of a forest fire burning a stand of trees.

"Americans must decide- - We can remove some of the trees and lower the risk of catastrophic fire; or we can do nothing and watch them burn. I think the choice is obvious - - In a good part of the West—where forests are overgrown—we must return forests to the way they were historically, then get fire back into the ecosystem when it’s safe.” Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth.

Many of our fire-adapted forests have become overgrown and unhealthy. For example, historically ponderosa pine forests were extremely open, with a few dozen trees per acre. Today, we might have hundreds or even thousands of small trees crowded into the same area. All those trees have to compete for a limited amount of water and nutrients. Instead of an open stand of big, healthy trees like the ones the first European settlers saw, we see thickets of small-diameter trees that are more susceptible to drought, disease, and insects.

All this weakened excess vegetation can fuel big, dangerous wildfires. These fires don't just threaten lives and property; they transform the landscape into something that looks like the dark side of the moon. The trees are dead, the watersheds that feed our municipal water systems are degraded, the soil is cooked of its nutrients, and the wildlife is killed or left homeless. Contrast this picture with a forest that isn't overcrowded or diseased or bug-infested. Wildfire burns through these forests with less speed and less heat. It generally stays on the ground where it clears away excess fuel and revitalizes the soil. Most healthy trees survive this kind of low-intensity fire, and the ecosystem remains intact.

We've simply got too much fuel in too many of our forest stands. The problem took decades to develop, and it won't get fixed overnight. Old fire suppression policies contributed to the problem, particularly in forest types—like ponderosa pine—that historically had frequent fires. Early settlement and livestock grazing broke up the natural fuel, which also suppressed fire. European settlement also halted the common practice of American Indians to frequently burn the woods and prairies for a variety of objectives.

Think of this widespread fuel buildup as an environmental debt, like a toxic dump. While great strides have been made through National Fire Plan funding and programs in reducing hazardous fuels, much remains to be done. It will take decades of action to clean up.

Some people advocate just letting fires burn unless they are near communities and only doing fuel treatments around homes and communities. The problem is that in a lot of areas with big fuel buildups, fires are so big and hot that they can put the very existence of key components of the ecosystem in question.

In a drought, all those trees can fuel a catastrophic fire. Think of it as an environmental debt, like a toxic dump. It will take decades of action to clean up, provided we as a society are willing to focus on this issue and commit the needed resources.

At the same time, we’ve got tens of millions of acres of healthy fire-adapted forest. We’ve got to keep them healthy. That means getting fire back into the ecosystem now.
Quick Facts   Key Messages

Strategic Leader - Contact: Tim Sexton (208) 387-5223, State & Private Forestry

Invasive Species

[graphic] An image of a caterpillar crawling on a small plant.

"Public lands—especially federal lands—have become the last refuge for endangered species—the last place where they can find the habitat they need to survive. If invasives take over, these imperiled animals and plants will have nowhere else to go." Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth.

Thousands of non-native invasive plants, invertebrates, vertebrates, and disease-causing pathogens are infesting millions of acres of lands and waters across the nation. These invaders cause massive disruptions in ecosystem function, reducing biodiversity, and degrade ecosystem health in our nation’s forests, prairies, mountains, wetlands, rivers, and oceans. Invasive species affect the health of not only the nation’s forests and rangelands, but also the health and survival of wildlife, livestock, fish, and humans. The financial impact from invasive species infestations in the United States has been estimated at $138 billion per year in total economic damages and associated control costs.

A strategic Forest Service response to invasive specifies is embodied in the National Strategy and Implementation Plan for Invasive Species Management launched in October 2004. The strategy is an aggressive program that harnesses the capabilities of the Forest Service. The Forest Service provides cutting edge leadership in natural resource management and research and development. For more information on the Forest Service National Invasive Species program, please visit Invasive Species. more  »

Quick Facts   Key Messages

Strategic Leader - Contact: Jim Reaves (703) 605-5252 or Mary Ellen Dix (703) 605-5260, Research & Development.

Loss of Open Space

[graphic] An aerial image depicting urban sprawling taking over our natural lands.

"The loss of open space is an urgent and important problem, and the Forest Service clearly has a role in helping balance growth and development with open space conservation. We can work with others as a conservation partner to help conserve critical open space across the landscape"

Abigail R. Kimbell, Chief, U.S. Forest Service
March 2007

More than 34 million acres of open space were lost to development between 1982 and 2001, about 6,000 acres per day, 4 acres a minute. Of this loss, over 10 million acres are in forestland. Rapid development of forestland is expected to continue over the next couple of decades. The Forests on the Edge project estimates that 44 million acres of private forest lands could experience sizeable increases in housing density by 2030.

Development of open space affects the Forest Service’s ability to manage the National Forests and Grasslands, as well as our ability to help private landowners and communities manage their land for public and private benefits.

The Forest Service has developed an Open Space Conservation Strategy that provides a framework to focus existing and new Forest Service actions for conserving open space. To view the Strategy, find resources, and learn more about Forest Service efforts to conserve open space, go to: www.fs.fed.us/openspace


Quick Facts   Key Messages

Strategic Leader - Contact: Larry Payne (202) 205-1389 or Kathryn Conant (202) 401-4072, State & Private Forestry

Unmanaged Recreation

“We believe that off-highway vehicles are a legitimate use of the National Forest System. But it’s a use that should be managed carefully. That’s what our new rule for OHV use on national forest system lands is all about: providing access that can be used and enjoyed into the future. And if we want to sustain that use, then we’ve got to work together.” Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth.

[graphic] An aerial image depicting urban sprawling taking over our natural lands. Motorized vehicles are an appropriate use of National forests when use responsibly.  Riders camping trip, Dry Creek, Fishlake National trip, Dry Creek, Fishlake National Forest, Utah. Without careful and responsible use, motor vehicles can damage the land.  Damage to meadow from cross-country travel, Harbor Mountain Trail, Tongass Naitonal Forest, Alaska.

Providing for the long-term sustainability of National Forest System (NFS) lands and resources is essential to maintaining the quality of the recreation experience in the national forests for all users. The phenomenal increase in the use of the national forests for all recreational activities raises the need to manage most forms of recreation, including the use of off-highway vehicles (OHVs). Responsible motorized travel is an appropriate way to sightsee, access hunting and fishing opportunities, and otherwise enjoy recreation experiences on NFS lands. However, there has been a dramatic increase in OHV use coupled with impressive advances in motor vehicle technology over the last 30 years. This growth is prompting the Forest Service to take a closer look at its management of this use so that the agency can continue to provide opportunities desired by the public, while sustaining NFS lands and resources.

The Forest Service’s new travel management rule provides the framework for each national forest and grassland to designate those roads, trails, and areas open to motor vehicle use. Designated routes and areas will be identified on a motor vehicle use map. Motorized sports enthusiasts and organizations, conservationists, State agencies, and local governments are working with the Forest Service on solutions to address the increased us and impacts.

Quick Facts   Key Messages   Off-Highway Vehicle (OHV) Program

Strategic Leader - Contact: Art Jeffers (202) 205-0425 or Jerry Ingersoll (202) 205-0931, National Forest System

Last Update: 30 October 2006

US Forest Service
Last modified August 11, 2022

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