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Tom Tidwell, Chief
Western States Land Commissioners Association, Winter 2010 Conference
Little Rock, AR
— January 13, 2010


It is a pleasure and an honor to address this gathering. The states are some of our most important partners at the Forest Service, and I am glad that our partnerships are so strong.

Our partnerships are based on mutual understanding and trust. We know and support the national mandate for state trust lands. Your mandate is older than ours—it goes back to the very beginnings of our nation. The resources you manage are in some ways greater than ours—they cover 447 million acres of surface lands, submerged lands, and subsurface mineral resources. Your mandate is different from ours—you manage state trust lands for the revenue needed to support education and other essential public services.

Yet your ability to fulfill your mandate depends on ours. State trust lands are often intermixed with federal lands, and that can raise challenges on both sides. The Forest Service is dedicated to working together with you, our partners, to meet those challenges in a way that allows you—and us—to fulfill our respective missions.

Growing Challenges

The challenges are mounting across the landscapes we share. On state as well as federal lands, we need healthy, resilient forest and grassland ecosystems to meet our obligations to the American people … in a nutshell, to sustain all the ecosystem services that healthy forests and grasslands provide, including clean air and water, wood fiber and forage, energy resources, habitat for wildlife, opportunities for outdoor recreation, and more.

One challenge is loss of open space. If you drive in any direction from any city, you will soon see signs of it: Farms, fields, and forests are giving way to development. The Forest Service has estimated that 57 million acres of forest land will see rising housing density between 2000 and 2030. Here in the South, the Southern Forest Resource Assessment foretold a loss of about 30 million acres of forest land by 2040, mainly due to urbanization.

Changing land use affects not only private land, but also state and federal land. Issues arise about access … about recreational pressure … about the spread of invasive species … about growing fire danger in the wildland/urban interface. In terms of fire and fuels alone, we are in a whole new era. In the last 10 years, fire severity has soared. Where fire seasons once rarely exceeded 4 million acres, they now often reach 8 to 9 million acres.

To some extent, we are victims of our own success. Where vegetation naturally might have burned, purposeful fire exclusion let it continue to accumulate, and the pulses of wet weather we had in the 20th century also stimulated a lot of new growth. Now we have entered a much drier period, partly due to climate change. Changes in temperature and precipitation, in the timing and magnitude of weather events, are altering ecosystems and fire regimes.

Milder winter temperatures are also letting bark beetles reproduce faster and spread upslope and northward. The draft National Report on Sustainable Forests shows a threefold increase in insect mortality over the last decade. As you know, whole pine landscapes are dead or dying from beetle attack and disease, from piñon pine, to lodgepole pine, to whitebark pine … from Arizona, to Colorado, to British Columbia. Alaska has billions of trees killed by insects and other effects of a warming climate.

All of these changes have enormous impacts on drinking water, greenhouse gas emissions, local economies, wildlife habitat, recreational opportunities, and places that so many Americans cherish. It is no exaggeration to say that land managers today face challenges as great as any in our nation’s history.

All-Lands Approach

What is to be done?

For one thing, let’s recognize the silver lining. 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 and should harness those opportunities.

But to do it, we need a common vision. I believe that Americans who love their public lands can coalesce around the common goal of ecological restoration. Restoration means restoring the ecological functions associated with healthy forest ecosystems—systems that remain resilient under drought conditions, despite assault by fire, insects, and disease—systems that remain capable of delivering the ecosystem services that Americans want and need, even in an era of climate change.

Restoration is predicated on partnerships. The effects of climate change cross borders and boundaries; no single one of us can succeed alone. Last year, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack offered a broad vision for an all-lands approach to sustaining and restoring the nation’s forests. That means using all USDA resources and authorities, in collaboration with NRCS, to sustain the entire matrix of federal, state, tribal, county, municipal, and private forests.

Examples of our collaborative authorities for landscape-scale conservation 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. There are many more.

The bottom line is this: We need to restore the resilience of America’s forests and grasslands 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 landscapes. Those are our priorities.

But none of this can happen on a piecemeal scale. It has to be on a scale that supersedes ownership. An all-lands approach brings landowners and stakeholders together across boundaries to decide on common goals for the landscapes they share. It brings them together to achieve long-term outcomes. Our collective responsibility is to work through landscape-scale conservation to meet public expectations for all the services people get from forests and grasslands.

Energy Strategy

Restoration requires a strategy for addressing climate change, and the Forest Service has formulated a Strategic Framework for Responding to Climate Change. Our strategy is predicated on working through alliances with state, private, tribal, and other partners on a landscape scale. How can we work together, based on sound science, to help ecosystems adapt to the effects of climate change? What steps can we take, working together, to mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and offsetting fossil fuel use?

The answer lies in adaptive management. We need the capacity, for example, to thin overgrown forest stands to help ecosystems adapt to a warmer, drier climate. Unfortunately, many regions have lost the industrial infrastructure needed to remove excess vegetation and to put it to use. Burning it might only add to greenhouse gas emissions and raise air quality concerns.

How can we rebuild the needed capacity? We have tremendous opportunities to utilize excess vegetation for renewable energy and other purposes. The federal government has recognized those opportunities through legislation designed to promote renewable energy and wean America away from dependence on foreign energy sources. The Forest Service has taken steps to implement that legislation through research, policies, grants, and partnerships to promote woody biomass utilization, secure energy transmission corridors, and expand the use of wind, solar, geothermal, and hydroelectric power.

Accordingly, the Forest Service is in the process of formulating a Strategic Energy Framework. Like our climate change strategy, our energy strategy is based on working through alliances with state and other partners on a landscape scale. How can we work together to better utilize renewable energy? How can our research capacity and our technology transfer capacity contribute? What steps can we take, working together, to ensure that renewable energy developed on state lands can find its way across federal lands to urban users?

Leadership Challenge

All this—restoration, addressing climate change, addressing the nation’s energy needs—all of it is predicated on alliances, on an all-lands approach to conservation. An all-lands approach could be a turning point in how our nation approaches public land management. It depends, in large part, on you. I want you to know that we stand ready to work together—to increase our efforts and to increase the results we can achieve together.

In closing, I ask for your help in understanding specifically what a collaborative all-lands approach might mean. I challenge you to consider three questions:

  • What will landscape-scale conservation take?
  • What will you need from the Forest Service to make landscape-scale conservation work?
  • What will you deliver on behalf of landscape-scale conservation?

In closing, we face enormous challenges in public land management, but we also have great opportunities. Secretary Vilsack has expressed specific support for an all-lands approach, but it will entail a new kind of leadership.

The challenge before us, in a nutshell, is this: to break old parochial habits of thinking and acting and to work instead across boundaries to sustain the landscapes we all share.

Thank you.