All-Lands Benefits Across the Urban-Rural Gradient

Tom Tidwell, Chief
National Association of State Foresters, Annual Meeting
Baltimore, MD
— September 19, 2011

It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for inviting me. As you know, the Forest Service has a long and close working relationship with the State Foresters. You have always been our special partner. That goes back to the Weeks Act of 1911 and the legislation that followed, such as the Clarke–McNary Act of 1924. In this Weeks Act centennial year of 2011, it’s only fitting to acknowledge our historical roots and to celebrate 100 years of working closely together.

Forestry Challenges

Today, the challenges we face are different than they were a century ago. You know them as well as I do, but I will briefly run through them.

  • Climate change has contributed to regional drought while worsening wildfire severity. From 2000 to 2008, at least 10 states had their largest wildfires on record. Meanwhile, development has been pushing more homes and communities into fire-prone forests. Almost 70,000 communities are now at risk from wildfires, and fewer than 10 percent have a community wildfire protection plan.
  • Climate change has also allowed bark beetles to multiply and spread. Since the late 1990s, at least 41 million acres of pine and other forest types have been affected. That’s an area about the size of Wisconsin, and ground zero is the Central Rockies, where entire landscapes are full of dead and dying trees. All this raises a critical question: Can America react quickly enough to restore its dead and dying forests and to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires?
  • Invasive species pose another growing threat to native plants and animals. Nonnative insects and diseases are attacking major forest trees across the nation—oak, ash, black walnut, eastern hemlock, western white pine—the list goes on. Can the United States muster the resources needed to protect threatened ecosystems and to restore systems that have been lost, such as American chestnut?
  • Urban sprawl and heedless development are threatening private forests with land use conversion and habitat fragmentation. A recent study found that China, India, and Africa have the highest rates of urban development, but that the greatest loss of rural land to cities is in North America. From 2000 to 2030, substantial increases in housing density are predicted on about 57 million acres of forest land—an area larger than Utah. Rare and sensitive species, already besieged by climate change and invasive species, could have nowhere left to go.
  • And that’s not all. Food and energy prices are rising around the world, and biofuels are becoming increasingly feasible as an energy source. Can the United States coordinate its forest, food, and energy policies to make use of woody biomass and keep productive forest land from being converted to agriculture?

As you know, conditions have been exceptionally hot and dry across our southern tier of states, with prolonged drought in many areas. Texas had the hottest summer of any state on record, hotter even than during the Dustbowl. The result has been extreme fire weather, with forests and rangelands parched and highly flammable, and we’ve had firefighter and other fatalities in Texas and other states. We mourn the sacrifice of our brave firefighters, and our hearts go out to the families of all those who have perished in wildfires this year—and to all those in Texas and elsewhere who have lost their homes in wildfires. We are deeply grateful for the skill and courage of our wildland firefighters in protecting the vast majority of lives and homes, and I would like to personally thank you and our other state cooperators for joining us in our long-term goal of safely and effectively managing the nation’s wildland fires.

This year’s fire season is part of a pattern. From the 1970s through the 1990s, barely 3.2 million acres burned on average each year. Then, in 2000, more than 7 million acres burned in a single fire season. In 2002, more than 7 million acres burned again. In 2004 and 2005, more than 8 million acres burned; in 2006 and 2007, it was more than 9 million. This year, more than 7.3 million acres have burned already, far more than the year-to-date 10-year average. Experts think that fire seasons in the future could return to levels not seen since the 1940s, reaching 12 to 15 million acres.

Landscape-Scale Conservation

So what do we do? I think we know. You outlined much of it two years ago in your seven-point plan for America’s Forests. We can respond by restoring the functions and processes characteristic of healthy, resilient ecosystems. Ecological restoration includes helping ecosystems adapt to the effects of a changing climate. At the Forest Service, our goal is to sustain and restore ecosystems that can deliver all the services that Americans want and need, even if they are not exactly the same systems as before. Climate change highlights the need for broad-scale approaches—for restoration on a landscape scale. 

The Forest Service is accordingly taking an all-lands approach. We are working with you and other partners across boundaries and ownerships to address ecosystem issues on a landscape scale. If people continue to work in traditional ways—cut off from each other as private foresters on this piece of land, public servants on that piece of land—America will never fully tap its resources of knowledge, energy, and ideas to help meet the forestry challenges of the future. But if people come together to collaborate across landownerships and landscapes, then they will be able to address shared issues and concerns and to pursue common goals more effectively.

Landscape-scale conservation also provides partnership opportunities to share resources, and that is especially important in these times of tight budgets. Our federal budgets are being hit hard, just like most of your state budgets. For the foreseeable future, we will need to further tighten our belts. We will need to focus our restoration activities on the highest priority landscapes, where our investments will have the greatest bang for the buck, providing the most ecosystem services over time. Your state forest action plans can help guide our investments by identifying the highest priority landscapes—and, again, I thank you for putting those together.

Urban-Rural Gradient

At the Forest Service, we recognize that our responsibilities go beyond the national forests. We have a role to play, directly or indirectly, and that includes the nation’s 100 million acres of urban forests. People tend to think of forests as away from where people live, but they are really a living continuum. They range from remote backcountry trails, to campgrounds in the front country, to a farmer’s “back forty,” to quiet neighborhood parks and shady backyards. Eighty percent of Americans now live in the metropolitan part of that continuum, so we need to expand our work in places like Baltimore, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

Our rural forests are critically important for the health and well-being of our nation. We all know that. Less well understood is all the benefits people get from the forests right where they live. Urban trees and greenery raise the quality of life. They add scenic beauty. They save energy by providing shade. They clean our air and water. They provide habitat for birds and other wildlife. Forest Service scientists and others are studying the effects of urban tree canopies right here in Baltimore and in other cities across the nation. They tell us that urban forests reduce stress, improve human health, lower crime rates, and improve property values.

In addition, urban forests provide great learning opportunities. Aldo Leopold once said that “the weeds in a city lot convey the same lessons as the redwoods.” You don’t need to go to a national forest or a state forest to learn how an ecosystem works—how sun, soil, water, plants, animals, and people interact. You can see it along your local creek or in your own backyard. You can have a healthy urban forest in places like these, and part of our job at the Forest Service is to work with people across the urban-rural gradient to make it happen. Our goal is a continuous network of healthy forested landscapes, from remote wilderness areas to the urban neighborhoods where most people live.

From Forest to Faucet

Just as forests are on a continuum, so are rivers. Rivers are like ribbons that bind together landscapes and watersheds. Our job as foresters extends across the urban-rural gradient, from upstream forest to downstream faucet. Traditionally, federal agencies have been stovepiped. The Forest Service, for example, would focus on upstream forests, while EPA would focus on downstream water quality. But forests and faucets are connected, so we need to overcome that stovepiping and work together on a landscape scale.

To that end, the White House launched the Urban Waters Federal Partnership in April of last year. The purpose is to work across landscapes, leveraging our mutual resources and authorities to revitalize urban waters and the communities that surround them. The partnership includes 11 federal entities, along with a wide range of state and local agencies and various NGOs. Last June, we announced seven pilot projects across the country, ranging from Los Angeles, to Denver, to New Orleans, to New York City.

We’ve got a pilot project right here in Baltimore, where USDA is taking the lead for the Patapsco watershed. We are focusing on watershed and brownfields restoration, connecting restoration projects to neighborhood and citywide sustainability goals. Our activities build upon work already underway by the Parks and People Foundation, the Wildlife Habitat Council, and Maryland’s State Forester, Steve Koehn. Through the National Science Foundation and the Forest Service’s own long-term ecological research program, we are providing a sound scientific basis for our stewardship activities. 

Lasting Benefits for Generations to Come

Today, conservation faces challenges as great as any in the hundred-six-year history of the Forest Service. But, thanks to the wisdom and foresight of conservationists a century ago, cooperative forestry has a firm foundation in the United States. Through partnerships and collaboration, we have always risen to challenges in the past, and we will continue to do so in the future. By joining together across jurisdictions, we will bring the resources and ingenuity of the American people to bear on the challenges ahead, for the benefit of generations to come.