The Challenge of Citizen Stewardship

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Annual Meeting, Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Related Sciences
Overland Park, KS
— April 2, 2011

It’s a pleasure to be here. As you know, I represent the Forest Service in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. We work closely with other agencies in USDA, especially with our sister agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service. NRCS is one of the hosts of this year’s meeting, and we appreciate the opportunity to participate. We look forward to hosting the 2013 meeting ourselves, and we hope to see at least some of you again there in Sacramento, California.

You are all involved in fields related to agriculture or natural resources, but some of you might not know much about the Forest Service, so I will start by telling you a little about us.

Forest Service Overview

When many people think of the Forest Service, they think of Smokey Bear or firefighting or the national forests and timber harvests. We are all of those things, but we are much more besides. Our mission is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands … for the benefit of present and future generations. In short, we’re about caring for the land and serving people, and our mission extends to all of the nation’s forests, public and private, and to many other lands as well.

About a third of the United States is forested. America has the fourth largest forest estate in the world, behind only Russia, Brazil, and Canada. The Forest Service manages about 20 percent of America’s forest lands in a system of national forests that stretches from Alaska to Puerto Rico, from boreal forest to tropical forest—to practically every forest type in America. The National Forest System covers more than 193 million acres, an area almost twice the size of California.

Not all of those 193 million acres are forested. We manage many different kinds of ecosystems, including dunes, prairies, tundra, deserts, wetlands, meadows, barrens, shrublands, and canyonlands. Almost every state has at least one national forest or grassland. Kansas has the Cimarron National Grassland in the southwestern corner of the state.

We manage more than 152,000 miles of trail and almost 18,000 campgrounds and other recreation sites. We manage one-third of the wilderness in the United States—in the Lower 48, it’s close to two-thirds. We manage municipal watersheds that supply cities with water … and also permit use for ski areas, guides, and outfitters. We manage critical wildlife habitat for both plants and animals. Public lands, and especially the national forests and grasslands, have become a last refuge for endangered species—some of the last places where they can find the habitat they need to survive.

But we do more than manage land. In the East, 83 percent of the forest land is in private ownership, and the federal government has no role in regulating private forest land. Individual states govern private forestry through state forestry laws, which vary widely. But the Forest Service gives technical and financial assistance to private forest landowners through the states. Every state has its own forestry agency, and we work with the State Foresters in all 50 states and in territories like Puerto Rico to help private landowners manage their lands sustainably—and to address issues like habitat continuity and conservation of open space.

The Forest Service also has the largest conservation research organization in the world. We have research stations, research labs, shared positions with many universities, 81 experimental forests nationwide, and decades of data on forest cover, water, wildlife, wilderness, rangelands, and other resources. We also work with other countries to share conservation knowledge—to help forest owners and managers around the world manage their forests sustainably.

Connecting our research with our other responsibilities has given us a strong conservation organization. Our research and land management professionals work hand-in-hand to create new knowledge and to use science to solve the most vexing conservation problems we face—and to open up new conservation opportunities. We have roughly 35,000 employees working all over the country, from remote wilderness areas on the Tongass National Forest in Alaska to great cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York, with their urban forests.

America’s Green Infrastructure

What conservation challenges do we face? They run the gamut, from catastrophic wildfires, to invasive species, to a rapidly growing population and all the associated pressures on forests and other wildlands. These pressures are of great concern, because Americans get so much from their forests.

Forests are part of our nation’s green infrastructure. Forests provide services that Americans want and need. Forests furnish provisioning services such as wild foods and genetic resources; regulating services such as erosion, flood, and climate control; and cultural services such as heritage values, outdoor recreation, and aesthetic enjoyment, just to name a few.

Take climate control, for example. America’s forests help to regulate local climates. America’s 100 million acres of urban forests help to cool our metropolitan areas while lowering energy costs. America’s forests are also a vast carbon reservoir, taking up about 12 percent of the carbon dioxide that Americans emit each year.

One of the most important services from forests is meeting the need for water. Forests deliver 53 percent of America’s water supplies, and they filter and purify the water they release. The National Forest System alone, with less than 9 percent of the nation’s total land area, accounts for 18 percent of our water supplies. Sustaining and restoring healthy, resilient watersheds is one of our most important jobs at the Forest Service.

Investing in our green infrastructure also makes good economic sense. The United States is by far the world’s largest producer of wood. In 2000, forest-related industries in the United States accounted for the equivalent of about 281,000 full-time jobs, and the value of U.S. wood removed was about $18.8 billion. But the greatest forest-related contribution to our economy comes from outdoor recreation. In 2009, the national forests and grasslands got about 173 million visits, contributing $14.5 billion to the U.S. economy. A study in 2006 found that the active outdoor industry on all lands nationwide contributes about $730 billion annually to the U.S. economy, supporting around 6.5 million jobs.

In short, Americans depend on their green infrastructure for a wide range of social, economic, and ecological benefits. People often take these benefits for granted, such as water delivery or climate regulation, but that makes them no less real. Forests are like the world’s lungs—a living bulwark against disease. We need to ensure that our forest ecosystems are whole, with all of their functions and processes intact. For that, we need to invest in our green infrastructure.

Conservation Challenges

In the 21st century, unprecedented challenges will demand new levels of investment. Not least is climate change. The Forest Service has been managing forests since 1905, for more than a century, and we are in the business of connecting forest science to climate science, with more than a hundred years of forest research to add to America’s 30-odd years of climate change research. We know how our forests are changing in response to warming global temperatures.

One of the effects of climate change is increased regional drought, especially in the West. In Arizona, a prolonged drought that peaked about 8 years ago weakened ponderosa pine and pinyon pine across millions of acres. That led to huge bark beetle outbreaks. Some of those forests will never recover. Shrubs and grasses are now taking over, including invasive species like cheatgrass.

Bark beetles naturally affect our forests, but now we are seeing a mountain pine beetle epidemic in the Rocky Mountains on the largest scale ever recorded. Historically, colder winters knocked the beetles back, but now they are reproducing more and reaching higher elevations and latitudes. They are sweeping across the region, affecting more than 21 million acres so far. That’s an area the size of Maine.

Other species are in decline, such as aspen in Colorado or yellow-cedar in Alaska. Across the West, at all elevations, climate change is weakening trees and making them more susceptible to disease and insect attack. Ironically, woody vegetation such as pinyon–juniper is also advancing in some places, encroaching on shrubland and grassland and destroying habitat for sage grouse and other species while soaking up scarce water.

A history of fire exclusion has been a contributing factor to forest health decline. Historically, fire helped keep many landscapes open and varied. In fire-adapted ponderosa pine, for example, trees typically grow in scattered clumps, with thick grasses in between. But many ponderosa pine forests have become overgrown, with thousands of trees per acre where there were once only a few dozen. In a drought, these overgrown stands can fuel huge fires.

Invasive species have affected many ecosystems across the United States. We have lost major forest trees and forest types, such as American elm or oak/chestnut forest in the East. Our Appalachian coves are losing a key forest component, eastern hemlock, crucial to the survival of native brook trout in Appalachian streams. Emerald ash borer is threatening all species of ash, a key component of many eastern and midwestern forests—and a key component of baseball bats.

Fragmentation is a growing concern. Our population is growing and our cities are expanding; during this century, our population is expected to grow from about 308 million today to more than 570 million. For the first time since the 1920s, America’s net forest estate could shrink; scientists have estimated a net forest loss of more than 30 million acres from 2002 to 2062, an area the size of Pennsylvania. One study has predicted substantial increases in housing density from 2000 to 2030 on 57 million acres of forest land, an area larger than Utah. Urban growth could block the migration corridors that species will need in response to climate change. Here in the Midwest, where prairie habitats are already badly fragmented, the birds and other species that depend on grasslands could have nowhere else to go.

These stresses feed on one another. Drought, fire and fuels, invasive species, outbreaks of insects and disease, forest fragmentation and habitat loss, and the overarching challenge of climate change—these challenges have tremendous consequences through multiple feedback loops.

Rising to the Challenge

Americans have come to understand the full importance of forests. That wasn’t always the case. In the 19th century, most people thought of our vast forest estate as inexhaustible. Forests were often cut down without a thought to the future, until conservationists finally put a stop to all the waste and abuse, partly by setting aside the National Forest System.

For the first 70 years of Forest Service history, we managed the national forests and grasslands to sustain a range of multiple uses for future generations, but our main focus was often on commercial resource extraction—whether of timber, forage, or minerals. In the last 20 to 30 years, our focus—and the focus of Americans in general, the people we serve—has broadened to include a full range of the goods and services, the benefits and values that people get from their forests and grasslands. Today, people understand that forests provide clean air and water, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, habitat for native fish and wildlife, erosion control and soil renewal, opportunities for outdoor recreation, and much more. Our job is to sustain the ability of America’s forests and grasslands, both public and private, to deliver a full range of ecosystem services for generations to come.

That ability is now at risk, and the Forest Service is responding by restoring the functions and processes characteristic of healthy, resilient ecosystems. Restoration includes helping ecosystems adapt to the effects of a changing climate. We are striving 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 conservation on a landscape scale. Landscape-scale conservation is an approach to managing land at the level of watersheds, ecoregions, or broad geographic areas.

The Forest Service is accordingly taking an all-lands approach. We are working with 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.

And that, frankly, is why we are here at this meeting. We will need your help in meeting the challenges ahead. No one of us can do it alone. We are facing some of the greatest challenges in the history of conservation; but if we work together, building on each other’s strengths, creating a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts, then I am confident that we will meet the challenges ahead.

Partnership with MANRRS

One of the greatest conservation philosophers in history was Aldo Leopold. He started his career with the Forest Service back in 1909, and he left us with a land ethic—the notion that human survival depends on treating each other with care and respect, as part of a larger community … and expanding that notion of community to include the lands and waters that sustain us all.

Aldo Leopold knew that government alone could never give us what he called a healthy, flourishing “man-land community.” A land ethic takes all of us, working together, especially people on their own tracts of land, on farmers and ranchers and other private landowners. But the trends are not favorable. Leopold put it this way: “Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of a land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of the land.”

What did he mean by that? At a time when 80 percent of our population lives in metropolitan areas, you can actually find children who don’t get the connection between a cow and milk … between a chicken and an egg … or between a tree and a home. Partly to counter that trend, Aldo Leopold himself bought a farm and worked to restore the land to health. He said, and I quote, “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.”

But not here. There is no danger of that here. You are the hope of the future. You “get” it; you know that the future depends on citizen stewardship—on our connection to the land. You are preparing for careers that will help feed, clothe, and shelter the world, and I can think of nothing more important than that. We are involved in that, too. The national forests and grasslands provide wild foods of all kinds—think of salmon, for example—but also water from streams, wood from forests, and meat and hides from our grazing allotments on public rangelands.

That’s why we are part of USDA and why we work so closely with NRCS and other farm-related and conservation-related agencies. We work closely with ranchers across the West and with farmers across the East. Farmers typically have woodlots, what Aldo Leopold called “the back forty”; in 2004, there were 10.3 million family forest landowners, 88 percent of them located in the East, and they owned 42 percent of the nation’s forest land. They are vital to the future of conservation, and many of our programs are specifically designed to help them keep their lands forested and sustainably managed.

That’s why our relationship with MANRRS is so important to the Forest Service. You are preparing for careers in agriculture and natural resources, and that makes you the future of conservation. For decades, we have sustained a strong partnership with MANRRS, and we are currently working on a new memorandum of understanding. Our leaders have spent their careers managing natural resources, and we are available to students by e-mail for counseling and advice on career development. We are part of the MANRRS e-mentoring program.


We also welcome you to use your national forests and grasslands. No matter where you live, there is probably a national forest or grassland within driving distance, and there are sure to be trails, campgrounds, ski areas, or other facilities you can use. You can come just to see the sights and enjoy yourself, or you can volunteer to staff visitor centers, maintain trails, or do other things.

The Forest Service is working to connect people to the land, partly through activities in our urban areas. In particular, we are focusing on kids—on getting urban kids outdoors to experience nature, up close and personal, and to learn about the environment. We want to help kids establish a lifelong connection with nature while developing outdoor skills and healthy lifestyles. Over the years, the Forest Service has conducted thousands of projects for kids across the nation; collectively, our projects reached around 4 million kids last year alone. You can help by volunteering or by mentoring a young person who has no connection to nature.

For older youth, we offer a series of economic and career opportunities through the Youth Conservation Corps and Job Corps. In partnership with the Department of Labor, we now operate all 28 Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers across 18 states, with a capacity of 6,200 students. Job Corps students are between 16 and 24. They come from low-income families, and they get an opportunity they otherwise might not have to earn a high school equivalency degree while getting training in over 30 different vocations, including conservation-related fields like forestry and firefighting. You can help by just knowing that opportunity is there—by pointing anyone interested in the right direction.

You can also help by joining us—by starting your career with the Forest Service. In the 1970s, when I started my career, the Forest Service was a very different place. There weren’t many women or people of color in our ranks, and the overwhelming majority of our employees were professional foresters—more generalist than today. That was in response to the issues, demands, and opportunities of the time, but it turned out to be shortsighted—an oversight we are correcting. As monolithic as we were in terms of gender, ethnicity, and professional background, we were missing out on the skills and abilities, the talents and contributions of the great majority of Americans. Diversity of thought is key to successful organizations, and it comes from hiring people from different backgrounds—rural and urban, male and female, various ethnic groups, professions and perspectives of all kinds. We were also bucking demographic trends: By the middle of this century, there will no longer be a majority group here in America. Whites will be a minority, and white men will be a small minority.

For at least 20 years, we have been evolving, with some success. Today, women make up about 38 percent of our workforce, and Americans of all kinds, from all different ethnic and professional backgrounds, can be found throughout our organization. Today, we have writers and graphic designers in our rank; we have lawyers and  law enforcement officers, biologists and social scientists, engineers and journalists, even film makers—and, yes, we still have many foresters. So no matter who you are or where you come from, you can find a place in the Forest Service.

All of you are more than welcome to join us! Our journey isn’t complete. There are still areas of underrepresentation both in our workforce and in the communities we serve. So we are deliberately transforming our culture to become an employer of choice for all Americans. We want to broaden the circle of conservation—to make a connection to underserved communities all across America, especially in our urban areas—to build a workforce that truly reflects the face of America. We are designing our programs accordingly, especially for Urban and Community Forestry; and we are tailoring our recruitment and retention policies to the needs of young Americans from every background.

Citizen Stewardship

In closing, the future belongs to you. The future of conservation, the evolution of a land ethic in America to meet the challenges ahead—that responsibility lies with you. I hope that you will consider a career in public service, maybe even in the Forest Service. We offer a wealth of opportunities for all Americans, should you choose to take advantage of them. We offer you the chance to make this your Forest Service.

No matter what you decide to do in life—whether as future Forest Service employees, as future partners, as future volunteers, as future voters, as future farmers, as future forest landowners, as future users of the national forests and grasslands—the responsibility for citizen stewardship lies with you. Ultimately, America’s forests and grasslands are yours. They are your birthright and your responsibility, the responsibility of every American to protect and conserve for future generations.

I am confident that you will rise to the challenge of citizen stewardship; and in that spirit, I wish you well.