Conserving, Protecting, and Enhancing Forests on a Landscape Scale

National Association of State Foresters, Annual Meeting
Hyannis, MA
— September 29, 2008

Good morning. Some of you may recall that it’s been three years since I had the pleasure of speaking at your annual meeting in Madison, and I’m delighted to be back with you here in Hyannis.

Challenge to Foresters

It was at that meeting in Madison—a year after Chief Dale Bosworth offered the Chief’s challenge—that Don Smith gave a compelling speech. He said that as leaders in the field of conservation and responsible stewardship, the first priority of each State Forester and of NASF must be to retain or increase the integrity of our nation’s forest ecosystems.

He challenged all of us in the forestry profession to stand up for forests; to be more courageous in speaking out for forests in our communities, in our states, in our nation; and to address head on the multitude of threats to our forest infrastructure. This infrastructure provides citizens with so many values that we often seem to appreciate and to know are important only when they are gone—like clean water. For me, it went beyond the lament so many of us have echoed for years: “If only we could do a better job of educating people about the value of forests.” It was a call for more than education; it was a call for direct intervention. 

Trends in Recent Years

Since then, three years have passed. So what have those intervening years brought us?

  • New people have come on the scene: A new Forest Service Chief and a new Deputy Chief for State and Private Forestry; a new Director of NASF; a new President of the Society of American Foresters; and new State Foresters—I see lots of new face in this crowd, and a few notable losses, like Jimmy Hull and Dale Bosworth.
  • There has been a major downturn in the housing market, causing additional suppression of demand for forest products, which in turn is exacerbating the retreat in the industry from traditional forest products.
  • There has also been a major restructuring of the forest products industry and advocacy groups, from AFPA and the new NAFO, to the Canadian Softwood Lumber Settlement case and huge benefits for several organizations that support family forests, like AFF and the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities as well as new leadership and a new vision and approach.
  • There have been more large and costly wildfires.
  • There have been several state or regional climate bills proposing carbon caps and various provisions for forestry.
  • And a number of megatrends have emerged:
    • The price of oil has skyrocketed and a surge of interest has emerged in cellulosic biomass.
    • There has been a downturn in demand for forest products in North America. At the same time, Russia has announced a log export ban, affecting global timber markets.
    • Even as demand for ethanol has grown, a food crisis worldwide has cast a long shadow on ethanol from corn.
    • Insect infestations have generated a forest health crisis in British Columbia.
    • Climate change has emerged as the topic on every forestry agenda, from AFF to SAF, to every international forestry conference—how do we help forests adapt in times of a changing climate, and how do we capture the values of carbon for private landowners to help mitigate climate change?
    • And “going green” has gone mainstream.

Things That Have Not Changed

What hasn’t happened in the last three years?

The FLAME Act was introduced, but it did not pass. Fire funding for the Forest Service is not fixed, and it continues to take a larger bite out of an ever smaller pot of agency money.

What hasn’t changed is also what Don Smith talked about in his speech that day—all the threats to the nation’s forests that are still looming:

  • Fires are burning bigger than ever.
  • Insects and diseases and invasions are taking hold in places and at scales beyond our hopes and wishes.
  • Development pressures seem tempered only by the lack of disposable income at the moment, with parcelization and habitat fragmentation still the long-term trends.
  • Mills are still closing in many places, with demand for forest products sagging, partly due to the rise of global markets for wood.

Direct Interventions

But, getting back to Don’s challenge to foresters, what kinds of direct intervention have we seen in the last three years? My top ten are these:

  1. First, we have a new Farm Bill, thanks to many of you in this room. This one is friendlier to private forests than ever before, for many of the reasons you have already heard.
  2. Second, we have redesigned State and Private Forestry programs to encourage landscape-scale work in areas of high national significance, complementing the Farm Bill work on Statewide Forest Assessments. Not a perfect solution for everyone, but getting us close to being more competitive for dollars from Congress.
  3. Third, we’ve signed an MOU with NRCS, NACD, and NASF to really go to work together on forestry issues. This isn’t just good intentions to work together, it is specific and tangible. We are ready to move out, with better coordination than ever.
  4. Fourth, markets are emerging for ecosystem services, particularly in carbon, with the promise of new income streams for private forest landowners. Section 2709 of the new Farm Bill will promote added interest in developing these markets. It’s always been a case of “being careful what you ask for, because you might get it,” since markets for ecosystem services are so tremendously complicated. Still, investors are poised to invest in forestry, so long as the market is open to them—that is, that standards are clear and supported, transaction costs are reasonable, and risks overall manageable. The Farm Bill will help us get there through a carefully crafted set of standards.
  5. Fifth, international conflict and the need for energy security are causing more to turn to alternatives to traditional energy sources for the future. Combined with the price of oil and the crisis in food prices, investors are turning from corn-based ethanol to cellulosic ethanol, and wood-to-energy programs are expanding, plants are being constructed, and new technologies seem to be emerging at scales faster than anyone thought possible. Scaled-up cellulosic ethanol production is just around the corner. The Energy and Farm Bills will help by promoting tax incentives, grants, and new research for cellulosic biofuels.
  6. Sixth, the carbon market today is getting bigger than many every dreamed. We’re getting close to a cap on CO2 emissions, and even the voluntary market is huge and growing. Forests can play a role through mitigation, adding new revenue streams for forest landowners. States are leading the discussion about carbon markets, as are some cities, and it is critical for forests to be included. Some of you have been involved in discussions for the Western Climate Initiative, RGGI, and in California. The Midwest is developing a scheme as well. We’ve said time and again that it isn’t important for the Forest Service to be at the table, so long as “forestry” is at the table. Many of you have been there.
  7. Seventh, all over the country we are seeing collaborative efforts emerge to save forests. Often, these are through public/private partnerships involving the states working with NGOs, TIMOs and REITs, and others, sometimes with Forest Legacy funding, to conserve working forests for future generations.
  8. Eighth, bipartisan support is emerging for a solution to our fire funding dilemma. The mechanisms by which our nation supports wildland fire management are broken. At a time of rising fire season severity and firefighting costs, we are not putting enough money upfront into firefighting. Instead, we are retroactively taking the money from other programs, so desperately needed funds are not reaching key programs. This year, we saw bipartisan congressional action to fix the broken mechanisms, and we expect the momentum to continue to build.
  9. Ninth, through the Lacey Act and other interventions, we are moving to stop illegal harvesting of trees on a global scale. These illegal activities are not only degrading ecosystems in other countries, but also undermining markets for wood here at home.
  10. Tenth, forests across America are now “at the table.” Americans are realizing more and more how important forests are for their future. Agriculture and energy sectors are obvious ones where forests are present in key discussions, but just as critical are “infrastructure” concerns, like water filtration and flood control. So is national security, not just in terms of our energy supply, but our water supplies as well. As climate policy is being developed for the country, forests are also being considered. The list goes on, especially in urban areas, where trees play vital functions in flood control, energy conservation, crime prevention, and mental health. In all these areas, we have to find ourselves at the table in the discussions. And we need to continue to be there as important policy is being developed at many scales, from national to local.

Do not underestimate our collective accomplishments. We have done a lot. When you step back and think about it, we’ve responded in spades to the challenges we are facing. I have really found this to be a time to be most proud of our profession.