Delivering Natural Resource Values: Four Threats to Our Mission

Dale Bosworth, Chief
Israel Visit
Volcani Center, Israel
— February 10, 2004

It’s a pleasure to be here in Israel. I don’t often get out of the United States, and I’m finding that opportunities like this are great learning experiences. I believe we can mutually benefit from sharing our experiences and comparing notes.

I’ve been the main beneficiary so far, because you’ve been showing me around. But now I guess it’s my turn to share some experiences with you. So I’d like to tell you about some of the challenges we face as land managers in the United States.

There are different perspectives on those challenges, depending on whom you ask. If you ask an environmentalist, you’ll get a different perspective than if you ask a logger. Even our federal land managers have different perspectives because our missions are so different.

My perspective is from my 38 years of experience in the Forest Service. I’d like to start by telling you a little about our agency’s history and purpose. Then I’ll go into the main challenges we face today. We call them the four threats: fire and fuels, invasive species, loss of open space, and unmanaged outdoor recreation. Finally, I’ll say a little about what we’re doing to address each threat.

History and Purpose

Next year, the Forest Service will be a hundred years old. A hundred years ago, most people thought that our nation’s forest resources would last forever, no matter how much we cut them and burned them. It took vision to foresee a time of timber shortages and degraded watersheds.

Fortunately, we had visionary leaders at the time, and we weren’t the only ones with vision. Awhile back, I participated in a celebration at the Israeli Embassy in Washington. It was the 100th anniversary of the Jewish National Fund, which also had the foresight to restore and manage forests and rangelands in Israel. Our organizations have common roots.

About a hundred years ago, our leaders set aside a system of forest reserves to protect watersheds and timber resources for future generations. Today, the Forest Service manages about 77 million hectares of national forest land, or about 8 to 9 percent of our nation’s land base. We also administer state and private forestry programs nationwide, and we have the world’s largest research organization for natural resource management.

Our mission is to protect the nation’s forests and grasslands for multiple uses—such as water, wildlife, and recreation—and for sustained yields of timber, forage, and other products. Although our mission has stayed the same, our management has changed enormously in the last 30 or 40 years. I’ll talk about some of those changes before discussing the four main threats we face today.

One thing that’s changed is what Americans want and expect from their national forests and grasslands. Fifty years ago, we thought we faced a timber famine. State and private timber stocks were exhausted following World War II, and there was a huge postwar demand for lumber to help fulfill the American dream of owning a single-family home. For decades, every U.S. Administration placed high demands on the Forest Service for national forest timber.

That began to change with the first Earth Day in 1970. We got some new environmental laws, and I think that did us a lot of good as a nation. It gave us some national sideboards and a shared sense of purpose.

Out of that purpose came a new approach to national forest management. It’s sometimes called ecosystem management. It has a number of basic features: watershed analysis, landscape-scale planning, collaboration across different ownership boundaries, and adaptive management. It capitalizes on new information technology. It emphasizes working closely with communities—making public involvement as meaningful as possible through collaborative decision making.

A new set of values also emerged. Today, people in the United States value the outdoors for a higher quality of life. People value places with clean water, scenery, wildlife, and opportunities for outdoor recreation. So our primary job at the Forest Service is to protect the water, the scenic beauty, the wildlife habitat, and everything else that people value for a high quality of life.

Four Threats

That brings me to the four threats. In the past, people focused on timber harvest and road building as the biggest problems on national forest land. In my view, those just aren’t the biggest threats we face. The biggest threats today are fire and fuels, invasive species, loss of open space, and unmanaged outdoor recreation. I’ll say a little about each, beginning with fire and fuels.

Since 2000, America has had some of our worst fire seasons in 50 years. Two years ago, we had record fires in four states, and a fifth came close. Last fall, we had a record fire season in southern California. Twenty-four people lost their lives and more than 3,700 homes were destroyed. More people died and more homes were lost in the debris flows that followed when rains fell on slopes where the fires last fall had burned away the vegetation.

Later this week, I will be part of a preliminary discussion at American Independence Park, where we are planning a lasting memorial to interagency wildland firefighters in the United States and Israel who have lost their lives in the line of duty. In the last 10 years alone, we have lost about 180 wildland firefighters in the United States. The relationship between the Forest Service and JNF began about 15 years ago, and it initially revolved around fire management and suppression.

The underlying issue is that so many of our fire-dependent ecosystems have become overgrown and unhealthy. In my view, the answer is to restore ecosystems before the big fires break out. Where fire-dependent forests are overgrown, we’ve got to do some thinning, then get fire back into the ecosystem when it’s safe. And in shrubby systems such as chaparral in southern California, we’ve got to use more prescribed fire to take some of the heat out of those systems.

A second major threat comes from nonnative invasive species, including invasive insects, diseases, plants, and birds. With the globalization of trade in commercial products such as wood and livestock, the United States has gotten a growing number of invasive species. For example, in five western states the number of new weeds generally fell by decade from the 1880s to the 1960s, but it has been rising ever since. Invasive plants now cover about 53 million hectares in the United States. That’s an area about a third larger than all of California, and it is expanding at a rate of about 700,000 hectares per year. At that rate, all of Israel would be swallowed up in about 3 years.

The costs are enormous. By one estimate, all invasives combined cost Americans about $138 billion per year in total economic damages and associated control costs. But the ecological costs are even worse. One study found that invasives have contributed to the decline of almost half of all imperiled species in the United States.

The problems are all across the board. One study of fish species across North America found that two out of three extinctions were at least partially caused by introduced species. Introduced diseases have also affected major forest trees such as western white pine, American elm, and American chestnut. We are losing our national heritage.

A third threat is loss of open space. Every day, the United States loses about 1,600 hectares of open space to development. That’s more than 1 hectare per minute, and the rate of conversion is getting faster all the time. In some places, we’re losing large, relatively undisturbed forests that endangered mammals like grizzly bear need to survive. In other places, we’re losing rangeland that many native plants and animals need to survive, including elk. And where private open space is lost, recreational pressures on public lands tend to grow.

That brings me to the fourth threat—unmanaged outdoor recreation. A good example is off-road vehicles, such as all-terrain vehicles. In the United States, the number of off-road vehicle users has just exploded. It grew from about 5 million in 1972 to almost 36 million in 2000.

Ninety-nine percent of the users are responsible. But with all those millions of users, even the one percent who are the problem can have enormous impacts. Each year, the national forests get hundreds of miles of unauthorized roads and trails created by repeated cross-country use. We’re seeing more erosion, water degradation, and habitat destruction. We’re seeing more conflicts between users. We have got to improve our management so we get responsible recreational use based on sound outdoor ethics.

Finding Solutions

These are the four main threats we face today—fire and fuels, invasive species, loss of open space, and unmanaged outdoor recreation. These are the main things that keep us from delivering the values that Americans want—clean water, wildlife habitat, and so forth.

We’re doing something about them. With respect to fire and fuels, the long-term solution is to restore healthy ecosystems, and we’ve made a start through a federal program called the National Fire Plan. The area we treat with thinning and prescribed burning together with other federal agencies has gone way up in recent years. In fiscal 2002, it was about 900,000 hectares—twice as much as 5 or 10 years ago.

But we need to do more. A big hindrance has been all the process we need to go through. It’s caused huge delays and eaten up our resources. Our forest supervisors often tell me that they spend 60 to 70 percent of their direct resources on planning and assessment, including a lot of needless paperwork.

We’re fixing that. Through the Healthy Forests Initiative and a new piece of legislation called the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, we’ve gotten some new legal and administrative tools for streamlining some of our processes. For example, where we need to move quickly against a threat from fire or insects, we’ve reduced the need for exhaustive environmental studies. That should also let us redirect some of our resources to the ground, where it counts.

With respect to invasive species, we find that prevention and control can work pretty well if they’re done across ownerships on a landscape scale. The Forest Service has some good partnership programs with the states, such as “Slow-the-Spread” for gypsy moth and weed-free hay certification for animals used to pack in recreationists and other people. We had good success working with the city of Chicago to stop the Asian longhorned beetle. We’re now preparing a national strategy for dealing with invasive species. It will probably focus on a few of the worst problems.

With respect to loss of open space, one solution is to keep ranches and working forests in operation. The Forest Service sponsors conservation easements through the states so that willing landowners can keep their lands forested, and we’ve just had a big increase in funding for that program. For example, we just signed an agreement to protect 132,000 hectares of working forest in Maine through a conservation easement. We also have forage reserves that ranchers can use to give their grazing allotments a rest, and we’ve gotten new funding for conservation easements on grasslands. Through programs like these, we can work together across the landscape to keep the land whole.

Finally, we’re making a big effort to improve our management of outdoor recreation. Over the next several years, all national forests will assess inventories of roads, trails, and areas used by ORVs. From those inventories, they will designate a system of routes offering the best opportunities for ORV use while still meeting our responsibility to protect the environment. The focus will be on improving our travel management. We also want to engage user groups and get more volunteers involved. We want ORV users to take responsibility for their national forests, to tread lightly on the land, and to pass on a “tread-lightly” ethic to others.

Partners and Friends

These are some of the problems we face and some of the approaches we’re taking for more sustainable natural environments in the United States. Before closing, I’d like to say a few words about our relationship with the Jewish National Fund.

The Forest Service and JNF have developed a collaborative relationship around our common responsibility to manage arid and semi-arid wildlands. I mentioned our common roots. Both of our organizations are celebrating a hundred years as responsible stewards of the land.

A hundred years ago, our conservation mandate was this: to provide the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time. We now talk about the same thing in terms of sustainability. Both of our organizations are focused on providing a sustainable future for our wildlands in the face of great pressure from this or that special interest.

That’s why it makes sense for us to work together. Our collaborative work with JNF over the last 15 years has led to progress in both of our countries toward sustainable forests and rangelands. Based on that success, we’ve decided to expand on our more traditional collaborative projects in wildland management. We are entering a new phase of collaboration. Specifically, we are working closely with the JNF leadership to explore ways of better understanding and adapting to changing public attitudes.

In the past, we tended to see sustainability primarily in terms of the quantitative measures of economic and ecological productivity. Today, we also see sustainability in terms of the value that society places on the lands we manage. The quantitative measures are still important, but both of our organizations are trying to do a better job of understanding how the public values its natural resources and evaluates the job we’re doing of sustainably managing those resources. As part of that here in Israel, the Forest Service has agreed to join an International Evaluation Committee that JNF is chartering to look at the professional management of Israel’s wildlands. I am sure we will learn from this experience.

Time for Change

In closing, I’ll sum up. In my 38 years at the Forest Service, I’ve seen some enormous changes. Our forests have changed, society’s needs and expectations have changed, and the tools at our disposal have changed.

The way we manage the land has also changed. We’ve learned that what we leave on the land is more important than what we take away. Today, we focus on delivering the full range of the values that Americans want for quality of life: clean air and water, habitat for wildlife, and all the rest.

What hasn’t changed enough is the debate. Too often, we’re still debating issues from 20 or 30 years ago—issues like timber harvesting and roads. But we’ve started to change the debate. I think we’re getting more people focused on the real threats we face today—fire and fuels, invasive species, loss of open space, and unmanaged outdoor recreation.

We’ve made a start in addressing the four threats. The challenge will be to continue the momentum. For the Forest Service, that means implementing the new legal and administrative tools we’ve gotten in the right way. If we do, I think we’ll see steady progress on the ground, at least for fire and fuels. But I think we can also make headway against the other threats.

Maybe we can make some headway together. I am interested in learning more about how our collaboration with the Jewish National Fund is solving these types of problems. I’d be interested in hearing more from you about these problems here in Israel. If we can learn something from you about how to tackle these problems, then maybe we can move forward more quickly in the United States.

I appreciate the opportunity to spend this time with you and would be happy to answer any questions you might have about our situation in the United States.