Four Threats to the Nation's Forests and Grasslands

Dale Bosworth, Chief
Idaho Environmental Forum
Boise, ID
— January 16, 2004

It’s a pleasure to be here today. There are a number of things I like about my job as Forest Service Chief, and one of them is the chance to get out of Washington, DC. I especially like getting out here to an area I know so well, where I spent so much of my career. I also enjoy the chance to speak with folks like you who are knowledgeable and passionate about the land.

Next year, the Forest Service will be a hundred years old. I’ve been with the outfit for more than a third of that time—actually, for more than half of that time, because my father was in the Forest Service and I grew up on ranger compounds. Someone recently reminded me that I’ve been Chief now for about a thousand days. What I’d like to do today is to reflect on where we’ve been in the last century, on what we’ve accomplished in the last thousand days, and on where we might be headed in the century to come.

Changing Management

I’ve seen enormous changes in the Forest Service over the past 50 years. Take fire, for instance. We’ve made tremendous progress in understanding how fire shapes ecosystems. The same goes for our understanding of watersheds. Today, watersheds are a benchmark for measuring ecosystem health. We’ve also made enormous technological advances—GIS, GPS, remote sensing, simulation models, Internet, and so forth. Science and technology are constantly improving our management.

Another 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 Administration, with strong bipartisan support, 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—the National Forest Management Act, Endangered Species Act, NEPA, and so forth. As a nation, I think that did us a lot of good. We need the national sideboards those laws give us. I think we also need the sense of national purpose that gave us those laws.

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 boundaries, and adaptive management. It capitalizes on new information technology. It emphasizes working closely with communities—making public involvement as meaningful as we can. We’ve got new bodies for collaborative decision making, such as watershed councils and resource advisory committees.

The idea is this: We sit down with stakeholders and all interested citizens, and together we envision a desired future condition for the land. We ask what values we all share. What forest products do we want? What outdoor experiences do we want to enjoy? What do we want the land to look like in 20 or 50 years? Then we formulate appropriate goals and work with partners all across the landscape to reach those shared goals.

Quality of Life

But what are those shared goals? Why do people value the national forests? It varies from place to place, but I think you can find part of the answer in recent demographic trends. In the 1990s, the five fastest growing states were all in the West. That represents a major demographic shift. As a proportion of our total population, the Northeast and Midwest are shrinking while the South and West are growing.

Why? In a word, values. People are moving to places they value for a better quality of life. People value places with clean water, mountains, and amenities, such as hunting or hiking on public land. The West is rich in these things, and people are moving to where the riches are.

As we see it, our job at the Forest Service is to promote quality of life. Our job is to protect the water, the scenic beauty, the wildlife habitat, and everything else that people value on the land—everything that makes for a high quality of life here in the West.

But Americans are faced with growing threats to their quality of life. I think Jack Troyer recently spoke to you about the four major threats—fire and fuels, invasive species, loss of open space, and unmanaged outdoor recreation. So I won’t go into a lot of detail, but I will briefly touch on each one.

Four Threats

One threat is from 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 different states, and a fifth came close. Last fall, we had a huge fire season in southern California. At least 20 people lost their lives, and more people died in the debris flows that followed when rains fell on slopes where fires had burned away the vegetation.

The underlying issue is that so many of our fire-dependent ecosystems have become overgrown and unhealthy. The answer is to reduce fuels 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.

Another threat is from the spread of invasive species. These are species that evolved in one place and wound up in another, where the ecological controls they evolved with are missing. They take advantage of their new surroundings to crowd out or kill off native species, destroying habitat for native wildlife. Where cheatgrass takes over, for example, the range loses forage value for deer and elk. We are losing our precious heritage—at a cost that is in the billions.

A third threat is loss of open space. Every day, America loses about 4,000 acres of open space to development. That’s about 3 acres per minute, and the rate of conversion is getting faster all the time. In some places, we’re losing large, relatively undisturbed forests that animals like marten, bear, and cougar need. In other places, we’re losing rangeland that many plants and animals need. 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. I’ll use an example to explain what I mean. Off-highway vehicles, or OHVs, are a great way to experience the outdoors. But the number of OHV users has just gotten huge. It grew from about 5 million in 1972 to almost 36 million in 2000.

Ninety-nine percent of the users are careful to protect the land. But with all those millions of users, even a tiny percentage of problem use becomes relatively huge. Each year, the national forests and grasslands get hundreds of miles of unauthorized roads and trails due to 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

Those are the four great threats we face today—fire and fuels, invasive species, loss of open space, and unmanaged outdoor recreation. These are the major threats today to our ability to deliver the values that Americans want—clean air and water, wildlife habitat, and so on.

What are we doing to address these threats? With respect to fire and fuels, we’ve made a start through the National Fire Plan. In fiscal year 2002, the federal agencies together treated about 2.26 million acres, including treatments for insect infestations where fire risks were also reduced. That’s a big increase over treatment levels 5 or 10 years ago.

We’ve also gotten more tools through the Healthy Forests Initiative and the recently passed Healthy Forests Restoration Act. It’s up to the Forest Service now to use these tools to make a difference. It won’t be easy and it won’t be quick. It took decades for our forest health problems to develop, and they won’t disappear overnight. But if we use our tools in the right way, we should see steady improvements on the ground.

We should also see some improved efficiencies. Our forest supervisors often tell me that they devote 60 to 70 percent of their direct work to planning and assessment, including a lot of needless paperwork. The new tools we’ve gotten will let us streamline some of those processes. That should let us redirect some of our resources to the ground, where it counts.

With respect to invasive species, prevention and control work best, but only if they are 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 pack stock. We had good success working with 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, like leafy spurge or saltcedar.

With respect to loss of open space, one solution is to keep ranches and working forests in operation. The Forest Service has some programs for that. We’ve got 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 through our Forest Legacy Program. For example, we just signed an agreement to protect 329,000 acres of working forestland in Maine through a conservation easement. We’ve also got forage reserves that ranchers can use to give their grazing allotments a rest, and the 2002 Farm Bill contains some funds for conservation easements on grasslands. Through programs like these, we can work together across the landscape to keep the land whole.

We’re also 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 OHVs. From those inventories, they will designate a system of routes offering the best opportunities for OHV 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 OHV users to take responsibility for their national forests, to tread lightly on the land, and to pass on a “tread-lightly” ethic to others.

Time for Change

So we are making progress. We’ve started focusing on the right issues—the four major threats—and, with the Healthy Forests Initiative and the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, we’ve gotten a whole lot of the tools we will need to make a difference on the ground. That’s what I think we’ve accomplished in the thousand days or so that I’ve been Chief.

In closing, let me recapitulate. The last century brought some enormous changes. Our forests changed, society’s needs and expectations changed, and the tools at our disposal changed. The way we manage the land also changed. We 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 and roads. It’s time to stop refighting the battles of the past. It’s time to get on with solving the problems of today—problems like fire and fuels, invasive species, loss of open space, and unmanaged outdoor recreation. We owe it to the next generation.