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Tom Tidwell, Chief
Federation of Southern Cooperatives, 43rd Annual Meeting
Epes, AL
— August 20, 2010

I am honored to participate in your 43rd annual meeting.  I congratulate the Federation of Southern Cooperatives on its longstanding service to rural communities, to farmers and ranchers, to private forest landowners, to Tribes, and to state and nongovernmental entities across the South.  For more than four decades, you have empowered people by creating jobs and economic opportunities, by providing a platform for educational and technical assistance, and by reducing the loss of working farms, forests, and ranches.

For many years now, we have worked closely together.  The Forest Service mission is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations.  Our mission extends to all of the nation’s forests, both public and private.

That is especially important here in the South, where 88 percent of the forest land is in private ownership.  Our role on these lands is to provide technical and financial assistance to private forest landowners.  We work with the State Foresters to help private landowners manage their forests sustainably.  Our research and land management professionals work hand in hand to create new knowledge and to use leading science to solve the most vexing forest and conservation problems we face—and to open up new forestry opportunities.  

Forests at Risk

What challenges do we face in forestry? And what are the opportunities?

Forests are vital to the nation, partly for the wood they grow.  Americans consume more wood than anyone else—three times more per capita than the global average.  With just 8 percent of the world’s forest area, the United States is by far the world’s largest producer of wood; in 2005, we accounted for 36 percent of wood removals by the world’s top ten producers, almost twice as much as Brazil, the next largest producer.  The South alone accounts for more timber production than any other region in the country—or the world.

In addition to timber and fuelwood, forests provide dozens of other benefits.  Think of wildlife and fish habitat; think of livestock forage; think of erosion, flood, and climate control; think of outdoor recreation and aesthetic beauty.  One of the most important ecosystem services from forests is water.  Forests deliver most of America’s drinking water—53 percent of America’s water supplies.  Watershed health is key; watersheds capable of delivering plentiful supplies of pure, clean water can also deliver all the other benefits that people get from forests—wood, biodiversity, soil protection, carbon storage, outdoor recreation, and more.

But America’s forests today are at risk.  Population growth … loss of open space … invasive species … devastating wildfires … the spread of forest pests and disease—a host of factors are contributing to a grave and growing threat.  Each factor affects the others, and each, in turn, is affected by climate change.  As the climate changes, so do ecosystem stressors; and as natural systems change in response, so do the benefits they provide.  In an age of climate change, people can no longer take for granted all the services they get from forests and grasslands—clean air and water … habitat for fish and wildlife … timber and livestock forage … opportunities for outdoor recreation … and more.

Restoration through an All-Lands Approach

We can respond as a nation through ecological restoration.  By restoration, I mean maintaining and restoring the functions and processes characteristic of healthy forests.  This means working on a landscape scale across jurisdictions.  In the East, in the West, and here in the South, the critical issues are the same—forest health, invasive species, fire and fuels, water quantity and quality, and wildlife habitat connectivity.  Such issues neither begin nor end at boundary lines.  We are all in this together.  

That’s why the Forest Service is taking an all-lands approach.  We are working with partners across boundaries and ownerships to address the critical issues facing the nation’s ecosystems on a landscape scale.  The groundwork for landscape-scale conservation has already been laid.  The Forest Service has a range of cooperative forestry programs, some of them decades old.  Many are designed to help private forest landowners find the means and the wherewithal to keep their lands forested and sustainably managed, especially in an era of climate change.  

Our Forest Stewardship Program is a prime example.  More than 75 million acres of forest land are part of a farm or ranch, and we work through the states to help these private landowners develop comprehensive plans for managing their forests for a variety of products and services.  In the South alone, we have roughly 30,000 forest stewardship plans covering close to 5 million acres of private forest land.  These plans help landowners achieve their objectives.  They greatly increase the likelihood that private forests will remain intact and productive and that their benefits will pass to future generations.  

Foundations for Landscape-Scale Conservation

To further promote landscape-scale conservation, the Forest Service is working with the Natural Resources Conservation Service to tap all USDA resources and authorities, in collaboration with the State Foresters and other partners.  Our goal is to sustain the entire matrix of federal, state, tribal, county, municipal, and private forests.  One example is our collaboration on longleaf pine ecosystem restoration.  We are using authorities that include in the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, which extends to nonindustrial private forest landowners.  Another example is the Wyden Amendment, which authorizes watershed restoration and enhancement agreements with state, private, and other partners.   

Many of our partnership programs involve the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.  I am pleased to say that the Federation has a strong working relationship with our national director of Cooperative Forestry, Paul Ries, and with our staff in the Southern Region, led by John Dondero.  In particular, Cheryl Bailey in our Washington Office and Arthur Phalo in our regional office have worked closely with the Federation.  We are working together to develop carbon sequestration processes and agroforestry practices and to restore the longleaf pine ecosystem.  Our mutual goal is to benefit small private forest landowners—landowners with limited resources throughout the South.

The 2008 Farm Bill has engaged the State Foresters in reaching our goals.  The bill made the completion of statewide assessments and strategies for forest resources a condition for receiving federal funding.  These assessments have just been completed, and we are analyzing them to identify trends and common themes.

The Farm Bill also established the Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program.   This new program is available to local governments, Tribes, and nonprofit organizations.   It allows the Secretary to cover up to 50 percent of the cost of purchasing forests that are threatened by conversion to development.   

The Farm Bill comes up for renewal in 2012.  We expect the 2012 Farm Bill to emphasize assistance for adaptive management in response to climate change.  We expect it to stress linkages across both public and private forest landownerships—to focus on conserving the lands of greatest value to the American people.  The statewide assessments and strategies might be used for setting priorities and allocating funding.  

We also expect the 2012 Farm Bill to place more emphasis on forestry, specifically on financial assistance for stewardship and restoration projects on family-owned forest lands.  To that end, we expect more attention on biomass and renewable energy; more utilization of  incentive programs; more cooperation between federal and state agencies; and more emphasis on competitive funding for solutions coordinated across landscapes.

Leadership Challenge

Through landscape-scale conservation, we can marshal America’s resources to address the challenges facing America’s forests in an era of climate change.  None of us can succeed alone.  Success will come through collaborative conservation with all landowners on a landscape scale.

This is a great opportunity, but it will entail new approaches to conservation.  The challenge before us, in a nutshell, is this: to break old habits of thinking and acting and to work across boundaries to sustain, conserve, and protect the forests we all share.