Landscape-Scale Conservation Across Borders and Boundaries

Tom Tidwell, Chief
World Forestry Congress 2009
Buenos Aires, Argentina
— October 19, 2009

It is a pleasure and an honor to be here. Gathered here today are many of the world’s foremost champions of forests and forestry, and I feel humbled and privileged to be here among you.

Focus on Ecosystem Services

Since the last World Forestry Congress six years ago, our focus in the United States has shifted. Our overarching goal is still sustainable forest management, guided by the aims and principles of the Brundtland Commission during the 1980s, by the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, and by the Millennium Development goals. Our understanding of sustainable forest management has grown through our partnership with 11 other countries in the Montreal Process to develop criteria and indicators for sustainability in boreal and temperate forests.

But our perspective has broadened. Based on the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, we now understand the value of forests worldwide in terms of ecosystem services—of all the benefits that people get from their forests. Forests are responsible for the conversion of sunlight into life-giving energy. Forests build soils and protect them from erosion. Forests provide pollination services … nutrient services … genetic resources … climate regulation … air and water purification … flood protection … and more. Forests shelter fish and wildlife and generate rural wealth through recreation and tourism, through the creation of green jobs, and through the production of wood products and energy. Forests are part of our cultural heritage. They are a global treasure, to be protected and preserved for generations to come.

Forests cover about a third of our land area in the United States, yet they supply more than half of our runoff for drinking water. Twelve percent of the carbon dioxide that our citizens emit each year is taken up by our forests. Through markets for ecosystem services such as water purification and carbon sequestration, our nation is finding new ways of rewarding private forest landowners for sustainable forest management.

Forests in Trouble

But many forests today are in trouble. Farms, fields, and forests across the United States are giving way to development. Nationwide, we lose thousands of hectares of open space every day. My organization, the U.S. Forest Service, is releasing a new report this fall called “Private Forests, Public Benefits.” In it, we estimate that 23 million hectares of forest land will see rising housing density between 2000 and 2030, meaning more homes in the woods and less habitat connectivity for wildlife.

Loss of open space is only one cause for concern. In recent years, our national attention has increasingly turned to the effects of climate change. For more than a century, we have been grappling with invasive species, with the spread of nonnative vegetation, with the spread of nonnative forest pests and diseases. For more than a decade, we have been struggling with forest stressors that seem to be spiraling out of control … severe drought … insect epidemics … worsening fire seasons and devastating wildfires.

Now we know that climate change is exacerbating all these threats to the health of our forests. As climates change, conditions are created for the spread of invasive species. Due to climate change, drought conditions, fuel conditions, and insect infestations are all getting worse. It is what scientists call a positive feedback loop: Deteriorating forests release more greenhouse gas emissions, worsening climate change and further degrading our forests. Ultimately, our citizens will lose many of the ecosystem services that they want and need.

Ecological Restoration

In the United States, people are doing something to stop the degradation of our forests. Increasingly, they are coming together around a common goal: ecological restoration. By restoration, we mean restoring the ecological functions associated with healthy forests—forests that are capable of delivering a full range of ecosystem services … pure, clean water … habitat for wildlife and fish … opportunities for outdoor recreation … working landscapes capable of supporting healthy, flourishing rural economies and communities.

Ecological restoration is part of our national plan for economic recovery. The Forest Service and other federal agencies are spending billions of dollars to stimulate the economy, partly by creating green jobs … by removing excess fuels and restoring healthy, functioning forests.

Reforestation is an important part of restoration. Failure to reforest can lead to erosion and changes in soil properties. It can reduce critical wildlife habitat, imperil fisheries and watersheds, and threaten municipal water supplies. It can result in the long-term loss of a landscape’s aesthetic beauty and recreational opportunities. Reforestation is crucial for mitigating climate change. Reforestation is the means by which we ensure that future generations will enjoy all the services people get from healthy, adaptable forest ecosystems.

In our restoration focus, climate change also plays a prominent role. Our goal is to understand climate change and its effects on forests down to the local level. We need to factor such knowledge into the decisions we make to help forests adapt to new stressors so that we do not lose species. Our restoration goal is to take the actions needed so that people will continue to get the same amount of value from forests tomorrow as they get today.

In northern Minnesota, for example, the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest has launched a program tied to the Forest Service’s Strategic Framework for Responding to Climate Change. Forest managers are assessing ecosystem vulnerabilities under a range of climate scenarios. They are also assessing the potential for sequestering carbon to mitigate climate change. Researchers are evaluating the corresponding science needs and applications. In addition, forest managers are bringing local partners and other stakeholders together through a Shared Landscapes Initiative to foster dialogue about climate change effects and the potential for collaborative responses.

All-Lands Approach

And that brings me to my final point: Restoration calls for an all-lands approach. Unlike many countries, forests in the United States are owned and managed by millions of different people and entities, both public and private. The Forest Service manages 20 percent of our forests. But the vast majority, 57 percent, are in private landownership. And another 23 percent are in state, tribal, county, municipal, and other federal ownerships.

Our forest ecosystems typically form mosaics—mosaics of plant and animal communities and mosaics of landownerships. Issues like forest health, water, fire, and wildlife habitat connectivity do not stop at ownership boundaries. Therefore, restoration cannot happen on a piecemeal scale. It has to be on a scale that supersedes ownership. This means working with private forest landowners, large and small … with industrial forest landowners … with tribal communities … with the State Foresters. It also means working across our national borders with other countries.

Landscape-scale conservation brings landowners and stakeholders together to decide on common goals for the landscapes they all share. It brings them together to achieve long-term outcomes. Our collective responsibility is to work through landscape-scale conservation to restore our nation’s forests—to meet public expectations for all the services people get from forested landscapes.

Promoting Partnership

Our landownership patterns in the United States are fairly unusual by global standards, but sustaining and restoring the world’s forests still requires the same kind of leadership, the same kind of partnership across borders and boundaries. None of us can do it alone. I promise you this: The United States will remain firmly committed to its role as an international partner on our global journey toward sustainability. We will remain firmly engaged on pressing and emerging issues that are of interest to us all.

We look forward to our continued participation in the Montreal Process; to bilateral work, especially with our neighbors, Canada and Mexico; and to collaborative research, technical exchange, and assistance projects through the U.S. Department of State with a range of private, governmental, and nongovernmental partners. We will continue to support the work of such international bodies as the United Nations Forum on Forests, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the International Tropical Timber Organization. We have much to learn and much to gain from working closely together on a global basis. The United States remains deeply committed to working with our all of our partners to promote a sustainable future for us all.