Loss of Open Space: We Need a National Dialogue

Dale Bosworth, Chief
National Association of State Foresters, Annual Meeting
Jackson, MS
— September 26, 2004

I’m pleased to be with you today. And I’m also relieved that it appears the hurricane season may be over.

Disaster Relief

Three hurricanes have hit the South in a matter of weeks this year—Charley, Frances, and Ivan. Most people don’t know it, but the Forest Service has been heavily involved in emergency planning and disaster relief. As of mid-September, we had eight incident management teams working in Florida and the other affected states to help assess the impacts of the three hurricanes and to get help to people in need.

The teams are doing a variety of work. They’re receiving and distributing mobile homes and essential supplies such as water and food, and they’re managing the base camps. We also have additional crews helping contractors and homeowners to put new roofs on storm-damaged houses.

We are also working on a proposal to assist forest landowners and urban communities affected by the recent hurricanes. If we can find the support, there could be emergency supplemental funds to assist with recovery efforts.

Besides disaster relief, I’d like to talk about several other things today:

  • As you are probably aware, for some time now we’ve been talking about four threats to the Nation’s natural resources—fire and fuels, invasive species, loss of open space, and unmanaged outdoor recreation. I’d like to give you an update on our accomplishments and to tell you about some of the new means we’ve gotten for addressing the four threats.
  • I’d also like to touch on some of the other challenges we face, particularly when it comes to State and Private Forestry.
  • Finally, I’d like to say a few words about what makes private forest lands so important and why we’re so concerned about their future. Then I’d like to spend some time discussing how to share that message.

Progress on Four Threats

I’ll start by outlining some of our accomplishments in dealing with the four threats, beginning with fire and fuels. As you may know, Joel, Tom Thompson, and I worked with all of the regional foresters this year to increase our acres treated for hazardous fuels. We all know the importance of reducing fuels on the national forests as one way to protect people and resources on other lands. I’m proud to say that the Regions have already achieved 105 percent of their target of 2.2 million acres for fiscal 2004. I’m also proud to say that 65 percent of the acres we treated are in the WUI.

We’ve also made real progress this year on invasive species. In the spring, a team of folks from across the country produced an Invasive Species Strategy for the agency, and we have been working with other federal agencies and our state partners to implement actions on the ground. Under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act, we also developed an Early Warning System for Forest Health Threats in the United States. We’re building this concept from a pilot study using traps for beetles in ports where shipments arrive from overseas, to a comprehensive monitoring, detection, and rapid-response network, with NASF as one of our most important partners.

The system was activated this spring, when we learned that thousands of nursery plants infected with the Sudden Oak Death pathogen had been shipped all over the country. Within weeks, we began a 37-state effort to look for Sudden Oak Death around every nursery that received infected plants, as well as in the general forest environment. We are committed to tracking down the plants that were sold and planted in people’s backyards. We are working with 20 states this month to train Master Gardeners and Extension Service personnel in how to recognize the symptoms. We’ve provided funding for diagnostic work, but the regulatory authority for action on what we find lies with the States. We hope that you are well acquainted with these efforts, because your expertise might be needed if the pathogen isn’t found before it has established a foothold in forest environments.

We’ve also made progress this year on managing off-highway vehicle use. We released a proposed rule in July that will result in a nationally consistent approach to travel management. The idea is to balance the public’s enjoyment of OHVs with the best possible care of the land. The rule requires that each forest and grassland designate a system of roads, trails, and areas slated for motor vehicle use by vehicle type and, if appropriate, by time of the year. The rule also calls for the Forest Service to stay engaged with state agencies, local governments, tribal governments, and user groups to identify additional routes. The comment period closed on September 13, and we are currently analyzing the comments before drafting the final rule.

The fourth threat is loss of open space, and I’ll come back to that later, when I talk about the value of private forest land.

New Tools and Authorities

I think our efforts to focus the discussion on how the four threats affect the health of our forested ecosystems is having a positive effect in a larger context, too. The Administration and Congress have been listening. And they have given us a variety of new ways in the past year to address the four threats and sustain America’s forests.

One way was to adequately fund fire suppression. The Administration and Congress worked together to provide an additional $400 million for fire suppression—if we needed it—through the Defense Appropriations Act for 2004. This meant that we have not had to transfer funds from any of our programs to pay for suppression. We’ve requested about $100 million of that $400 million from the Office of Management and Budget, but we haven’t had to touch other programs at all.

Language identical to what the appropriators put in the Defense Supplemental is also in the Senate version of the Interior Appropriations bill for 2005. We’ll have to wait and see if there is any conference action on it. This or a similar proposal may be the long-term fix that we need to deal with funding for unpredictable fire emergencies.

The Healthy Forests Restoration Act has also given us new ways of dealing with the four threats. We can use provisions in the Act to streamline environmental analysis for fuels reduction projects and to promote community fire planning for hazardous fuels reduction. We also have new authorities for biomass research and grants, watershed forestry assistance for states and tribes, a forest reserve program, and a program for dealing with invasive species and insect infestations.

We also received $15 million in funding for the Forest Land Enhancement Program to help private forest landowners. That was thanks to the work you did with the House Agriculture Committee, OMB, and the Department as well as to work Joel did with the Under Secretary, OMB, and Capitol Hill. I know how you feel about the amount, but I believe it’s a step in the right direction. It certainly looks better than zero.

It also really helps that we’ve decided to appoint a second Associate Deputy Chief of State and Private Forestry. That’s in recognition of the fact that our State and Private Forestry work has grown increasingly complex and demanding The position was posted on September 17, and the announcement closes on October 15.

Other Threats

When we talk about the four threats, we never mean to imply that these are the only threats we face—or even the most important ones, in some areas. We face other challenges as well, and I’d like to just mention a few.

One is the current budget climate. I don’t have to tell you about tough budget times and making tough choices with fewer dollars. Funding for some of our State and Private Forestry programs—other than fire management—has been barely holding steady, and some programs, as you know, were zeroed out in 2005. The outlook for the 2006 budget is tougher than ever. I think the competition between programs for funds in the President’s budget will be fierce.

The budget climate has put at risk several of our cooperative forestry programs for private forest landowners and communities. FLEP, urban and community programs, and the Economic Action Program are all threatened with reductions in these tough budget times. On top of that, there are three programs that have received no funding at all since their creation in 2002 and 2003: Community and Private Land Fire Assistance, Watershed Forestry Assistance, and Tribal Watershed Forestry Assistance.

Another problem has been our failure to tell our story in a convincing way. We’ve been pretty successful at convincing folks of the merits of our Forest Legacy Program, and we’ve been persuasive about the connection between fuels and forest health. Those are important successes. But we haven’t been as successful in telling the rest of the story. I think if people understood all the good that can come from just a few well-placed, relatively small federal investments in state and private forestry, then we might be in a different situation entirely.

Value of Private Forests

Now I’ll come back to the value of private forests and the threat they face from loss of open space.

I am proud of the Forest Service’s unique role in managing the national forests and grasslands. But I am just as proud of our larger responsibility, together with the State Foresters, for sustaining “the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests to meet the needs of present and future generations.” I’m proud that we share a special responsibility for 500 million acres of nonfederal forests and nearly 70 million acres of urban forests.

These forests play a huge role in the health and well-being of our nation. They protect the quality of our water and air, provide habitat for wildlife, give us places of beauty for recreation and renewal, and furnish the bulk of our domestic forest products. They are owned and managed by states, tribes, and millions of individual landowners across the country.

As you know, our nation has been successful overall at sustaining our forest estate since the early 1900s. Yet we are seeing a serious loss of open space in some parts of the country, including the loss of working forests:

  • If you look at NRCS statistics on land use change from 1982 to 2002, we are seeing a net loss of more than 4,000 acres of open space every day. That’s more than 3 acres per minute.
  • A lot of that is farmland, rangeland, and pastureland, but a lot of it is also forest land. Since 1953, we’ve had a net loss of almost 10 million acres of forest land. And by 2050, we expect the loss to more than double to 23 million acres. The rate of loss is growing.

The main reason is conversion to urban use. In the last 20 years, the area of developed land has grown by roughly 50 percent. These changes are essentially irreversible. The outlook is for a continuing erosion of the forest land base and the loss of working forests.

Let’s just look at the impact in the South. Today, we think of the South as the “wood basket” of the nation, but the Southern Forest Resource Assessment identified urbanization as a major and growing force. Forecast models predict that about 12 million acres of southern forests will be urbanized between 1992 and 2020, with an additional 19 million acres of forests developed between 2020 and 2040. As population rises in the South, the rate of development is increasing. How much longer can we continue to get so much of our wood from the South?

In the South and elsewhere, private forest landowners face rising pressures to sell to developers. Don’t get me wrong. We absolutely recognize the right of property owners to use, sell, and develop their land as they see fit. We also recognize the need and desire of Americans for housing, including second homes and retirement homes. But I think it is also a high priority for most Americans to keep the land intact for future generations.

Yet it’s getting tougher to keep forest lands intact. We estimate that the 500 million acres of nonfederal forest are in roughly 10 million private forest ownerships nationwide, more than half of which are 10 acres or less. As parcel sizes decline, so do forest management options for maintaining productive and healthy forests, such as prescribed burning. As the number of forest landowners increases, the need for education in sustainable forestry rises, as does the need for cooperative forestry programs. Ironically, the funding is declining for some of the very programs we need the most.

Another reason why it’s so important to keep healthy working forests is water. Private forests play a big role in providing and protecting water. Forests in the lower 48 states contribute about 52 percent of the water in our streams and rivers. And about half of that amount comes from private forests. In other words, nearly 25 percent of surface water flow in the country comes from private forests, or about 123 trillion gallons per year.

Water-related services are so critical from private forests partly because they tend to be located near population centers. That’s especially true in the heavily populated East, where there’s four times as much private forest as public forest. The location near population centers makes private forests not only more important for providing water-related services, but also more threatened by development.

What To Do?

Telling State Foresters about the value of private forests is always a little like preaching to the choir. But I’m concerned that, for all of our dedication and effort, our story just isn’t being told well enough. We’ve got to do more to tell this story in a convincing way. Only by doing that can we develop a broad enough base of support that, instead of competing with other interests in these tough budget times, we are instead emphasizing how all of our interests work together.

Maybe we need to think bigger and broader. Maybe we need to engage people who are worrying not just about forests, but also about water, about wildlife, about loss of farmland and rangeland. Maybe we need to create a larger view of the work that we do on state, private, and tribal lands and the whole range of benefits that we get from working farms, forests, and ranches.

I believe there’s a much larger community of interest when it comes to loss of open space, but how do we mobilize and energize that community? How do we get people to come together to work on sustaining and managing forested lands? How can we articulate, in a broader way, the contributions made by state, private, and tribal forests to environmental quality for all Americans?

This issue isn’t entirely new. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was widespread concern about the loss of farmland to development. In 1981, a group came together to sponsor the National Agriculture Lands Study documenting rates of farmland loss. That led to all kinds of local, state, and federal farmland preservation programs.

Maybe a similar effort is needed in a forestry context. Maybe a similar group could come together to focus on private forest lands. I can see several potential benefits:

  • It might raise public understanding and concern about the loss of open space.
  • It might help us better define local, state, and federal policies for forest land protection.
  • It might illuminate the value of forest goods and services and possibly the need for conservation incentives to credit or even pay landowners for providing environmental services like watershed protection or carbon sequestration.
  • It might help us find ways to overcome some of the obstacles facing private forest land owners today.

Dialogue Needed

That’s just a thought; I don’t have the answer. But I do know that loss of open space, including the loss of working forests on private land, is a big problem for our nation now, and it will only grow in the future unless we do something now. As a society, we haven’t even begun to think through all of the ramifications or what to do about the problem.

I hope you agree. As I’ve said to this group before, we are all in this together. I thank you for the efforts you have made this year to protect and promote our shared programs, including fire protection. Your help has been instrumental in regaining funding for the FLEP and continuing the dialogue on the importance of the Economic Action Programs. I know many of you have worked tirelessly with our staff to develop guidelines for the Community and Private Land Fire Assistance program, the Watershed Forestry Assistance Program, and the Tribal Watershed Forestry Assistance Program in order to be ready to go when these programs are finally funded. I also know that you’ve worked your way through the tough issues of the urban forestry allocation process.

Thanks, too, for your work with the Western Governors Association, the National Association of Counties, and the Society of American Foresters in helping us get a user-friendly guide for communities to use in developing the Community Wildfire Protection Plans.

But I think we must do more. We’ve got to address the threat to open space, particularly the loss of working forests. These lands are critical to the health and well-being of our nation, and unless we protect them and keep them sustainably managed, I would argue that none of us are fulfilling our mission.

As I said, I don’t have the answers. I want to hear from you on this issue. We want to hear your thoughts, your concerns, your ideas. I don’t necessarily expect much of a dialogue on this right now—there might not be time—but I’ll be here until noon Tuesday, and I’ll be visiting the regional forums tomorrow evening with Joel so we can continue our discussion.