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Tom Tidwell, Chief
6th Annual Exporting Pellets Conference
Miami Beach, FL
— November 6, 2016

It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for inviting me to say a few words about forests in the United States.

America’s forests are a story of forest loss … and forest recovery. Now we again face the prospect of forest loss, mainly through land use conversion to developed uses.


Private Forest Landownership

Before European contact, what is now the United States had about a billion acres of forest land. In the first three centuries of our history as a country, settlers and timber producers cleared away more than a quarter of our forest, with no thought to the future.

In the early 1900s, conservationists and forestry professionals banded together to stop the loss. They reforested abandoned agricultural lands, especially in the East. Today, we have about 750 million acres of forest land, or about one-third of our total land area. America’s forests have turned from a net carbon source into a net carbon sink.

My agency, the U.S. Forest Service, was part of that first conservation movement. Today, the United States has the world’s fourth largest forest estate. About 44 percent of our forest land is in protected areas under federal, state, tribal, and local management.

But most forest land in the United States—56 percent—is privately owned. In our forest-rich eastern states, it is even more: 83 percent of the forest land in the East is in private hands. Overall, the United States has about 11 million private forest landowners, most of them family forest landowners who own less than 50 acres.

The federal government has no direct role in state, local, tribal, or private forest management. Every state has its own regulations for private forest management, although state forestry laws and regulations vary widely. Certain federal laws also apply, such as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. In addition, we have various local, state, and federal instruments for sustainable forest management on private land.

The U.S. Forest Service, works closely with state and private landowners to give financial and technical assistance for sustainable forest management. We also have joint research programs for developing and transferring science and technology to the broad forestry community. The diversity of our laws, regulations, and instruments for sustainable forest management reflects the democratic underpinnings of forest policy and management in the United States.

Some EU member states are currently considering mandatory certification as part of their bioenergy sustainability policy. Only about 20 percent of U.S. timberland is certified. This reflects the reality in the United States that about two-thirds of our forest land is in state, tribal, local, and private landownership. It reflects the limits of federal authority to regulate forest land, and it also reflects the economic and practical realities for many forest landowners in the United States.

Does this mean that our forest management practices are unsustainable? Absolutely not. We have maintained a stable forest land base since the early 20th century, along with a healthy forest products industry. The U.S. Forest Service has played a leading role in both accomplishments through our various programs for monitoring and protecting forest health across the vast majority of forest landownerships in the United States, including most state and private lands.

In fact, our state and private forest lands are some of the most productive in the world, especially in the southern United States. We call the South the “wood basket” of the nation. In 2011, the South alone accounted for 63 percent of the total timber volume harvested in the United States. In fact, the South alone meets a tremendous amount of the world’s total demand for forest products. The forests here in the South make up only 2 percent of the global forest cover, but they produce 12 percent of the world’s industrial roundwood and 19 percent of the world’s pulp and paper products—far more than any other single nation.

But I would hasten to add that generating forest products isn’t an end in itself. Our mission at the U.S. Forest Service is simple: sustaining the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests for the benefit of present and future generations. Our goal is not wood production or trade in wood products per se but rather to sustain America’s forests for all the benefits that people get from them.


Benefits from Forests

And those benefits are many, including forest products. Most forest products go toward consumption of obvious things like lumber for homes or paper products of all kinds, including packaging and cardboard boxes.

Or think about energy. Many communities in the United States now rely on wood products for part of their energy. A third of the children in Vermont now go to schools heated by wood.

Or think about something as esoteric as the cellulose gums that go into toothpaste. Most people don’t know it, but organic chemical compounds derived from wood find their way into a surprising number of products.

Then there are nonwood forest products of all kinds, such as mushrooms, salmon, and other foods … or wreaths and other decorative materials, particularly as we approach the holiday season. And there are all kinds of additional ecosystem services people get from forests.

One of the most important is water, the key to all life. Fifty-three percent of Americans get their drinking water from surface runoff that comes from the nation’s forests. Other ecosystem services include clean air … carbon storage … climate regulation … biodiversity and habitats for native fish and wildlife … opportunities for outdoor recreation … the list goes on. 


Outlook for U.S. Forests

And that brings me to some of the challenges we face. Despite all the benefits we get from our forests, they are now at grave and growing risk. Every ten years, the U.S. Forest Service releases a study of renewable natural resources on the nation’s forests and rangelands called the RPA Assessment. The last RPA Assessment was in 2010. Here are some of the key findings:

  • Urbanization and low-density development will continue to threaten the integrity of natural ecosystems.
  • Total forest inventory will peak between 2020 and 2040, and then decline through 2060, with the largest declines in hardwood inventories. Forest area losses will be greatest in the South.  
  • At the same time, urban forests will be increasingly important for delivering ecosystem services.
  • Climate change will alter natural ecosystems and affect their ability to provide goods and services. Many habitats and forest types will be stressed by a shifting climate regime.
  • The vulnerability of the water supplies will grow, especially in the arid West.
  • Finally, competition for goods and services from natural ecosystems will increase. Recreation opportunities will decline on a smaller land base, with more competition for them.


Keeping Forests as Forests

So we have our work cut out for us. The U.S. Forest Service is working on incentives for private forest landowners to keep their lands forested and sustainably managed to stop forest loss. On the national forests, we have millions of acres desperately in need of fuels and forest health treatments. We have tons of low-value biomass and small-diameter woody materials to remove. Our scientists are working at our Forest Products Laboratory to find new uses for those materials so we can recover some of the costs of fuels and forest health treatments.

One way is through wood-to-energy projects, and we are proud of our leadership in this area. In Alaska, for example, we helped schools replace fossil fuels brought in from the Lower 48 at great expense by using locally harvested wood. Over 40 hospitals across the country are now heating with wood, and we have worked with the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs to convert some of their facilities to wood energy. A strong market for biomass energy could bring wood demands that are large enough to trigger changes in forest conditions, management, and markets, including here in the South.

And let’s not forget—wood is the only large-scale building material we have that is wholly renewable. If we as a nation are truly serious about sustainability and mitigating climate change, then we need to limit building with materials that are carbon intensive and energy intensive, like cement and steel. Where we can, we need to start building instead with wood, capitalizing on tall-building technologies like cross-laminated timber. We are working hard with WoodWorks and other partners to finally give wood the respect and recognition it deserves.

Our Forest Products Lab is also pursuing other forest product technologies like biochar, nanotechnology, and torrefaction to better use wood in our communities. Through nanotechnology, for example, we might be able to start using wood in cars and other vehicles. Wood is lighter than steel, and by manipulating its nanoproperties we might be able to make it stronger than steel.


Overseas Markets

We are also looking for potential new overseas markets for our wood products. If we can generate foreign revenue streams for our forest landowners, we can generate more income and strengthen local economies. To help keep our forests as working forests, we need to expand our export capacity for forest products.

To that end, we welcome opportunities to work with the European Union, and we support the emerging EU bioenergy policy for the era beyond 2020. An EU bioenergy policy based on sound science can support the three pillars of sustainability on both sides of the Atlantic—social, economic, and ecological.

Socially, bioenergy is part of rural economic development in the United States through sustainable wood production. The main driver for growing wood pellets is the European Commission’s 2020 climate and energy plan. Bioenergy investments can create jobs, improve livelihoods, and increase economic opportunities in rural areas.

Economically, bioenergy production is both profitable and sustainable. In 2014, the United States exported 4.4 million short tons of wood pellets primarily for generating electricity in the European Union. Yet forest inventories in the Southeast are not decreasing and carbon storage capacity is not diminishing. To the contrary, research has shown an increase in forest area … little change in forest inventory … and annual gains in forest carbon. Without incentives from woody biomass markets, our small private forest landowners would have less reason to keep their forests as forests and to manage them sustainably.

Ecologically, biomass energy is creating new markets that help us achieve a variety of forest management goals, including restoration, forest health, and watershed improvements. The bottom line is this: Forest biomass is a renewable, sustainable, and environmentally beneficial source of energy.