Meeting the Forestry Challenges of the Future

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Forestry Policy Conference
Rhinelander, WI
— October 17, 2011

Good afternoon. It’s a pleasure to be here. Thank you for inviting me. The sessions earlier today touched on many of the issues and concerns the Forest Service is dealing with here in the Upper Midwest. I’d like to add a national perspective to the conversation, and then maybe we can talk about some of these things in more detail later on.

Striking the Right Balance

As you probably know, the Forest Service was established more than a century ago, at a time of rampant deforestation in the United States. In the 19th century, forests were cut down with no thought to the future, including right here in Wisconsin. Here’s a quote from the time: “A glance from a car window in Michigan, Wisconsin, or Minnesota shows the absolutely ruined lands which but a short time ago produced magnificent stands of white pine.” That was from Gifford Pinchot, the first Forest Service Chief. Conservationists finally put a stop to the waste and abuse, partly by establishing the national forests. With strong support from conservationists, Congress passed the Weeks Act of 1911, authorizing the acquisition of national forest lands in the East for watershed protection. Many degraded lands in this region were added to the National Forest System.

Today, after a century of growth and recovery, the national forests are a unique resource for the Lake States. Your national forests have some of the largest continuous blocks of closed forest canopies in the region, with critical habitat for a range of native fish and wildlife. These lands offer all kinds of opportunities for dispersed outdoor recreation—for hunting, fishing, camping, canoeing, kayaking, birdwatching—the list goes on.

In that connection, let me stress the importance of early-successional habitat. Historically, fire and other disturbances maintained mixed landscapes across the country, with habitat for a rich variety of wildlife—and great hunting opportunities for game like deer and grouse. The Park Falls area comes to mind, known as the Ruffed Grouse Capital of the World. We need active management to maintain a mix of habitats for the widest possible range of wildlife.

Hunters, anglers, and others also need access to these lands, and we are firmly committed to that. We want more hunting and fishing—we want people to get out in the woods and enjoy their national forests. It’s good for kids, it’s good for adults, it’s good for learning about the land, it’s good for conservation—and it’s our birthright as Americans.

With that said, it’s not good for conservation to let old unneeded logging roads waste away and despoil our watersheds through erosion. We have a lot of old legacy roads, and if we can protect and improve habitat for fish and wildlife by closing some—by restoring continuous habitat—then I think we ought to consider doing that. Ultimately, it will pay off for hunters and anglers, too. After all, healthy continuous forest habitats yield trophy fish and game!

So we need to strike a balance. The Forest Service has always managed the national forests and grasslands to sustain a wide range of uses for present and future generations. For the first 70 years of our history, our main focus was on commercial resource extraction—mainly timber, forage, and minerals. But in the last 20 to 30 years, our focus has broadened to include a full range of the benefits and values that people get from forests and grasslands—clean air and water, carbon sequestration, habitat for native fish and wildlife, erosion control and soil renewal, and more. Our job is to sustain the ability of America’s forests and grasslands, both public and private, to deliver a full range of ecosystem services for generations to come.

That broader perspective is due, in part, to the insights made by one of Wisconsin’s great conservationists—Aldo Leopold. In Leopold’s view, conservation was not about this or that resource—about timber alone or game alone or water alone. It was about how these and other resources fit together to make a healthy, resilient landscape. Leopold put it this way: “Conservation is a state of health in the land-organism. Health expresses the cooperation of the interdependent parts: soil, water, plants, animals, and people.” Our job at the Forest Service is to maintain the health of the land so that all the parts are sustained—so that the land as a whole can continue to deliver everything that Americans want and need … today and in the future.

Forestry Challenges

So, from a broad national perspective, what are the challenges we face to the health of the land as a whole? I will briefly run through some of them.

  • Scientists tell us that climate change has contributed to regional drought while worsening wildfire severity. Since 2000, at least 10 states have had their largest wildfires on record. In Minnesota, the Pagami Creek Fire has burned through more than 93,000 acres and cost more than $14.8 million in suppression costs alone. Meanwhile, development has been pushing more homes and communities into fire-prone forests. Almost 70,000 communities are now at risk from wildfires, and fewer than 10 percent have a community wildfire protection plan.
  • Here in the Upper Midwest, fire and drought are not the only issues. Spring flooding in Wisconsin was the worst in 60 years, due to accumulated snow and severe precipitation. Again, scientists tell us that extreme weather events like this are consistent with climate change. We can expect more to come.
  • Invasive species are also a huge and growing challenge to forestry nationwide. Emerald ash borer is a veritable plague in this region; Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have some of the highest concentrations of ash in the country, and tens of millions of trees have been killed. Can the United States muster the resources needed to protect threatened ecosystems and to restore systems that have been lost, such as American chestnut?
  • Urban sprawl and heedless development are threatening private forests with land use conversion and habitat fragmentation. From 2000 to 2030, substantial increases in housing density are predicted on about 57 million acres of forest land—an area larger than Utah. That includes large parts of this region. Outside of public land, it’s already hard to find large areas of open space in much of Michigan, for example—areas with very low housing densities.
  • And that’s not all. Food and energy prices are rising around the world, and biofuels are becoming increasingly feasible as an energy source. Can the United States coordinate its forest, food, and energy policies to make use of woody biomass and keep productive forest land from being converted to agriculture?

Landscape-Scale Conservation

So what do we do? Here in the Midwest, landownerships are mixed and budgets are tight. The issues we face cross borders and boundaries; no one of us can address them alone. We need to work together—to leverage our mutual resources. If people continue to work in traditional ways—cut off from each other as private foresters on this piece of land, public servants on that piece of land—America will never fully tap its resources of knowledge, energy, and ideas to help meet the forestry challenges of the future. But if people come together to collaborate across landownerships and landscapes, then they will be able to address shared issues and concerns and to pursue common goals more effectively.

Look, we’ve just come out of the Great Recession, and recovery has been slow. Some of the hardest hit communities are in rural areas. Since 2005, mills have closed and forestry-related jobs have been lost, both here and across the country. The reasons have to do with the collapse of housing markets and the homebuilding industry. Our researchers have been documenting this, and we will be reporting on the extent of it soon.

But timber sales from the national forests have held pretty steady, at about 2 to 2.5 billion board feet per year. That’s partly because we offer timber at rock-bottom prices that haven’t changed since around 1975. We want and need a healthy forest products industry. We need that infrastructure to help sustain the nation’s forests and restore them to health.

Restoration offers opportunities for working together on a landscape scale, leveraging our mutual resources. A prime example is the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Public and private partners around the Great Lakes are working together across borders and boundaries to combat invasive species, protect watersheds, and restore habitat. The goal is healthier, more resilient ecosystems, with a wide range of benefits for everyone concerned.

Those benefits include jobs and economic opportunities. One study has shown that every million dollars spent on activities like stream restoration or road decommissioning generates from 12 to 28 jobs. In addition, restoration yields amenity values associated with healthy, resilient forests. The national forests, for example, are magnets for retirees, bringing scarce dollars into rural counties. Healthy, resilient forest ecosystems also draw lots of visitors. In 2010, recreation and tourism on the national forests and parks supported more than 600,000 jobs nationwide. In 2006, hunting alone contributed $30.5 billion to the nation’s economy.

Lasting Benefits for Generations to Come

But restoration takes investments, and these are tough times. Our federal budgets are being hit hard, and we will need to further tighten our belts. We will need to focus our restoration activities on the highest priority landscapes, where our investments will have the greatest bang for the buck, providing the most ecosystem services over time. We need to do things differently, maybe develop some new approaches in concert with our state and private partners.

A good example is the Forest Legacy Program. Working through the states, the program purchases conservation easements from willing private forest landowners. That protects working forests from conversion to developed uses. It keeps timber flowing and guarantees access for hunting and fishing. In fiscal 2011 alone, we funded a total of 12 projects nationwide, including Crisp Point in Michigan and Chippewa Flowage here in Wisconsin.

The bottom line is this: We need to work together and get smarter about the investments we make, more focused and collaborative, leveraging new funds with multiple partners. As Aldo Leopold said, conservation is a “universal symbiosis with land, economic and esthetic, public and private. To this school of thought public ownership is a patch but not a program.”

A patch but not a program. It’s not about public lands alone, important as they are. And it’s not about this or that resource alone, important as it might be. It’s about coming together across the landscape for the overall health of the lands we all share. Working together, we can meet the challenges of the future, both here in the Upper Midwest and across the nation. Working together, we can provide jobs, timber, hunting opportunities, and more for generations to come.

So I’ve said my piece. Now I look forward to listening to you. We have a lot to talk about. Thank you.


C. Moseley and M. Nielsen-Pincus, “Economic Impact and Job Creation from Forest and Watershed Restoration: A Preliminary Assessment” (Ecosystem Workforce Program, Briefing Paper 14; Eugene, OR: University of Oregon, Institute for a Sustainable Environment, 2009).