Meeting Forestry Challenges through Restoration

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Society of Annual Foresters, Annual Meeting
Honolulu, HI
— November 3, 2011

Good afternoon! It’s a pleasure to be here today. Thank you for inviting me.

I want to begin by thanking the Society of American Foresters for publishing the October/November special issue of the Journal of Forestry on forests and carbon. The studies in this special issue have made a few things clear. For example:

  • The best way of providing carbon storage while delivering a full range of other benefits is through sustainable forest management.
  • Energy produced from forest biomass is essentially carbon-neutral so long as overall forest inventories are stable or increasing.
  • Wood is a renewable material. Used in place of energy-intensive materials like concrete, wood is a reliable way of offsetting fossil fuel use while storing carbon.

These are critically important insights, and having them together in one place is a great contribution to the forestry community and to conservation in the 21st century.

International Year of Forests/Weeks Act

And it’s only fitting to publish this study in this year, the International Year of Forests.

A century ago, America stood at a crossroads. For centuries, we had thoughtlessly cut over and burned over our forests. Now we had a choice: We could continue to pursue short-term profit for a few while putting our nation’s future at risk; or we could embrace the cause of conservation.

We made the right choice. This year is also the centennial of the Weeks Act, passed by Congress in 1911. Through the Weeks Act and other measures, the Forest Service was able to acquire degraded, cutover, farmed-out lands. In 26 eastern states, the Weeks Act led to the creation of 52 national forests. Without this legislation, many of the beautiful national forests we enjoy today would not exist—nor would all the benefits people get from them.

The Weeks Act also set the stage for cooperative forestry, for the strong partnerships we have for fire protection and sustainable forest management. Over the years, we learned that the challenges of forest management and restoration have to be done in partnership with state and local governments, communities, and the forest products industry. No one entity can do it alone.

Today, the world stands at a similar crossroads. The scale is greater and the stakes are higher, in part because of all the risk and uncertainty surrounding climate change. But the global community has a choice: We can continue to degrade the world’s forests, in the short-term interest of a few; or we can manage the world’s forests for the greatest good … for the greatest number … for the longest time.

I think we have made the right choice. At global forums like Rio … through United Nations declarations like the International Year of Forests … the world has embraced sustainable forestry. Around the world, we are laying the foundations for sustainable forestry through programs like REDD-plus, programs that give people a stake in conserving their forests.

And that is key. Forests are for people. Too often, we have focused on protecting forested landscapes as if people did not live in them. But the truth is that people will conserve only what they can relate to; they will relate to only what they can value; and for billions of people around the world, they will value mainly what they can use to support themselves and their families.

Early Forestry

In the United States, we have seen the truth of that insight over the past century. In the course of the 20th century, after a century of steep decline, we stabilized our forest estate at roughly 750 million acres. We were able to do that by introducing conservation measures with material benefits for people, contributing to the growth and development of our nation.

The Forest Service was founded in 1905, partly to manage the National Forest System. For the first 70 years of our history, we managed the national forests and grasslands to sustain a range of multiple uses for future generations. We focused primarily on building roads and other infrastructure for timber and other commercial uses. That played a key role in the development of our nation, helping to meet our nation’s need for wood and other natural resources.

But we also understood the importance of outdoor recreation and of habitat protection for wildlife and fish, partly to sustain the great American traditions of hunting and fishing. We understood the importance of having “wild places to be young in,” in the words of Aldo Leopold. Leopold worked at the time in our southwestern regional office, and he played a key role in 1924 in setting aside America’s first wilderness area, on the Gila National Forest in New Mexico.

Ecological Restoration

Today, people understand that forests provide an even broader range of values and benefits, including biodiversity, pollination, carbon sequestration, clean air and water, nontimber forest products, 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.

As you know, that ability is increasingly at risk. Drought, invasive species, loss of open space, uncharacteristically severe wildfires, uncharacteristically severe outbreaks of insects and disease—all these stresses and disturbances are affecting America’s forests on an unprecedented scale. Partly, they are driven by the global challenge of climate change.

The Forest Service is responding by restoring the functions and processes characteristic of healthy, resilient ecosystems. Our goal is to sustain and restore ecosystems that can deliver all the benefits that Americans want and need, even if they are not exactly the same systems as before. Climate change highlights the need for broad-scale approaches—for restoration on a landscape scale, at the level of watersheds, ecoregions, or broad geographic areas. The Forest Service is accordingly taking an all-lands approach. We are working with partners across boundaries and ownerships to address ecosystem issues on a landscape scale.

Our new planning rule will be key to future restoration work on the National Forest System. Our proposed new rule is specifically designed to give us the flexibility we need in our forest plans to get more restoration work done on the ground. Last February, we published a proposed rule following the most collaborative rulemaking process in our history. Many of you were involved in that process, and I thank you for your support. We are currently finalizing the proposed rule, based on another round of stakeholder inputs and public comments, and it should be out sometime this winter.

Jobs and Economic Growth

One opportunity associated with restoration is jobs. A study has shown that every million dollars spent on activities like stream restoration or road decommissioning generates from 12 to 28 jobs. In fact, restoration is more cost-effective in terms of job creation than most other things we can do. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, we spent $1.15 billion to help stimulate the economy, much of it through restoration projects. So far, we have obligated 99.8 percent and disbursed 80 percent of those funds, completing over 50 percent of our ARRA projects. Through ARRA, we have created or retained about 3,800 jobs per quarter, on average. Benefits have included 9,100 miles of trail and 14,850 miles of road maintained; 510,670 acres treated to reduce wildfire risk; and 847 hazardous fuels reduction projects on nonfederal lands.

Many restoration projects are through stewardship contracts, and I thank you for your support in trying to get our stewardship contracting authority extended. One of the great things about stewardship contracts is that they let local citizens take ownership of restoration work. They extend jobs and other benefits throughout the community. Through stewardship contracts and other mechanisms, the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program alone created 1,550 jobs in 2010.

Restoring the health and resiliency of our forests generates important amenity values. People like to live near beautiful landscapes, and our national forests are magnets for retirees and others, who generate economic activity in rural areas hard hit by recession. Healthy, resilient forests and grasslands are also magnets for outdoor recreation, with more than 170 million visits per year to the National Forest System. That in turn leads to jobs and economic opportunity. 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.


Another opportunity associated with restoration is bioenergy generation—creating alternative fuels and additional income streams for private forest landowners. Woody biomass utilization is a win/win/win proposition: We restore healthy, resilient forest ecosystems; we offset fossil fuel use by generating renewable energy; and we create economic opportunities in rural areas hard hit by recession. Already, renewable energy development on public lands creates about 15,000 jobs per year. In 2011, we generated 2.8 million tons of woody biomass for bioenergy generation from the National Forest System, exceeding our goal for 2012.

Biomass removal is needed to address the growing threat from fire and fuels. It’s not just the national forests that are affected; a Forest Service study in 2002 showed that 397 million acres in all ownerships nationwide were at moderate to high risk from catastrophic fires. That’s an area about four times the size of California. Since 2000, at least 10 states have had their largest wildfires on record. 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. From 2000 to 2009, almost 28,000 homes, businesses, and outbuildings burned in wildfires.

Fuels and Forest Health Treatments

Restoration is a key part of our response to wildland fire. The federal fire managers have brought together federal, state, tribal, local, and municipal governments as well as nongovernmental organizations to develop a truly shared National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. Goal number one is to create fire-adapted natural communities by restoring healthy, resilient forest ecosystems.

Restoration treatments on federal lands have been accelerating accordingly. From 2001 through 2008 alone, the federal land managers treated more than 29 million acres. That’s an area the size of Louisiana, and now we’re treating even more. This year, the Forest Service alone treated 1.45 million acres in the WUI, an area the size of Delaware. Through the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program and other work, the Forest Service restored or maintained resiliency on 2.4 million acres of National Forest System lands, including fire-adapted longleaf pine restoration on about 510,000 acres.

Landscape-Scale Conservation

Longleaf pine is a great example of the scale we need to meet the challenges ahead. The federal government obviously can’t do it alone, especially not now. Times are hard, and the federal agencies have limited budgets for addressing forest health issues. With our limited funding, we need to do things differently, maybe develop some new approaches in concert with our partners. We need to work together and get smarter about the investments we make, more focused and collaborative, leveraging new funds with multiple partners.

That’s part of what we mean by landscape-scale conservation. We are working with state and private partners and others across entire landscapes to achieve our mutual goals, and we are targeting our scarce funds, carefully choosing the landscapes where we can get the biggest bang for our buck.

Restoration offers opportunities for working together on a landscape scale, leveraging our mutual resources. A good example in the Northeast is the Quabbin-to-Cardigan Partnership in the Monadnock Highlands of New Hampshire and Massachusetts. This is an area that stretches across a hundred miles, from the Quabbin Reservoir to Mount Cardigan and the White Mountain National Forest. It is one of the last remaining large blocks of forest habitat in this heavily populated region, and it protects the municipal watersheds for about 200 cities and towns, including the city of Boston. The partnership is a collaborative, landscape-scale effort that brings public and private organizations together to keep this area intact.

In the South, a Regional Longleaf Partnership Council has formed, including over 30 organizations. They just met in Atlanta. Longleaf pine once extended in a vast arc across the Coastal Plain, from southern Virginia, to Florida, to East Texas. Today, longleaf pine covers barely 3 percent of its original area, and most longleaf habitat is badly degraded. As a result, 29 species that depend on longleaf forest are federally listed as threatened or endangered, including red-cockaded woodpecker and gopher tortoise is another. The goal of our joint longleaf partnership is to increase the longleaf pine ecosystem from 3.2 million acres to 8 million acres over a 15-year period.

In the West, we have opportunities to restore other fire-adapted pine systems, such as ponderosa pine. Through the Four Forest Restoration Initiative in Arizona, we are working with partners to implement a collaborative landscape-scale restoration strategy across 2.4 million acres. Most of it is dry ponderosa pine on four different national forests, and it is overgrown and in need of thinning and underburning to restore the role of fire in this fire-adapted forest type. The Four Forest Restoration Initiative is funded through the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. Under this program, we are spending up to $40 million per year to engage partners in long-term restoration to improve watershed conditions, restore forest resilience, and reduce the risk of catastrophic fire. Current projects range from longleaf pine restoration in Florida to restoration of several forest types on both public and private land in the Sierra Nevada.

But restoration takes investments. At a time of budget cuts across the board, we need to find new ways of investing in forestry and conservation. So we welcome collaborative efforts like the Forests in the Farm Bill Coalition. With 11 million private forest landowners out there—with forestry and related industries supporting 2.8 million family-wage jobs—we need to raise public awareness that investments in forestry amount to investments in the future of America.

Community Engagement

Restoration gives us opportunities to engage both rural and urban communities. With over 80 percent of Americans living in metropolitan areas, the Forest Service is expanding our work in places like New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. America has 100 million acres of urban forests, and through our Urban and Community Forestry program, we are providing assistance to 8,550 communities, home to more than half of our entire population. Our goal is a continuous network of healthy forested landscapes, from remote wilderness areas to shady urban neighborhoods, parks, and greenways.

One restoration partnership for urban areas is the Urban Waters Federal Partnership. The White House officially launched the partnership last June in Baltimore. It includes 11 different federal agencies, and it is designed to restore the health of urban watersheds, most of them at least partly forested. Seven pilot sites have been selected, and the Forest Service is taking the lead on three of them—in Baltimore, where the headwaters of the Patapsco River and the Jones Falls are in rural landscapes to the north and west; in Denver, where we are working with Denver Water to restore forested landscapes damaged by the Hayman Fire in 2002; and in northwestern Indiana, part of the greater Chicago area, where we are working through Chicago Wilderness.

Looking Forward

In closing, America is unique. We still have our wide open spaces, our wild places where our identity as a people was forged. As foresters, we are part of that heritage—and part of our job as foresters is to protect that heritage for future generations of Americans. The challenges we face, such as climate change and beetle epidemics, are as great as any we have ever faced. The Forest Service is meeting these challenges by working with partners for landscape-scale conservation.

But we are also part of a greater heritage through the global community. Increasingly, we see the benefits—and the necessity—of landscape-scale conservation on a global scale. That’s why the Forest Service is working with partners in more than 80 countries around the world. For example, we support the USAID STEWARD program in West Africa. Its goal is to strengthen transboundary natural resource management to support peace, biodiversity, knowledge sharing, national strategic plans for addressing climate change, and sustainable forest-based livelihoods.

We are also working with Mexico and Canada through FAO’s North American Forest Commission to address climate change, invasive species, forest genetics, and other continent-wide challenges.

The bottom line is this: We need to work together at every scale—local, regional, national, continental, and global—for healthy, resilient forests … forests that deliver benefits that people want and need—clean water, biodiversity, carbon sequestration, sustainable communities, and more. That resonates with the International Year of Forests in 2011—and with the goals of the Weeks Act in 1911. Through partnerships and collaboration, working together across boundaries, we can find solutions to the challenges we face, for the benefit of generations to come.