A New Environment for Land and Resource Management: Rising to the Challenge

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Andrus Conference
Boise, ID
— May 1, 2010


Governor Andrus, thank you for inviting me. I grew up in Boise, and it’s a pleasure to be back—and a real honor to address this conference.

I am here to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing the Forest Service in the 21st century. In doing so, I will make a few simple propositions:

  • First, that healthy forests and grasslands are vital to the American people.
  • Second, that the health of America’s forests and grasslands is at risk from climate change and other major drivers.
  • Third, that it is our job at the Forest Service to restore healthy landscapes.
  • And fourth, that no single entity can do it alone. We need an all-lands approach.

New Management Environment

First, we can probably all agree that America’s forests and grasslands are vital to the future of our nation. Americans rely on their forests and grasslands for a wide range of benefits—for provisioning services such as water, wood, meat and hides, and wild foods; for regulating services such as erosion, flood, and climate control as well as habitat for wildlife; and for cultural services such as outdoor recreation, spiritual renewal, and aesthetic enjoyment. These benefits are connected and sustained through the integrity of the ecosystems on these lands.

Today, ecosystem integrity is under siege from a series of challenges, especially climate change. Climate change affects individual species and drives the major stress factors and disturbances that govern ecological processes and functions—things like drought, wildfire, invasive species, and outbreaks of insects and disease. As climate drivers change, so do ecosystem stressors and disturbances; and as natural systems change in response, so do the ecosystem services they provide. In an era of climate change, people can no longer take for granted all the services they get from forests and grasslands, along with the associated jobs and economic benefits.

Climate change is not the only driver of landscape change. Urban growth, global markets for wood, a legacy of fire exclusion, and other factors figure in. Urban growth, for example, is driving loss of open space. Go in any direction from a major city, including this one, and you will soon see signs of it: Farms, fields, and forests are giving way to development.

You might think the Forest Service wouldn’t be affected. People often think of the national forests as far from where they live. But here in Boise and in Idaho, that clearly isn’t the case. Even in other parts of the country, from Los Angeles, to Denver, to Atlanta … as cities have spread into the surrounding countryside, the national forests have come under increasing pressure. The number of housing units within half a mile of a national forest has grown from 484,000 in 1940 to 1.8 million in 2000; and the number of units within national forest boundaries has risen from 335,000 in 1940 to 1.2 million in 2000. And this will only continue. From 2000 to 2030, we predict substantial increases in housing density on 57 million acres of forest land across the country. That’s an area larger than the whole state of Idaho.

Loss of open space, fire and fuels, invasive species, the spread of forest pests and disease—America faces a whole host of challenges. Each challenge affects the others in multiple feedback loops, both positive and negative; and each, in turn, is affected by climate change, urban growth, and other major drivers. Today, the Forest Service is in a whole new environment for land and resource management.

Ecological Restoration

So what do we do?

I believe that Americans can coalesce around the common goal of ecological restoration—of restoring the functions and processes characteristic of healthy ecosystems. By restoration, I do not mean returning to the past. That would be impossible. America’s forests have been changing for thousands of years in response to both human and natural drivers. A few thousand years ago, for example, ponderosa pine had not yet reached parts of the Northern Rockies.

Restoration means learning from the past as we look toward a future that, in many places and many respects, will be very different from today. It’s like preparing for a long and difficult trip, planning for every contingency, taking all the risks and uncertainties into account, then being prepared to cope with the unexpected. Through restoration, land managers are conditioning and repairing the key functions of ecosystems across landscapes so they can withstand the stresses and uncertainties associated with our new management environment.

Restoration goes hand in hand with recognizing the value of open space and working to protect it around our homes and communities. The Forest Service has an array of tools for responding to climate change, and one of the most important is open space conservation.

Working forests and ranches respond to climate change in two ways: through adaptation … and through mitigation. Working landscapes provide refuge for native plant and animal communities, sustaining the habitat connectivity needed to help species adapt to a changing environment. Working landscapes also sequester and store vast amounts of carbon in soils, vegetation, and wood products. They mitigate climate change by reducing or offsetting greenhouse gas buildups.

Accordingly, the Forest Service is strongly committed to working with partners to protect open space. Right here in the Boise area, we support initiatives like Boise Foothills. We are also working with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, BLM, and the state of Idaho to protect winter range for elk in the Danskin Mountains. As you know, we work closely with the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation to restore summer range for elk on the national forests; but without winter range it doesn’t matter how good the summer range is—the elk are gone.

To counter such trends, the Forest Service is working with partners all over the country to protect open space. In Montana, for example, we worked with The Trust for Public Lands and the owner of the Sun Ranch to acquire a conservation easement on 11,000 acres of ranchland, enough to protect one of the largest elk herds in America. We work with the states through our Forest Legacy Program to acquire conservation easements protecting sensitive lands nationwide. Last year, Forest Legacy invested almost $80 million in conservation easements to protect 1.9 million acres of private forest land in 42 states.

Where a conservation easement isn’t an option, we work with partners to place sensitive lands under public protection. In northwestern Montana, for example, a real estate investment trust was planning on selling 310,000 acres of cutover timberland in Swan Valley and elsewhere, which might have gone to development. In 2008, we began working with The Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Lands to acquire the land and transfer most of it to public ownership, in good part to the National Forest System. To help finance such projects, this year we invested almost $74 million in our Land and Water Conservation Fund.

On Forest Service lands, protecting open space means protecting roadless areas. And here Idaho has taken the lead, thanks to efforts of Senator Risch and many others. The Idaho Roadless Rule completed last year has strong support across the board from conservation groups, from the state, from the counties, and from industry. And yet the Idaho rule is being challenged in federal court right here in Boise.

Roadless areas remain a contentious issue. I’ve been working for the Forest Service for 33 years, and I think I’ve spent 30 years of that dealing with roadless areas in one way or another. I think it’s time for us to move on, to recognize the importance of roadless areas while at the same time addressing the real concerns of communities.

An All-Lands Approach

But no single entity, acting alone, can come to grips with a challenge so vast, complex, and far reaching as climate change. We need an all-lands approach.

Climate change highlights the need for broad-scale approaches—for conservation on a landscape scale. Landscape-scale conservation is an approach to managing land at the level of watersheds, ecoregions, or broad geographic areas. It gives land managers the scope and the flexibility to address the full range of complexity, risk, and uncertainty associated with climate change. The goal is to maintain the ability of landscapes to adapt to changes shaped by climate, urban growth, markets for wood, and other large-scale drivers. 

Landscape-scale conservation requires working with partners across borders and boundaries. The National Forest System contains only 20 percent of the nation’s forests. Fifty-seven percent are in private landownership, and another 23 percent are in state, tribal, county, municipal, and other federal ownerships. Forest ecosystems typically form mosaics—mosaics of plant and animal communities and mosaics of landownerships and human communities. This is true not only in the East, but also in the West, where the critical issues are the same—forest health, invasive species, fire and fuels, water quantity and quality, and wildlife habitat connectivity. Such issues neither begin nor end at national forest boundaries.

The Forest Service has accordingly embraced an all-lands approach to conservation. Landscape-scale conservation is a logical extension of the collaborative approaches that have evolved over the past hundred years in wildland fire management and cooperative pest management, with state and federal partners jointly setting policy and sharing resources to address cross-jurisdictional challenges that no single entity can meet alone. Last year, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack offered a broad vision for an all-lands approach to sustaining and restoring the nation’s forests. That means using all USDA resources and authorities to sustain the entire matrix of federal, state, tribal, county, municipal, and private forests.

Examples of our collaborative authorities for landscape-scale conservation include the Environmental Quality Improvement Program, which extends to nonindustrial private forest landowners; the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, which extends to woody biomass producers on nonfederal land; and the Wyden Amendment, which authorizes watershed restoration and enhancement agreements with state, private, and other partners. There are many more.

The bottom line is this: We need to protect America’s working landscapes while restoring the resilience of America’s forests and grasslands to disturbances of all kinds. The treatments needed will improve watershed health, increase water quantity, improve water quality, generate rural prosperity, and meet our shared vision of healthy, resilient landscapes. Those are our priorities.

All parts of the Forest Service are currently working on plans to integrate research, management, and landowner assistance programs to address climate change in high-priority landscapes across the country. Fulfilling a requirement in the 2008 Farm Bill, the states are identifying landscapes critical to the future of conservation. Based in part on the results, the Forest Service will work with the states and other partners to protect and restore a series of landscapes that are valuable, vulnerable, and amenable to collaborative planning and management.

I will offer just a couple of examples.

Here in the West, as you well know, water issues are key. The Rocky Mountains contain the headwaters of such major rivers as the Arkansas, Colorado, Columbia, Missouri, Platte, Rio Grande, and Snake. We call it the Rocky Mountain Headwaters Region, and it has historically served as a crucial watershed resource for many western communities, as well as a prime recreation destination for local residents and tourists. But bark beetle epidemics, partly due to climate change, have left millions of acres of dead and dying trees, a major safety hazard requiring urgent action to protect visitors and communities and to restore healthy, resilient ecosystems. The Forest Service is working to address that through collaborative land management, working across ownerships to restore watersheds, protect water supplies, and build capacity for adapting to climate change.

Another example is from the Payette National Forest. The Payette Forest Coalition has been working with us using a collaborative decision-making process. The goals are to improve wildlife habitat, reducing wildfire hazards, and encouraging woody biomass utilization as a revenue stream for supporting restoration activities. The idea is to manage forest lands through ecologically sound management practices in a manner that receives strong public support. Stewardship contracting is an integral part. Creating jobs through stewardship contracts will stimulate Idaho’s rural economy while restoring the ecological health of forest lands.

And still another example may be getting started on the Idaho Panhandle National Forest. Congressman Minnick has provided encouragement for a collaborative group in North Idaho to form the proposed Panhandle Cooperative. To date, the Forest Service has provided maps and information for the group to consider. 

Finally, I want to recognize Congressman Simpson’s effort to reach a compromise in the Boulder–White Clouds. A recent version of his Boulder–White Clouds bill proposes nearly 320,000 acres of wilderness, while at the same preserving many popular snowmobile and off-road vehicle trails.

Rising to the Challenge

This collaborative spirit, be it all across the Rocky Mountains Headwaters Region or just here in Idaho, is the focus the President’s America’s Great Outdoors Initiative. His Initiative begins with a straightforward premise: that to plan for the future means you must first listen. To that end, regional listening sessions will be held across the country.

The President has been clear: He is not talking about a big federal agenda being driven out of Washington. He wants to collect the best ideas on conservation; he wants to pursue those ideas that local communities embrace; and he wants us to be responsible stewards of tax dollars to promote conservation.

The President sees four goals. First, he wants to build on conservation efforts being successfully led at the local level. Second, he wants to help rural landowners—farmers, ranchers, and forest landowners—who want to protect their lands for their children and their grandchildren. Third, he wants to help families—parents and their children—spend more time together outdoors. And lastly, he wants to create a new generation of community and urban parks.

The President is launching this strategy because it’s the right thing to do—because, as T.R. once said about the Grand Canyon, we must not mar the work of the ages. 

But it will not be easy. His Initiative depends on a collaborative spirit, and that in turn depends on mutual trust. Success will require rising above petty differences … above conflict and distrust.

The choices before Americans are not simple. The complexity, risk, and uncertainty associated with our new management environment mean that reasonable people can disagree. Moreover, people feel strongly about their public lands, and there is plenty of room for healthy debate. The surfacing of differences provides national forest managers with the variety of perspectives and information they need to make sound, well-informed, well-reasoned decisions. The Forest Service’s role is to help people sort through their differences, understand the implications of what they propose, and come to agreement based on shared values and common goals.

Fortunately, there are firm grounds for hope. Once bitter adversaries are bridging the divide and finding common ground. In 2005, in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, environmentalists and the timber industry united behind a Forest Service program to restore devastated portions of the national forests in Mississippi. In the Southwest, environmentalists, community leaders, and others have come together behind a Forest Service initiative to furnish small-diameter materials from four overgrown national forests to local mills and bioenergy facilities. And here in Idaho, where the Clearwater National Forest has long been ground zero for conflict and litigation, collaboration has taken hold; an aide to Senator Mike Crapo told a group of visiting Forest Service leaders that, and I quote, “the peace on the Clearwater has been deafening.”

America has a long and proud history of rising to daunting challenges. We can again succeed if we look beyond petty grievances and ask what the land needs. How can we work together in our new management environment to leave the nation’s forests and grasslands in a better condition? How can we ensure that future generations will continue to enjoy all the ecosystem services they want and need? If people can agree on common goals, on the benefits they want forests and grasslands to deliver far into the future, then the job is nearly done. If they can agree on what, then it becomes merely a question of how—and the Forest Service stands ready to help, for the sake of generations to come.