Protecting Open Spaces: Partners in a Common Cause

Land Trust Alliance Rally
Providence, RI
— October 31, 2004

It’s a pleasure to be here, and I’m honored to have been invited to speak together with someone as distinguished as Dr. Speth. He’ll be giving us the global picture in a minute—one that is undeniably critical to all of us, and I am looking forward to that.

At the Forest Service, we’re looking at some big-picture connections, too. As many of you know, the Forest Service will be a hundred years old next year. On the occasion of our centennial, we are pausing to reflect on where we are today in the broad sweep of conservation history.

Story of Change

We’ve gone through some enormous changes in the last hundred years. At the turn of the century, we faced—as a nation—a crisis caused by unrestrained exploitation of our natural resources. Bison were going extinct; we were seeing disastrous fires and floods; most of the eastern seaboard was devoid of trees, a result of rampant harvesting; and uncontrolled and unmanaged grazing and hunting in parts of the West were wreaking havoc on the land and wildlife. The Forest Service and the conservation movement grew out of this crisis.

Simplistically put, for three-quarters of a century the work of the Forest Service was custodial, focused mainly on restoration and—especially during and after the Great Depression—jobs and social responsibility. (Think CCC.) Not only did we build the physical infrastructure we all still use today, but we established controls on how forest uses like grazing are permitted.

Post-World War II, we entered a new period characterized, in large part, by timber production. From the 1960s to 1980s, every administration, with strong congressional support, called for more timber harvest from the national forests, with the goal of replacing the depleted stocks of private and state timber as a result of the war effort. At its peak in 1987, the national forests provided close to 30 percent of the nation’s timber supply.

In the early 1990s, that changed again, for a multitude of reasons. Today, national forests provide less than 5 percent of our national timber supply, and most of what is sold off of national forests is small-diameter wood produced as a result of restoration efforts or postfire harvesting. The future is leading us to a new period of ecological restoration and recreation, where what we leave on the land is more important that what we take away. Maybe more than ever before, we are focusing on delivering values and services like clean air and water, scenic beauty, habitat for wildlife, and opportunities for outdoor recreation. Not only do Americans want these things from their national forests, but this shift is also essential to cope with some huge threats to the sustainability of these forests. Threats like … fire and fuels; invasive species; resource degradation through recreational use that isn’t properly managed; oversubscribed water resources in many parts of the West; and substances in the atmosphere—from ozone to carbon dioxide—that are threatening the long-term health of our ecosystems.

One of the greatest threats is what we at the Forest Service have been calling loss of open space, and that’s what I’d like to talk about today. We’ve all seen it—the loss of our working farms, forests, and ranches to unplanned development. We losing more than 4,000 acres of green space every day, or more than 3 acres a minute. I’ve seen it throughout my career … and, like all of you, I’ve seen it throughout my life.

Colorado Experiences

I spent a good deal of my youth on the Colorado Front Range, where I got my first job as a wilderness specialist with the Bureau of Land Management. That was 27 years ago. In areas not under public land stewardship, I watched the Front Range start to fill up with all kinds of development, some planned, most unplanned.

Jefferson and Boulder Counties on the Colorado Front Range were some of the first to act to aggressively manage growth by creating innovative open space initiatives and tax incentives. They made a huge difference, but even that didn’t stop the growth. From Fort Collins south to Denver and on to Colorado Springs—a distance of more than a hundred miles—the landscape filled up with subdivisions and shopping malls.

Oregon Experiences

I took that impression with me to Oregon when I went to work for the Forest Service. On the Deschutes National Forest, I saw many of the same things happening that I’d seen in Colorado. They were just 10 to 15 years or so behind. For years, I watched the east side of the Cascade Mountains gradually fill up with housing developments, this time without innovative open space ordinances.

When I was forest supervisor on the Deschutes, I had a couple of opportunities to do something about it. As you probably know, the national forests enclose a lot of private land, including a lot of land in checkerboard patterns, where every other section is privately owned.

About 15 years ago, a timber company came to us with a proposal for us to acquire about 200,000 acres of their land through a land exchange. It would have allowed us to block up the northern part of the forest and to buffer the front country of the Eastside Cascades from the effects of development.

As you know, land exchanges aren’t always easy to arrange. We tried, but we couldn’t figure out a way to do it. Having to walk away from that deal was one the biggest disappointments of my career. All I could think about was the Colorado Front Range …

Fortunately, I got another chance 5 years later, and this time we did find a way. In one of the largest land exchanges in Oregon’s history, we were able to change the whole face and shape of the forest by blocking up the entire southern part. We consolidated whole watersheds, providing wildlife and recreation corridors—and ultimately easing the pressure of development on the interior of the forest. In the long view, I consider this permanent change in land ownership to be one of my most important accomplishments of my career.

Both of these experiences showed me the importance of focusing on opportunities for protecting open space whenever and wherever we can.

Private/Public Partnerships

That’s why I’m so glad to see the incredible spirit here at this Rally. You have been great partners for the Forest Service, and I thank you for all your tireless work in helping us acquire key parcels of land.

But as you well know, we don’t always need to acquire public land to protect and conserve open space for generations to come. Sometimes, what we’re trying to protect includes a way of life that we all cherish as Americans—a way of life passed down for generations on family farms, working forests, and ranches.

  • In fact, some of our wildest lands are found on working ranches, like the Gray Ranch in New Mexico, which has 60 distinct plant communities, a third of them rare or threatened. Ranchers in the area have joined together in the Malpai Borderlands Group, where they envision managing ranches like Gray as “working wildernesses.”
  • And it’s not just ranches. The great ecologist and wilderness advocate Aldo Leopold wrote extensively on the value of working farms for wildlife conservation. He envisioned a time when farmers might be in the forefront of conservation leadership.

You understand that, and that is the idea behind our Forest Legacy Program: to keep private forests intact throughout the United States to help protect sensitive wildland values. I thank you for your support of the program. With your help, we have now surpassed a landmark million acres of private forest land protected under the Forest Legacy Program.

We’ve also worked together on a regional basis to keep working farms, forests, and ranches from being swallowed up by development. We have enjoyed working with you in a number of successful initiatives—the Northern Forest Lands Council in New England, the New York/New Jersey Highlands studies, the Mountains-to-Sound Greenway in Washington, the Chesapeake Bay Program, and others. I wish I had time to describe each one. I thank you for your leadership in making these private/public partnerships a success.

Future Collaboration

That brings me to my final point: how can we work together to protect more of our natural areas? The conservation of America’s working farms, forests, and ranches is a concern for us all. The Forest Service is committed to working closely with the land trust community to find some solutions. I think the key question is this: How can we most effectively pool our resources to protect natural areas for future generations?

The Forest Service can bring a lot to the table:

  • We have the largest forest research organization in the world, and we’re already using our science capacity to further our understanding of the problem of ownership fragmentation in all of its dimensions. Our “Forests on the Edge” project is mapping the forested watersheds nationwide that are most at risk of development by 2030.
  • Problems like habitat fragmentation, ownership fragmentation, and loss of open space aren’t new; a number of studies and assessments have already been done. We’re currently putting together a synthesis of key findings from past research.
  • Our research organization is leading the effort for determining how to account for and register carbon credits. A workable or even robust carbon market in the future could add value to forested land, helping to keep it undeveloped. In view of the big-picture concerns related to global warming, which Dr. Speth will discuss, I think we need to focus on opportunities for working together in this area.
  • Although efforts along these lines are just beginning, we are also actively looking at the potential of a market for other environmental services, like clean water and biodiversity. These could add value to private lands and create an economic engine for conservation.
  • Finally, we are studying the impacts of globalization on management of forest lands in America. Let me just say this: Forest management today cannot really be understood outside the global context of markets, which have an immense effect on what we can and cannot manage for here in America.

The land trust community also has a lot it can bring to the table:

  • You have decades of experience in protecting private land from development. You know the values at risk and what they’re worth on a landscape scale. We look to you for leadership in bringing that knowledge to the table.
  • You have strong expertise in land conservation. You know what mechanisms work and what don’t in what particular areas. And you can act fast, at least in most cases, faster than us, to protect lands.
  • And, possibly most important, you have good connections to local communities and local landowners who might respond to you better than to us. You can mediate land preservation agreements that might otherwise never happen.

Common Vision

In closing, we all know what’s at stake. In places like Colorado and Oregon, we’ve seen the changes on the land and felt the common loss. That’s given us a common vision for protecting the values at stake.

I think there are at least four ways we must move forward together to realize our common vision:

  • First, focus on the critical few areas. A strategic landscape-scale approach offers the most hope for long-term success in conserving the values that will matter most to future generations. We must continue working together on regional initiatives that help us focus our limited dollars on the most important areas. The Nature Conservancy’s A Few Great Places serves as a wonderful model.
  • Second, work with local communities toward local solutions. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. That means we must work in partnership with local communities to find local solutions to local problems. This is how we build support and inoculate solutions from outside critics.
  • Third, always use the best science. Science can’t decide for us, but it can help us understand the consequences of our decisions. Forest Service Research and others in academia can deliver some of the best science and technical resources to help inform how these special areas should be managed for the long term.
  • Fourth, help others see the need for active management. Public expectations notwithstanding, rarely does a land preservation agreement create a wilderness preserve. The purpose is almost always to keep the land in its current use and to foster better management. On a working ranch, livestock grazing continues; on a working forest, so does timber removal. What’s at stake isn’t active management, but sustaining ecological processes and lifestyles. Many of these ecosystems we manage are very dynamic, and we may need to actively introduce fire, treat for invasive species, and thin trees. This is fundamental to managing lands in a sustainable way. I think we have to do a better job of explaining that to the public.

Land Trust Accomplishments

Let me just end by saying this. If you step back a minute and look at the history of conservation in America … you really have to consider what you all have done. The land trust movement is one of the most motivated—if not revolutionary—conservation movements in history. Not for a minute can we underestimate the power this movement has had on the drive to protect land, not just in America, but worldwide. There is no greater force than backing up words squarely and immediately with actions—and that’s what you have accomplished in the past 20 years.

As all of us look back on our careers and our lives and imagine what it is that we have truly contributed towards conservation, nothing can compete with the simple act of protecting land for future generations. That’s what you can be proud of—and it’s what we all, in this room, have to look forward to.

Thanks very much.