Southwestern Centennial Forum,Global Connections and the Forest Service

Centennial Forum
Albuquerque, NM
— November 8, 2004

Welcome! It’s a pleasure to be here today with so many of our partners and collaborators. We’re here to commemorate a hundred years of global connections for the Forest Service and to prepare for even more global connections ahead. This is a huge topic for us, and I’d like to thank Harv Forsgren and the folks in Region 3, along with Val Mezainis and our International Programs Staff, for putting on this forum on global connections.

I’ve had a chance to look over the agenda. You’ll be covering a lot of ground in this forum, all of which will be great preparation for the delegates going to the Centennial Congress in January. Right now, I’d like to help set the stage by saying a little about why I think global connections are so critically important for the Forest Service.

International Roots

Our roots as an agency are really international. The people who first introduced the idea of sustainable forestry to this country were immigrant European forestry professionals, like the Prussian Bernhard Fernow, who served as Chief of the USDA Division of Forestry in the late 19th century.

The first Forest Service Chief, Gifford Pinchot, got his training in Germany, France, and Switzerland. Pinchot’s Prussian mentor, Dietrich Brandis, got a lot of his own forestry experience while working for the British in India. And, of course, Pinchot later traveled widely in Russia and the Philippines, where he gave policy advice on forestry.

So international programs are nothing new to the Forest Service. Other countries have always had something to teach us about forest management, and we’ve always tried to share what we know from our own experience as well.

Today, I think those global connections are more important than ever. Let’s start by looking at some of the major challenges we face today and what some of the international dimensions might be.

Future Challenges

For the past 2 to 3 years, we’ve been conducting Chief’s Reviews. These are strategic reviews of the Forest Service at the regional level. Our review teams have noted several threats in particular:

  • fire and fuels as well as huge insect and disease outbreaks in some areas;
  • invasive species nationwide;
  • loss of open landscapes, including working farms, forests, and ranches;
  • resource degradation through recreational use that isn’t properly managed;
  • a huge backlog in restoration projects and facilities maintenance;
  • oversubscribed water resources in large parts of the West; and
  • substances in the atmosphere—from ozone to carbon dioxide—that are threatening the long-term health of our ecosystems.

Think about how many of these issues have international ramifications:

  • Fire and fuels—how often have we welcomed firefighters from other countries during a difficult fire season? Many of those countries have similar fire regimes and fire management challenges with very similar social and ecological dimensions.
  • Invasive species—for both prevention and control, we absolutely depend on international partnerships.
  • Oversubscribed water resources—some of our oversubscribed rivers, like the Colorado, cross international borders.
  • Substances in the atmosphere—I think the global warming issue speaks for itself.

Loss of Open Space

But let’s just look at one issue in particular—loss of open space, in particular loss of working forests in the United States. You might think of this as a local private-land issue, and it is. But it also has huge international dimensions. Let me explain.

In the United States, our forest estate overall has been fairly stable for the past hundred years. Still, we’ve had a net loss of almost 10 million acres of forest land since 1953, an area larger than the state of Maryland. And if we project forward half a century, then we expect the loss to more than double to 23 million acres—an area larger than Maine. The rate of loss is growing.

There’s also been a decline in the value of our forests for timber production. Jim DeCosmo, a vice president at Temple-Inland Forest Products Corporation in the South, compared the recent cost of producing lumber plus the cost of transporting it to Baltimore, Maryland, for a number of foreign countries and for the American South. He found that cost plus freight to Baltimore is lower from Europe, South America, and Canada than from Atlanta, Georgia.

To me, that’s stunning. DeCosmo attributed the United States’ competitive weakness to lower taxes in other countries. It might also have to do with lower labor costs there and a high dollar exchange rate in recent years. Whatever the reason, it is predicted that foreign imports will continue to grow.

As foreign imports gain market share, forest land in the United States becomes less attractive to forest owners and investors. That’s simple economics. Private forest owners have been selling forest land for some time, and the buyers have often been developers. That’s the long-term trend we’re seeing.

Global Dimensions

You might ask, what’s wrong with that? Why do we need so much forest land if we can import so much of the timber we need?

There are at least two problems with that. One problem has to do with the impact of our consumption on the forest resources of other nations. By importing so much of our wood, are we driving unsustainable forestry practices in other countries … illegal logging … deforestation?

The other problem has to do with the loss of nontimber forest values here at home. When forest landowners, large or small, cannot reap a profit from managing forests for wood products, they are often forced to sell their land. When that happens, we lose part of our wood production capacity. But we also lose much more. We lose scenic beauty, a sense of naturalness, and opportunities for outdoor recreation. We also lose the environmental services we get from forested landscapes, such as water purification, carbon sequestration, and biodiversity.

I think you can begin to see the global connections: global markets for wood … loss of forested landscapes to development … the impacts of consumption choices on forested landscapes abroad … the loss of environmental services and amenities here at home. The possible solutions, I would argue, are also global—or, at least, they have global dimensions.

If we are truly serious about conserving our forested landscapes, then I believe that we need to consider attaching a dollar value to the services and amenities that trees give us as part of healthy, functioning forests. Forest owners should be able to reap financial rewards from sustainable forestry beyond the commercial production of forest products.

One way to do that might be through carbon markets. The Forest Service is the lead agency for developing that possibility through a global trade in carbon credits. Successful international models already exist.

We’re also interested in the possibility of developing systems for making watershed services as well as soil and biodiversity services pay. Although relatively little has been written in these areas, there are already some ideas and even some models out there.

Global View

I think these are some of the major challenges and opportunities we will face in the coming century. As a nation, we can no longer afford to focus narrowly on our own backyard when it comes to natural resources. So many of the challenges we face have crucial international dimensions, even something as seemingly local as the loss of a working forest. Like fire and fuels, watershed health, or invasive species, our biggest problems today cross borders and boundaries.

So must the solutions. Fortunately, the Forest Service has a strong tradition of global engagement. Gifford Pinchot always saw conservation as a global movement, and he even envisioned it as a global peacemaker. He reasoned that if we can conserve our renewable natural resources worldwide, then we can eliminate one of the biggest incentives for waging war: to plunder the resources of other countries.

For that, we will need global partnerships, and I believe that the Centennial Congress in Washington must become a springboard for building those partnerships. The Centennial Congress will not be about the issues we deal with every day, like what to do about roadless areas or whether the planning rule for national forests should be this or that. These are indeed critical issues, but they don’t rise to the level we envision for this Congress. We expect the Congress to take the long and the broad view—the view across decades and centuries.

The long and the broad view is necessarily the global view. If we are to succeed in our second century as an agency, then we must take a cue from the past: Like Gifford Pinchot, we must see the global connections and act on them. You are here to set the stage for that at the Centennial Congress, and I thank you in advance for your global vision and your dedication.