State of Forests and Forestry in the United States

Tom Tidwell, Chief
North American Forest Commission
Quebec, Canada
— May 8, 2012

Thank you. It’s a real pleasure to be here with my colleagues from Canada and Mexico. I am honored to have the opportunity to represent the United States and to learn from all of you this week.

Forest Challenges

In terms of both scale and complexity, forestry in the United States faces some of the greatest challenges in history. The challenges are associated with drought, wildfire, invasive species, and outbreaks of insects and disease—all made worse by climate change.

Like northern Mexico, our southern tier of states is suffering from long-term drought. Last year, like northern Mexico, we had a series of extremely large and severe wildfires, with more than a 400,000 hectares burned in Arizona alone. Since 2000, at least nine states have had record fires; nationwide, we’ve had some of our largest fire seasons since the 1950s.

Research has shown that our growing fire seasons are partly due to warmer and drier conditions associated with a changing climate. By the year 2060, mean temperatures in the United States are expected to be about 3 degrees Celsius higher than now, according to a scientific report the U.S. Forest Service just completed under the Resources Planning Act of 1974. Warming temperatures mean more energy in the atmosphere, which is consistent with severe fire seasons—and severe weather events, such as the tornadoes, blizzards, and hurricanes we’ve seen in the last ten years.

Many of our forests in the West are overly dense and homogeneous. Coupled with climate change, this has created conditions for severe outbreaks of pests and disease. As our Canadian colleagues know, mountain pine beetle is the main problem. But other bark beetles as well as western spruce budworm have contributed to forest mortality. Across the western United States, roughly 16 million hectares are affected.

Exotic pests and diseases have wiped out entire forest types in the United States, such as American chestnut in the East. Emerald ash borer is threatening the ash components of our forests in the Upper Midwest. Other species at risk range from white walnut, to eastern hemlock, to western white pine, just to name a few.

Other challenges are associated with population growth and urban expansion. By 2060, our population is expected to grow to somewhere between 400 and 500 million, and we expect to see a net forest loss of 10 to 15 million hectares. By 2030, we also expect to see housing density grow on about 23 million hectares.

How will all this affect natural resources in the United States? Take the impacts on wildlife, for example. Twenty-seven percent of all forest-associated plants and animals in the United States, a total of 4,005 species, are at risk of extinction. Habitat degradation affects 85 percent of all imperiled species, and loss of open space means habitat loss and fragmentation.

The U.S. Forest Service cross-mapped two of the challenges we face—increased housing density and pressure from insects and disease. We found areas of high risk all across the country—for example, all along the Sierra Nevada, in much of the Upper Midwest, and across the eastern seaboard, from Massachusetts to Florida. In all of these areas, pressures on wildlife are growing.

And the risks are not just on private land. The U.S. Forest Service manages 20 percent of our nation’s forests in a system of national forests and grasslands ranging from Alaska to Puerto Rico. Research has shown that these lands are some of the most important refuges for threatened and endangered species. But habitat degradation is a challenge even here. For example:

  • Invasive weeds such as kudzu, cheatgrass, leafy spurge, and spotted knapweed have infested about 2.4 million hectares of national forest land.
  • In 2002, we found that 29 million hectares of national forest land were at moderate to severe risk from uncharacteristically severe wildfires. That’s roughly 4 hectares in 10.
  • A recent U.S. Forest Service assessment showed that 48 percent of the watersheds on the national forests and grasslands had low to moderate functional integrity.
  • Severe outbreaks of western forest pests have affected 7.2 million hectares on the national forests.
  • We estimate that somewhere between 26 and 33 million hectares of national forest land are in need of restoration—up to 42 percent of the entire National Forest System.

So we have our work cut out for us. In the remainder of my remarks, I will describe some of what the United States is doing to meet these challenges.

Ecological Restoration

The key is ecological restoration. Working with partners, the U.S. Forest Service is focusing on restoring healthy, resilient forest and grassland ecosystems. Through restoration, we are helping ecosystems adapt to a changing climate by building resistance to climate-related stressors such as drought, wildfire, insects, and disease. We are also working to increase ecosystem resilience, thereby minimizing the severity of climate change impacts. We have mapped the actions our units can take in response to climate change, and we are tracking our climate change response through score cards that our units periodically complete.

We are taking a series of steps to pick up the pace of restoration. The U.S. Forest Service has identified 5 million hectares of national forest land in need of mechanical restoration treatments. In 2011, we restored ecosystems on roughly 1.5 million hectares nationwide—more than double what we did just 10 years ago. This year, we plan to increase the area treated by about 8 percent, to 1.6 million hectares. [might or might not want to say:] In connection with the Bonn Challenge, assuming that we get sufficient funding, the U.S. Forest Service has pledged to continue landscape-scale restoration at the same pace—at least 1.6 million hectares per year—until 2020. Other federal agencies as well as state and tribal governments are also picking up the pace of fuels and forest health treatments across the United States. From 2001 through 2009, the federal land managers in the United States together treated almost 14 million hectares.

But funding is limited, especially in these tough economic times, so we need to make the most of the resources we have. To help set priorities, the U.S. Forest Service has developed a new way of prioritizing watersheds for treatment, and we have chosen 78 watersheds for initial treatment—the ones that will benefit the most. We are now working with partners to develop watershed action plans, formulate treatment schedules, and implement restoration treatments.

The U.S. Forest Service also developed a Western Bark Beetle Strategy to set spending priorities for areas affected by the bark beetle epidemic in the West. Highest priority are areas where hazard tree removal is needed for public safety and where hazardous fuels treatments are required to protect homes and communities from wildfire. Longer term restoration goals include helping beetle-killed forests recover through measures such as collecting seeds and establishing seedlings … and building resilience in remaining stands through thinning to diversify species and age classes. Our restoration treatments are designed to make forests less susceptible to large-scale beetle attack while helping them adapt to the broader effects of a changing climate.

Partnerships and Collaboration

Of course, none of this can be done alone. The U.S. Forest Service is working closely with the communities affected by drought, wildfires, invasive species, and bark beetle outbreaks. Our goal is to restore healthy, resilient forests through partnerships and collaboration across shared landscapes.

One way is through our Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. Each year, we choose a number of large-scale projects for long-term funding, mostly on national forest land, but also on adjacent private and other lands. One example is the Four Forest Restoration Initiative in Arizona. It involves almost 1 million hectares on four national forests. These units have been working for more than 10 years with local communities, environmentalists, and the forest products industry to work out a collaborative agreement for thinning overgrown forests. The partners are pooling their resources under a ten-year project to restore the open fire-adapted ponderosa pine woodland that is native to this region.

The project will also provide jobs, thereby stimulating local economies. A study in Oregon found that every million dollars invested in restoration-related activities like mechanical thinning and road decommissioning generates 12 to 28 jobs. That compares favorably to activities in other sectors of the economy. Restoration also attracts visitors to rural areas, generating even more local jobs.

In connection with our restoration activities, the U.S. Forest Service is committed to increasing timber harvest levels by 20 percent, from 2.4 billion board feet in 2011 to 3 billion board feet annually. This is partly to support the industrial infrastructure we need to restore our forests to health. We have got to find new uses for the low-value woody materials that need to be removed for healthy forests and healthy rural communities.

That’s why the U.S. Forest Service is promoting the use of wood as a renewable resource. Our researchers are developing new ways of utilizing low-value wood, such as cross-laminated timber for construction. Wood makes up almost half of all building materials in the United States, yet it accounts for only a tenth of the energy used to manufacture building materials. One study has shown that making a house from wood is about twice as carbon-efficient as making it from steel or cement. The U.S. Forest Service has therefore directed our units to follow green building standards in all new facilities, including the use of wood.

Where feasible, we are also promoting wood-to-energy conversion, partly to gain value from materials removed during restoration treatments. Wood supplies about a third of the renewable energy in the United States, more than any other renewable energy source except hydropower. Our government has launched a concerted effort to help build a strong wood-to-energy industry.

National Fire Strategy

The United States is integrating restoration through partnerships into our national response to wildland fire. Two years ago, in response to the growing severity of our fire seasons, we began preparing a National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy. We developed the strategy in concert with federal, tribal, state, and local governments and nongovernmental organizations—basically, the entire fire community. The strategy has three main focus areas:

  • First, restoring ecosystems on a landscape scale. This is where our restoration focus dovetails with our fire strategy. We want to restore fire-adapted forests capable of withstanding the stresses and disturbances associated with climate change.
  • Our second focus area is creating fire-adapted human communities. This is a response to the growing wildland/urban interface in the United States. Almost 70,000 communities are now at risk from wildfire, and less than 10 percent have a community wildfire protection plan. We want to change that.
  • Our third focus area is on making safe, effective, risk-based wildfire management decisions. Fire protection is based on an appropriate response to wildfire—including, where it is safe and beneficial, the use of fire for management purposes. We need to learn to live with fire.

We are implementing our national cohesive strategy in three phases. By February of next year, we hope to have the strategy fully in place and deliver a final report to Congress.

Open Space Conservation

As communities spread into our wildlands in the United States, the need for protecting critical parcels of land is growing. In 2010, President Obama launched an initiative called America’s Great Outdoors. Among other things, it called for strengthening our Land and Water Conservation Fund for acquiring parcels of public land to protect for future generations.

An alternative approach is to buy conservation easements from willing forest landowners. A conservation easement protects private forest land from urban development while keeping it in private ownership. Under our Forest Legacy Program, the U.S. Forest Service works with the states to acquire easements on forested lands of special importance for conservation. As of this last February, more than 880,000 hectares had been protected in this way in 53 states and territories.

Part of what drives land use conversion is loss of private income from forest lands. The Forest Service is working to increase income for private forest landowners by developing markets and payments for forest-related ecosystem services such as carbon storage and water purification. In the United States, such payments and markets are substantial and growing; they rose in value from $1.7 billion in 2005 to $1.9 billion in 2007.

Our nation is also forming cross-jurisdictional partnerships to preserve open space. A good example is the Quabbin-to-Cardigan Partnership in New England. The partnership is a collaborative landscape-scale effort that brings public and private organizations together to keep forests intact in one of the last remaining large blocks of forest habitat in the region. It protects municipal watersheds for about 200 cities and towns, including the city of Boston.

Investments in Green Infrastructure

So the challenges to forestry are great—but so are the opportunities. In this turbulent environment, with so many risks and uncertainties associated with climate change, population growth, and other factors, our forestry organizations need to be open to change—to subject ourselves to scrutiny, to be ready to adapt to changing conditions, to become as resilient as the ecosystems we are charged with managing.

Fortunately, conservationists in the United States are doing just that. They are finding imaginative new ways of working together across jurisdictions—of leveraging partnership resources to invest in green infrastructure. Investments in forestry and conservation amount to investments in the future of our entire continent, for the benefit of generations to come.


Results from the assessment done in connection with the Watershed Condition Framework, per C. Savage on March 9 (Asst. Dir. For Watershed and Aquatic Resources).