Structural Change and Sustainable Forest Management

Tom Tidwell, Chief
SAF, Breakfast with the Chief
Albuquerque, NM
— October 30, 2010

Good morning! It’s a pleasure to be here today.

Rather than just me standing up here and talking the whole time, I would like to have more of a conversation. But to help stimulate questions and maybe generate a dialogue, I will start with a few general remarks about the current context for forestry in the United States.

Declining Wood Removals

By current context, I don’t mean the business cycle. Obviously, we are at a low. The worst has been averted—the threat of a depression. But the recession has deeply depressed demand for forest products. The effects are grave, the impacts troubling, and the Forest Service is responding through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Under the Act, we have obligated $1.15 billion in projects that put Americans back to work restoring the health and resilience of our nation’s forests and grasslands. We are hiring local folks, funding local communities, getting money flowing through the economy again. And that is critically important, especially now.

But let’s assume that the business cycle will improve over time. It always has before. Let’s focus instead on the longer term changes in our economy and our society. These changes are not cyclical, but rather structural. They tend to be irreversible, and they are critically important in determining how the climate for forestry in the United States is developing … where we are heading … and what the long-term challenges and opportunities will be.

To understand the current context, it helps to consider what has changed. Some of us can probably remember a very different context for forestry 20 or 30 years ago, when markets were booming for America’s forest products, particularly timber.

But the FAO has been tracking wood removals worldwide since 1990, and it tells a story of decline. From 1990 to 2005, wood removals in the United States fell by almost 10 percent. They also fell in Brazil, China, and Russia, three of the world’s other five major producers. The beneficiaries have been Canada and an array of smaller producers around the world. For them, global market share has grown.

The consequences in the United States have been dismal. Mills and plants have shut down—jobs have been lost—stumpage prices have slumped. Fewer removals have meant less active management for biodiversity, for forest health, for wildlife habitat. Lower stumpage prices have meant less incentive for private forest landowners to keep their lands forested and sustainably managed. From 2000 to 2030, housing density is predicted to grow on about 57 million acres of forestland, an area three-quarters the size of New Mexico.

In terms of global markets for wood, the reasons are clear. Global trade and other factors have made foreign wood production more competitive. In response, the U.S. forest products industry has become more capital-intensive, less labor-intensive, more productive, and more globally connected. These structural changes have profound economic, social, and environmental implications for sustainable forest management in the United States.

An array of responses is possible, ranging from import duties, to tax incentives, to trade liberalization and more. Forest Service researchers are studying the options, and the United States is already pursuing many of them. Through our International Programs staff, for example, the Forest Service is helping other countries reduce illegal timber harvest and adopt forest management practices more aligned with U.S. environmental and labor standards.

But our options are often limited. For example, measures to benefit our own producers, such as tariffs or subsidies, could trigger countermeasures in other countries. And the capacity for effective local governance is negligible in much of the world; building that capacity will be very, very slow and difficult, and it goes far beyond our capacity in the global forestry community.

Shifting Public Values

Some of our most promising options, in my view, revolve around what we can do here in the United States to expand our markets and to differentiate our forest products in terms of ecosystem services. In the last 20 to 30 years, there has been a structural shift in America’s public values and expectations, and it has profoundly affected forestry in the United States, creating new sources of opportunity that are as yet largely untapped.

When most Americans look at a forest, they do not see sawtimber or fuelwood, biomass or livestock forage. They see things that are living and growing, and they feel part of that and take pleasure in it. They want to take a hike in the woods. They want to hear birds and see all kinds of wildlife. They want to see clean-flowing streams, and they rightly connect the stream water to their own drinking supplies. In this era of climate change, they might see a big tree and rightly connect the carbon stored in it to a critical ecosystem service.

Water, wildlife, carbon storage, opportunities for outdoor recreation and aesthetic enjoyment—all these values and more have elevated the importance of America’s forests in the last 20 to 30 years. As foresters, we should understand that and feel good about the work we are doing, because what we are doing is more valuable to the American people than ever. Just as there is a greater public appreciation today for all the benefits Americans get from their forests, so there is a greater potential appreciation for everything we do as foresters and land managers to help sustain America’s forests for future generations.

And that appreciation extends across landscapes. Most Americans have some idea of our wilderness areas, but 80 percent of us now live in metropolitan areas, so most of us actually experience forests much closer to home, maybe down the street in a neighborhood greenway. America’s forests form a living continuum, ranging from remote wilderness areas, to front country campgrounds, to a farmer’s back forty, to woody suburban backyards, to shady urban streets and parks. Americans value all the benefits they get from forests across that entire living continuum.

Taking an All-Lands Approach

How we manage forests has changed accordingly. Where once we tended to compartmentalize, managing for a particular good or service—timber here, forage there, recreation over here, urban forest over there—today we tend to focus more on restoring a whole range of goods and services across entire landscapes. We do that by restoring the interconnectivity of back country and front country, of upland and riparian, of urban and rural, of fragmented landscape mosaics. We do that by restoring the functions and processes characteristic of healthy, resilient forest ecosystems—ecosystems capable of delivering clean air and water, wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, and all the other benefits that Americans want and need. And, yes, that includes wood.

The key is collaboration. No one of us can do it alone—the challenges are just too great: population growth and land use conversion … regional drought … catastrophic fires … outbreaks of insects and disease … and the overarching challenge of climate change. Climate change highlights the need for broad-scale approaches—for conservation on a landscape scale. Forest ecosystems typically form mosaics—mosaics of plant and animal communities and mosaics of landownerships and human communities. Landscape-scale conservation takes all these mosaics into account. It brings people together to collaborate across ownerships, to address shared issues and common concerns, and to pursue common goals based on mutual respect.

A great example is the Forest Service’s new Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. Under the program, we selected ten new projects in nine states, all of which foster collaborative work to restore ecosystems on a landscape scale. In Arizona, for example, local environmentalists and communities got together behind a Forest Service plan to restore degraded ponderosa pine ecosystems on four national forests. It’s called the Four Forests Restoration Project, and the partners will treat about 50,000 acres per year through long-term stewardship contracts. Ultimately, the sale of materials removed will cover project costs. The end result will be healthy, resilient, fire-adapted ponderosa pine forests, plus jobs and economic opportunities for local communities.

Increasing Investments in Conservation

The values restored will be many, including biodiversity, hydrologic function, habitat for rare species, opportunities for aesthetic enjoyment, and more. The shift in public values over the last 20 to 30 years has raised the profile of these noncommercial values associated with forests. Today, we call them ecosystem services. In 2005, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment identified more than 20 ecosystem services from forests, including provisioning services such as wild foods and genetic resources; regulating services such as erosion, flood, and climate control; and cultural services such as outdoor recreation, spiritual renewal, and aesthetic enjoyment.

These services are not new, but they have historically been taken for granted, just as people take it for granted that clean water will come out when they turn on the tap. But that tap water might not be clean or abundant if the forests that store and filter the water are removed. Water quantity and quality … biodiversity … carbon sequestration … these and other ecosystem services from forests come at a cost, and forests can be thought of as the natural capital that delivers them. One expert estimated the value of the National Forest System as natural capital, based on the annual return of ecosystem services from the national forest and grasslands, at $800 billion.

Private forestland represents an even greater natural capital, and private forest landowners who keep their lands forested and sustainably managed provide an array of valuable ecosystem services. Why should they be paid for a service like providing timber but not for providing water or wildlife habitat or carbon sequestration? If we can find market mechanisms for capturing the commercial value of these and other ecosystem services, then maybe we can lower the costs of conservation enough so that people choose to keep their lands forested and sustainably managed.

But we need the right kind of markets. It’s a fine point, but an important one. We can have markets that are designed to maximize certain outputs, such as sawtimber or pulpwood, balanced by regulations that are designed to limit certain practices, such as tree cutting or biomass burning. These kinds of markets and regulations tend to be shortsighted. They tend to foster a culture of conflict. They tend to exchange short-term commercial or regulatory gains for long-term costs that are far greater in terms of jobs, the environment, and ecosystem services.

The alternative is to create markets that are specifically designed to promote conservation through sustainable forest management. Our markets—and our regulations, for that matter—need to be designed not with outputs, but with long-term outcomes in mind: to ensure a sustainable flow of all the ecosystem services that Americans want and need from their forests.

That concludes my remarks on the structural changes affecting forestry in the United States and the new opportunities we have for collaborative initiatives on a landscape scale. I would like to hear any comments or questions you might have.


Peter Ince, Albert Schuler, Henry Spelter, and William Luppold, Globalization and Structural Change in the U.S. Forest Sector: An Evolving Context for Sustainable Forest Management. A Technical Document Supporting the USDA Forest Service Interim Update of the 2000 RPA (Gen. Tech. Rep. FPL-GTR-170; Madison, WI: USDA Forest Service, Forest Products Laboratory, 2007).