Working Together for Conservation

Tom Tidwell, Chief
National Association of Conservation Districts, Legislative Conference
Washington, DC
— July 18, 2011

It’s a pleasure to be here today. Thank you for inviting me. I am particularly pleased to be here to renew our partnership commitment, and I would like to acknowledge Yenie Tran, NACD’s Western Issues Specialist. Yenie has been our primary point of contact for this agreement, and she has done a wonderful job. Yenie, we will miss you as you head off to get your Ph.D. We wish you well!

As Yenie knows, we share a lot in common. But some of you might not be all that familiar with the Forest Service, so I will start by telling you a little about us.

Who We Are

The Forest Service was founded more than a century ago, during the first great wave of conservation in the United States. The late 19th century was a time of rampant deforestation in the United States. Deforestation led to slash fires and watershed degradation, followed by erosion, floods, and downstream siltation.

Congress grew so concerned about degraded watersheds and loss of timber that it authorized a system of federal forest reserves in 1891. In 1905, the forest reserves were placed in the care of the Forest Service, and they became known as the national forests. Today, the national forests and grasslands cover 193 million acres, an area almost twice the size of California. There are national forests and grasslands all across the country, in 44 states and Puerto Rico. For example, the George Washington National Forest is about an hour west of here, in Virginia.

But taking care of public land is not all the Forest Service does. We have the world’s largest research organization dedicated solely to conservation, with 7 research stations, 77 research labs and other offices, 81 experimental forests and ranges, and decades of data on forest cover, water, wildlife, and other resources.

We also work overseas. We’ve had projects in 88 countries so far, helping forest managers and landowners around the world.

And, like NACD, we work with America’s private forest landowners. Only 20 percent of the nation’s forests are in the National Forest System. More than half of the nation’s forests, 56 percent, are on private land, and our mission extends to them, too. We work with the State Foresters and a variety of other partners, including NACD, in all 56 states and territories. We work together to help private forest landowners manage their lands sustainably—and to address issues like habitat continuity and conservation of open space.


So that’s who we are. Now I’ll talk about what we do—about our priorities in the area of conservation.

For the first 70 years of our history, the Forest Service managed the national forests and grasslands to sustain a range of multiple uses for future generations. We played a key role in the development of our nation, helping to meet our nation’s need for wood and other natural resources. We also understood the importance of having wild places, and in 1924 we set aside the world’s first wilderness area, the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico.

Through the states, we also worked with private forest landowners, providing both technical expertise and financial assistance of all kinds. We still do. Like NACD, our goal is to help family forest landowners implement best practices on their lands.

Today, Americans understand the full importance of their forests and grasslands, both public and private. These lands provide a range of forest products and ecosystem services, such as clean water, timber and pulpwood, carbon sequestration, habitat for fish and wildlife, opportunities for outdoor recreation, and more. Our job at the Forest Service is to sustain the ability of America’s forests and grasslands, both public and private, to deliver a full range of these benefits for generations to come.

That ability is now at risk. Drought, invasive species, loss of open space, forest fragmentation, uncharacteristically severe wildfires, uncharacteristically severe outbreaks of insects and disease—all these stresses and disturbances are affecting America’s forests and grasslands on an unprecedented scale. Partly, they are driven by the overarching challenge of climate change.

The Forest Service is responding to these challenges through ecological restoration. By restoration, we mean establishing the functions and processes characteristic of healthy, resilient ecosystems—ecosystems that are capable of providing a broad array of ecosystem services.

Ecosystems and the ecological conditions that shape them cross borders and boundaries. Our land management today is therefore cross-jurisdictional, based on working with partners across ownerships to address ecosystem issues on a landscape scale. A loss of active land management, along with the many other challenges I mentioned before, is of great concern to us. Partnerships and collaboration are key. If people come together to collaborate across landownerships and landscapes, then they will be able to address shared issues and to pursue common goals more effectively. We want to engage NACD and other partners on a landscape scale to address the forest health issues that affect us all, on both public and private land.


A major disturbance associated with climate change is wildland fire. Forest conditions are tied to temperature, precipitation, and other climatic conditions, and we are seeing conditions that are extraordinary. We have had record precipitation across our northern tier of states, with heavy flooding and more likely to come as snowpacks melt. We have also had prolonged drought in areas ranging from Arizona to Florida. The result has been extreme fire weather, with forests and rangelands extremely dry and flammable, and we have gotten a series of very severe fires. That includes the Wallow Fire, the largest in Arizona history.

This is part of a pattern. Since 2000, we have had fires with record sizes in at least nine states—and two in Arizona. This year, more than 5.8 million acres have already burned—about twice the year-to-date 10-year average—and we are not even into August. Experts think that fire seasons in the future could return to levels not seen since the 1940s, reaching 12 to 15 million acres.

The Forest Service has a long tradition of cooperative wildland fire management, going back to the Weeks Act of 1911. Under the FLAME Act of 2009, we developed a more cohesive wildland fire management strategy—a blueprint for working together at the federal, state, tribal, local, and municipal levels to address wildland fire management.

Our goals include creating fire-adapted natural communities through ecological restoration—by restoring healthy, resilient ecosystems. An equally important goal is to create fire-adapted human communities by treating fuels in the wildland/urban interface and by helping people adopt firesafe planning and building practices. Finally, we need to make safe, effective, risk-based wildfire management decisions. Fire protection requires not only suppression, but also, where safe and beneficial, the use of fire for management purposes. We need to learn to live with fire.


In the United States, wildland fire management is a story of working closely with local communities. From the very beginnings of the Forest Service, our forest supervisors and district rangers have lived and worked in the communities we serve. They are responsible for knowing local conditions and working with local communities to meet local needs. We are set up as a decentralized, community-based outfit.

Our job is to work with local communities for social and economic as well as ecological sustainability. Conservation and sustainability are most effective when it meets local needs for prosperity and well-being by engaging people and communities in protecting and restoring the forests and grasslands around them. Accordingly, the Forest Service has longstanding traditions of providing jobs, training, and community support. For example, spending by recreation visitors to the national forests contributes over $14 billion to GDP and accounts for 224,000 jobs, mostly in rural communities. Healthy, resilient forests and grasslands are also of immense social importance to those communities, enhancing quality of life and sustaining culturally important landscapes.

By working with partners to restore landscapes and protect working lands, the Forest Service provides social, economic, and ecological benefits. Our programs and projects are designed to help attract tourism, sustain green jobs, and generate innovative forest products, food, and energy. We also engage urban communities in protecting and restoring America’s 100 million acres of urban and community forests. Our goal is a continuous network of healthy forested landscapes, from remote wilderness areas to shady urban neighborhoods, parks, and greenways.

Working Together

I believe that our missions closely correspond, and I understand we are in the process of renewing our long-standing commitment to the NACD. We have many opportunities to work together at the community level to help private forest landowners sustain and restore healthy, resilient forest ecosystems. The benefits we have enjoyed in working together in the past will continue into the future, and we hope to …

  • support tools and collaborative initiatives for communicating the need for sustainable forestry;
  • build, strengthen, and expand our strategic partnerships for conservation;
  • provide technical and communication support to conservation districts; and
  • support collaborative action to improve the coordinated interagency delivery of forestry and conservation assistance.

The goal of our work, and yours, is to get results like forest products, clean water, healthy habitat,  and healthy communities. Building on each other’s strengths, we can work together across landscapes, engaging the communities we serve for the benefit of generations to come.