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Restoration and Conservation New Goals for U.S. Forest Management

Forest management is not a luxury Saying that conserving forests was a “necessity, not a luxury,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack last week laid out a comprehensive new plan for managing the nation’s forestland.

In a speech delivered at Seattle’s Seward Park, Vilsack emphasized the need for shifting the goals of the U.S. Forest Service with a keener focus on restoration as the central tenet in forest management.

It is time for a change in the way we view and manage America’s forestlands with an eye toward the future,” Vilsack said. “This will require a new approach that engages the American people and stakeholders in conserving and restoring both our national forests and our privately owned forests. It is essential that we reconnect Americans across the nation with the natural resources and landscapes that sustain us.”

Climate change is a part the future and reality in working to restore and preserve forests, Vilsack believes. Wildfires, disease, and pests, all exacerbated in part by climate change, have led in recent decades to diminishing forest health. The affect of which impacts all that depend on the forest for survival – from wildlife, watersheds, and natural resources to local economies and communities.

“Declining forest health and the effects of our changing climate have resulted in an increasing number of catastrophic wildfires and insect outbreaks… Our shared vision begins with restoration. Restoration means managing forestlands first and foremost to protect our water resources, while making our forests more resilient to climate change.”

Part of the new management approach seeks to help secure the nation’s water supply. Watersheds with a large proportion of healthy forest cover are most likely those associated with good water quality. Forests protect soil, moderate stream flow, and help sustain a healthy aquatic ecosystem.

Not appealing blocks to Bush-era policies

Vilsack has said he does not plan appeal the recent federal court decision that struck down Bush-era forest use rules considered by conservationists as harmful to wildlife and not based on sound science. The Secretary also confirmed his intention to file an appeal to uphold the 2001 “Roadless Rule,” banning development in the nation’s remaining wilderness areas.

Where’s the screaming? Industry and environmentalists both favorable

Environmental and industry leaders both praised Vilsack’s new vision for forest management, taking into account the necessity and benefits of both sustainability and economic incentive in his new plan.

Emerging markets for carbon and sustainable bioenergy will provide landowners with expanded economic incentives to maintain and restore forests,” Vilsack said in Seattle. “The Forest Service must play a significant role in the development of new markets . . . that also could provide landowners with incentives to restore watersheds and manage forests for clean and abundant water supplies. These markets can also create jobs in rural [areas].”

Kristen Boyles, an attorney for Earthjustice, sees the new approach as a much-needed departure from focusing solely on timber production:

It’s been a long time since we’ve heard anyone from the Forest Service talk about more than just timber,” Boyles said.

Adding praise from the environmental camp was Charlie Raines of the Sierra Club, who expressed particular approval of the “all lands” approach in managing the nation’s forests, 80% of which are outside federal jurisdiction, through linking policy on both public and private lands.

And the timber industry concurs with the praise, enthusiastic with how the Forest Service plan connects forest jobs with forest health.

We’re encouraged by his recognition that maintaining our milling and logging infrastructure is going to be important in maintaining the health of the forests,” said Ann Forest Burns, vice president of the American Forest Resource Council.

Vilsack hopes the plan will also help end “a long history of distrust” between environmentalists and industry, where contentious legal battles have brought to a standstill timber harvests and forest-thinning programs in the West.

Not everyone is quite as sanguine, noting Republican congressman Doc Hastings from Washington as one example.

Our economy can’t afford a vision that is blind to timber jobs and timber communities,” he said in a statement. “We must also be honest about why many forests are in the poor health they are today, and it’s not climate change, but rather lawsuits and policies that shutdown active, environmentally-beneficial management of forests that protect trees’ health and prevent forest fires.”

Hastings overstates his case and ignores the evidence that climate change has already adversely impacted forest health. Nonetheless, most see Vilsack’s speech last week as a hopeful sign that a “new era” in forest management is at hand. One that will benefit the health, sustainability, and economic viability of the nation’s forests.

Sources and further reading:
Los Angeles Times
Excerpts from Tom Vilsack’s August 14 speech
ClimateWire (subscription)
USDA Secreatry Vilsack Announces Additional Recovery Act Funding for Forest Service Projects (press release)
Managing National Forests in the Face of Climate Change

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