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Embracing Gifford Pinchot’s “Practical Idealism”
Robert Bonnie

Good afternoon! It’s a pleasure to be here today to help rededicate the Pinchot Institute for Conservation and Grey Towers National Historic Site.

Today, we come to honor Gifford Pinchot, the Pinchot family, and the legacy and the gifts that the family gave to all of us through Grey Towers and the Pinchot Institute for Conservation Studies. All of us here today are united in the cause of forest conservation and in the understanding that the work we do today to advance that cause flows directly from the work of such farsighted leaders as Pinchot, founder of the USDA Forest Service and the first Forest Service Chief.

Challenges Ahead
We face different challenges in conservation today than the rapid and expansive deforestation and development Gifford Pinchot confronted. Indeed, America’s forests are again at risk. And, while the challenges have changed, addressing them will require all of us to embrace Pinchot’s “practical idealism.”

Robert Bonnie Earlier this year, the Forest Service published the Resources Planning Act assessment, which the agency prepares every decade in order to examine future trends for forests, rangeland, and other natural resources. The RPA points to two large drivers of change in our forests: climate change and population growth.

Since Pinchot’s day, forest lands across the US have rebounded, as agriculture has given way to forests in many regions and landowners have invested in reforestation, driven in part by the rewards of robust markets for wood. The regrowth of forests has furnished many public goods to Americans, such as clean water, open space, and wildlife habitat. Likewise, forest regrowth has reduced atmospheric greenhouse gases, with forests sequestering around 14 percent of this country’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

But, today, urbanization and fragmentation are taking back the gains we made over the last century. World population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050. Our own population in the United States is expected to reach almost 400 million by the middle of the century, meaning growing demand for resources and for urban living space. By 2060, the Forest Service projects losses of about 21 million acres of forests to developed uses in the South alone. That’s an area the size of Maine. Rangeland losses in the Rocky Mountains could be up to 4.4 million acres, an area three times the size of Delaware. By 2030, we also expect to see housing density growth on about 57 million acres of rural forest land, an area larger than all of New England.

In addition to the impacts on water and wildlife, this forest loss, combined with growing impact of disturbances such as fire and pests, could slowly turn our forests from a huge carbon sink into a potential carbon source in the coming decades.

What we do with our forests not only affects the climate, but of course climate change is already having an enormous effect on our forests. Fire seasons are now 60–80 days longer than just a few decades ago, and annual acreages burned have approximately doubled since the 1970s. The Forest Service projects the amount burned may double again by midcentury. Climate change of course isn’t the only driver of fire. Decades of fire suppression and the consequent growth in fuels in our forests have made our fire challenge much, much greater. And, the growth of housing into our forests, particularly in dry forest types in theWest, has put people and property at greater risk and has made fighting fires more treacherous and more expensive.

For decades, fire suppression— that is putting out every fire in the forest—was a bedrock value of forestry and the Forest Service. And, of course, Pinchot played an important role in this, seeing wildland firefighting as a valuable role and indeed perhaps a key rationale for the existence of the fledgling Forest Service in the early 1900s. Of course, science over the last century has changed our view of wildfire. Today, we recognize that fire can be a regenerative force and that many forests depend on frequent fire. We actually need more fires in the woods, but we just need a different type of fire, like the less intense fires that served historically to the clean out underbrush—and that our forests adapted to over millennia. But, though wildland firefighting was once offered as a central justification for the Forest Service, today it threatens to overtake the agency. The Forest Service used to spend 10 to 15 percent of its budget on wildland fire. Today, it spends 40 percent, and in bad years, fully half of its budget is spent on wildland firefighting.

Both President Obama and Secretary Vilsack have noted the importance of addressing the fire budgeting challenge. We must treat fires like the natural disasters they are and not ordinary expenses that must come from the Forest Service’s regular appropriations.

Of course fire is not just a budgetary problem, it’s a land management problem. As such, we must increase the pace and scale of restoration of our forests to improve the health and resilience of our forests to withstand fire and, indeed a variety of other threats such as the bark beetle epidemic we have witnessed in our western forests. Notably, like fire, the bark beetle epidemic is driven at least in part by climate change.

Of course, there are Americans who still have concerns about increased management activities in our forests. To be successful and to avoid the conflicts around forest policy that we have seen in the past, forest restoration and management will require broad public acceptance. This, in turn will require the public to be brought into decision-making through collaborative approaches like those that the Forest Service is helping to lead across the country. The Forest Service, for example, has seeded efforts throughout the country through its Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program which seeks to directly engage stakeholders in large scale ecological restoration while also providing jobs and opportunity for forest industry. It is becoming clear to many of even the staunchest environmentalists that we need a robust timber industry to undertake the work in our forests to restore their health and resilience. Pinchot recognized that wise use and conservation go hand in hand. Pinchot foresaw the need for this type of approach over 100 years ago, writing that “if National Forests are going to accomplish anything worthwhile the people must know all about them and take a very active part in their management.”

Pinchot also observed the key role forests play in conserving clean water. He wrote that “The connection between forests and rivers is like that between father and son. No forest, no rivers.” Public and private forest lands combined furnish water supplies for more than 180 million Americans every day.

But population growth will increase competition for increasingly scarce water resources. It is tempting to think of drought as temporary, but in an era of climate change, that may be wishful thinking. In fact, America could be well on the way to unsustainable levels of water use in several regions. According to the Forest Service, probabilities of water shortages mid-century are very high across large parts of the West, from Colorado to California.

Here, too, forest restoration and management will be critical to preserve watersheds by ensuring the resilience and health of forests. The Forest Service, for example, has adopted a Watershed Condition Framework to guide watershed protection across the country.

While all of this seems daunting, we must remain optimistic. Pinchot’s practical idealism offers a path forward. Of course, in their time, Roosevelt and Pinchot understood that they were in battle against entrenched interests aligned against conservation. Their approach was the right one for the times. But, Pinchot was also skilled in bringing people together around the need for conservation. Today, the threat of climate change and fire, the loss of our working forests to development, and the need for public acceptance of forest restoration, are threats that are too big for us to remain stuck in the conflicts which dominated forest policy over the last several decades. All of us—timber industry, environmentalists, and communities alike—stand to lose a great deal unless we work together to conserve our forests.

Role of the Pinchot Institute
And this is where the Pinchot Institute through its partnership with the Forest Service can play an important role. Fifty years ago, the Institute was established at a time when the emerging trends in conservation and their policy implications were anything but clear. As President Kennedy put it, “Today’s conservation movement must embrace disciplines scarcely known to its prophets of the past.” With climate change and other threats, we stand at a similar juncture today. Working with the Forest Service, the Pinchot Institute is developing initiatives for addressing the challenges facing both public and private forest lands across the country.

The Institute has become a leading voice and convener on the impact of climate change on forest health and resilience. The Pinchot Institute is also a leading voice on efforts around forest restoration on the National Forests. One of our most important tools for restoration is stewardship contracting, which allows for stewardship projects on our National Forests that combine a suite of restoration activities such as thinning, road rehabilitation, and restoration of wildlife habitat. The Forest Service and the Pinchot Institute are working together, drawing on more than a decade of experience, to evaluate pilot projects for stewardship contracting through monitoring by diverse stakeholders. If we are to get away from the forest wars of the past, we need to develop more collaborative approaches that work for industry, environmentalists, and communities. Work such as this is critical.

The Institute’s work on the conservation of our working forests is equally important.Most of America’s forests—about 56 percent—are privately owned; here in the East, it is the vast majority—83 percent. It is in our nation’s interest to conserve private working forests working for all the benefits people get from them, such as mitigating climate change, producing clean water, and providing jobs for forest industry. The Pinchot Institute’s Common Waters project recognizes the critical link between rural landowners, the clean water produced by sustainable forest management, and urban consumers of that water. This project’s work focuses here in the Upper Delaware River Basin, where some 80 percent of the land is forested and largely rural. These lands are also under significant threat from development. Yet the Common Waters Fund provides incentives to landowners to carry out stewardship and place lands in permanent conservation.

The Pinchot Institute has also been a leader in looking at new approaches to forest conservation, such as environmental markets that reward landowners for the benefits— clean water and carbon sequestration for example—of forest conservation. And the Institute doesn’t shy away from thorny issues such as use of wood for bioenergy or forest certification. These are exactly the issues where we need science-based, pragmatic solutions. Practical idealism, if you will.

Looking Ahead
The partnership between the Pinchot Institute and the US Forest Service will continue to yield significant gains for conservation in the coming years. But, even the work of these two great institutions will fall short unless others join us in broadening support for the task ahead. And, that’s my call to you today. We need your help and engagement. Just as we rededicate these hallowed grounds of Grey Towers today, let us rededicate and recommit ourselves to the conservation of our forests and natural resources for the benefit of all people.

To restore and conserve our forests for future generations will require all of us to recognize the size of the challenge ahead and to commit to moving beyond the conflicts of the past, to recognize that we should be united in common cause, to embrace Pinchot’s practical idealism and to work together in striving for the same goal he gave us a century ago: “the greatest good, for the greatest number... over the longest time.”

Robert Bonnie is the Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment at the US Department of Agriculture in Washington, DC.
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