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Changing the Future of US Forests: A Call for Recommitment
V. Alaric Sample

This 50th anniversary has provided an opportunity to commemorate President Kennedy’s dedication of the Pinchot Institute and Grey Towers National Historic Site in 1963, and to celebrate many conservation achievements since then. It is also an opportunity for us to say thanks to all who have made this possible—the US Forest Service and other key partners, our donors and supporters, and our board members past and present. We owe a special thanks to the men and women who have served the Institute as staff professionals, fellows, and university affiliates— scholars, innovators, and activists with a deep personal commitment to conserving forests and helping us meet the environmental sustainability challenges of the future.

Those challenges already confront us, in ways that most citizens and policymakers do not yet realize. Today, America’s public and private forests absorb roughly 15 percent of all US carbon emissions—a significant contribution to our well-being nationally and globally. But according to a recent Forest Service analysis (USDA Forest Service 2012), we are on track to lose this valuable carbon sink, and by 2030 US forests are expected to become a major net source of carbon emissions themselves.

How could this happen to us, one of the most educated and affluent countries in the world? There are two overarching reasons. First, wildfires are continuing to get larger and more destructive, with individual wildfire events putting as much as 5 million metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Second, the loss of forests to development steadily reduces their collective ability to absorb carbon, and it is adding up—suburban sprawl costs the country an average of 6,000 acres of open space a day, about a third of which is private forest land.

In the Forest Service analysis, it is clear where this trajectory is leading, but this is a future that doesn’t have to be. Effective changes taken quickly can change the angle of this trajectory, and even small changes in that angle now can result in a very different and more positive longer-term future.

Knowing what to do next is not rocket science. In fact, scientists themselves assert that we already have the necessary scientific knowledge to begin taking timely, effective actions now (Vose et al. 2013). The steps that are needed are not new, but the need is more urgent:

Conserving forest land. Private forestland owners, who collectively manage 60 percent of the nation’s forests, succumb to development pressures largely for financial reasons. Effective, tax-advantaged programs exist to encourage easements and other conservation efforts on private lands, but they are drastically and chronically underfunded. Rising values for carbon offsets, water quality, and wildlife habitat will help make private forests a more valuable asset to their owners—even as a means to more affordable health care (see: www.pinchot.org/gp/FHHHI).

Restoring forests. Reducing wildfire risk is one of the most direct means for controlling carbon emissions from forests. Climate change is making this more urgent, increasing environmental stresses on forests that lead to unnaturally high insect and disease mortality, and extraordinarily large and destructive wildfires. Partnership efforts like the Cooperative Forest Landscape Restoration Program provide a valuable model for how this gets done— 23 projects have restored more than 600,000 acres of National Forest land over the past decade (Schwedler et al. 2013). The Nature Conservancy estimates that more than 120 million acres of federal, state, private and tribal lands are in need of such treatments (TNC 2013). Clearly this will require a major financial investment—but the alternative is to spend far more in the future fighting wildfires on these very same lands, losing more lives, more homes, and more resources in the process.

Forest bioenergy. Wood waste from hazardous fuels treatments, forest health thinnings, and wood products manufacturing will eventually release its carbon into the atmosphere through burning or decay. Capturing the energy values of this biomass, and substituting it for fossil fuels wherever financially feasible, further reduces net carbon emissions. Biomass harvesting guidelines designed to protect soil productivity, water quality, biodiversity and other values have been developed for every region of the US and are now widely used.

Our political leaders will continue to grapple with the formidable economic and fiscal challenges that dominate today’s headlines. But this should still be on the short list of public policy priorities. Wildfires that consume firefighters’ lives, hundreds of homes, and millions of acres of forests are both unsustainable and unacceptable. Loss of forest land to development also adds up to significant losses of essential ecosystem services that forests quietly provide—water resource protection, wildlife habitat, biodiversity— all of which are beginning to show the effects of climate change. For forests, climate mitigation and adaptation are two sides of the same coin. The failure to adequately adapt to the effects of climate change leads to the diminished effectiveness of forests in mitigating climate change at the larger scale—which in turn leads to even greater challenges in adaptation to sustain important ecosystem services and values.

Conserving and sustainably managing America’s forests has never been more important than it is today. The challenges are great, but our collective ability to address them can be impressive too if they are well focused and adequately supported. For the forestry and conservation community, as well as for the Pinchot Institute and its supporters, this is a time of renewal, resolve, and recommitment.

The Nature Conservancy, 2013. Restoring America’s Forests. Accessed at: (http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/habitats/forests/restori ng-americas-forests.xml)

Schwedler, J., McCarthy, L., Murphy, K., and Young, J. 2013. People Restoring America’s Forests: 2012 Report on the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. Online only at www.nature.org/CFLR

USDA Forest Service. 2012. Future of America’s Forest and Rangelands: Forest Service 2010 Resources Planning Act Assessment. Gen. Tech. Rep. WO-87. Washington, DC. 198 pp.

Vose, J., Peterson, D., and Patel-Weynand, T. (eds.). 2012. Effects of Climatic Variability and Change on Forest Ecosystems: A Comprehensive Science Synthesis for the US Forest Sector. General Technical Report PNW-GTR-870. Portland, Oregon: US Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 265 pp.
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