National Forests, a New Administration, and Climate Change

Margaret Giblin

Nov. 20, 2008

One important environmental challenge facing soon-to-be-President Obama is how to reinvigorate the National Forest System’s environmental protections.  The system encompasses 192 million acres of land, which – to the constant amazement of those of us on the East Coast – represents about 8 percent of the total land area of the United States (roughly equivalent to the size of Texas), and about 25 percent of the country’s total forested lands. 

Late in the 19th Century, amid concerns that excessive logging was damaging watersheds and depleting future timber supplies, Congress authorized setting aside areas of federal forest lands as “reserves.”  President Theodore Roosevelt transformed the early system of reserves, giving it many of the characteristics it retains today – renaming them National Forests, increasing their total size to about 194 million acres, and assigning their management by the Forest Service to the Department of Agriculture (USDA). 

Legislation in the 1960s and 1970s recognized the importance of a wide range of uses of the national forests, including recreation, wilderness, and fish and wildlife habitat.  However, from their inception, the national forests have been viewed as lands to be managed for “multiple uses” – including extractive uses such as timber harvesting and mining.  Balancing these multiple uses is an ongoing challenge, and emphasis has shifted over time for a variety of reasons, including changing demands placed on the forests by the American people, an evolving understanding of the functions of forest ecosystems, and which administration is in power. 

The Bush Administration drew well-earned criticism from a variety of environmental leaders and organizations (including CPR Member Scholars) for rolling back roadless area protections, overhauling forest planning regulations to the detriment of environmental protections and citizen participation, and further abandoning certain environmental protections in the name of wildfire protection. 

Writing for the High Country News’s Writers on the Range, Chris Wood (a former Forest Service staffer) recently noted that since 2001, the Forest Service has increased the portion of its budget dedicated to stopping fire from about 15 percent to nearly 50 percent.  As Environment & Energy Daily reported on Tuesday, because Congress and the Administration have not covered rising firefighting costs in recent years, the agency has made up the shortfall by raiding other programs.  Meanwhile, Land Letter reports that the results of the Forest Service’s emphasis on wildfire prevention and mitigation efforts have been mixed.  Wildfires have burned 5 million acres this year alone, 1.5 million more than in 2003, the year the Administration’s Healthy Forests Restoration Act (a major impetus for the agency’s increased focus on firefighting) was passed, and the worst fire seasons of the last eight years were in 2006 and 2007 (with 9.1 million acres and 9.4 million acres burned, respectively). 

Former Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth told Land Letter that “clearing out unnaturally dense forests will be increasingly important in the years to come, when climate change is expected to create drier forests and lengthen the wildfire season just as more people move into forested areas.”  And, as CPR Member Scholar and Director Robert L. Glicksman points out in his chapter in the forthcoming Climate Change Reader (W. Rodgers & M. Robinson-Dorn, eds.), fires pose direct dangers not only to people living in the “wildland-urban interface,” but also less direct dangers to people and ecosystems farther removed from the affected forests.  For example, watersheds damaged by fires are more susceptible to flash floods, which can affect communities many miles away.  (A dramatic example of this came in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when logging removed much of the natural forest cover from the eastern mountains of West Virginia, and resulted in devastating flooding as far downstream as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.)  Forest fires can also be an indirect contributor to climate change – not only due to the greenhouse gases emitted as the forests burn, but also because fire decreases the capacity of forests to sequester carbon until new growth emerges. 

As serious a problem as wildfires are, however, and as much as the need to address them will continue and even increase as the effects of climate change become more pronounced in the coming years, wildfires are not the only challenge that climate change will create for management of the National Forest System.  Other impacts identified by Professor Glicksman in his writings include the alteration of habitats upon which myriad plant and animal species depend.  Many species will attempt to migrate to new areas as ecosystems that used to sustain them become unsuited to their needs.  Damaging pest infestations will increase as pests move into and thrive in formerly inhospitable environments, or as milder winters fail to impose natural seasonal controls as in years past.  Examples of such pests include both native species long known to the Forest Service, such as the Southern pine beetle, as well as invasive newcomers, such as the emerald Ash Borer and the Asian longhorned beetle.  Originally sighted in New York City in 1996, the Asian longhorned beetle has since been detected in Illinois, New Jersey, and most recently (in August 2008) in Massachusetts.  Land Letter’s recent account of attempts by foresters to slow the spread of this destructive insect reveals just how costly such infestations may be – in 2001, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service concluded that if the beetle can’t be controlled and is allowed to spread from the east coast to the west, it could destroy nearly a third of the country’s trees, representing an estimated $669 billion loss.

In the face of such unprecedented challenges, the time has once again come for an evolution in the way the Forest Service manages our national forests.  Some necessary changes may be accomplished by simply reversing the Bush Administration’s counterproductive actions.  For example, both to maximize the utility of the forests as natural carbon sinks and to ensure the availability of suitable habitat for native species driven to migration by climate change, the Obama Administration should follow through on the President-elect’s stated intent to restore federal protections for the roadless areas of the National Forest System.  Similarly, strong environmental protections must be reincorporated into regulations governing planning in the national forests. 

And certainly, the Forest Service will have to shift some of the nearly 50 percent of its budget that has been devoted to fire fighting under the Bush Administration to other imperatives.  On Capitol Hill, lawmakers unhappy with the extent to which other programs have suffered as half the agency’s budget has been devoted to firefighting over the past several years (some now referring to the Forest Service as the “Fire Service”) are mulling over ways for the agency to more effectively balance its priorities.  One possibility would be passage of legislation proposed by House Natural Resources Chairman Nick Rahall to create a special federal fund for the catastrophic fires that account for most of the Forest Service’s firefighting costs.  Another possible means by which the Forest Service can free up funds to focus on other priorities may be (as The Wilderness Society pointed out to Environment & Energy Daily), to continue a management strategy it has begun to employ called “appropriate management response” (AMR).  Depending on the situation, AMR can range from aggressively fighting a fire to monitoring a fire in the backcountry that does not threaten lives or significant property.  A century of focus on the suppression of naturally-occurring wildfires led to the buildup of flammable brush and dead trees, a major driver behind the Bush Administration’s Healthy Forest Initiative.  Allowing fires to function in their natural ecological role under certain circumstances wouldn’t just free up resources for other agency priorities, it would also be sound forest management.

As President-elect Obama has recognized in a variety of contexts, we stand at a unique moment in history, and this is true when it comes to managing our National Forest System.  The challenges posed by climate change call for more than the usual administration-to-administration shift in emphasis.  Instead, the traditional balancing associated with “multiple use” management must yield to the implementation of proactive measures designed not only to protect the national forests themselves, but to maximize their ability to contribute to the nation’s resilience in the face of climate change.

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