U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell testified before a House subcommittee today on the economic value generated by the nation's forests during a time of increased fire activity, encroaching development, pests, and disease.
Talking to the House Committee on Agriculture's Subcommittee on Conservation, Energy and Forestry, Tidwell noted that forest restoration work, water, wildfire suppression, research, recreation, minerals, special uses and support of state and private forests all contribute tremendous value to rural America.
Tidwell described the health of America's forests, with millions of acres damaged by drought and insects and overloaded with dry fuel primed for catastrophic wildfires. He emphasized the importance of forest restoration work by the Forest Service and forest products industry, which helps prevent damaging fire while creating thousands of jobs in rural America.
"The Forest Service recognizes the need for a strong forest industry to help accomplish forest restoration work," said Tidwell. "The best opportunity for reducing the cost of these restoration treatments is through timber harvests and stewardship contracting."
In the past two decades, there has been a rapid escalation of severe fire behavior and higher fire suppression costs. Nationwide, there are currently 72,400 communities at risk. In fiscal year 2012, the Forest Service spent more than $1.4 billion on wildfire suppression.
Through implementation of the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program -- which relies heavily on stewardship contracting, the Forest Service will create or maintain 1,550 jobs while making national forests more resilient to these wildfire threats.
However, he also noted that Forest Service work cannot alone repair the health of the nation's forests. The forest products industry's 900,000-member workforce is a critical part of the solution.
With an uptick in the housing market, the higher demand and prices for timber will enable the Forest Service to complete more restoration treatments, especially under stewardship contracts. In fiscal year 2012, approximately 25 percent of all timber volume sold was under stewardship contracts.
Water is a vitally important natural resource flowing from America's forests, which provides great economic benefit to many rural and urban communities. Forests provide clean drinking water to more than 180 million people, and watersheds on national forests and grasslands are the source of 20 percent of the nation's drinking water supply. Many major urban centers, like Denver, Portland, Atlanta, and Los Angeles, depend on national forests for their water.
National forests and grasslands contain more than 200,000 miles of fish-bearing streams -- streams that support nationally renowned recreational fisheries and local jobs.
Many states have recently experienced their largest or most destructive fires in history. On average, wildfires burn twice as many acres each year as compared to 40 years ago. Tidwell reported that as the fire seasons grow longer and fires increase, there will be increased impacts to local and state economies:
- In the absence of treatment, fuels continue to accumulate, setting the stage for future fires to be more extreme.
- Where we are able to treat fuels and vegetation, we are able to reduce fire impacts. A review of wildfires that burned into treated fuels showed that, of almost 1,200 cases studied, 93 percent of the fuel treatments were effective in changing fire behavior and/or helping with suppression.
- The pace of our fuel management activities has not kept pace with the trends that drive fuel accumulation.
- Human settlement patterns greatly compound the fire management problem.
- Severe fire can lead to reduced habitat for endangered and threatened species such as spotted owls, sage grouse and cold water fish species.
- The increased presence of wildfire is already having costly and serious impacts on public health with increased levels of smoke.
Over the past few years, the national forests and grasslands have hosted an average of nearly 166 million visits per year. Recreation visits contribute about $13 billion to the U.S. economy each year. The direct visitor spending, combined with the ripple effects in the nearby economies, sustains more than 200,000 full and part-time jobs.
Minerals, Oil and Gas
At any given time, the Forest Service administers operations on approximately 160,000 mining claims and manages approximately 2,600 mineral material sale contracts. The value of energy and minerals production from these operations on Forest Service lands typically exceeds $6.5 billion per year.
Returns to the Treasury from lease rentals, royalties on production, bonus bids and mineral material sales on national forests and grasslands typically range from $650 million to $850 million annually.
Tidwell testified that the Forest Service manages approximately 74,000 special use authorizations, allowing for the use of Forest Service managed lands for numerous purposes to benefit the public, including energy transmission and communications infrastructure, renewable energy-related uses, public service facilities such as ski areas, resorts and marinas.
State and Private Forestry
The Forest Service manages many programs that first work to protect our state and private forests in the face of increasing development and other threats.
The Forest Stewardship Program is delivered directly to landowners through state forest agency partners and a vast network of forestry technical assistance providers, forestry consultants, state forestry agencies, and non-profit partners. Currently, about 20 million acres of private forest land are being sustainably managed under this stewardship program nationally.
The Forest Health Protection Program is helping states, landowners, communities and tribes combat insect pest, disease and invasive plant infestations that, if left unchecked, can have severe local and regional economic impacts.
Forest Research and Development
Forest Service research helps maintain the clean water important to communities by providing watershed management tools and educational programs. Additionally, Forest Service researchers put science in the hands of managers, decision makers, policy makers, homeowners and communities in the form of user-friendly software and data, and real-time support of trained analysts on active wildfires.
The Forest Service is also expanding the use of wood and a sustainable and environment-friendly material. These new materials range from nano-sized particles that can be used in developing light weight and strong car bodies or a green substitute for petroleum based plastics and films, to new construction materials and techniques for multiple story buildings.