Forest Service Chief Talks Climate Change -- in Washington and on the Ground


Video: Pinchot Intitute for Conservation

On climate change, the Obama administration seems to be finding its voice.

That was not always the case: because President Obama was not about to let climate change disrupt his second-term chances, during his first term he sat quietly as Republicans vociferously attacked anyone trying to construct an effective climate-change policy for the nation.

These assaults, Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies told Bill Moyers recently, were part of a larger "disinformation campaign" that the fossil-fuel industry has funded: "I mean, they're very happy, thank you very much, with the status quo," delighted with the results of their actions "to get people to believe that the experts do not agree."

Among those who deferred was the Obama administration, and that's still true to some extent. In mid-February more than 40,000 climate activists rallied around the White House as part of the nation's largest such fossil-free rally ever, but the president was a no-show. Instead, he was on a Florida golf course, shooting a sunny round with oil-and-gas executives.

This tone-deaf moment aside, off the links President Obama and the executive branch are starting to speak about the urgent need to protect life on Earth.

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Reforestation in Tahoe National Forest. | Photo: USFS Region 5/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The first signal of this shift came with Obama's inaugural address. In it, he delivered some stirring words about why we cannot delay developing adaptive strategies for planetary survival. Why we must take on our intergenerational responsibilities: Failing to do so would be to "betray our children" and their progeny, a failure that would have dire consequences for our capacity to act as stewards of our planet, "commanded to our care by God."

Department secretaries and agency heads have started add their voices to this soft chorus, helping to break what Leiserowitz describes as "the silence on climate change." I participated in one such conversation, interviewing Tom Tidwell, the 17th chief of the U.S. Forest Service on Thursday, February 14 after he delivered the Pinchot Distinguished Lecture that the Pinchot Institute for Conservation annually sponsors (full disclosure: I am a senior fellow at the institute). He and I then engaged in a thirty minute-long conversation.

The informal context allowed Tidwell to expand on his formal remarks, and in a setting that was conducive for thoughtful dialog on any number of pressing issues confronting the national forests and grasslands. We had gathered at the Cosmos Club, which geologist and Colorado River explorer John Wesley Powell founded in 1878, and which ever since has served, in the words of Wallace Stegner, as "the closest thing to a social headquarters for Washington's intellectual elite."

One of that august company was the first chief of the Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot, who also served as the club's president in 1907. One hundred and six years later, Tidwell spoke from its dais about the land-management agency's re-energized mission to help make the nation's public lands more resilient in an era of climate disruption.

Ending his speech with an exhortation -- "what we need to do," Tidwell concluded, is "to address the effects of climate change...in a way to ensure that future generations are going to enjoy the same range of benefits that we enjoy today" -- I asked him what particular steps the agency was taking that would demonstrate to the rising generation that we can act to mitigate the damages resulting from a shifting climate.

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Tom Tidwell: ...part of the concern I think is driven by a fear almost that there is nothing that we can do about; that this is going to happen to us. And so I think for some there is a fear that if I accept this as happening then I also have to accept the consequences. The way I'd rather talk about it is to talk about what we can do.

And so what I would tell your students [is] that we're so fortunate in this country to have these vast forests...that can really help mitigate the effects -- but before we can talk about mitigation we've got to talk about adaptation. And that is to make sure that these systems are resilient, that they can resist these changes and then for us to understand and accept that there are going to be some changes in these ecosystems...we're fortunate that we have the science in place and we'll continue to work on that to be able to show what we can do will really make a difference. That's that where I would first start out -- try to reassure them that there are some things that we can do and it starts with maintaining these incredible forest resources.

Char Miller: But that forest is not the same forest. I think that was part of your point earlier on -- that what worked 100 years ago, 50 years ago, maybe even only 10 years ago may not work any longer, that the species will change and what we have to do within those forests may have to alter as well.

Tom Tidwell: Yes; and that's what they need to focus on. To understand that what they're going to have to do during their lifetimes is to stay current with the science. Now we're very fortunate in the Forest Service that we have our Research and Development Branch as part of the Agency so it's very easy for us to actually not only develop the science but then apply the science through our management. That helps our managers... to kind of stay current. But the real challenge in the future is that we're going to have to be a little more nimble, a little more agile when we think about what we're going to do.

We're also going to have to accept that there are...there are certain eco-systems that we're not going to be able to maintain. I think about some areas that I've worked with during my career with aspen [forests] and we would have a disturbance event that normally would just regenerate that aspen but now it doesn't come back... the reality is that especially on southern slopes and lower elevations we probably [are] not going to get aspen back.

Char Miller: So is restoration the wrong word?

Tom Tidwell: No; I think it's the right word. It's just that we have to understand that it doesn't mean going back. It means to restore the health, the vigor of these systems and that sometimes it is to restore to the future. There may be a better word and I'd be sure open to that but it's more [important] to understand the concept. And so...it's restoring to maybe something different than what was there in the past.

Char Miller: You mentioned that we seem to be beyond some of the legal squabbling that rampaged through the '80s and '90s...if that's disappeared are we at a point now where we could rewrite some of those laws to better facilitate this restorative process?

Tom Tidwell: Well I get asked this question often about which laws are the problems, what needs to change...[but] you know our laws are in place for a reason. They're what the American public wants. Now definitely there are times that they then get interpreted by others or interpreted sometimes by court decisions that complicate...the intent of the law itself. But I don't see a need to necessarily change any of our current laws.

But there is a need for additional authorities. Well for one is this concept of stewardship contracting. We've been using this for a decade now and we're gaining a lot of support across the board that it's a better tool because we can actually do all the work that needs to be done and not just the bio-mass removal but the trails work, the stream improvement work; they all can be done under one contract. The challenge is that this authority expires this year...we need to get that reauthorized.

The other thing we need to be careful with is that [with] any new regulations or new policies we need to really take a step back and really understand how that can affect the management of our forests. What impact will it have on private forested lands to make sure that we are not putting a regulation in place that may have good intent but the consequences are going to result in another forest landowner going out of business because they can't just deal with that.

So [rather than advocate any specific changes in the law] I'm more concerned about how we move forward and address issues that we need to but...with an understanding of the consequences to these large landscapes.

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By identifying the special challenges that climate change poses to the U.S. public lands, and the need to respond to them through landscape-scale management, Chief Tidwell aligned himself with those who are convinced that only a robust coalition of public and private partners will be dexterous enough to steward our national forests into the future. It will also be necessary, as his remarks make clear, to speak out about the real-world consequences and scientific conundrums that climate change is generating.

We have been silent far too long.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
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