Forest to Faucet: Why National Forests Are More Than Recreational Spaces

Many of the watersheds serving the Los Angeles metro are either at risk (marked yellow) or impaired (red). | Image: Screenshot from U.S. Forest Service's Watershed Condition Class and Prioritization Information map

"One of the foundational principles of the U.S. Forest Service is water," observed Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell in an interview with me in mid-February. His observation was made in reference to the impact of the Clean Water Act on and importance to watershed management within the national forests. His insight is now a matter of heightened concern as a shifting climate alters the levels of precipitation across the country.

But to understand the hydrological challenges of our immediate present, and the drier future they may presage, it is critical to recognize the implicit thrust of Tidwell's comment: history matters.

No one better understood the power of water to define life in the American west than the 19th-century activists and scientists who articulated the need for the creation of the national forests. They predicated their arguments on a close reading of the land and the tight ecological relationship they believed existed between upstream watersheds and downstream economies.

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To sustain healthy forests and clean water was what led George Perkins Marsh, John Wesley Powell, George Bird Grinnell, and Bernhard Fernow -- directly and indirectly -- to champion a more robust federal regulatory presence on the public domain. Without some form of control exerted over these landscapes and the common (and wet) resource they provided the opportunity to establish communities in this oft-arid terrain would dry up.

This conception was woven into what would become the Forest Service's organic act, legislation enacted in 1897 that defined how the "forest reserves" were to be organized and administered, and on what basis: "to improve and protect the forest within the reservation...securing favorable conditions of water flows, and to furnish a continuous supply of timber for the use and necessities of citizens of the United States."

Note that water took sequential priority to timber, an ordering that leads to a reconceptualization of the significance of the Forest Service's name: its managerial actions are in support of the ecosystem services its high country woodlands provide, whether in the Rockies, Wasatch, or Cascades, the Appalachian or Alleghenies, the Sierra, Santa Anas, or San Gabriels.

Note, too, that each of these ranges, and the others over which national forests are draped, bear a direct connection to lowland communities dependent on the rivers, streams, and creeks whose sources lie in the mountains above. This is not by happenstance. Residents of those valley cities and basin towns were among the most powerful proponents of the national forests in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Worried about the deleterious impact that rapid timber harvests, wildland fires, and grassland overgrazing were having on local potable water supplies, they pushed hard for federal oversight.

This was as true of San Diego's advocates of the San Jacinto Forest Reserve (now part of the Cleveland National Forest) as for those in San Bernardino and Riverside who promoted what would become the San Bernardino National Forest. They, like their peers in Ashland, Oregon who championed the Rogue River National Forest, and in New England who fought to secure the White Mountain National Forest, appreciated how integral these natural systems were to their daily lives; healthy forests meant healthy humans.

That is still true, though we are not always as alert to this essential relationship as were our ancestors. Hoping to heighten our sensitivity to this salubrious link is one reason why Chief Tidwell emphasized it during his 2013 Pinchot Distinguished Lecture, of which our subsequent conversation was a part.

Students from LAUSD's John Marshall High School worked with staff from the U.S. Forest Service, National Forests Foundation, and Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Gardens to remove invasive Smilo grass near Wildwood Picnic Area in Big Tujunga Canyon as part of a watershed restoration project. | Photo: Edward Belden, National Forest Foundation

A key example of the agency's ecosystems restoration work in the east has been its collaboration with the Pinchot Institute for Conservation through a public/private partnership called Common Waters (CWP). The purpose of the CWP, which encompasses nearly 30 city, county, state, and federal agencies, as well as private philanthropies and grassroots organizations, is "to conserve clean water, natural places, and working forests in the Upper Delaware River watershed." Because the Delaware basin "provides drinking water to 15 million people, including the cities of New York and Philadelphia," it is arguably the most important watershed east of the Mississippi; protecting its clean flow is critical.

Yet like its counterparts in the early 20th-century west, the Delaware region is threatened by development, Tidwell asserted, losing "about 20 acres of forest... every day in the Upper Basin alone." To slow down if not mitigate the impact of this diminishing tree cover, the "Common Waters Partnership brings stakeholders together across the Upper Delaware Basin to protect forest resources and municipal watersheds, partly by making funds from downstream utilities available to upstream forest landowners for forest conservation and sustainable forest management."

Struck by the magnitude of this pragmatic conservation project, I asked Tidwell at the close of his prepared remarks about its managerial implications for western national forests. If in the private-land dominated east the Forest Service was able to collaborate with a wide variety of partners, was it able to do so elsewhere? Was this concept of forest-to-faucet translatable across terrain and region?
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Tom Tidwell: One of the best things that we can do to provide clean water is to have healthy forests...[and] one of the things we're focusing on is how we can do a better job to look at all the capacities that are available from the Federal agencies and then also working then with the states, the counties, and the cities and to do it in a coordinated fashion. I mean I have to admit that we focus more on our part of [the relationship], the National Forest, but we also at the same time when we're sitting down with the community to decide what we can do to really help stabilize this watershed we also need to bring in the authorities from the other Federal agencies whether it's NRCS [National Resource Conservation Service], Fish and Wildlife Service, or whether it's Rural Development. This is the sort of thing we're doing a better job to bring all these folks together.

The other thing is that we need to do, I think, more with helping folks understand the economic benefits. We have this great software program called I-Tree that's been developed over the years that helps all of us, individuals and cities to be able to look at the benefits of planting trees not only on your personal property but in your community. And the best part about it is that it shows you the economic benefits. If you plant a tree here on this side of your house, this type of tree, this is how much you're going to save in energy over the next few years. Cities have been using this to be able to understand that by having more open space, planting more trees within their community they can reduce their investment in dealing with storm-water runoff.

Char Miller: Are there initiatives inside the agency or through collaboration with other agencies, that extend the [forest-to-faucet concept] between, say, the Angeles National Forest and Los Angeles' valleys?

Tom Tidwell: When I think about places like the L.A. Basin to get a better understanding about what needs to occur up there on the Angeles National Forest and the effect that it has down through those valleys...I would want folks to all understand that this is the right thing to do. We want healthy stable watersheds, and the more that we can show the economic benefits it's easier for the mayor of Los Angeles to say "hey we're going to plant a million trees, not just because it's a good idea, not only because it makes our communities better; it also makes good economic sense."
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Tidwell's arguments dovetail with the findings of the Forest Service's Watershed Condition Framework, a thick document first released in May 2011 and that carries a telling epigraph from Tidwell's boss, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack:

Restoration, for me, means managing forest lands first and foremost to protect our water resources while making our forests far more resilient to climate change. In many of our forests, restoration will also include efforts to improve or decommission roads, to replace and improve culverts, and to rehabilitate streams and wetlands. Restoration will also mean the rehabilitation of declining ecosystems

The sentiment is apt, the science is solid, and the policy is in place. Missing is the money, which is going to be even more difficult to locate in the withering aftermath of sequestration. Indeed, Secretary Vilsack has indicated that among those projects reduced are the very watershed restoration initiatives he and Chief Tidwell have been championing; in 2013, the agency will "restore 390 fewer stream miles," he told the Senate Appropriations Committee in early February, as well as "2,700 acres of lake habitat and improve 260,000 fewer acres of wildlife habitat."

Downstream, the consequences will be considerable because whether we can restore the upper reaches of rivers flowing out of the San Gabriels, Rockies, or the Santa Catalinas will determine in no small degree how habitable and resilient Los Angeles, Denver, Albuquerque, El Paso, or Tucson will be in the climate-disrupted decades to come.

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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