U.S. Forest Service is told to restore the forests it’s mismanaged as tree farms for a century, and to make them more resilient

Readers of the classic book, The Restoration Economy, know that one of America’s most intractable challenges regarding forest health is the U.S. Forest Service.

It’s not a leadership problem: it’s a structural problem. The Forest Service is an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), so it’s required to treat forest as tree farms: trees are a crop and nothing more. Biodiversity is seldom an issue of concern. The average Forest Service “forest” has little more biodiversity than a field of corn.

In recent decades, dozens of conscientious Forest Service employees have been fires after bravely blowing the whistle on the Forest Service’s mismanagement of public resources.

Now, on June 23, 2022, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack hope rose on the horizon when issued a memorandum to the USDA Forest Service directing the agency to take bold actions to restore forests, improve resilience, and address the climate crisis.

This should help restore some of the damage done in the past century, but the problem will never truly be solved until the Forest Service is moved out of USDA, maybe to the National Park Service or even the Environmental Protection Agency. A simpler “solution” would be to rename the agency “U.S. Tree Farm Service”, but the downside would be that such renaming would preclude any need for ecological restoration.

Secretary Vilsack made his announcement in recorded remarks at the inaugural 1t.org US Chapter Summit held to discuss how the coalition can support federal efforts to restore, conserve and grow forests across the country.

Globally, forests represent some of the most biodiverse parts of our planet,” Secretary Vilsack told the summit, “yet drought and intensifying and catastrophic wildfires are threatening our forests to such a degree that many are not able to regenerate on their own.

This is why today I am directing Forest Service Chief Randy Moore and Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, Dr. Homer Wilkes, to take a series of immediate and near-term actions to build carbon stewardship and climate resilience in our national forests,” he added.

This direction comes, in part, in response to President Biden’s “Executive Order on Strengthening the Nation’s Forests, Communities, and Local Economies,” which tasks the USDA with a series of actions to pursue science-based, sustainable forest and land management.

This includes intensifying work to reduce wildfire risk, accelerate reforestation, restore ecosystems, support forest products jobs and markets in rural communities, and define and inventory old-growth and mature forests on federally managed lands.

The actions directed in Secretary Vilsack’s memorandum include identifying forests at risk, how those areas are currently managed, and analyzing how potential data gaps might be resolved. The Forest Service analysis will then be used to develop a decision support tool to enhance carbon stewardship, wildlife habitat, watersheds, outdoor recreation and more.

In addition, the memorandum directs the Forest Service to take more immediate actions, including developing plans for increasing the safe use of prescribed fire, fostering innovative markets for sustainable forest products, conducting an inventory of old-growth and mature forests, accelerating reforestation, and boosting nursery capacity to grow more tree seedlings for post-fire recovery and other planting efforts.

Finally, the memorandum instructs the Forest Service to include guidance on how to use new data, tools, and traditional ecological knowledge in their plans and recommendations, and in ways that help to advance equity and environmental justice, while leveraging and building on upcoming and ongoing efforts in carrying out the memorandum’s direction.

These plans include the forthcoming Forest Service strategies for climate adaptation, reforestation, and recreation. Secretary Vilsack also highlighted the Forest Service’s 10-year “Confronting the Wildfire Crisis” (PDF, 32 MB) strategy, which aims to treat 20 million acres of national forests and 30 million acres of other federal, state, Tribal, and private lands over the next decade to improve conditions and reduce wildfire risk across the landscape.

America’s forests already capture more than 10% of our nation’s carbon emissions each year and they have the potential to do more,” said Secretary Vilsack. “We must safeguard and restore our forests to ensure they store carbon, rather than release it through catastrophic wildfire.

USDA and partner agencies also announced earlier this week that federal wildland firefighters would receive a substantial pay raise to bring their pay into alignment with their state and local government counterparts, and build a more stable, permanent wildland firefighting workforce to better protect forests from catastrophic wildfire and ensure their continued role in mitigating the climate crisis.

Photo courtesy of the North Carolina Christmas Tree Association, which represents a legitimate form of tree farm (such farms don’t pretend to be forests).

Read the full memorandum.

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