Leading in a Time of Change

If desks could talk, I know one that would have great stories to share. It’s a wonderful wooden desk, solid and big, with seven drawers. In 1905 a man named Gifford Pinchot sat at this desk to discuss the importance of conserving the nation’s forests for the greatest good and the greatest number in the long run. “Without natural resources life itself is impossible,” he later wrote. “From birth to death natural resources, transformed for human use, feed, clothe, shelter and transport us. Upon them we depend for every material necessity, comfort, convenience and protection in our lives. Without abundant resources prosperity is out of reach.”

Gifford Pinchot was the founder and first Chief of the U.S. Forest Service. During the five years he occupied this desk, he popularized the notion of conservation and made it a national goal. Following his legacy the Forest Service continues to carry out its mission: to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. Our motto “Caring for the land, serving people” lends purpose to every program, every plan, every partner we engage.

© US Forest Service/Photo by Keith Riggs

© US Forest Service/Photo by Keith Riggs

Since 1905 fifteen chiefs have led the agency from Pinchot’s desk. In January 2007 I became the sixteenth. Our mission hasn’t changed. What is changing is our customer base, the American public—the people we serve and their needs, their values, their expectations. The population is growing; it’s becoming more diverse, more consumptive, more technocentric, more global and increasingly more removed from nature. And we’ve moved into a new century with a set of conservation challenges that together seem unprecedented in their magnitude, their frequency, their intensity—climate change, land use conversion, biodiversity loss, freshwater scarcity, energy shortages, the frequency of floods and fires, a growing disconnect between urban and rural populations . . . ; the list goes on. The Forest Service mission is more critical than ever; for healthy, productive forests are essential ingredients to a healthy and whole population.

Our focus at the Forest Service is on restoring and sustaining the ability of ecosystems to furnish the services that people want and need. Our restoration work brings us to damaged salmon and trout streams, to upland meadows and tallgrass prairies, to rangelands choked by invasive weeds, to wetlands along streams and lakes, to degraded pine and oak savannas and woodlands, and everywhere in between. Where ecosystems are in trouble, our goal is to restore them to health so that they are better able to adapt to change. As a science-based organization, we rely on our forest and rangeland research to inform our decision-making and management—research that began a hundred years ago with the establishment of the first experimental watershed.

But the Forest Service’s commitment to care for the land extends beyond the 193 million acres we call “the national forests.” Our work touches all forested lands in the United States, a mixed public-private landscape that extends from the wilderness areas of Alaska to the neighborhood trees in downtown Atlanta. Almost 60 percent of the nation’s forests—about 429 million acres—are privately owned. The people who own and manage these lands serve as stewards of the countless benefits these forests provide to all of society—ecosystem services like clean air and water, flood and climate control, wildlife habitat and scenic views. We work with state agencies and a wide array of partners to bring scientific and technical knowledge to these landowners to help them manage and protect their land. And we work internationally by providing technical assistance to other countries and by engaging in forestry dialogues across the globe.

© iStockphoto.com/diane555

© iStockphoto.com/diane555

I became chief of the Forest Service at a time when the nation was acknowledging and accepting the fact that the world is in a period of climate change. The facts of climate change and its implications for forest management and for society are becoming increasingly clear, due in large part to the scientists who shared the Nobel Prize; some of them are our own. Responding to these challenges is one of the most urgent tasks facing us as an agency. We are already witness to its impact across landscapes, and we expect the effects to become even more pronounced with time.

I believe history will judge the leaders of our age by how well we respond to climate change. And so the Forest Service is engaging our employees at all levels and our partners in a shared effort to ensure the sustainability of the nation’s forests, public and private. We will need to build climate change into everything we do. Innovation and adaptive management will be fundamental to our work on the national forests, for today we manage in an era of uncertainty, when we are less able to look to past patterns and processes as a reference. Research will help us add tools to our toolbox as scientists work hand-in-hand with land managers to learn by experimentation, to take risks and to tailor the science to changing needs. Restoration projects on public land will provide new information for private land—projects that demonstrate the value of clean water, carbon sequestration and other critical services that forests provide; projects that establish the key role of forests in climate change mitigation; projects that help advance markets for these services and, in so doing, compensate private landowners for being good stewards of the land.

And we will continue to turn a critical eye to our day-to-day operations by looking for every opportunity to reduce our own impact and to conserve our own resources. For success in sustainability can be achieved only by partnering a conservation ethic with a consumption ethic.

The Forest Service doesn’t do anything alone. Our conservation ethic rests on the principle of collaborative, community-based stewardship, which is a civic responsibility that must be shared; everyone needs to be a partner in conservation. While we seek community engagement at the local level, success requires business leadership at the corporate level. One of our most important roles is to inform the public by connecting people to the natural resources they use every day and by engaging everyone in an awareness of conservation challenges like climate change. We will need to continue to reach children, our future voters and decision makers. We all have an obligation to inspire kids to embrace a responsibility to nature and to understand how their actions, and inaction, matter. We need them to be the next generation of environmental stewards.

The hurdles before us in this era of global change may seem insurmountable, but I don’t think so. As we enter our second century of service, our mission becomes clearer. We have more purpose. And we will continue to care for the land by connecting people to the outdoors and to the wonders of nature.