In House hearing, Forest Service chief touts state and private forestry programs

By Robyn Whitney

Last week before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, USDA Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen provided glowing testimony on the efficacy of state and private forestry programs, including those most important to state foresters and their agencies.

Below are a few choice excerpts from the hearing:

On Forest Stewardship

Rep. David Joyce (Ohio): Ohio has prioritized improving water quality with focus projects in Lake Erie watersheds, including a state-led program called H2Ohio. These water quality efforts involved a multi-faceted approach that includes agricultural incentive programs, land protection, wetland restoration, and expansion of riparian forest buffers. Investments in the Forest Stewardship Program tie-in directly to improving water quality through technical assistance to landowners on tree plantings and riparian forest buffer management. In a state like Ohio where 85% of the forests are privately owned, can you discuss how the Forest Stewardship Program provides downstream benefits to improving water quality for the rivers flowing into Lake Erie and potentially address the harmful algae blooms?

Chief Christiansen: Thank you for that question. We just signed a Shared Stewardship Agreement with the state of Ohio, and it’s based on their state Forest Action Plan and I know that the greatest identified threat to forests in Ohio is soil and water quality from poor land management practices and of course, urbanization… The Forest Stewardship Program [provides] funding through [the] Forest Service to the state so they can provide technical assistance to private landowners to develop their own specific interests identified in their forest management plans inclusive of protecting watersheds… These landowners have a choice to convert the land to other uses so keeping forests as forests is the number one water quality enhancement that you can do with 85% of forest ownership in private lands. Good management through the Forest Stewardship Program helps with soil retention and water quality, particularly [through] the use of riparian forest buffers. In addition, restoration or good management through the Forest Stewardship Program helps [mitigate flooding on wildlife habitat and stream temperatures for fisheries]. I could go on and on about the benefits of forests and the public benefits of assisting private landowners in managing their forests.

On Wildfire and Fuels Treatment

Rep. Mike Simpson (Idaho): [Paraphrased for clarity] Wildfires are devastating in the West. What does the agency need in terms of aviation resources and contracts for equipment? And how many acres of fuels treatments do we need?

Chief Christiansen: We need a paradigm shift. We need to treat more lands [for wildfire fuels], we need to up our game. We have scientists and models. We need to be strategic in where we treat additional acres. We have a scale mismatch… Over the next 10 years, Forest Service researchers have shown through modeling that we need to treat an additional 20 million acres in the West and 650,000 acres in the East just on National Forest System lands to make significant progress in reducing risk. These treatments need to be strategically focused and at a large landscape scale. Strategic treatment means we do not have to treat every acre – for example, strategically treating 40% of the landscape results in 80% of the outcome. We treat roughly 2-3 million acres per year on National Forest System lands to reduce hazardous fuels. We would need to add another 2.65 million acres a year for 10 years to execute this strategy… This could also create 575,000 jobs and enhance local communities. Wildland fire is an all lands problem, however, in some places the risk is on state and private lands. To be truly effective, we need to expand this treatment strategy across all landscapes. Forest Service researchers have shown we need to treat an additional 30 million acres of other federal, state, tribal, and private lands in the western U.S. to significantly reduce [wildfire risk] exposure to communities.

On Carbon Sequestration

Rep. Chellie Pingree (Maine): [Paraphrased for clarity] Can you talk about how the agency proposes to address carbon sequestration, 30 x 30, and the idea of forests as carbon sinks. How are you working collaboratively with other agencies on carbon sequestration on public lands?

Chief Christiansen: Forests and harvested forest products offset 14% of the CO2 emissions in this country. We could increase the offset to 20-28% relative to how we work with landowners and other federal agencies. Climate Hubs support all landowners on helping them build climate resilience plans to do climate smart practices… [In regards to carbon losses due to wildfire,] $1 in prevention saves $35 in suppression, it’s a great cost-benefit. In terms of hazardous fuels treatments, 86% of the time [prescribed fire or mechanical thinning] treatments are effective in changing wildfire conditions to low severity [that is instead of a crown fire, we see] ground fire. We need to treat 40% of our firesheds to make a difference [in reducing carbon sink losses]. We need to up our game.

On Forest Health

Rep. Joyce: Emerald ash borer (EAB) is responsible for the destruction of 150 million ash trees in 35 states across the country. It is important that the Forest Service continues outreach education and research activities to reduce the harmful and costly effects of EAB. Does the FY22 budget request support ongoing EAB research partnerships like those with Ohio State University to develop EAB resistant ash trees and integrated pest management strategies? What activities within State and Private Forestry does this request support?

Chief Christiansen: I can’t speak to the specifics in the FY22 budget request but I can speak to the importance of the joint work that we do together with our State and Private Forestry program and our research program with our partners like the State of Ohio and Ohio State University. Early detection is important, [so is] outreach in the urban landscapes to individual landowners with the different treatments (insecticides or biological controls), and the big game changer, breeding EAB-resistant trees.

Rep. Joyce: Why are [these strategies] critical to slowing the spread?

Chief Christiansen: Early detection helps us jump on treatments earlier. EAB is in 35 states, we are not going to stamp out EAB, but we can work to slow the spread. ASK EAB is a website to help communities understand early detection and early treatment to slow the spread.

On Urban and Community Forestry (U&CF)

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (Ohio): I’m a huge supporter of the U&CF program with the Forest Service and I’ve been working on efforts to replant trees in Cleveland, Toledo, and other ares. I’m interested in the potential for the U&CF program to partner with localities to do some of the tree re-planting after [damage caused by] EAB and the Asian longhorned beetle. I’m concerned local people living in urban areas won’t be recruited to help their environment. Can you tell me how the Forest Service thinks about this?

Chief Christiansen: We are working with the Department of the Interior on implementing President Biden’s plan for a Civilian Climate Conservation Corps. We have a history of working with corps on natural resources work across the spectrum, and we have broad authorities through S&PF with state agencies and our partners to enhance climate corps capacity in states in the urban areas. We could bring employment to underserved communities. We have these Shared Stewardship Agreements with the states, we just signed one in Ohio, and it names these kind of priorities—that we have to get beyond our own programing and get across boundaries—and all of these priorities align with President Biden’s priorities.

On State and Private Forestry Programs

Rep. Matt Cartwright (Pennsylvania): How can private owners and state forests obtain funding from the S&PF programs and is there assistance in that process?

Chief Christiansen: The funding flows through the state forestry agency. [In Pennsylvania, that agency is] the Pennsylvania DCNR. Ellen Shultzabarger is the State Forester in Pennsylvania. They oversee this programing and [market it] to private forest landowners; the Forest Stewardship Program is the gem. [Say] you’re a private forest owner and you have 20 acres and you don’t really know the best way to manage your forests; or you really care about wildlife, but you don’t know about how to thin your forest appropriately and you want to get some technical assistance. Well you need to get a Forest Stewardship Plan, the funding from the Forest Service goes through the state and they will bring out a service forester and those were the best days of my career and you would talk with the landowner about their objectives, what they want to get from their land and you would write up a Forest Stewardship Plan, which would provide them with pathways to get grants and funding to help them manage their land. There is Forest Health program funding if you have invasive pests and you don’t know what to do about it; again federal funding going to the state forestry agency to help landowners.

Rep. Cartwright: Do you think the Forest Service has taken adequate measures to combat invasive species and address forest health problems? We have Japanese knotwood all over the place here.

Chief Christiansen: In addition to the S&PF program of Forest Health, we work through R&D on invasive insects and disease. We will always prioritize the highest need.

Rep. Cartwright: Gifford Pinchot lived in my district and it’s no coincidence my constituents value the forests in northeast PA and the region. We want to make sure the Forest Service has the resources needed to maintain our nation’s forests. While we do not have national forests in my district, we have the Delaware State Forest and the Pinchot State Forest, named after Gifford Pinchot, and thousands of acres of private forests. The State and Private Forestry (S&PF) budget is one of the smallest accounts in the Forest Service budget. How do you leverage S&PF dollars to maximize the benefit with the addition of state dollars and partner contributions?

Chief Christiansen: It’s a real important synergy effect. I was State Forester in two different states, (Washington and Arizona) and I can tell you the funding I received through the Forest Service State and Private funds quite frankly helped me go to the state legislature and get them to match the funds; to say if the feds are putting in for important benefits that flow off of state and private lands, we are all in this together. Everybody knows the importance of this programming. It’s the strong relationships through the states; we call it the little engine that could. And we could do more, with more, but we make a lot happen paring up the funds with the state funds and the great partners in the non-profit sector to really enhance the health of our state and private forests.

Rep. Cartwright: Well that’s a great answer, I like how you talk, but I’m out of time.

Please contact NASF Policy Director Robyn Whitney at rwhitney@stateforesters.org with questions.