The Hagstrom Report

Agriculture News As It Happens

Obama's USDA: Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell


Seventh of an occasional series of U.S. Department of Agriculture interviews


The national forests get more attention than privately owned lands, but private forests are under greater threat, and the U.S. Forest Service stands ready with programs to try to help owners of forest and ranch lands who want to keep them productive and in open space, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said in an exclusive interview with The Hagstrom Report.

“Twenty, 30, 50 years from now, we’ll still have that 193 million acres [in the National Forest System], but what’s really at risk in America is the private forested lands. The landowners constantly have opportunities to sell their land to develop it,” Tidwell said in the interview.

“This country, of course, needs development, but we have to be careful that we’re making the right tradeoffs because once these lands are taken out of the forest condition, it’s highly unlikely it will ever come back,” he said. “We [would] lose all these other benefits off these lands that many of us take for granted, especially off these private lands.”

The reality for private landowners, Tidwell noted, is that their operations must be economically viable.

“We just can’t expect them to do the right thing, to keep their land in healthy forest conditions because it’s the right thing to do. It has to make sense with them financially,” he said, adding that the Forest Service has programs to provide technical assistance, to pay landowners who agree to keep their land in forestry or ranching and, if they are intent on selling, to sell it to the government.

Tidwell said his biggest accomplishment in his two years as chief — and his biggest challenge in the future — is the restoration of both public and private forest lands. Clearing the land of residual biomass has become more difficult, he said, by the decline in the demand for wood products for housing construction during the recession. The use of biomass for ethanol, he said is an opportunity, but he still expects most of the biomass to be turned into soft timber wood products.

Tidwell noted that the Forest Service has always had programs to help private forest owners, but the agency is much better known for running the National Forest System.

Tidwell said he looks forward to finalizing the forest planning rule that would govern the management of the national forests. The new rule has been in development for two years. The Forest Service operates under a planning rule developed in 2000 because rules promulgated in 2005 and 2008 have been enjoined by the courts.

The origin of the U.S. Forest Service as a division of the Agriculture Department goes back to 1905. In the 19th century, the forests on publicly owned land were managed by the Interior Department, but the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 allowed the president to turn publicly owned land into forest reserves.

Gifford Pinchot, a young American who had studied forestry in France when there was no such area of study in the United States, became involved with the National Forest Commission created by the National Academy of Sciences. He traveled through the West in the summer of 1896 investigating forest areas for possible forest reserves, and two years later was named chief of the division of forestry. His friend Theodore Roosevelt was elevated into the presidency by the assassination of President McKinley.

When management of the forest reserves was transferred from Interior to Agriculture in 1905, Pinchot was made chief of the new Forest Service. Pinchot guided the fledgling organization toward the utilitarian philosophy of the “greatest good for the greatest number,” but also popularized the idea of conservation of natural resources and long-term decision making.

In 1905 the forest reserves numbered 60 units covering 56 million acres; in 1910 there were 150 national forests covering 172 million acres. Today the system is composed of 155 forests and 20 grasslands.

As the Forest Service Website says, Congress established the agency “to provide quality water and timber for the nation’s benefit,” but over the years the public’s expectations have expanded to multiple uses and benefits and for the sustained yield of renewable resources such as water, forage, wildlife, wood, and recreation. This shift in sentiment has caused deep political rifts between the forest products industry, which has viewed the national forests as a source of raw materials, and environmentalists who fear exploitation of the forest lands.

President Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack named Tidwell chief in 2009. He has a 33-year career in the Forest Service, having served as a district ranger, forest supervisor, deputy regional forester for the Pacific southwest region, regional forester for the northern region and as a legislative affairs specialist in the Washington office.

Following is an edited transcript of the interview:

HAGSTROM: How do you find this relationship of managing the national forests and assisting private landowners?

TIDWELL: We have always had the multiple programs in the Forest Service, with what we call our National Forest System, which is responsible for managing 193 million acres of the public lands; our state and private forestry program, which is focused on providing the technical assistance and support to private forest owners in this country; and then our research and development branch that is responsible for continuing to provide the natural resource research, along with our partnership with the universities.

When it comes to state and private forestry, it’s every bit a part of our mission as it is those 193 million acres. We work very closely with our state foresters in a relationship that’s probably beyond a partnership, because the state foresters and their staffs are often one of the primary delivery mechanisms for this technical assistance and some of the financial support that we make available.

There isn’t any disconnect between the programs. It’s just everything that we do.

HAGSTROM: The Natural Resources Conservation Service does some work with forest lands, too. How do you divide up between the two agencies what you do?

TIDWELL: We work very closely with NRCS to make sure our programs are not a duplication of theirs. On the farm bill, we’ll work very closely to make sure that there is no duplication of programs, to determine which agency is in the best position to be able to carry out those programs.

Our focus is more to the state forests. NRCS, because of its direct relationship with private landowners, delivers its programs more through the private landowners. We do a very good job to ensure there isn’t really overlap. Sometimes there’s proposals that are being made by members of Congress, and the first thing we look at [is which agency should do the job.] Congress has always been supportive about their interest in the program being delivered, not necessarily which agency does it.

HAGSTROM: What do you consider your major accomplishments in the last two years?

TIDWELL: I’ll start with our efforts on restoration, to restore the resiliency of the nation’s forests which is both public land and the private land forests in this country. That’s a focus to ensure that folks understand all the benefits that come off these forests, not just commodity production, let’s say timber, but also what we call ecosystem services such as water, the clean air, the recreational settings that these lands provide, the wildlife habitat.

Twenty, 30, 50 years from now, we’ll still have that 193 million acres [in the National Forest System], but what’s really at risk in America is the private forested lands. The landowners constantly have opportunities to sell their land to develop it. This country, of course, needs development, but we have to be careful that we’re making the right tradeoffs because once these lands are taken out of the forest condition, it’s highly unlikely it will ever come back. We [would] lose all these other benefits off these lands that many of us take for granted, especially off these private lands.

The private landowners don’t receive any compensation for these benefits, so their challenge is to be able to manage these lands in a way that they’re economically viable. This focus on the need for restoration and the importance of these forests is helping us to move the debate and the dialogue forward, so that there is a greater appreciation of these overall values and for us to look for a mix of economic opportunities that will help to ensure that these lands are managed sustainably.

The reality for a private landowner [is the need] to be economically viable. We just can’t expect them to do the right thing, to keep their land in healthy forest conditions because it’s the right thing to do. It has to make sense with them financially.

HAGSTROM: Do you have any programs that can be of assistance to discourage conversion to housing and shopping malls?

TIDWELL: We have several programs to keep private forested lands, private ranch lands in open space and productive.

One program is our Stewardship Program where we work with private forest owners to help ensure that they have the technical assistance to be able to develop plans, so their lands stay in a healthy resilient condition, and also to develop management plans so there are opportunities for economic return to come off of these lands.

Another program is our Forest Legacy Program. With willing owners, we can enter into a conservation agreement. They receive some compensation up front, and they’re still allowed to stay on their land, whether it’s private forest land or private ranch. They’ll be able to keep that as open space.

We have an acquisition program for those folks that are looking at the need to sell out for some reason. They may really want to keep their place looking the way it is and want to work with us, for us to acquire.

Another program that’s more indirect is our forest products lab. The last hundred years, they’ve been doing research into how to improve the economics of wood and to expand the uses in construction. Many of the techniques that are being used today, especially with the ability to take small-diameter material and convert it into sound construction material, have been developed at the lab. Indirectly, they have helped private landowners have a better market — whether it’s with things like oriented strand board, which is used, I think, in every building that’s being constructed versus technology advances in the pulp industry.

The purpose of the lab is — in conjunction with our universities — to make sure that we’re staying up with the science, developing new science, so that we can just be aware of everything that’s available and that we’re finding better ways to use the resource.

HAGSTROM: Within the national forests, timber sales have declined, I am told, about 50 percent in the last five years. Is that mostly because of the decline in the housing industry or policies to discourage the cutting of the trees? Where do you see sales going in the future? Is it the same trend on private lands?

TIDWELL: It’s been about just three or four years [since] the housing market basically crashed in this country. Since then, there’s been definitely less demand for wood products in this country.

In the national forests there’s still strong interest in doing the restoration work there, and [in removing] the biomass, the soft timber that needs to be removed as part of that. So we haven’t seen the number of timber sales go down.

The price has definitely gone down, but that’s not what we focus on. We focus on the work that needs to be done and to ensure there’s an industry in place to be able to do that work.

What has changed is the private lands. [The housing decline] definitely reduced the amount of soft timber that’s coming off of private land, and it’s just based on economics. If [you] have the option to wait a few years before you sell your trees and maybe get a much better price, you’re going to wait. So we have seen a significant reduction in some of the timber cut off of private lands. Also, we’ve seen an increase in exports, too, off of private lands.

Market conditions are really driving what we’re doing as far as any reductions, but we’ve actually in this last year seen a little increase in the level of interest. We have tried to basically keep the amount of work we have been doing stable, primarily for two reasons — one, to get the work done on the ground, second is to be able to maintain the industry. We’ve lost the integrated wood products industry in parts of this country, and it is so expensive to try to bring that back. It’s just very difficult.

It’s essential for us to be able to maintain the integrated wood products industry, so that the restoration work that needs to be done on both private forests and the national forests [is done and] to be able to make use of the biomass that needs to be removed.

HAGSTROM: When you say we’ve lost parts of this integrated industry, is that mostly in places where the industry is dependent on the resource coming from the public lands or in the areas where there’s private lands also?

TIDWELL: It’s been a combination. Mills have shut down just because there isn’t a need for the product. It affects both mills that are dependent just on private timber and then also on public.

HAGSTROM: There’s a lot of talk about biomass as the source of biofuels. At the same time there’s a lot of talk about how it doesn’t become commercially viable. How do you see the future of biomass from the forests, whether we’re talking about forest waste or production specifically for biomass?

TIDWELL: On the national forests, our focus is to do this restoration work, and the biomass that needs to be removed. There’s a market for the soft timber to go to the mills, but there’s also a lot of the smaller diameter, more of what we call the residual biomass. We have the option of piling it, paying someone to pile it and burn it, or finding a beneficial use of that material.

The thing that we’re really interested in is to find ways to develop more of the biomass opportunities, whether it’s for ethanol or whether it’s just to produce electricity, to make use of this material that needs to be removed to be able to restore those forests.

On private lands, there may be more opportunity to make use of more of the material for energy production, but I believe the primary use of the biomass that is removed is going to be for the soft timber. There’s a need to make use of this other material to, first of all, not just waste it, but find beneficial use. [Ethanol] is a real key component, but it’s not “the” solution. It’s not the solution for energy in this country, but it’s an opportunity that we have to be able to make use of this material that needs to be removed. We can either just burn it and make smoke, or we can convert it to a beneficial use.

HAGSTROM: You are the biggest employer in the USDA. With the budget pressures going on here, what do you see for the future with your employment base and your ability to deliver the services that you’re supposed to?

TIDWELL: Well, we employ about 29,000 permanent employees and then, depending on the year, anywhere from the 10,000 to 15,000 seasonal employees. Even though there is fluctuation in our budget, we’ve done a very good job to really focus on using our permanent workforce where we can. As budgets have increased in the past, we rely more and more on contracting.

As we deal with the deficit in this country and we expect to see smaller budgets in the future, we’ll be looking at how can find that right balance from reducing some of the contract work that gets done and at the same time, potentially have some reduction of our workforce. Because of the way we’ve managed our workforce in the past, we have the flexibility to deal with this.

The result is less work that gets done. It’s not so much the impact on our employees who will be able to manage through that, but there will be less service provided to our public.

Tom Tidwell
HAGSTROM: There has been concern for years about the percentage of your budget going to firefighting. How is that now?

TIDWELL: With the passage of the FLAME Act [the Federal Land Assistance Management and Enhancement Act of 2009], we now have a mechanism in place that provides funding to cover when we have a large fire season, and it will reduce the need for us to transfer funds from other programs.

We’ve been able each year with the president’s budget request to request funding for that FLAME Act, and it kind of takes that issue or addresses that issue for us. Hopefully, it will be one we don’t have to deal with in the future.

NOTE: This interview was conducted before Congress passed and President Obama signed a bill to fund the government for the 2011 fiscal year that ends on September 30. In an interview published in The Hagstrom Report on Tuesday, Agriculture Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment Harris Sherman said that the bill had cut the firefighting account by $400 million and that the lack of funding could be a problem unless there are few forest fires this summer. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has also noted that because there have been few forest fires in recent years, the Forest Service was planning to use some of the unused fire suppression money to take steps to avoid fires, but that the cut in funding will make it difficult to proceed with those plans.

HAGSTROM: What would you like to accomplish in the next couple years?

TIDWELL: There’s a long list of specific things we would like to get done. The first one would be to finalize our planning rule. We’ve spent two decades trying to revise our planning rule. It provides the framework to develop the forest and grassland plans, and it’s important for us to be able to get that done.

The second is that cohesive fire management strategy that we’re working on with state and local governments to deal with wildfire in this country. We’re working even more closely with our state and local governments than we ever have before so that we have a coordinated response. And it’s done in a way that we suppress fire where we need to. We develop communities in a way that they’re defensible. In areas where we need to, we can allow fire to play its natural role in the ecosystem.

The overriding thing is to continue to be able to move forward with our restoration agenda and to increase the resiliency of the forests in this country. What comes along with that is a greater appreciation for the value, so that there will be more support, more interest in being able to not only see that these forests are well managed but also to help private landowners keep their forests lands forested.