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Well-Managed Forests Offer Enormous Opportunity For Biomass Energy

By Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture 

A healthy and prosperous America relies on the health of our natural resources, particularly our forests.

America's forests supply communities with clean and abundant water, shelter wildlife, and help us mitigate and adapt to climate change. Forests can also help generate rural wealth through recreation and tourism, through the creation of green jobs, and through the production of wood products and energy.

And they are our national treasure, requiring all of us to protect and preserve them for future generations.

Now, our new administration is offering an opportunity for a new vision, a vision that will both guide the policies and the approach of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Forest Service towards forest conservation and management, a vision to address the challenges we face-and to make the most of our opportunities to conserve and restore our forests.

President Obama has made clear his interest in conserving our natural environment, and I intend to take that responsibility very seriously and devote the time necessary to do it right.

I like to call our USDA an every way, every day department, because we do so many things each day to touch Americans' lives, from helping farmers to providing affordable housing to promoting clean energy.

America's forests today are threatened like never before. Climate change, catastrophic fires, diseases, and pests have all led to declining forest health. Notwithstanding these trends, we have enormous opportunities. And one example is climate change, for it will create new markets for carbon storage and biomass energy, which ought to significantly bolster sustainable forest management and forest restoration.

Given the threats that our forests face today, Americans must move away from polarization. We must work and must be committed to a shared vision, a vision that conserves our forests and the vital resources important to our survival while wisely respecting the need for a forest economy that creates jobs and vibrant rural communities.

Our shared vision must begin with a complete commitment to restoration. 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. The forest restoration effort led by the dedicated people of our Forest Service will open up nontraditional markets for climate mitigation and biomass energy while appropriately recognizing the need for more traditional uses of forest resources.

In developing a shared vision around forests, we must also be willing to look across property boundaries. In other words, we must operate a landscape scale operation by taking an all-lands approach.

The reality is that 80 percent of the forest area in the United States is outside of the national forest system. And many of our national forests are adjacent to state and private land. Management decisions that are made both on and of the national forest obviously have important implications for that forest landscape.

Privately owned forests across the country face a daunting set of challenges. The Forest Service estimates that over 40 million acres of private forest could be lost to development and fragmentation over the coming decades.

For forest ownership and stewardship to remain viable, it must remain economically rewarding for landowners. Markets for wood will remain important to those landowners and local communities. But private and public landowners must also access new markets for both low and high-value products and services and forest uses in order to underwrite stewardship activities.

Emerging markets for carbon and sustainable bioenergy will provide landowners with expanded economic incentive to maintain and restore our forests. By generating rural wealth, we can make it possible again for landowners to sustain our forests and our working landscapes.

I've offered a broad vision to guide the Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture in setting a new course for America's forests. I recognize that there is a great deal of work yet to be done to make this a reality. And so I'm tasking the Forest Service and USDA in partnership with all the stakeholders to make this vision a reality. I want the Forest Service and USDA to play an even more prominent role in developing those new markets I spoke of, carbon, bioenergy, and water, as a means to conserve our forests.

The path ahead is challenging, but it is full of opportunity.

Americans often assume that our health and well-being are separate from the health of our natural world.

My hope, and I trust you share it, is that together we can foster a greater appreciation in this country for our forests, and that all Americans, regardless of where they live, see the quality of their lives and the quality of their forests as inseparable.


For the Record is an edited excerpt of a speech by Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, on the National Vision for America's Forests, presented in Seattle, Washington in August 2009.


November/December 2009