I am testifying on behalf of the American Forest Foundation, and our American Tree Farm System. The Tree Farm System, founded in 1941, is the nation’s oldest and largest community of forest landowners who have each pledged to practice environmentally-sound, sustainable and productive forestry.
Together the 51,000 members of the Tree Farm System own more than 33 million acres of some of the finest, richest forested habitats in the US. They are showplaces for what can be accomplished by willing, committed and enthusiastic stewards.
For that reason, we welcome the opportunity to appear before this Committee.
In an era when most media attention is focused on National Forests, it is vital that Congress consider both the challenges and opportunities that confront the “majority owners” of America’s forests – the 10 million individuals and families who own half of our forests, most in small plots of less than 100 acres. While recurrent wildfire on National Forests is a media staple – the ecological equivalent of summer reruns – few people grasp the ominous consequences of another, much less visible forest health crisis that spreads under the media radar. I refer to the loss of some 2,000 acres of forestland a day to development. That’s every day with no time off for weekends.
These forests are critical to our environment, our economy, and our communities. Some 70 percent of our Eastern watersheds flow through these family-owned forests. Two-thirds of the fiber grown for wood and paper products are harvested by these families. Some 90 percent of endangered species find some or all of their habitat on their forests.
All the family forest owners I know recognize that decisions you make in Washington will affect their lands as much or more as the decisions they make around the kitchen table. Let me share some of what we’ve heard “around the kitchen table” as family forest owners consider endangered species and the laws that protect them.
Policy should respect the power of private stewardship.
Most family owners rank wildlife, recreation and aesthetics as the primary reason for owning land; most will take steps to leave their land better than they found it. Many would welcome the chance to manage for endangered species. What’s lacking, too often, are the knowledge, technical skills and the means to implement practices.
Where knowledge and assistance are provided, and clear pathways for protection marked, owners will respond. Voluntary efforts for the red-cockaded woodpecker have protected 509 groups on 347,000 acres – some 40 percent of the known groups on private lands.
Public officials should recognize family forest owners are volunteers.
They choose to own forestland; they choose to be good stewards. Our first – and biggest – challenge is keeping them on the land. Some, of course, will choose to sell their property as their family and community circumstances dictate. Many others would prefer to stay on the land, and continue to pass on their family’s heritage of stewardship.
The key fact to remember is that it’s their choice. Not ours. Not yours. The goal of endangered species policy, therefore, should be to make it easier – not harder – for families to stay on the land, and to exercise their innate impulse for conservation.
Family forest owners give back to their communities. But without cash, there’s little opportunity for conservation.
Whatever their motives for owning forests, owners need income for taxes and insurance, and to invest in their land. To the extent they believe endangered species conservation may constitute a potential drain on their expected future income, some owners may choose another land use. It’s important, therefore, to view species conservation not just as a stewardship responsibility owners willingly accept, but also as an environmental service they provide to their communities – a service worthy of public support.
Sadly, incentive programs for forest and species conservation are so meager that many families don’t even bother to apply. Last year, more than $4 billion in applications for all conservation incentives went unfunded. And of those that were funded, a tiny fraction supported forest protection. Under EQIP, for example, the largest Federal incentive program, less than 2 percent of expenditures nationwide in 2004 were directed at forest conservation practices. Given that about half the rural land in the US is forested [and not connected to a working farm or ranch], the nation’s needs are nowhere near being met.
At the same time, federal incentive programs are just one tool available to policymakers. As part of a comprehensive endangered species policy, other avenues for compensating owners for environmental services should be explored, including tax policy, extending the Conservation Security Program to forest owners, and the creation of private markets. We should reward family owners for species conservation, not punish them for creating the habitat where these species can thrive.
Consistency and certainty breed confidence.
Family forest owners must make decisions that will affect their forests and their families for decades, even generations. Consistent policies and regulatory certainty make it easier for owners to choose conservation. In fact, enacting short-term fixes, or politically-fragile programs may actually de-motivate owners, rather than encourage their commitment to long-term stewardship. The brief, sad history of the Forest Land Enhancement Program – the nation’s first substantial incentive program aimed solely at family forest owners – left many with little confidence that Federal policy would provide a stable foundation for their investments in stewardship.
Likewise, exposing owners to regulatory uncertainty – the fear that steps taken to protect species today might not suffice in the future – magnifies risk and leaves many owners wary of agreements that might further limit management choices open to their heirs.
Several attempts have been made to remove these uncertainties. Early efforts to set individual Habitat Conservation Plans for small owners have stalled. Few have been accepted, and some owners have spent tens of thousands of dollars and the better part of a decade negotiating their plans – an unappetizing prospect for their peers.
More promising [and more appealing to owners] is the emergence of statewide or region-and species-specific HCPs, and Safe Harbor Agreements which ease entry, set clear goals and landowner responsibilities, as well as mutually-agreed to limits on restriction of future use.
Program simplicity is a virtue.
As one Tree Farmer put, “We own this land for three reasons: pride, pleasure and profit. Often, the profit isn’t there, but we’ve gone on. But when the pride and pleasure disappear – when there’s one too many hoops to jump through – we’ll disappear too.”
Right now, funded Federal incentive programs accessible to forest owners for species conservation number about half-a-dozen – spread over at least three different agencies. Some are administered through state agencies; others through Federal offices. Most require separate application and operate under different rules.
Simply knowing on which door to knock is a challenge for the vast majority of forest owners. Even more vexing, once you’re inside, is the maze of committees, requirements, priorities and application procedures. Alongside well-funded incentive programs, we need simpler procedures and transparent processes – perhaps even harmonized programs – so that family forest owners can readily find the programs that work for them.
Lack of funds isn’t the only barrier to species conservation.
Very often, family owners will implement management practices that protect species simply because they want to – because it feeds the pride and pleasure they take in caring for their forests. For them, a primary barrier to action is lack of knowledge about a particular species, its range, and the practices they might implement to support its conservation.
For that reason, we have urged both agencies and the Congress not to shortchange outreach and education programs by counting success only in acres treated through cost-share grants. We understand and support the push for programs that produce real results on the ground. But the drive toward easily-measured outcomes – as we’ve seen with the Fish & Wildlife Service’s Private Stewardship Grants program – may actually reduce the return we can earn on Federal investment in species protection.
Our six decades of experience – affirmed by our recent work with Environmental Defense and the Nature Conservancy – leave no doubt that well-informed, well-motivated family forest owners will implement new practices, once they learn how.
Two projects supported in part through recent Private Stewardship Grants demonstrate the power of outreach and education. In Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, forest owners who attended field days and received publications now manage more than 10,000 acres to conserve gopher tortoise habitat, while maintaining the productivity of their forests. On average, they plan to share what they have learned with an average of 14 of their neighbors. After a single field day in South Carolina, owners reported using prescribed fire and other practices to conserve at-risk species on 15,210 acres.
Incentives are a vital component of a comprehensive endangered species policy because they recognize and respect the power of private stewardship. They provide one avenue – but not the only one – for achieving some level of public support for environmental services provided by family owners.
Owners in general want to be good stewards, within the boundaries of economic reality. Without adequate cash flow from either forest products or environmental services, it becomes increasingly difficult to sustain forests in the face of burgeoning development.
Current incentive programs, as now organized and administered, are not well-designed for family forest owners. Access is difficult, and funds available for forest conservation are dwarfed by the potential need. Without solid evidence that programs will remain adequately funded – and that rules won’t change over time – many owners lack the confidence needed to make decisions that will affect their families, and their forests for generations.
Tying Federal investment to on-the-ground outcomes is vital. But the most effective policy will combine incentives with a broad range of information, outreach, education and technical assistance programs.