August 14, 2009

Ag Secretary in Seattle: We must make restoration # 1 priority in forests

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Tom Vilsack

Tom Vilsack

For those who may have doubted that there would be much difference between a Bush administration and an Obama administration — and we must say there’s been less difference than advertised in some areas — take a look at the speech Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is giving today in Seattle:

It is time for a change in the way we view and manage America’s forest lands with an eye toward the future. This will require an unprecedented, all-lands approach that engages the American people and stakeholders. It is essential that we reconnect Americans across the nation with the natural resources and landscapes that sustain us.

Yeah, it’s rhetoric, all right, but it’s certainly not much like the rhetoric we heard from the former Ag secretaries Ann Veneman (“Ann Venemous” to some enviros) and Mike Johanns,  or from Mark Rey, the former timber lobbyist who headed the U.S. Forest Service under Bush.

Vilsack is unabashedly and directly committing the Forest Service to consider restoring the health of forests as its highest priority. That might seem like a no-brainer. But recall that this is an agency that’s been pummeled by budget cuts after old-growth logging quit bringing in the kind of revenue it did in decades past. And marching orders had been kinda squirrelly, some in the agency say, with Rey at the helm.

What Vilsack’s calling for, specifically, is by no means revolutionary. He’s talking about creating “green jobs” funded by stimulus money and perhaps other funding sources to hire people to thin overstocked forests that cover most of the West.

Those forests grew in too thick and became unhealthy because of a century of fire suppression. Fire is a natural part of the order in forests and helps maintain forest health.

Once all the “dog-hair” patches of forest are thinned, they can get on a trajectory toward health again. Said Vilsack:

Throughout the West – but in other parts of the country as well – a legacy of fire suppression has resulted in forests that are over-stocked and much more susceptible to catastrophic fire and disease. Restoring forest ecosystems, particularly in fire-adapted forests, will make forests more resilient to climate-induced stresses and will ensure that our forests continue to supply abundant, clean water.

The wood taken out of in the forest-thinning efforts can be used to provide energy, Vilsack and many others reason. Vilsack is also emphasizing the benefits the public can realize by allowing forests to grow old and collecting payments for tying up the most abundant greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, in their wood.

He’s talking about how the national forests can’t be managed without a close eye on what’s happening on adjacent state- and privately owned forests. And he’s pointing out how healthy forests are integral to providing clean water supplies.

Enviros are pretty excited. The Wilderness Society, for one, called the speech “momentous.”

Both the Seattle P-I and the Seattle Times have an AP story by Mathew Daly on their sites, although neither shows signs of having an actual staff reporter at whereever Vilsack is speaking in Seattle today. If they come up with something I’ll try to remember to link to it here.

Update 5:25 p.m.: No sign of a staff-written story, but the talented Phuong Le of the AP covered Vilsack’s speech, as did Tom Banse for OPB.

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