USDA Puts Climate, Water at Top of Forest Priorities

Restoring national forests to prepare them for climate change and to protect water resources will be the overarching goal of U.S. forest policy, Tom Vilsack, who heads the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), announced today. USDA includes the U.S. Forest Service, which manages 78 million hectares of forests and grasslands.

In a speech in Seattle, Washington, Vilsack emphasized that climate change is putting stress on forests through increased fires, disease, and outbreaks of destructive insects. Restoring forests, by removing excess wood for example, will help them better resist climate stress.

Water quality is also a top goal. Just over half the water supply in the United States comes from forests on public and private land. Some 66 million people in 33 states drink water that comes from land managed by the Forest Service. Trees help regulate the flow of streams and prevent soil erosion that reduces water quality.

"The message was a good one," says forest ecologist Jerry Franklin of the University of Washington, Seattle. "It is what the Forest Service needs to be doing now: restoring the functionality of these forests and preparing them for climate change." Franklin says the task will require restoring past cuts to the Forest Service's staff and budget.

Dominick Della Sala of the National Center for Conservation Science & Policy in Ashland, Oregon, also supports the new vision. "It's really encouraging to hear an emphasis on water," he says, especially as climate change impacts water supplies. "The conflict over timber will pale in comparison to the conflict we'll see over water."

But Della Sala hopes that Vilsack will emphasize the ability of old growth forests to store carbon from the atmosphere. "If Vilsack is serious about climate change, those forests should be managed for optimal carbon sequestration."