Tidwell address public land concerns during conference
Washington, D.C. – During the week of April 7, members of the Public Lands Council from across the United States flocked to Washington, D.C. to receive updates from a variety of congressmen and agency heads.
“In most cases, much of the good work that is done by organizations is done in informal discussions in the hallways or over a cup of coffee,” commented U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Chief Tom Tidwell. “We appreciate the ongoing support for grazing and for our budget from the ranching community.”
Tidwell addressed a number of issues that USFS continues to see throughout the country.
“For the last few years, the agency has focused on restoring our forests, restoring our grasslands and restoring our rangelands,” said Tidwell. “When I talk about restoration, we are hoping to retain and restore resiliency, so these
landscapes can deal with the stresses they are faced with.”
The probability for drought, increased fire and increased invasive species is an ever-present threat for the lands under the scope of USFS.
“We are so dependent on our natural resources and fortunate to have those resources, but it is essential that we do everything we can so these lands will continue to provide all the benefits they do,” he continued. “At the same time, they must be resilient to stresses.”
Of the stresses placed on forestland, Tidwell remarked that fire has become increasingly problematic.
“By restoring these landscapes and our forests, we can reduce the impact of fire,” he said. “We can reduce the threat to communities and also reduce the severity of fire.”
Tidwell noted that his career with the USFS began on fire crews.
“From what our scientists tell us, we can expect longer fire seasons,” he said. “The fire seasons we see today are 60 to 70 days longer than those 10 years ago.”
He also noted that there are many examples where restored ecosystems are better able to cope with fire.
“A key part of the rangelands is more native species,” he explained. “Fire promotes invasives, which reduce the forage and water-holding capacity, as well as the ground cover. We have to find a better way, going forward, to reduce the severity of wildfire on the landscape.”
Tidwell also commented that since working with the USFS, he has had experience dealing with invasive species throughout the West, namely cheatgrass.
“We’ve tried everything that ranchers across the West have tried, and we aren’t there yet with cheatgrass control,” he said. “We are close to having biologic control to be able to reduce cheatgrass infestation.”
Research from the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), as well as with research scientists across the country, has allowed USDA to begin testing biological control to finally tackle the species.
“We will ask for continued support with the research part of our budget to continue to do the work we need to come up with solutions to deal with these species,” Tidwell said, “and not only the ones that we deal with today, but the ones that we will have to deal with tomorrow.”
Tidwell touted open spaces as the hallmark of the West, and he stated, “Agriculture is the best defense that this country has when it comes to reducing the loss of open spaces.”
Research shows that 6,000 acres per day are lost in the U.S. to some form of development. While not all of those acres are being paved, Tidwell remarked that subdivision is just as detrimental to changing the character of the land.
“I’ve seen a lot of places where a working ranch with healthy watersheds is subdivided into smaller acreages, and it seems like, over time, we lose the benefits of that watershed,” he said. “We not only lose the benefit of beef production, but we lose the benefits for wildlife.”
The open spaces provided by private landowners are essential to continuing to provide for wildlife, and Tidwell noted that agriculture is an essential component of caring for wildlife.
“Private land provides more wildlife habitat in this country than all of the public lands combined – and it takes both,” Tidwell explained. “Having the best summer range for elk on a national forest has little benefit if there is no place for elk to winter.”
While he also noted that there can be conflicts with wildlife, the opportunity to build partnerships with agriculture to support wildlife is important.
“We have to find ways to strengthen and expand our partnerships,” he said. “Wildlife interest groups are one entity that can, in many ways, be our strongest supporter for the benefits that we provide.”
While the USFS is making great strides in many areas, Tidwell also commented that there is room for improvement in the management of their lands.
“I know we need to do a better job to communicate early and often with permittees,” he said. “The USFS needs to learn how to be more efficient with our time, so we can do a better job and be more effective.”
He further added, efforts need to be pursued to create a more unified approach to monitoring and data collection.
“It is our best defense, when we get challenged by the folks who take us to court, to have good monitoring in place and good data,” Tidwell said. “We are looking to improve our overall system of monitoring to increase our effectiveness.”
Particularly in the area of data collection, Tidwell noted that there is opportunity for increased partnership between agriculture and the USFS.
With no standard system for monitoring, Tidwell said that inconsistencies have developed through the forests and grasslands across the country.
“We need to clarify our approach and be more consistent, so it is easier for our permittees who are collecting data,” he commented. “We are focusing on doing a better job there.”
Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A touchy subject – water – was also discussed by U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Chief Tom Tidwell, who commented, “The Forest Service is not interested in taking anyone’s water.”
Additionally, he cited that the USFS is seeking more ways to develop and distribute waters across the landscape.
“We need additional help to move faster and be more nimble in developing water because there is a greater need to be able to increase the level of improvement on the landscape,” he said.
At the same time that the USFS is not in the business of acquiring water rights from landowners, Tidwell mentioned that they believe keeping the land and water together.
“Over the years, we have invested, through state law, to hold water rights and have water claims, so we can keep the water on the land where it is available for livestock and wildlife,” he explained. “We are interested in working to keep the water on the land.”
Separation of water rights from land ownership can result in changes on the landscape and loss of multiple use.
“We want to keep the water with the land, so we can support multiple uses on those lands,” Tidwell emphasized. “We want to work with agriculture and ranches to maintain the water with the land, so we can continue to graze those lands.”