The Forest Service is an easy target. It is a big sprawling agency with more than 30,000 employees. They wear funny green uniforms. Their mascot is a Teddy bear (or for children of the 1970s, an owl. Remember “Woodsy?”).
Some members of Congress glee in blaming the Forest Service for declines in timber cutting, and the proliferation of wildfires in the West. Outside the glare of Washington, D.C., however, good things are happening on our national forests — starting in Idaho.
Idaho maintains the strongest roadless area protection on its national forests of any state because of a process led by then-Gov. Jim Risch that brought together sportsmen and women, county commissioners, timber interests and others.
Closer to the ground, on the Yankee Fork, an historically important spawning and rearing tributary of the Salmon River, Trout Unlimited is working with the agency to heal a history of dredge mining by restoring the stream and putting large wood back in the system. Juvenile trout and salmon immediately occupied a restored section of the Yankee Fork. A father who was camping with his young son asked the local fish biologist what they were doing. The father then turned to his son and said: “These people are doing this so that when you take your children camping here there will be salmon and steelhead to see.”
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In Montana’s Lolo National Forest, TU worked with the Forest Service to restore rivers damaged by historic mining and roads. The forest had been tied in knots for years over a timber sale that could potentially affect bull trout — a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. TU and the Forest Service figured out how to use the receipts from the timber harvest to pay for restoration.
Over the past 20 years, the Forest Service has pioneered a form of collaborative stewardship that represents the future of conservation in America. Collaborative stewardship produces jobs, partnerships, and most important results on the ground.
And it’s not just in Idaho or the West. In West Virginia on the Monongahela National Forest, the Forest Service and TU worked with state and federal agencies, farmers, and others to expand brook trout habitat to more than 30 miles of streams. In the next few years, Trout Unlimited, in partnership with the Forest Service and more than 1,500 other partners, will reconnect and restore a whopping 600 miles of rivers across the nation.
Of course, collaborative stewardship makes fishing for native and wild trout better. But that is an incidental benefit. These projects provide high-paying, family wage jobs in rural communities. They help to improve drinking water for millions of Americans. They drive economic opportunity.
Collaborative stewardship also makes nearby communities better able to withstand the changing climate. Restoring riparian areas and floodplains on the Yankee Fork and on private lands adjacent to the Monongahela will make those communities more resilient to the effects of flood and drought. Forest thinning on the Lolo may help moderate unnaturally intense wildfires.
Congress needs to fix the budget issues associated with fire-fighting. Lawmakers should provide funding for rural communities that historically depended on timber receipts to pay for local schools and roads. What they should not do is overlook the significant progress the Forest Service has made in bringing people together to apply common sense to common problems for the common good.
Chris Wood is the president and CEO of Trout Unlimited, headquartered in Arlington, Va.