The focus in Washington D.C. is often on elected officials – the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives – and their role in making and enacting federal policy. However, it is often those who hold positions appointed by the president or department secretaries that can have the most impact on issues of importance. On Sept. 1, 2017, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, swore in one such individual, Tony Tooke, who became the 18th Chief of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). Appropriately, the ceremony took place at White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire.
The USFS is a multifaceted agency whose mission is to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. Those needs include economic support for communities surrounding the national forests, a goal that seems to have been overshadowed by other priorities during the last 25 years.
Chief Tooke assumes this leadership role with 37 years of service to the Forest Service, starting at age 18. Before becoming Chief, he was the Regional Forester for the Southern Region of the USFS, responsible for 14 national forests. He now oversees 154 national forests and 20 grasslands in 43 states and Puerto Rico.
The Hardwood Federation is encouraged by what we are hearing and seeing from the new Chief. He fully understands the benefits that timber harvest programs, including those that provide raw materials to the U.S. hardwood industry, contribute to the overall health of the forest system. Thinning and fuel cleanup help prevent fires, provide needed wildlife habitat, and allow for recreational activities throughout the year. The Federation has been a strong voice for increased timber harvest levels for a number of years, and we believe Chief Tooke is fully aligned with our vision that more forest management will improve the health of our federal forests.
Late last year, Hardwood Federation Lobbyist, Pat Rita, and I were able to sit down personally with Chief Tooke and discuss our concerns related to current federal forest management practices. The meeting was very encouraging on a number of fronts. Chief Tooke clearly is committed to delivering more board feet of timber off our federal forest landholdings and has been clear with department staff that this is a top priority. He indicated that in late 2017, board feet production was trending upward in every region of the country and the USFS is committed to producing 3.4 billion board feet (BBF) off federal forests in 2018, with a goal of getting to 4 BBF by 2020. He went on to say that more timber has been sold during the last two years off the federal forests than at any time during the last 20 years.
A key talking point of our meeting with Chief Tooke was that the Hardwood Federation seeks to bring a national face to the symbiotic relationship between federal forest fire suppression funding and the need for federal forest management reform. Although the public perception may be that devastating wildfires are a strictly western U.S. concern, the eastern half of the country is also impacted. Not only do fires occur east of the Mississippi, insect infestation and disease are having an increasingly negative impact on the eastern forest system, including federal forests. The fact that forest fire suppression efforts now take up more than half of the USFS budget exacerbates these problems and pushes solutions off to “another day.” Chief Tooke strongly agreed, acknowledging that this is a national issue, not one confined to the western states. He remains optimistic that federal forest reform legislation will get enacted in 2018. Pat and I committed to working aggressively with his lobbying team and our champions in the House and Senate to help make that outcome a reality.
We also discussed the emergence of cross-laminated timber (CLT) as a highly desirable building material and the opportunities for hardwood products to be developed and included in this sector of the industry. Chief Tooke was well-versed on the issue and is supportive of efforts to enact the Timber Innovation Act, which will provide more research and development dollars toward developing wood products in taller buildings.
The bottom line is the new Chief is very familiar with our products and our industry, and we are looking forward to working with him to advance policies that both benefit our sector and the rural communities that surround our forestlands. It was a refreshing conversation and one that we look forward to continuing on behalf of the entire industry.
Dana Cole is Executive Director at the Hardwood Federation, a Washington D.C.-based hardwood industry trade association that represents thousands of hardwood businesses in every state in the U.S. and acts as the industry’s advocacy voice on Capitol Hill. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.