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Strengthening Connections

Why our Connection to the Forests Can Never Be Overlooked

By Scott Steen


The American spirit has been shaped by the nation’s majestic landscapes. From the mountains and grasslands, to what must have once seemed like endless forests, the untamed, natural world has inspired us to explore, to dream big dreams, and to ponder the transcendent, all while providing us with countless tangible benefits.

Today, Americans seem less and less connected with the natural world that has shaped our national character, while many of our greatest natural resources—including forests—are threatened or disappearing. This disconnection is happening at a time when we need nature more than ever, as our understanding of the fragile and critical connection between the health of the natural world and our own well-being continues to grow. Our stewardship of both rural and urban forests is inextricably linked to the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the medicines that heal us, and the temperature of the planet.

In February, the Obama Administration released two policy statements that have major implications for the future of our nation’s forests. Both initiatives deserve bipartisan support.

The Uinta National Forest in Utah is one part of the 191-million-acre system of National Forests. Credit: BRUCE TREMPER / CC 3.0

The America’s Great Outdoors (AGO) report follows President Obama’s April 2010 call for an initiative to reconnect the American people to their nation’s land, water, forests, and cultural heritage, building upon conservation successes in communities across the nation. AGO recognizes that many of the best ideas come from outside of Washington. As the President said in a memo last year, “Across America, communities are uniting to protect the places they love, and developing new approaches to saving and enjoying the outdoors. They are bringing together farmers and ranchers, land trusts, recreation and conservation groups, sportsmen, community park groups, governments and industry, and people from all over the country to develop new partnerships and innovative programs to protect and restore our outdoor legacy.” AGO seeks to make the Federal Government a better partner with states, native tribes, and local communities in an effort to protect our nation’s natural heritage, and encourage all Americans to enjoy it more.

The Forest Service’s Planning Rule proposes a set of policies for future management of our 191-million-acre National Forest System and the rules by which the public will be engaged in decisions for this management. “This proposed planning rule seeks to conserve our forests for the benefit of water, wildlife, recreation, and the economic vitality of our rural communities,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said. “The proposed rule will provide the tools to the Forest Service to make our forests more resilient to many threats, including pests, catastrophic fire, and climate change.”

Both of these policies hold great promise as they seek to engage people in rural and urban communities, connect us to the forests and natural landscapes that surround us, and encourage all of us to participate in the restoration and protection of our vital forestland. Both have been developed with extensive public involvement. They reflect the kind of balanced, clear-headed approaches that American Forests has advocated throughout its history. Specifically, both of these proposals:

• Engage people in the communities where they live, viewing citizens and both public and private institutions as partners in the planning process

• Work through multi-stakeholder, collaborative processes to identify priority issues, develop solutions, and implement actions

• Invest in landscape or watershed-scale initiatives that involve all lands and landowners, and seek long-term ecosystem restoration

• Employ a management approach that seeks to learn throughout the process and make adjustments accordingly

The Grand Canyon is one of the many natural legacies we hope to leave future generations to teach them the importance of respect for and appreciation of the environment. Credit: NPS.GOV

The vision and principles in these documents are also reflected in the Administration’s Fiscal Year 2012 funding proposals for the Forest Service, which are now being considered by Congress. American Forests recently submitted testimony to the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee supporting strong funding for many of the programs advancing this vision.

As I write this, Washington is engaged in a fierce budget battle to fund the rest of 2011. And while these are no doubt difficult times with many competing priorities, we cannot lose sight of the fact that our natural legacy is also our promise for the future. Investing a little in America’s forests pays off in countless ways that benefit us directly, as well as future generations: cleaner air, cleaner water, recreation, wildlife habitat, new medicines, and a cooler planet, to name a few.

America’s Great Outdoors and the Forest Service Planning Rule can help us to realize these benefits. This focus on our great landscapes in general, and forests in particular, also reminds us of the intimate connection between our natural world and our national character—of independence and interdependence, the willingness and ingenuity to face tough obstacles, a generosity of spirit, and the inspiration to dream big. With all that is going on in the world today, we could use the reminder.

—Scott Steen

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