IT IS AWE-INSPIRING to take the helm of America’s first forestry organization that was founded before the federal government even had an agency solely dedicated to America’s forests. For more than 140 years, American Forests has stood at the center of the forest movement.
The weight of this fully hit me when I learned that from 1905-1908 James Wilson simultaneously served as the President of American Forests (then the American Forestry Association) and also as the Secretary of Agriculture. During that same period, the second American Forest Congress, led by our organization, passed a resolution calling for creation of the U.S. Forest Service. The U.S. Congress complied by passing legislation to establish the Forest Service literally within weeks.
So, why am I launching my first Offshoots as president & CEO of American Forests by looking backward at our history? Shouldn’t the new president be starting with our vision for the future?
My backward look will make sense as you understand that my vision for American Forests’ future is grounded more strongly in our full history than just our recent past.
You see, American Forests has always planted trees, but we were not always considered a tree planting organization as some see us today. The first tree planting that American Forests organized in 1882 drew 50,000 people by foot, horseback, carriage and rail to Cincinnati, Ohio.
But it was not really an event just about planting trees. It was a leader- ship event, part of the first American Forest Congress, and intended to launch a comprehensive forest movement.
We clearly led the forest movement that we launched back then and in differing ways have ever since. Many of our organization’s greatest gifts to America’s forests have been achieved with our vision, expertise and voice — not just our shovels.
While it’s easier to count trees, I can assure you American Forests has had extraordinary impact through less-visible actions like organizing and leading coalitions of forest organizations to pass major legislation, inventing new ways to map urban tree canopy, and teaching “right tree, right place” forestry principles to people caring for forests across the country.
Each of these actions is one step removed from actually planting a tree or taking another on-the-ground action to protect, restore and steward America’s forests. But done right, these break-throughs can improve America’s forests far beyond just what American Forests can do alone — these are the actions of a true movement leader.
Why is leadership needed now? It starts with climate change. Climate change is simply the greatest threat to our forests and our planet that we have ever faced. From rapidly dying western forests to the subtler yet equally serious erosion of forest health occurring in other regions, our forests are in trouble and need a lot of help from people to withstand the climate change we have fostered.
But there is a big payoff if we get this right — healthy and resilient forests can capture carbon emissions from the atmosphere and play a huge role in slowing climate change. Today, America’s forests capture 14 percent of our emissions. They could do even more to slow climate change — or become a source of carbon emissions, depending on our actions.
Tree planting can really help meet this challenge by creating new forests and replacing forests as they are lost to the growing impacts of climate change.
We are doing just this at American Forests, challenging ourselves to plant more trees than ever in stressed areas like California’s Southern Sierra Nevada. We are making these efforts climate- smart by partnering with scientists from the U.S. Forest Service to replant the right tree species in the right places to create forests that can withstand future climate stress.
We are leading tree planting in urban areas, like Miami-Dade County, where we are using computer mapping technology and cutting-edge science to help local officials plant urban trees that can withstand future hurricanes while cooling homes and businesses from rapidly increasing extreme heat. These energy- saving trees offer a double bonus to slow climate change, directly absorbing carbon from the air and reducing the amount of energy used by people for cooling.
But our own place-based work will not be nearly enough given the scale of the climate challenge to forests and our country. That’s why American Forests has launched a comprehensive new Climate Leadership Strategy to empower government agencies, private landowners, forest-products companies, communities, and other nonprofits to also take action.
The centerpiece of this strategy is our leadership of the Forest-Climate Working Group, a powerful coalition I was proud to co-found in 2007. American Forests has taken the reins of this coalition, and we are now engaging policymakers and forestry professionals at an unprecedented scale. This includes the Learning Lab that American Forests hosted in July for delegations from the 16 states of the U.S. Climate Alliance.
American Forests organized a multi- day workshop staffed by more than 60 volunteer technical experts from across the country. This innovative, hands-on training led each state team through a dynamic curriculum that enabled them to build strategies for prioritizing and investing in forest-climate solutions, including planting more forests.
This dramatic demonstration of our leadership abilities has led to a long- term partnership with the U.S. Climate Alliance and new grants that will help us continue to empower these states in taking action. This kind of leadership, when combined with American Forests’ own on-the-ground efforts in places like the Sierra Nevada and Miami-Dade, represents the full potential of our organization to create change on an issue of this magnitude.
While we see climate change as the threshold leadership issue for American Forests, it is not the only one. America faces other pressing challenges that demand the same kind of movement leadership combined with place-based action to deliver forest solutions.
In particular, you will hear much more about our major push to use urban forests as an equity lever to create opportunities and improve quality of life for underserved urban neighborhoods and people. This includes our exciting new partnership with tree care companies to engage thousands of people who urgently need career opportunities into the fast- growing field of urban forestry.
You will also hear much more about our new leadership strategies on the long-standing forest priorities of water and wildlife, in both cases bringing new scientific rigor, partnerships and scale to our work restoring forests for these important outcomes.
America’s forests need more from us now in every way — more trees planted, yes, but also leadership that can help different public and private organizations come together to overcome seemingly insurmountable threats like climate change.
American Forests is ready to provide the servant leadership that can build an unstoppable movement to better our forests and our country. Thank you very much for being part of it.