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Public Statements

Remarks at White House Conference on Cooperative Conservation

By:
Date:
Location: St. Louis, MO


Remarks As Prepared by The Hon. Mike Johanns, Secretary U.S. Department of Agriculture,
Innovations In Land and Resource Governance, White House Conference on Cooperative Conservation

St. Louis, MO
August 29, 2005

Thank you for that nice introduction, I appreciate it. And, thank you all for being here to engage in meaningful dialogue that will help to set the course for a new era of conservation.

I'd like to start by acknowledging; Secretary Norton, Secretary Rumsfeld , who spoke to you earlier today, Administrator Steven Johnson, Chairman Connaughton, Senator Talent, Mayor Slade and other civic leaders here today.

Importantly, you're hearing not only from these officials, but also from our partners during this conference and there are dozens of concurrent sessions featuring private/public partnerships for conservation.

Our entire agenda is meant to drive home a point: Conservation today is no longer about conflict. Instead, it's about cooperation, about partnerships, about collaborative solutions from the bottom up.

I've had the opportunity to view conservation efforts from a number of perspectives... certainly as Secretary of Agriculture but long before that as Governor of a largely rural and agricultural state and as a young man growing-up on a farm in Osage, Iowa.

Now, I see some puzzled expressions on your faces. You're thinking, where on earth is Osage, Iowa, and what could it possibly have to do with conservation? Well, let me first clear up where Osage is, because if I don't, you're going to be focused on that burning question while I'm explaining the rest. Osage is south of St. Ansgar and Stacyville, straight east of Manly. So now we've got that cleared up.

All kidding aside, Osage is a perfect place to learn about conservation. Any farming or ranching community is. For one thing, you learn exactly where your food comes from. There are those who seem to think that food and lumber originate in the cargo areas of supermarkets and home improvement stores.

Growing up in Osage, I saw firsthand the connection between people and the land, and I learned the importance of that connection. Farming and ranching operations are about sustainability, about long-term productivity.

Those involved with agriculture have a direct stake in sustaining the soil and water resources that, in turn, sustain all of us. There is a powerful connection between sound, profitable farming and effective conservation practices. On farms and ranches, conservation is quite simply common sense.

There's something else you learn growing up in a rural community: You can't do it alone. Yes, you live off your own land and your own hard work, but community connections and values are tremendously important to rural life. Having grown up on the land, it's easy to see that farms and ranches are connected by human relationships... just as they are connected by the relationships between soil and water, plants and animals.

I learned that what we did on the Johanns farm affected our neighbors in multiple ways - the connection was crystal clear. I might add that the neighbors weren't afraid to let us know if we lost sight of that connection. There's no living in anonymity in a community like Osage. So, I learned that conservation is about cooperation with neighbors and town folk, with anyone who shares the landscape upon which we depend to make a living. It's about respect for each other and finding common goals.

In a perfect world, such understanding and cooperation would exist everywhere. As you know, that has not always been the case. Not long ago, those living on the land seemed locked in a struggle with those worried that our natural resources were not being preserved. Some believed that the best way to protect the land is through edicts, injunctions or orders. In fact, some still look for regulatory solutions and try to resolve differences in a courtroom. I do not share the belief that management by mandates is the best option, nor does our President.

President Bush has a vision for cooperative conservation and he has set hard-driving goals to make that vision a reality. His ideas are supported by decades-old wisdom. In fact, the great conservationist Aldo Leopold, even before he coined the term "land ethic," wrote in the 1930s of the need for cooperative conservation on America's farms. He used that very term. He argued that the future of conservation depended on private landowners and that looking too much to government for solutions could be a distraction.

Leopold used a metaphor from his hunting experience. He was an avid bird hunter who owned hunting dogs all his life. He once had a dog named Gus and when it couldn't find pheasants, it would find meadowlarks and pretend like it was a great thing-you know how dogs get, all excited and proud. Similarly, I worry that those who look to government-imposed solutions become caught-up in finding the meadowlark and miss the pheasant. Allow me to explain what I mean.

On national forest land, timber production is about 15 percent of what it once was. Some would celebrate the decline in timber production, thinking it represents improved conservation. But, they miss the bigger picture, the overall declining health of our forests, as fires and insect outbreaks take their toll. Sadly, some have been so distracted by the meadowlarks that real opportunities for cooperation and genuine stewardship are sometimes missed.

Fortunately, President Bush is turning that around. USDA has embraced an alternative vision of conservation a vision articulated by our President that is consistent with Aldo Leopold's views. It's based on the belief that those who depend on the land to make a living have a vested interest in stewardship.

As President Bush has said, "Stewardship is the daily work of America's farmers and those who own the land." It's a vision of cooperative conservation-of working with our farmers and ranchers and our timber producers and forest landowners instead of against them.

In our vision of cooperative conservation, government has a strong role to play, but not as a top-down regulator as some might imagine. Government has a responsibility to be a facilitator of community-based collaborative approaches from the bottom up. When carried out this approach both improves the environment and strengthens the economy by helping people help the land.

Toward that end, we've made some impressive progress in recent years in three critical areas: restoring forest health; recovering wetlands; and protecting working farms, forests, and ranches from development.

First, forest health. We've all seen images of terrible fires in recent years, and we've heard the associated stories, dozens of lives lost; thousands of homes destroyed; millions of acres of habitat impacted, sometimes leaving endangered species with nowhere to go.

The reasons are complex and go back many decades, but the symptoms of a forest health crisis are alarmingly obvious in many parts of the United States: forests full of stunted trees; acres of beetle-killed trees that stretch as far as the eye can see; woods choked by undergrowth.

We estimate that about 73 million acres of national forest land are a high priority for treatment. That's almost four acres in ten. We know what's needed to restore these forests: in most cases, it's removing excess vegetation, then returning fire to the ecosystem when it's safe.

A few years ago, President Bush set the course to do exactly that through the Healthy Forests Initiative, followed by the bipartisan Healthy Forests Restoration Act. Both are based on working with local communities to reduce hazardous fuels and restore fire-adapted ecosystems.

They are great examples of cooperative conservation and they are proving very successful. Our treatment rate is several times higher than 5 or 10 years ago and about 60 percent of our treatments are in areas where wildlands interface with urban life.

That's where we work directly with communities to improve forest health and reduce fire danger. Last year, the combined efforts of federal agencies led to the treatment of some 4 point 2 million acres. We actually exceeded our own goal by nine percent. Ladies and gentlemen, these are historic numbers. Each year, it seems, we set new records. Clearly, we're on the right track.

Next, I'd like to focus on the story of our wetlands and what a story it is. As you know, wetlands cover only a small fragment of the landscape, yet they make a disproportionately large contribution to the social, economic, and ecological sustainability of America's landscapes.

According to figures cited by EPA, more than 70 percent of our commercial and recreational fish species depend on wetlands. So do half of our bird species and almost a third of our plant species. Yet wetlands cover only about 5 percent of the land area of the lower 48 states. That's an area slightly larger than California.

Originally wetlands covered almost twice that much territory, but many wetlands were drained and filled, you know the story. For decades, we steadily lost wetlands. For example, from 1992 to 1997 we had a net loss of 26-thousand acres per year on nonfederal land. But we are turning that around.

We have a cap and trade system in place, based on a national policy of no net loss and it's working. But it gets even better. For the first time in living memory, America is gaining wetlands instead of losing them. From 1997 to 2001, we had a net annual gain of 33-thousand acres of nonfederal wetlands, and from 2001 to 2003, we doubled that.

A year ago on Earth Day, the President pledged to do even more to achieve true gains. Under the President's Wetlands Initiative, we will regain a million acres of wetlands in the next 5 years while protecting and improving another 2 million acres. We already have a very good start: Over the last year, we've moved more than 800 thousand acres of wetlands into the plus column through our programs for cooperative conservation programs like the Wetlands Reserve Program and the Conservation Reserve Program.

These are voluntary programs that landowners use to protect their wetlands. We currently have more than 5 million acres of wetlands enrolled in these programs alone. We are well on our way to meeting the President's wetlands goal.

Now let me touch on the third area I mentioned balancing the need for open space with the need for development.

By far, the leading cause of habitat loss is development, both commercial and infrastructural. As our urban areas grow, our green space dwindles. Not only do we have fewer wetlands today than we did a generation ago, but also considerably less cropland, pastureland, and rangeland.

The effects are noticeable all across the landscape. Species like elk and grizzly are often associated with the national forests, but they actually need entire landscapes to survive, including privately owned bottomlands at certain times of the year. As these private lands are developed, the wildlife sometimes disappears, no matter how good the habitat remains on adjacent public land.

We also lose other benefits, like clean air and water, carbon sequestration, soil protection, and opportunities for outdoor recreation. These are important benefits that come to us free of charge, compliments of our natural landscapes, both public and private. As those landscapes disappear so do the benefits.

How great is the loss? In the 20-year period from 1982 to 2002, almost 35 million acres were converted to developed uses. That's an area almost the size of Illinois. Forests are also affected. Our forest estate has remained roughly stable since the 1920s, but southern states like Florida, Louisiana, and Texas have all had net forest losses in every decade since the 1960s. North Carolina has less forest cover today than ever before in its recorded history, largely due to urban development. With that said, I will add that the South is still the largest timber producing region in the world, but it would be wise to take note if that tradition is to continue.

I can assure you that USDA is taking note... all across the country. Our cooperative programs are providing landowners with an incentive to stay on the land. Through the Forest Service's State and Private Forestry programs, willing landowners receive technical and financial assistance to manage more than 400-million acres of private forestland.

Through our Forest Legacy Program, forest landowners work with states to receive payments and assistance in exchange for conservation easements. In the past 5 years, we tripled funding for this program, with more than a million acres now enrolled.

Through programs administered by USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service and Farm Service Agency, we offer technical and financial assistance to private landowners on a combined 1-point-2 billion acres of working lands.

Today, I proudly acknowledge that we will soon mark the 20th anniversary of our nation's largest public-private conservation partnership, the Conservation Reserve Program or CRP. CRP is one of the most successful conservation programs in history, benefiting farmers, ranchers, landowners, sportsmen, and wildlife habitat. By offering rental payments to agricultural producers on a voluntary basis we are helping safeguard environmentally sensitive land.

Some have expressed concern about the fact that more than 400-thousand CRP contracts encompassing more than 28 million acres are scheduled to expire between 2007 and 2010. Today, I am pleased to announce that we are moving quickly to protect those lands.

President Bush expressed his commitment to re-enrollment and extension of CRP last August and today we are very close to announcing the details of our plan to carry out the President's commitment.

Our Farm Service Agency will offer re-enrollment of the contracts that provide the highest level of environmental benefit. The vast majority of contracts that are not re-enrolled will be offered extensions. We will begin work very soon to protect 28 million acres worth of expiring contracts.

Through another program, the Ranch Land Protection Program, willing farmers and ranchers receive payments in exchange for conservation easements. As of 2003, more than 300-thousand acres of working farms and ranches were permanently protected through the program.

Yet another program, our Grassland Reserve Program, offers landowners the opportunity to protect, restore, and improve grasslands on their property. In fiscal year 2004, we had another almost 300 thousand acres enrolled in the grasslands program.

We are also doing what we can to help our grazing permittees on national forest land. For example, we encourage "grassbank" partnerships as a way of extending the amount of acreage available for grazing. We want to keep a viable ranching industry on the landscape.

All of these conservation programs work in harmony to protect and preserve our natural resources. We do our best to put every dollar to work. In fact, we are making an additional $30 million dollars available for voluntary conservation programs. This is not new money, but it would not otherwise have been dedicated to conservation payments.

The funding is a collection of unused funds both from state and national level projects. In carrying-out the President's Management Agenda, our Natural Resources Conservation Service put this funding together and determined that it would be most effectively spent encouraging further participation in cooperative conservation. These dollars will be used for incentive payments as well as cost-share and technical assistance.

Our progress under the President's leadership has been significant, but we recognize that there is more to be done. I mentioned the extra benefits we get from farms, forests, and ranches, like clean air and water, healthy soil, fish and wildlife habitat, and more, well, good conservation practices on working lands have historically generated these benefits.

We have relied on farmers, ranchers, and timber producers to provide these vital benefits at no cost to us. I would submit to you that we should not take these benefits for granted. We should not wait until more working lands are lost before we recognize the value of the benefits they provide. A new policy will ensure we don't wait.

Today, I am announcing that USDA will seek to broaden the use of markets for ecosystem services through voluntary market mechanisms. I see a future where credits for clean water, greenhouse gases, or wetlands can be traded as easily as corn or soybeans. We will collaborate with partners to establish a role for agriculture and forestry in providing voluntary environmental credits.

I know that it's one thing to announce a new policy and quite another to achieve meaningful results. Therefore, we are creating a new Market-Based Environmental Stewardship Coordination Council. The Council will help to ensure that we produce a sound market-based approach to ecosystem services.

USDA is striving to involve the citizens we serve in all aspects of our decision-making. That's why we are conducting a nationwide Farm Bill listening tour. As you know conservation issues are a significant part of the farm bill and I am traveling the country to find out what is working well and how we might improve farm policy in anticipation of the 2007 expiration of the current Farm Bill.

The President asked me to visit as many states and hear as many voices as possible and I am doing just that. We have conducted Farm Bill Forums in 12 states and I will be traveling to Kentucky and Illinois later this week.

Conservation is part of the discussion at every forum and we have received tremendous feedback regarding the best course for future conservation policies. We are also making conservation the focus of a series of specialty forums. Conservation forums have been already been held in Wyoming and Alaska. I'm pleased to announce that conservation forums will also be conducted in Idaho, Hawaii, Nevada, Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island.

In closing, let me say this: Like many others who grew up depending on the land for a living, I believe we have a duty to be good stewards. As the President has said, we didn't create the earth, but we have an obligation to take care of it. We cannot fulfill that obligation by sowing discord and mistrust. Instead, we must sit down together in a spirit of mutual respect to find common ground and then work together to formulate and achieve common goals.

That, I believe, is the essence of cooperative conservation. It's not a new idea. But after a generation of conflict in the name of conservation, I believe it represents an innovation in land and resource stewardship. It's a journey well worth making if we're ever going to get pheasants instead of meadowlarks, if we're ever going to restore our forests to health, recover our lost wetlands, and protect our green spaces for generations to come.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have begun that journey and today, I ask you to join us. Together we can strengthen and invigorate the very spirit of cooperative conservation.

And now, I would like to introduce someone who has been a great partner to USDA, Mr. Chuck Leavell. You know him as one of rock music's most renowned keyboardists, who has anchored the Rolling Stones band for more than two decades and played with Eric Clapton, George Harrison and on many other Grammy-winning recordings.

But I'll have you know that he's also a distinguished conservationist, carrying the family forest message to Capitol Hill and audiences all over the world. Chuck and his wife Rose Lane both work on their Georgia plantation. They were named the nation's outstanding Tree Farmers in 1999 from among 50-thousand eligible members. He is a Trustee of the American Forest Foundation, and serves on many other non-profit boards.

Fresh off the stage from last night's Rolling Stones concert in Ottawa, please join me in welcoming a man who is creating a legacy far beyond the music world as a wise steward of our natural resources and voice for conservation.

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Chuck Leavell

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