Throughout the last seven years, the USDA Forest Service and Natural Resources Conservation Service have made great strides in conserving private working lands and our public lands for future generations. We have pioneered approaches to conservation that use incentives and partnerships to work with landowners across property boundaries and conserve watersheds, wildlife and large landscapes. What’s more, USDA is demonstrating that conserving our natural resources creates economic opportunities for rural communities across the country.
Today, we are launching the second chapter of USDA Results, a progressive year-long storytelling effort of the Obama Administration’s work on behalf of those living, working and raising families in rural America. This month’s chapter tells the story of how we are working to conserve our natural resources. Throughout February, we will be announcing new projects and highlighting the work we have done over the last seven years.
The majority of our nation’s lands are privately owned. USDA has invested more than $29 billion since 2009 to help farmers, ranchers, and landowners prevent soil erosion, create and protect wildlife habitat, and clean the air we breathe and the water we drink. NRCS has worked with as many as 500,000 of these producers on over 400 million acres across the nation. These stewards of the land are leaders in innovation and conservation of our natural resources.
Secretary Vilsack and I agree that while federal investment is crucial, partnerships are key to sustainable results that reach everyone. We have made it a priority to build long-lasting relationships with landowners, businesses and organizations committed to using sustainable conservation practices that are good for the environment and for the bottom line.
The new Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) is a great example of that emphasis on shared responsibility, and is designed to empower local communities to work with multiple partners, farmers, ranchers and forest owners to design and invest in regional solutions that work best for them and the environment. Thanks to our partners, USDA’s $1.2 billion investment in RCPP over the next five years can leverage private matching funds so together we generate a $2.4 billion investment in innovative conservation work.
In addition to our work to support farmers, ranchers and forest landowners implementing sustainable practices on their land, USDA is also responsible for protecting our national forests and grasslands for future generations.
Our national forest and grasslands provide opportunities for over 165 million visitors each year to recreate and support local economies through tourism. The outdoor recreation economy supports 6.1 million direct jobs, $80 billion in federal, state and local tax revenue and $646 billion in spending each year. The Forest Service’s 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands are also where drinking water originates for 60 million Americans.
A key emphasis of our work over the last seven years has been to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration on the National Forests to improve the ecological health of forests, reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire, and create economic opportunities through sustainable forest management. This Administration has substantially increased both the number of acres being restored annually and the forest products being produced. Importantly, this work has been driven by collaboration — conservation groups, forest industry, local communities and others working together to develop forest restoration projects that have multiple benefits. For example, over the last five years, Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration (CLFR) Program projects have improved wildlife habitat on more than 1.33 million acres and reduced the risk of catastrophic wildfire on more than 1.45 million acres.
The Forest Service has one of the most respected and effective firefighting and prevention organizations in the world. However, as fire seasons get longer, hotter, and more unpredictable, the cost of fighting wildfires has skyrocketed and now jeopardizes the future of our forests. In 2015, the Forest Service spent almost two-thirds of its budget on firefighting and fire related activities.
As this trend continues, important programs that can prevent wildfires, like forest restoration, and landscape and watershed management, suffer. So, too, do many other valuable programs like recreation, forestry research, working lands conservation, and many others.
We remain willing and ready to work with Congress to fix the fire funding problem. In the meantime, the Forest Service will continue to do more with less and our brave fire crews will continue to protect lives, property, and natural and cultural resources.
You can learn more about the work of the Forest Service and NRCS at USDA Results, a progressive year-long storytelling effort of the Obama Administration’s work on behalf of those living, working and raising families in rural America.