Jay Jensen presents vision for the Forest Service at August Recreation Exchange

Jay Jensen, Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was the guest speaker at the August 2009 Recreation Exchange hosted by the American Recreation Coalition. In this position, Mr. Jensen has policy responsibility for the U.S. Forest Service, which manages 193 million acres of National Forest System lands and provides assistance to more than 10 million family-forest landowners. The Natural Resources and Environment mission area includes the Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, which is the federal agency with primary responsibility for working with private landowners in conserving, maintaining and improving their natural resources.

Mr. Jensen spoke about Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's national vision for America's forests, the Forest Service's use of economic stimulus funds, the importance of concessioners and partnerships to the mission of the Forest Service and more. He told the group that Secretary Vilsack is committed to reconnecting the American public to the land, and is leading the Department of Agriculture with the vision "USDA: Every day, every way." The Secretary plans to reconnect people to the land through the frames of climate and water. People today, particularly children, largely lack an understanding of where their food and water originate, putting little thought into the source of their food other than the grocery store. It is vital to reconnect people to their public lands, Mr. Jensen said. "The key way to reconnect people to their lands is through recreation, and you all are a powerful part of this platform," Mr. Jensen told the group. He touted the importance of urban forests, especially those near city centers, noting that 75% of visitors to national forests travel less than 100 miles to the forests they visit. “These urban forests are the gateways to connecting people to the land,” he said.

Mr. Jensen told the group that Secretary Vilsack would shortly give his first major speech outlining his vision for the future of our nation's forests, and Mr. Jensen outlined key goals of that plan. The three short-term goals, to be accomplished in the next 12-18 months, are: economic recovery, wildfire relief and protection of roadless areas.

In discussing economic recovery, Mr. Jensen reported that the Forest Service will receive nearly $1.15 billion under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA). He continued, “ARRA is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to highlight the Forest Service.” Approximately $650 million has been allocated for capital improvements. Of the $297 million of funds released for facilities and trails projects, $209 million are for facilities projects, which include visitor centers, campgrounds, boat ramps, restroom facilities, office buildings, laboratories, work center sites with equipment storage facilities, stables for livestock and related projects. Seventy percent of the approximately 135 facilities projects that have been released so far are recreation facilities. To date, he said, Secretary Vilsack has released $88 million (73 projects) for recreation trails to continue to provide recreational opportunities and access to wilderness and backcountry areas for a wide diversity of users, including hikers, horseback riders, mountain bikers, cross-country skiers, snowmobilers, hunters, anglers, all-terrain vehicle riders and others. These projects will provide quality recreation experiences for the more than 179 million people who visit the National Forests each year. The Forest Service hopes that many trails projects will use Job Corps and other youth-related organizations to provide job experiences and skills for young people while educating them about natural resources and encouraging them to consider careers in natural resources. “The President wants to create more jobs from a green perspective,” Mr. Jensen said, “and forestry is the original green job!” He also noted that the President is being advised by long-time environmental activist Van Jones – the “Green Jobs Handyman” – on stimulating green jobs.

With regard to wildfire relief, Mr. Jensen explained that it is crucial for the Department of Agriculture to work to quickly alleviate the enormous pressure, including a tremendous economic strain, that wildfires place on the agency. Mr. Jensen admitted that it is hard not to get bogged down by the challenges posed by the wildfire problem and to not simply be labeled as the “Fire Service.” The Department is working to find new budget mechanisms to deal with the ballooning costs of wildlands firefighting.

Turning to the third short-term goal, Mr. Jensen stated that the Department of Agriculture is also working to protect roadless areas. Currently, the Forest Service is hindered by conflicting decisions from two federal courts about the legality of current rules guiding roadless area decisions. In order to ensure consistency across the agency in related management issues, management decisions are being pulled from the local offices to the Secretarial level until legal issues are resolved. A final decision on roadless areas may end up requiring Congressional action, he noted. Commenting that Idaho has been very successful in reaching consensus on its roadless areas, he suggested that this model could be emulated elsewhere. The issue of roadless-area management could also arise in conjunction with upcoming transportation legislation, and again complicate addressing forest road needs. But Mr. Jensen characterized conversations on Capitol Hill about forest road needs as very positive and refreshing compared to past legislative cycles.

Mr. Jensen then discussed the Forest Service’s operating budget. The agency receives its funding through four mechanisms: appropriated funds, retained fees, business partners and nonprofit partners. He explained that the Forest Service’s appropriated recreation program budget was $405 million for 2008 and $424 million for 2009, with $435 million proposed for 2010. Retained recreation user fees authorized under the Federal Lands and Recreation Enhancement Act of 2004 (FLREA) are also a vital part of the Forest Service’s sustainable business model for delivering quality recreation programs and services and meeting growing demands for opportunities within high-use zones. Fee collections have steadily increased over time and totaled $61.6 million in fiscal year 2008.

Mr. Jensen also hailed the importance of permittees and concessioners to Forest Service lands, as operations by these businesses are throughly integrated with the Forest Service’s mission. There are over 17,000 developed recreation sites on the National Forest System lands, including over 5,000 campgrounds, and more than 60% of the agency's campground capacity is managed by campground concessioners. One hundred and twenty-three ski areas operate on National Forest System lands though special-use permits – this represents nearly two-thirds of the downhill skiing capacity in the United States. Additionally, approximately 5,500 outfitters and guides hold permits for a broad range of services including photography safaris, nature studies, historical tours, ATV rides, jeep and snowmobile tours, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, heli-skiing, canoeing, kayaking, and whitewater rafting, horseback riding, water fowl and big game hunting and much more. In fact, while Mr. Jensen has only served in his current position since April 2009, he told the group he was set on his career path by a love of recreating on public lands. He credits a two-week outfitted and guided trip he had with his family as a youth as being a "formative experience" in his life. Making special connections between youth and their public lands is crucial, he said.

Mr. Jensen highlighted several important partnership efforts with which the U.S. Department of Agriculture is involved, particularly those that improve the lives of children and their connection to the lands. Over the past three years, the Forest Service’s "Kids in the Woods" program, which emphasizes life-long learning experiences in nature as a way to connect young people to the land, has used $1.5 million to raise more than $3.5 million in partner cash and in-kind contributions to support programs that reached over 60,000 kids. Mr. Jensen applauded the work of the many organizations present at the Recreation Exchange for their collaborative efforts to get kids outdoors – including National Get Outdoors Day. However, he also believes that the key to encouraging the younger generation to enjoy public lands is to have parents actively engaging their own children. “In the end,” said Mr. Jensen, “it largely comes down to families.” Another major area of partnership is with youth, volunteer and hosted programs that involve more than 89,000 people annually. These programs engage people in active participation in critically needed conservation volunteer work, primarily through recreation programs, and their efforts are valued at over $80 million. Over 80% of these contributions have been in the areas of recreation, heritage, trails, wild and scenic rivers and wilderness.

Mr. Jensen highlighted Secretary Vilsack’s “Healthy Kids Agenda,” which will work to achieve the President's goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015 through greater access to safe, nutritious and balanced meals. A key aspect of this initiative includes the effort to increase the physical health of our children by providing greater access to our national forests and grasslands for outdoor recreation and other healthy activities. The Department of Agriculture’s new food pyramid now includes an exercise component, which can easily be tied into healthy, active initiatives on our nation’s forests.

To read Secretary Vilsack’s first speech outlining his vision for the future of our nation's forests, click here.

Recreation Exchanges are hosted in Washington, D.C., by the American Recreation Coalition and feature guests who are influencing recreation public policy in America. Information on past and future programs is available at: www.funoutdoors.com.

If you would like to contact Jay Jensen, he can be reached as follows:

Mr. Jay Jensen
Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment
U.S. Department of Agriculture
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20250
(202) 720-7173, fax (202) 720-0632

Recreation Exchanges are made possible by the following sponsors:

American Association for Nude Recreation
American Horse Council
American Motorcyclist Association
Bureau of Land Management
Bureau of Reclamation
Kampgrounds of America
Motorcycle Industry Council
National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds
National Marine Manufacturers Association
National Park Service
National Recreation and Park Association
National Tour Association
Personal Watercraft Industry Association
Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association
Recreation Vehicle Industry Association
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
U.S. Forest Service
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service