Under Secretary of Agriculture Cites Challenges, Calls for Partnerships at Recreation Exchange

Under Secretary of Agriculture Cites Challenges, Calls for Partnerships at Recreation Exchange

March 21, 2012 (Washington, D.C.) – Harris Sherman, Under Secretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and Environment, offered an encouraging, pro-partnership message at the Recreation Exchange hosted by the American Recreation Coalition (ARC) on March 20, 2012. The Under Secretary spoke candidly about significant challenges facing the U.S. Forest Service, one of two federal agencies that he oversees, but also invited the recreation community to join the agency in finding creative ways to meet those challenges.

Mr. Sherman opened his comments by putting the significance of the National Forest System into perspective. He explained that the 193 million acres managed by the Forest Service, which represent approximately 8% of the land in the United States, provide significant sequestration of carbon and are the source of drinking water for 66 million people. He also noted that the national forests host 200 million recreation visits annually and are home to 550 threatened and endangered species, in addition to thousands more species.

The challenges facing the National Forest System are equally significant, with 70 to 80 million acres in need of what he described as serious restoration, including a thinning out of very dense growth. He described the increasing threat to the forests from fire, noting that the three to four million acres that used to burn each year have now increased to five to 10 million acres annually, with even more acreage at risk in the near future. He also mentioned the challenge represented by “bizarre climate changes” and cited as an example the previous year, when the northern tier of the country experienced the wettest year on record while a number of southern states endured record droughts. In the face of these challenges, he said, “We need to redouble our efforts to take care of the forests” while, at the same time, struggling with budgets that have decreased 5 to 8% in recent years.

The question that needs to be answered, he explained, is how do we forge partnerships that will “help us do our work – and help you with your work.” He noted that he was delivering this partnership message not only to the recreation community, but also to electric and water utilities as well as timber, grazing, and oil and gas interests. He also was frank about the need for the Forest Service to find new ways of doing business, calling for the agency to be more effective, more efficient and more focused. He cited the $350 million the agency spends on NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) compliance every year – “that’s a lot of money,” he said – and described new efforts to look at environmental impact statements “in landscape terms,” for example, a million acres all at once. “We need to get away from random acts of conservation,” he declared, “although we’re very good at it. That’s not the future.”

Under Secretary Sherman tied this new approach to the Forest Service’s about-to-be-released Planning Rule, which he described as a 21st century tool that is “flexible, nimble, cheaper.” “I am very hopeful that it will work well for your industry,” he said, telling the group that recreation plays a very important role in the forest planning process. He was also optimistic about the impact of President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative. He said that the initiative provides an exciting opportunity to look at compatible management of public and private lands while connecting more people to the outdoors. He noted the particular challenge of reaching young people and reported on the newly launched effort to establish a 21st century conservation service corps. He also cited the goal shared between the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior to have 40,000 to 60,000 young people actively working outdoors and pursuing natural-resource careers. Overall, he said, “I am very hopeful that some great things will emerge, but we will really have to work together.”

The question-and-answer period that followed Mr. Sherman’s prepared remarks allowed him to expand on some of his themes. He was quick to acknowledge the tendency of federal agencies to work in “stove pipe” fashion, that is, with little coordination and communication. However, he also noted that momentum was building to break that habit. He reported that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar were trying to meet on a weekly basis and that the two departments were taking a coordinated approach to some Land and Water Conservation Fund spending. He also mentioned interagency efforts to promote travel and tourism in response to the President’s recent Executive Order calling for a new National Travel and Tourism Strategy. At the same time, he did note that simply encouraging agency staff to operate in new ways and to seek out partnerships was not sufficient; instead, training was needed to develop the communication, mediation, and listening skills that are essential to building productive partnerships. And, he agreed, those partnerships will be needed to accommodate multiple use successfully, to revitalize recreation infrastructure, and to put the agency at the forefront of the effort to improve public health by encouraging active outdoor lifestyles.

Under Secretary Sherman was delighted by his audience’s strong interest in partnerships and intrigued by the problem-solving possibilities offered by pilot projects and other experimental initiatives. “I can see us working together, pooling resources,” he said. He then invited ARC President Derrick Crandall to convene a group to explore innovative project ideas that could be implemented on a prototype basis.

Information on ARC’s Recreation Exchanges is available at: www.funoutdoors.com.

If you would like to contact Harris Sherman, he can be reached as follows:

The Honorable Harris Sherman
Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Room 240-E, Whitten Building
14th Street and Independence Avenue, S.W.
Washington, D.C. 20250

Recreation Exchanges are made possible by the following sponsors:
American Association for Nude Recreation
American Horse Council
American Motorcyclist Association
Bureau of Land Management
National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds
National Marine Manufacturers Association
National Park Service
National Tour Association
Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association
Recreation Vehicle Industry Association
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
U.S. Forest Service