The challenges facing the forests and other natural resources in our region sometimes seem insurmountable. However, the power of determination, collaboration, and finding commonality among diverse interest groups should never be underestimated. The Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA), passed through Congress and signed by the President this summer, represents just such an example of this power.
After years of advocacy by many stakeholders including the State Forester community, the passage of GAOA permanently authorizes and mandatorily funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) at $900 million annually in perpetuity. Created by Congress in 1964, the LWCF was intended as a bipartisan safeguard for natural areas, water resources and our cultural heritage, and to provide recreation opportunities to all Americans. LWCF funds numerous programs that support federal, state and local conservation priorities, including land acquisition at the USDA Forest Service (USFS) and Department of the Interior as well as state grants for outdoor recreation purposes. Of most interest to the work of the state forestry agencies is the LWCF-funded Forest Legacy Program (FLP) for private forests.
FLP is a conservation program administered by the USFS and state forestry agencies to encourage the protection of privately owned forest lands through conservation easements or land purchases. The greatest threat to our forests in the South is conversion – loss to development, urbanization or other higher value land uses. This threat is substantial – estimated in the Southern Forest Futures Report at between 11 and 23 million acres by 2060 without significant targeted policy intervention. But simply locking up and preserving our forests is not the right approach either. Without active management, these forests will be at risk to wildfire, insects and disease, and other threats to their sustainability. FLP is so valuable because it not only sets aside critical forest acres from conversion, but ensures they are maintained in a healthy condition by requiring a forest management plan to keep them healthy.
Throughout its program history, the FLP has ensured that critical acreage has been set aside for permanent, well-managed, sustainable forestry all across the South. Whether we know it or not, every individual in our region is a beneficiary of the FLP through the clean water, clean air, recreation, forest products, and more that sustainable forests of all ownerships provide.
It’s an easy sell to get most politicians to tell you they support avoiding the kind of deforestation our region is forced to contemplate. The GAOA represents a bipartisan commitment by our federal government to put the money (quite literally) where their mouths are. The $900M annual authorization represents roughly a doubled commitment to conservation compared to the current funding level. This is good news for the FLP, which annually must run a ranking process to whittle down the slew of excellent state-supported projects to match the available funding. For all the FLP success stories like the Headwaters State Forest in North Carolina, the Sansavilla Wildlife Management Area addition in Southeast Georgia, and the Silver Springs Forest Conservation Area outside Ocala, Florida, there are countless more that remain unfunded.
The investment in our southern forests from the GAOA will be substantial, and is hopefully a sign of the bipartisan strength of natural resource conservation as a national and regional priority. As a southern forestry community, the GAOA represents an example of the power we have when we speak with one voice on the imperative of sustaining our forests and our forest-based communities. To learn more about the Forest Legacy Program and other ongoing work to conserve southern forests in your area, contact your State Forestry Agency.