June 2006  
Life in a Living Lab: A Profile of Sally Collins
by Cameron Walker

The Forest Service's associate chief, Sally Collins, considers herself a typical Forest Service employee. Like many in the agency, her love of forests started early. As a kid, Iowa-born Collins camped, backpacked, and hiked on public lands. In Wyoming, she would head to Medicine Bow National Forest; in Colorado, her family had a cabin tucked between the Arapahoe-Roosevelt National Forest and Rocky Mountain National Park.

From the outset, Collins' family had strong conservation roots and complementary branches came later. She's been married to Aldo Leopold's great-nephew for nearly three decades. "So we have the ultimate land ethic on that side of the family," Collins says.

This land ethic has informed Collins' leadership at the Forest Service during an important period. As the agency moves away from the intensive timber production of the 1980s, Collins has jumpstarted research into forests' role as suppliers of ecosystem services. In her view, national forests can become a laboratory for studying how ecosystem services are created and valued, developing frameworks that could be used by markets nationwide. "We can get a huge economic engine behind conservation if we can do this right," she says.

Collins wasn't an instant supporter of tallying up the services that forests provide. When she first heard about the concept of slapping dollar signs on trees, streams, and wildlife, everything about it seemed wrong. "You can't account for what the value of a lynx is," she recalls thinking. "There's something irresponsible about putting an economic value on a species."

But Collins' long tenure in the Forest Service meant she'd seen development felling forests at an increasing pace. "I realized the extent to which all these values are just going away because they're not accounted for in the marketplace," she says. "You may have all these great intentions about protecting these values you care about—clean water, clean air, abundant wildlife, and all of that—but in the meantime, they're just disappearing, because forests are being sold in bulk these days, and nobody's thinking about forests beyond what their economic value is for the trees."

Turning Tides

Collins' long-term commitment to the Forest Service started in 1982, when she started as a forest planner in the Siuslaw National Forest. Prior to taking the job at Siuslaw, she had been working in Colorado for the Bureau of Land Management, conducting wilderness inventories and developing oil, mineral, and gas leases.

The change in environment came as a bit of a shock. On BLM lands, forestry consisted of cutting a scraggly juniper or two. The Siuslaw was full of giants. "You'd go down Main Street and there would be one hunk of a log on a truck, and it would be 15 feet in diameter," she says.

Those big trees put Collins right in the heart of big changes in the Forest Service and its management. Timber production had been a recent addition to the Forest Service. Until World War II ended, most trees bound for paper mills and lumberyards came from private lands. By the time Collins started at the Siuslaw, she says, "it was all about timber targets and it was all about cutting trees and mitigating impacts to other resources." The 630,000-acre Siuslaw and the rest of the national forests were in production mode; in 1987, forest cutting was at its peak with nearly 13 billion board feet harvested from the national forests.

That year, Collins moved to the Deschutes National Forest, in central Oregon—a forest known less for logging and more for progressive rangers who'd already started using proscribed fire and selective cutting to improve dense stands, Collins says.

The following years were full of turmoil, as a seldom-seen owl became the center of a fight about the Northwest forests. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the northern spotted owl (Strix occidentalis caurina) as threatened in 1990. The following spring, U.S. Federal District Court Judge William L. Dwyer halted timber sales in spotted owl habitat.

The Dwyer decision, Collins says, had a huge impact on both Northwest timber management and local communities. The Forest Service itself reorganized as it put the brakes on old-growth logging.

Collins thinks the decision reflected a change in how the public valued forests. "It was mainstream America, it wasn't just an environmental group," she says. "People [started to] see these national forests as truly national, and they wanted their national forests protected."

On the Deschutes, where Collins spent 13 years—seven as Forest Supervisor—logging continued to whittle down stands that had grown thick during years of fire suppression. Production overall, however, started to wane; these days, national forests produce less than two billion board-feet each year.

Collins started to notice other changes. Down the road from her forest, a mill owner bought another mill—not in Oregon, but in Lithuania. Illegal products started to enter U.S. markets, and rising transportation costs began slowing the U.S. industry.
And while there was timber to sell from the Deschutes, it didn't seem to be moving out the door.

The Big Picture

Tapped to come to Washington as associate deputy chief of the National Forest System in 2000, Collins became associate chief (and forests' chief operating officer) when Dale Bosworth became chief in 2001. From Collins' new perch, the many small changes she had noticed in the nation's forests began to take on a larger shape.

In 2002, she visited a group of mills in Sabie, South Africa on a trip to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. The U.S.-owned mills were old and inefficient, with a workforce that was 30% HIV-positive and undergoing restructuring after Apartheid. But they were selling certified timber, and making a profit. "I couldn't believe it," she says.

That's when she started learning about ecosystem services markets. The mill trip was part of a board meeting of Forest Trends (Forest Trends is Ecosystem Marketplace's parent organization). Here, she realized that the global market was taking over, forest certification was on the rise, and that forests—no matter where—could be part of a growing market for ecosystem services. "I just was blown away by what I heard there," she says.

Ecosystem services markets seemed like a way to address one of Collins' biggest concerns: the dwindling U.S. forestry industry. "With the loss of the forest products industry, we're losing our forests to development, to urban growth, to ranchettes—sometimes large, sometimes small, but certainly not that great for wildlife," she says.

As a result, she and the Forest Service's senior management have immersed themselves in studying forest ecosystem services, resulting in what Collins calls an explosion of activity as they examine the potential for ecosystem services markets and certification, from an investor's perspective.

Certify It

The idea of certifying a forest's sustainability started coalescing after the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, after nations couldn't seem to agree on a global approach to sustainable forests. These days, products that come from certified forests carry a label, letting everyone from weekend carpenters to national construction companies pinpoint sustainable products.

Even more importantly, corporations can incorporate certified products into their business plan. A company can use sustainably harvested forest materials "to do the right thing, and to tell an environmental story about their company," says Michael Washburn, vice president of brand management at the Forest Stewardship Council-US, an international organization that certifies sustainable forest products through third-party auditors.

By buying FSC-certified products, companies are assured they're not connected to poor environmental practices. "There's a practical value from the standpoint of reducing risk," says Washburn, a forester who's worked on certification issues since 1998.

Demand for certified products is increasing. Between October 2005 and May 2006, there was a 10% increase in companies that provide FSC-certified materials; last year, U.S. acreage managed to FSC standards doubled.

Certification, Collins says, "allow[s] market mechanisms, as opposed to regulation, to drive what people buy, choices that people make, and to get the right kind of conservation happening on the land," Collins says.

The Forest Service had been involved in certification, but not on home soil. The agency had been working with other countries as part of the Montreal Process—a set of voluntary criteria under which nations can report sustainable forestry projects. "People would turn to us and say, 'So, you're helping us to certify, well what are you doing on your own land?'" Collins says. "Here you're saying this is important and sustainability is important, and sustainable forest practices are important, and certification is a good way to show it, and yet you're not doing anything about it on a national level."

Eventually, it became too embarrassing to encourage other countries to certify without putting U.S. forests under the same scrutiny . The Forest Service picked out several forests on which to test certification and other possible ways to tally ecosystem services. Last fall, they began looking at the Pennsylvania's Allegheny National Forest and at a section of the Fremont-Winema National Forest in Oregon. In May, the Forest Service added Wisconsin's Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest and Oregon's Mt. Hood National Forest to the list of forests under study.

In each of these forests, researchers are looking at how management practices might dovetail with certification. By next spring, Collins says, she hopes to have a recommendation from these forests about how far to take the idea of certification, as well as having complete third-party audits as part of the Environmental Management System required for each national forest under the 2005 National Forest Management Act.

The Forest Service is also working with state and private forests to look at other places where certification might be appropriate. And from certification, some think it is a short leap to other kinds of payments for ecosystem services.

Exploring New Markets

In a speech last year, USDA secretary Mike Johanns said that he envisions "a future where credits for clean water, greenhouse gases, or wetlands can be traded as easily as corn or soybeans." The Forest Service is helping to staff an advisory committee that's looking at creating a robust ecosystem services market; the 2007 Farm Bill might be a vehicle for implementing some of these ideas, Collins says.

Possible marketable ecosystem services fill the nation's forests—from watershed services, which support an estimated 60 million Americans, to biodiversity—and savvy investors have already started recognizing national forests' potential.

The agency has already helped to make events like the 2005 Capitol Christmas Tree and Super Bowl XL carbon neutral events by supplying seedlings to offset carbon emissions. Wetland mitigation banking may be another option; the Forest Service is studying mitigation banks across the country to look at how they might work on state and private lands.

Foresters could also tap into woody biomass as an alternative fuel source if technology developed accordingly. Removing biomass could have an additional benefit. Some amount of forest thinning can also make forests healthier and less susceptible to catastrophic fire, Collins says—so thinning, done right, could prevent a surge of fire-related carbon into the atmosphere.

The interest is there. "People are coming to us already and wanting to plant trees for carbon," Collins says. "People are coming to us [about] wetland mitigation banks." Several things appeal to potential investors interested in funding restoration or conservation work on forest service land: there's no need for conservation easements, and little concern that the area will be protected long-term, making it cheaper to develop projects on public lands. But Collins and others are also wary of edging out other possibilities. "We don't want to take that opportunity away from the private land owner," she says.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service is looking at its own carbon footprint and will try to incorporate carbon neutrality in its work and projects. In that way, Collins says, the forest service is trying to support a voluntary carbon market.

To be sure, the Forest Service's look into ecosystem services markets doesn't mean the end of logging, mining, or grazing. But, Collins says, "we'll be thinking about the forests with a different set of goals in mind."

Coming Full Circle

In these next years of ecosystem investigations, expect Collins to consider all the angles.
Collins describes her working process as feeding both her curious nature and her desire to collaborate. "I really try to learn from people as much as I can," she says.

This cooperative attitude has served her well so far. When she became the Deschutes' Forest Supervisor, she went down to the Bend Bulletin and met with the local paper's then-editor Bob Chandler. A longtime fixture in the community, Chandler had never been too keen on the Forest Service, Collins says—and a supervisor hadn't met with him one-on-one for years. He ended up being one of Collins' staunchest supporters, jumpstarting a partnership between the Forest Service and community that still continues.

In the Deschutes, Collins also immersed herself in the forests themselves, hiking on the weekends and even cross-country skiing before work. "It would have been easy to be there forever," she says. "There were just too many big and interesting issues out there that I wanted to be involved in. So here I am, involved in them," she says with a laugh.

There are still a few landscapes to explore. She's just a few blocks from Rock Creek Park's trails, which provide a respite from urban Washington, D.C. And while she's farther from the forests in which she grew up, Collins is taking the Forest Service closer to its own roots.

"I've watched a shift in mindset of timber production to restoration," Collins says, "a focus from what you take from the land—what was primarily timber—to what you leave on the land in the way of a multiplicity of resources, which really is what Gifford Pinchot had in mind when the Forest Service was created."