The stock market has plunged to half its value. Unemployment has doubled. And the president struggles to rebuild the economy of a politically divided country.

The scene may feel familiar to us today, but this was the world of President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt in 1907.

Yet by the end of his presidency, President Roosevelt could reflect back on a recovered economy, an assertive global presence, markets freed from monopolies and more lands and waters conserved than any president before or since.

Of those herculean accomplishments won during tough economic times, none has forwarded greater benefits to us today than Roosevelt’s attention to the nation’s outdoors. Through the creation of the U.S. Forest Service and other conservation initiatives, Roosevelt established a natural framework that continues to provide life-giving benefits to America.

For example, this year we celebrate the centennial of one of Roosevelt’s signature outdoor legacies, the Weeks Act of 1911. This Act, sponsored by Rep. John Wingate Weeks of Massachusetts, created 52 national forests east of the Mississippi and set a precedent for collaboration on all forest service lands throughout the nation.

The greatest gift of the Weeks Act, however, may be it proved we can accomplish epic improvements to the health of our lands for generations to come — if the will still exists to realize them.

With an estimated 120 million acres of American forests in need of immediate restoration today (the size of California and Maine combined), a stalling economy and perhaps an even more stagnant political environment — the question is, do we still own that epic will?

Thankfully, a new report released today suggests the answer is “yes!” This first-year analysis of the new Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP) further offers tangible results backing up that sentiment.

In just one year, from just 10 national forest projects, CFLRP achieved the following:
 

  • Created and maintained 1,550 jobs;
  • Produced 107 million board feet of timber;
  • Generated nearly $59 million of labor income;
  • Removed fuel for destructive mega-fires on 90,000 acres near communities;
  • Reduced mega-fire on an additional 64,000 acres;
  • Improved 66,000 acres of wildlife habitat;
  • Restored 28 miles of fish habitat;
  • Enhanced clean water supplies by remediating 163 miles of eroding roads.
Perhaps even more encouraging is that all of this was achieved in a collaborative, bipartisan manner with just an initial $10 million of federal investment. Folks who were once at loggerheads over the management of our forests — industries, environmentalists, recreationists, sportsmen — have put those conflicts aside and worked collaboratively to achieve real, everyday benefits in their own communities with CFLRP.

In fact, CFLRP is seemingly one of the few programs Congress can agree on, with a bipartisan “Dear Colleague” letter now circulating in the Senate that supports increasing that seed money to $40 million in the 2012 budget, so even more communities can share in the jobs, forest, water and wildlife successes of CFLRP. The sponsors of that letter are Sens. Bingaman (D-NM), Crapo (R-ID), and Risch (R-ID).

Yet, by itself, CFLRP cannot solve the problems our American forests face: overgrown forests, a plague of pests, sprawl, climate change and the record mega-fires that result from this “perfect storm” of threats. But CFLRP is a step in the right direction that deserves more support, so that the lessons learned on these landscapes can spread further in our nation’s forests.

As a child, Theodore Roosevelt was notoriously sickly and myopic. In the belief he could heal his body through physical exertions, he prescribed himself a childhood spent outdoors and in the boxing ring. The prescription worked, and that sickly boy grew into a pugnacious collegiate boxing champion, a rugged cowboy, a leader of Rough Riders and ultimately, a farsighted president.

In doing so he made a lifetime out of answering the bell. Now it’s our turn.

—Text by Chris Topik, Cool Green Science Blog, part of The Nature Conservancy. Chris has spent his entire career working to restore America’s forests. Today he serves as director of The Nature Conservancy’s Restoring America’s Forests program. Previously he worked as staff director for the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee, and also as a 16-year-employee for the Forest Service in Oregon and Washington.