Expert Voices

Protecting the Nation's Drinking Water Means Protecting Forests (Op-Ed)

Forested landscape
Forests store large amounts of carbon in their trunks and leaves, and play a major role in global climate. The BIOMASS satellite will map this effect on a global scale. (Image credit: <a href="">Mares Lucian</a> | <a href="">Shutterstock</a>)

Kathy Abusow is president and CEO of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative. Carlton Owen is president and CEO of the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities. The authors contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

An estimated two-thirds of the nation's freshwater resources originate in forests, according to the U.S. Forest Service. This makes protecting forestlands critically important in order to ensure a supply of clean, safe water. Recent research also suggests that protecting watersheds reduces long-term water treatment and storage costs for consumers. Recognizing this, water utilities increasingly are taking responsibility for the health of local watersheds, with a special emphasis on protecting the forests they contain.

To that end, the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities (Endowment), supported by a grant from the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), is launching an initiative this week to better engage forest landowners and water utilities in finding new ways to protect and maintain watersheds on privately owned forest lands.

The project will encourage forest owners and water utilities to work together to conserve watersheds by keeping their forest locations healthy — the most cost-effective way for communities to ensure continued access to clean water.

Both the Endowment and SFI believe strongly that one of the best ways to protect the nation's water quality is to develop effective collaborations between water utilities and forest landowners. Investing in land protection to protect sources of drinking water is smart, both economically and environmentally.

It's important to note that protecting forests does not necessarily mean public ownership or "set asides." Well-managed private forests offer many advantages, such as keeping land on the tax rolls, while still providing the myriad benefits that flow from forests — renewable wood and paper products, wildlife habitat, places for recreation and much more. The magic is in keeping forests as forests.

In 2011, for example, Raleigh, N.C., established a watershed protection fee of 1 cent per 100 gallons in customers' monthly water bills. The fee costs homeowners an average of 40 cents a month and generates about $1.8 million annually for land protection and management to protect drinking-water quality. Dozens of communities across the country are taking similar steps to protect their watersheds.

The SFI Conservation Grant will help the Endowment educate community stakeholders, water utilities and landowners, and ultimately develop financial instruments that will compensate forest landowners for protecting and maintaining the health of the watersheds they manage. This grant builds upon SFI's commitment to water resources through conservation grants awarded in 2012 to the World Resources Institute to examine how SFI requirements related to best-management practices result in improvements in water quality, and to the National Association of State Foresters to assess development and implementation of best-management practices in all U.S. states and territories.

In 2010, SFI Inc. invested $400,000 to create the SFI Conservation and Community Partnerships Grant Program to foster partnerships and conservation research that improve forest management in the United States and Canada, and responsible procurement globally. In a few short years, by leveraging partner contributions, SFI has achieved a total investment of $4.8 million in conservation partnerships and research, supporting more than 40 grants with 150 partners across North America.

The SFI program is the only forest certification standard in North America that requires participants to support and engage in research activities to improve forest health, productivity and sustainable management of forest resources.

Through the new collaboration with the Endowment, an investment in healthy forests will pay dividends for the nation's future water quality, and perhaps keep a little extra change in everyone's pocket

The U.S. Endowment for Forestry & Communities, Inc. is a not-for-profit corporation established in 2006, at the request of the U.S. and Canadian governments, endowed with $200 million. SFI Inc. is an independent, nonprofit organization responsible for maintaining, overseeing and improving the internationally recognized Sustainable Forestry Initiative program. Across the United States and Canada, 240 million acres are certified to the SFI forest management standard. Learn more at The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This article was originally published on LiveScience.

Sustainable Forestry Initiative