BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- The U.S. Forest Service must make ecological restoration and outdoor recreation its top priorities, the agency's chief said Friday.
``I think we're in a new period,'' Dale Bosworth said at a conference sponsored by the Andrus Foundation for Public Policy and The Idaho Statesman.
The public is counting on the Forest Service to provide wildlife habitat, clean air and water, natural beauty and the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors, along with opportunities to harvest timber and graze livestock, Bosworth said.
``Given the scale of what we face, the main focus has to be on ecological restoration and outdoor recreation,'' he said. ``To deliver all those goods and services and values, we have got to manage the land for longer-term ecosystem health.''
The agency has four major concerns, Bosworth said: overgrown forests that contribute to major fires, the spread of invasive species, urban encroachment on farmland and unmanaged outdoor recreation.
The spread of invasive species _ such as yellow star thistle or zebra mussels _ is costing Americans $138 billion a year, Bosworth said.
``The ecological costs are even worse. Invasive species have contributed to the decline of almost half of endangered animals,'' he said.
Meanwhile, Bosworth said, the nation's working farmland is disappearing at a rate of almost 4,000 acres a day _ or three acres a minute.
``People will love their forests to death. The issues are not particularly new. We've been dealing with these for some time. But they require a lot more time and resources than others, certainly more than road building or timber harvest issues,'' he said.
Though many agency officials say they need more money to effectively address those problems, Bosworth said Congress will allot more money when the public makes it a priority.
``Dollars will go to where people like what we're doing,'' he said. ``I really think the money will come.''
But Bosworth's predecessor, Jack Ward Thomas, warned the audience against giving the public everything it wants, because it could ultimately hurt forests.
More and more people who are building homes in remote, forested areas expect to be protected from wildfires, Thomas said, and the Forest Service has done its best to do so.
``If such activities do make homes safer, it will pave the way for more homes to be built in the interface. Those homes, in turn, will require and feel entitled to protection,'' he said.
In his tounge-in-cheek description of the possible results, Thomas said the agency's efforts at thinning forests would allow more water and light to the forest floor, encouraging the growth of ground vegetation near forest homes. That, in turn, would attract deer and elk, and those animals would then attract predators such as cougars and wolves to the new human settlements. The prediction brought laughter from the audience.
``There is a grave danger here,'' Thomas said, ``of inadvertently making it easier for that problem to magnify itself.''