It's been a dismal eight years for the U.S. Forest Service. When the Bush administration took office, it immediately suspended a popular measure to protect 58 million acres of backcountry public forests from new roads. Instead, the agency became consumed by firefighting.

Since 2001, stopping fire has grown from about 15 percent of the agency's budget to nearly 50 percent today. Without forward-thinking leadership, the Forest Service agenda will continue to focus primarily on this one reactionary activity. Yet there is enormous potential for the agency and its 35,000 employees who manage public lands that exceed the size of Texas. Agency staffers could be turned loose to do good work on the ground. 

The future of the agency -- and the rural communities that depend on it -- lies in its recognizing that more frequent fires are a symptom of a warming climate and an already stressed environment. And while fire fighting is essential, it is only one part of a long-term agenda. Scrape away eight years of languor perpetuated by the Bush administration, and the clear challenge of climate changes stands out. Here's what the Forest Service could do to lead the way:

  • Protect the highest quality lands. In a warming climate, national forests, and particularly roadless areas, are thermal refuges. Protecting these lands protects fish and wildlife and also reduces the costs of filtering water for downstream communities. Private ranch-lands also harbor important big game habitats, many of which are threatened by development. It makes sense for the departments of Agriculture and Interior to work with landowners and provide incentives to those who help conserve high-value lands. 
  • Reconnect landscapes. If fish and wildlife habitats are fragmented, they won't survive floods, fire and drought predicted to increase with climate change. Identifying and protecting important wildlife corridors on public lands and allowing rivers to access floodplains are not only good for fish and wildlife, it's good for communities. A healthy landscape will recharge and replenish underground aquifers that supply municipal drinking water, minimize the potential for downstream flooding, and improve soil productivity for farmers and ranchers. 
  • Engage communities in restoration. Recovering the ability of our lands to withstand the effects of climate change is essential. Reconnecting people, children and communities to the landscapes that provide their food, energy resources, and recreation opportunities is important to our nation's well being. Restoration activities such as tree planting, energy conservation, and thoughtful community planning bind us to the lands and waters that sustain us. 

The Forest Service can play a decisive role in helping communities and natural landscapes adapt to the effects of climate change and mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, that work should drive everything the Forest Service does.

The economic benefits to our communities of a Forest Service agenda that stresses dealing with climate change cannot be overstated. Benefits include high-wage jobs in rural areas that most need them. Reducing hazardous fuels within our forests will also reduce the cost of fire fighting and make communities safer. Cut trees and brush also could be utilized as biomass, offsetting demand for oil and gas. National forests are a natural showcase for the responsible development of renewable energy from the wind and sun, which will further reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. 

One hundred years ago, Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt created the Forest Service with the idea that the federal agency would provide the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time. Climate change offers a similar challenge at a far larger scale. Yes, it's a challenge, and yes, it's time for the Forest Service to reclaim its conservation mantle. 

Chris Wood is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a former Forest Service staffer who's now the chief operating officer of Trout Unlimited. He lives in Washington, D.C.