Partnerships and Collaboration: Our Hope for the Future

Reception, Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition
Washington, DC
— May 10, 2011

Good evening, and welcome to Washington, DC!

The goal of this event, as I understand it, is to help build a national movement for vibrant and resilient rural communities across America. We fully support that goal. It dovetails with what the President hopes to achieve through America’s Great Outdoors. It also conforms to the goals that Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has set for the Forest Service.

And, as many of you know from working with the Forest Service, it corresponds to what we have long believed and long been doing, or attempting to do, on the ground. My purpose here tonight is to discuss the Forest Service’s approach to building community capacity over time and to give you my take on our current role.

A History of Commitment to Communities

The Forest Service was founded in 1905. All over the country, rural communities depended at the time—and still do—on forests and grasslands for a wide range of benefits, including clean water, firewood, lumber, fish and game, livestock forage, and more. But the management of the forest reserves, as the national forests were then called, wasn’t too popular at the time. Our predecessor organization tried to manage them from the top down and from the outside in, often excluding rural communities and exposing public forests to corruption, profiteering, and abuse.

The early Forest Service learned from those mistakes. Our purpose was to manage the national forests for the benefit of ordinary Americans who lived in rural communities. For that, people had to have access to their local line officers, so we placed our ranger stations and supervisors’ offices in easily accessible locations right in the community. People had to have a say in local forest use and management, so we gave our district rangers the power to make most decisions affecting local communities. We wanted local officials who best understood local conditions and local needs to make those decisions, and we still do. The Forest Service is still a decentralized organization.

So we are historically, culturally, and philosophically in tune with what you are trying to achieve—healthy, vibrant, resilient rural communities … communities that are sustained by a full range of natural resources from their public lands and that, in turn, help to sustain these resources.

Challenges to Conservation

In too many places, these resources are in trouble.

  • One challenge is loss of open space as populations grow and urban areas expand. In the 30-year period from 2000 to 2030, trends indicate substantial increases in housing density on 57 million acres of private forest land nationwide. That’s an area greater than Utah. Public lands are also affected. About 22 million acres of private land within 10 miles of a national forest or grassland are projected to undergo increases in housing density.
  • Market conditions are also changing. Food and energy prices are rising around the world, and biofuels are increasingly feasible as an energy source. As a nation, we face the challenge of coordinating our forest, food, and energy policies to balance the need for food and energy against the need for healthy, flourishing forest ecosystems.
  • Invasive species are a major threat. We have already lost major forest trees, such as the American chestnut that once stretched across vast parts of the East. Now our Appalachian coves are losing another key forest component, eastern hemlock, crucial to the survival of native brook trout in Appalachian streams.
  • In the Rocky Mountains, we are seeing a mountain pine beetle epidemic on the largest scale ever recorded. Historically, colder winters knocked the beetles back, but now they are reproducing more and reaching higher elevations and latitudes. They are sweeping across the region, affecting more than 21 million acres so far. That’s an area about the size of Maine.
  • We’re also seeing regional droughts, and with that often comes fire. From 2000 to 2008, at least nine states had record-breaking fires, from Arizona to Alaska. Roughly 28,000 homes, buildings, and outbuildings burned in wildfires, partly because homes and communities have been spreading into fire-prone forests. Across the nation, almost 70,000 communities are at risk from wildfires, and fewer than 10 percent have a community wildfire protection plan.
  • Drought-stressed forests … catastrophic fires … outbreaks of insects and disease … partly, these are symptoms of a changing climate. Changes in temperature and precipitation, in the timing and magnitude of weather events, are altering ecosystems and fire regimes. These stresses all feed on one another. Drought, fire and fuels, invasive species, outbreaks of insects and disease, forest fragmentation and habitat loss, and the overarching challenge of climate change—these challenges have tremendous consequences through multiple feedback loops.

Place-Based Conservation

The key to meeting these challenges is place-based conservation through an all-lands approach. Coming from the Pacific Northwest—as regional forester there before coming here as Associate Chief—but also based on my experiences elsewhere around the country—I have come to understand the power of place-based conservation. People are connected to the places where they live, whether it’s the Columbia Gorge and Mount Hood, or the White Mountains of New Hampshire, or the Piney Woods of East Texas. People are connected to the places where they live through ties that are personal, social, cultural, and economic.

The Forest Service manages many of these places through the National Forest System; many more are on state, tribal, private, county, municipal, and other federal land. These lands are woven together through the rivers and streams that connect them; through the ecological processes they share, such as seasonal fire or flooding; and through the human communities that depend on them. As you well know, rural communities are committed to protecting and restoring these places for the benefit of future generations, and that’s a tremendous conservation resource that we can leverage. Communities have the energy and creativity to develop innovative and lasting solutions to complex social, economic, and environmental challenges.

As great as the challenges are—as interwoven as the landscapes are—as interdependent as the places are with the communities that live in them—we need to join together across jurisdictions—across all ownerships, public and private—to reach shared goals. We all have a stake in keeping working forests and ranches working. We all have a stake in restoring the structure and function of healthy, resilient forest ecosystems. We all have a stake in sustaining plentiful supplies of clean water, habitat for wildlife, opportunities for outdoor recreation, and all the other goods and services that Americans want and need from their forests.

Secretary Vilsack understands that. In 2009, he called for an all-lands approach to restore healthy, resilient forest and grassland ecosystems all across America. In that same spirit, the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative has called for conserving rural farms, forests, and ranches through place-based, locally led approaches to conservation across landscapes.

An all-lands approach is based on the understanding that we are all in this together, rural and urban, public and private. We all benefit … and no one can do it alone, especially in an era of climate change, with the challenges so vast, with the resources so limited. If people work in traditional ways—cut off from each other, pursuing their own private interests or stovepiped as public agencies—America will never fully tap its resources of knowledge, energy, and ideas to help meet the forestry challenges of the future. But if people come together for the common good, collaborating across landownerships and landscapes, then they will be able to address shared issues and concerns and pursue common goals more effectively.

Partnership Challenges and Opportunities

Partnerships and collaboration are key, and the Forest Service has increasingly relied upon them for community-based stewardship. The advantages are clear:

  • A management approach that engages everyone interested in decision-making on National Forest System lands is more open and democratic.
  • Partnerships and collaboration leverage untapped resources by broadening the circle of conservation.
  • If we are to meet the challenges ahead, we need fresh ideas from the widest possible variety of stakeholders. We need to capitalize on local knowledge and information.
  • By building relationships based on mutual trust and respect, we reduce the potential for conflict—and that makes our stewardship outcomes more sustainable.

But partnerships and collaboration are not easy. We all know the tradeoffs, and it would be remiss not to mention them and discuss how the Forest Service is addressing them.

First, there is the cost, which might seem prohibitive. But it really isn’t; if we don’t make this investment upfront, we will pay for it later in terms of appeals and litigation. We’ve learned that the hard way. Take the planning rule, for example. We are working under a rule that is almost 30 years old, dating to a time when many Americans were not even born yet. We need a new rule tailored to the needs and realities of today.

In December 2009, we began developing the new rule in a process that is the most inclusive in our history. We started with a national science forum, with stakeholders from all over the country. Then we held a series of national and regional roundtables with over 3,000 people in attendance, representing the broadest possible range of interests. We held 16 tribal consultation meetings; we got feedback from our own employees; and we’ve gotten over 26,000 public comments. This level of engagement will continue until a final rule is published. We are confident that it will lead to a sound, sustainable framework for developing land management plans through principles of collaboration that protect water and wildlife and promote vibrant communities.

Another issue related to partnerships and collaboration is capacity. As you know, it takes a lot of time and resources to make partnerships and collaboration work. We don’t always have that capacity, whether in the Forest Service itself or in our local communities. In February of this year, the Forest Service convened a workshop to assess our current collaborative capacity, where we’d like it to be, and how we might close the gaps.

Another issue is refining best practices for partnerships and collaboration. Many models and tools have emerged in recent years to help community-based collaboratives grow in scope and sophistication, and we are working on further boosting efficiencies and effectiveness. For example, the Forest Service is working with the National Forest Foundation to host five peer learning sessions associated with the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program. The participants are a mix of Forest Service employees and partners involved in CFLRP projects. 

Yet another issue has to do with creating a joint vision for partnerships and collaboration. It’s all about relationship building, good communication, and mutual respect! In developing a common purpose or vision, success hinges on managing expectations, maintaining good communication, and taking a range of social factors into account that influence management decisions. For example, the National Riparian Service Team built a joint vision for collaboration by bringing stakeholders together to build relationships and create learning environments; developing a community information base; and empowering people to create change and leverage resources.

Another issue is performance measurement. We value what is measured, and we measure what we value! We need better tools for measuring performance in ways that matter to communities and that sustain collaborative work. It is hard to develop performance elements that are both qualitative and outcome oriented and that are easy to measure while still meeting regulatory needs. For example, we need better measures of the social, economic, and environmental benefits of stewardship projects so we can better decide when to use them—and when to use another tool instead, like a timber sale.

Finally, there’s the issue of shared stewardship. As you know, there are legal limits on the Forest Service’s ability to engage in full collaborative decision-making, where every partner has an equal voice in the final decision. Fostering collaboration on public lands while still meeting our statutory obligations involves a blend of leadership and art. But it can be done; the Forest Service does not always have to be in the driver’s seat, and we can find ways to collaborate.

A good example is the Colorado Bark Beetle Cooperative, initiated by the Forest Service in 2005 to help address the bark beetle epidemic in northern Colorado. The cooperative started with state and other federal partners, and it now includes utilities, universities, environmental organizations, and the state timber industry association. The Forest Service ceded decision-making authority, which is now shared equally among the member organizations, with the understanding that each member has limits on what it can agree to.

So there are ways to make it work, and we can develop our capacity for shared stewardship by giving our leaders the corresponding skills. Through partnerships with organizations like yours, the Forest Service is pursuing place-based approaches to building capacity for successful collaborative environments, both within our own organization and in our local communities. Indeed, we signed an MOU yesterday with Sustainable Northwest to promote these very outcomes, and we look forward to increasing our networks of place-based partners.

One opportunity is the Dry Forest Investment Zone in parts of eastern Oregon and northern California. The landscapes are mostly dry pine and dry mixed-conifer forest, and the risk from fire and drought is high. Two-thirds of the land is federally managed, mostly by the Forest Service. Market conditions for wood products are poor and levels of poverty and unemployment are high. Sustainable Northwest is a leader in this five-year partnership for restoring healthy forested landscapes while increasing the vitality of local communities and businesses. We share your goals for the Dry Forest Investment Zone, and we commend you for this innovative work.

Building Relationships

To summarize: As a decentralized organization, the Forest Service has always been committed to working with rural communities to meet local needs and solve local problems. Today, we are committed more than ever to creating vibrant and resilient rural communities all across America. The President is committed; the Secretary is committed; and so is the Forest Service.

We know the challenges are daunting. Regional drought … loss of open space … fire and fuels … invasive species … outbreaks of insects and disease … and the overarching challenge of climate change … today, we face a series of conservation challenges as great or greater than at any other time in our nation’s history.

But we also know how to meet these challenges: by working together to protect and restore the places people value, the places where they live, through an all-lands approach across landscapes and watersheds. The key is partnerships and collaboration. By building relationships based on mutual trust and respect, we can come together around shared goals and decide together how best to reach them.

That is our hope for the future.