Public/Private Partnerships for Conservation

Gail Kimbell, Regional Forester, Northern Region
5th Timberland Investment World Summit
New York, NY
— October 27, 2008

[slide 1]  Thank you, and good afternoon. It’s a pleasure to be part of this panel, and I thank my colleagues for their thoughtful and insightful remarks.

I will talk about partnering with conservation organizations, and I want to begin with one clarification. As a federal agency, the Forest Service doesn’t specifically invest in timberlands. Our role is to help conserve forestlands not only for sustainable uses of wood fiber, but also for all the services they give the American people, ranging from clean air and water, to fire and flood control, to habitats for wildlife and fish, to opportunities for outdoor recreation, to carbon sequestration—and more. We work with many partners to accomplish all of this.

Landownership Patterns

[slide 2]  First, a little background. The Forest Service works with partners to promote sustainable forestry on all ownerships, both public and private. Most of America’s forests, about 57 percent, are privately owned. These lands provide jobs for local communities and many kinds of ecosystem services to the American people. Through programs administered by the State Foresters, the Forest Service provides assistance to private forest landowners for sustainable management for future generations.

The most visible role of the Forest Service—and maybe the most lively in the public debate—is in the management of 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands in 42 states and Puerto Rico. These lands total nearly 200 million acres—about twice the size of California. The first national forests were formed in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Every national forest has a proclaimed boundary, but not all of the lands within those boundaries are federally owned. Some are privately owned. This has to do with how the national forests were formed.

[slide 3]  In the West, the national forests were generally carved out of lands in the public domain. At the time, the federal government was disposing of the public domain through the Homestead Act and regional development grants, turning lands over to private landowners. The government was encouraging the development of railroads in some areas; checkerboard patterns of landownership persist today.

In the East, most national forests were formed from lands that were purchased using authorities under the Weeks Act of 1911. Again, a mixed pattern of landownership resulted. In fact, in the eastern United States, national forest lands are highly fragmented.

Robert Frost said that good fences make good neighbors. Well, mixed landownership can also make for good neighbors. The Forest Service thrives on partnerships, and our neighbors are in many ways our most important partners. We work hard to be good neighbors—for example, designing management activities to cooperatively reduce costs. Our motto is “caring for the land and serving people,” and we can do neither without having good relationships with our neighbors.

With that said, mixed landownership adds complexity to land management. Access issues are certainly part of it. Watersheds and ecosystems are functioning wholes without respect to survey lines. Every part of the landscape helps make for a healthy ecosystem or a functioning watershed, yet different landowners can have different objectives, not always complementary.

That’s another reason why partnerships are so important. In the Forest Service, we work hard to coordinate across borders and boundaries, to coordinate management where practicable boundaries, for the benefit of the ecosystems we manage.

Partnerships for Land Acquisitions

[slide 4]  In some instances, it can be beneficial for all concerned, particularly for the public, for the Forest Service to acquire ecologically sensitive parcels of land or to block up the units we manage. We have some authorities to acquire private lands within national forest boundaries, and we use those authorities when it benefits our land management … and our neighbors … and when the neighbor is a willing seller … and when Congress appropriates the funds. It’s a long process, and it often relies on the help of third parties, who arrange land purchases, exchanges, conservation easements, or donations. These partners can be nonprofit organizations such as The Trust for Public Land, The Nature Conservancy, or local land trusts. They can also be for-profit organizations such as the Western Land Group.

[slide 5]  Our many experiences with these partnerships have taught us several important lessons:

  • First, the key to success is good communication. The parties must be absolutely open and clear about their expectations of one another.
  • Second, the parties need a clear understanding of the other’s needs. They need a clear understanding of the authorities and methods the Forest Service will use, whether it’s an exchange, a purchase, an easement, or a donation. Partners need to know that the agency is committed to the acquisition of a property or a property right and what resources will be assigned.
  • Third, the Forest Service needs to know our partner’s mission and capacity. Are they able to develop a good relationship with the landowner? Are they able to share processing costs? Can they buy and hold the property in question? Do they have the ability to consolidate any surface and mineral estates? Can they cure any title defects and take care of any hazardous materials? Do they have the ability to partner with others for funding or to find conservation buyers?

Public/Private Partnerships

[slide 6]  The Forest Service mission is bigger than the national forests. As I mentioned before, we also work with the states to promote sustainable forestry on private land. A key concern of mine is the loss of working forests across the country. America’s forest estate is relatively stable overall—and has been for almost a century—but some regions have seen declines. States like Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Texas have seen net forest losses in recent years, and the national trend isn’t good. Forest Service researchers have predicted a net forest loss from 1997 to 2050 of 23.2 million acres. That’s an area the size of Maine. They have also predicted that by 2030 housing density will grow on 44.2 million acres, an area the size of New England.

One of the programs we have for addressing that trend is what we call Forest Legacy. Through the states, the Forest Service provides Forest Legacy funding for purchasing conservation easements on private forestland, and we often work with conservation organizations in making those purchases. I will conclude my remarks with an example.

[slide 7]  One of our Forest Legacy projects addresses what is called the Connecticut Lakes Headwaters Property. That property covers about 171,000 acres in northern New Hampshire, the largest contiguous block of New Hampshire land in private ownership. It has been the backbone of the local economy, providing timber-related jobs and a popular tourist destination for snowmobiling, fishing, canoeing, hunting, hiking, and birdwatching. It surrounds three of the Connecticut River’s four headwater lakes. It provides habitat for at least 20 rare species, including loons, osprey, bald eagles, and pine martens.

There are multiple partners involved. The Trust for Public Land bought the property in 2001 from International Paper Corporation. TPL worked with the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire and with The Nature Conservancy to raise funds for the project. Contributions came from many different private and public sources. A timber investment company, Lyme Timber Company, then purchased most of the property, about 146,000 acres; and the state of New Hampshire used federal funds from the Forest Legacy Program to purchase a conservation easement on those 146,000 acres. Lyme Timber Company will continue to operate the land as a working forest open to public recreation.

Peter Stein of Lyme Timber said, “This project represents a great use of private investment capital with public resources to deliver conservation at an unprecedented scale for the state of New Hampshire. We are pleased to be a partner with the state of New Hampshire, The Trust for Public Land, The Nature Conservancy, and the citizens of Pittsburg, West Stewartstown, and Clarksville.”

[slide 8]  I couldn’t agree more. I think this is a great example of how we can all work together for the future of conservation—for the social, economic, and ecological sustainability of America’s forests.

Thank you.


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