Forests are shrinking and disappearing across the United States.
Wildfires and real estate development have taken their toll. Aggressive harvesting by businesses interested in quick profits is also to blame.
The recent loss of forestland actually represents a reversal of a much longer trend, in which forests cleared for farmland during the colonial era slowly regenerated over many decades. But the pendulum is now swinging the other way. According to a 2017 study by Harvard University, New England alone is losing 65 acres of forest every day.
Over the past two decades, we’ve pioneered a movement to save our forestlands. Our “community forest” model is centered on local ownership, with a town or a nonprofit buying a forest and managing it for conservation, public access, and economic benefits.
Betsy Cook, the Maine state program director at The Trust for Public Land, talks with us about the community forest model and why it holds promise to protect this vital resource.
Q: When people think of forests, they probably imagine a state or federal forest or maybe one owned by a timber company. So what do we mean by “community forest”?
A: Community forests are forests managed by the community for the community. Four pillars define our approach to community forests. First, the community participates in the management decisions around the land. The second is that benefits flow to community. That could mean proceeds from sustainable timber harvesting or less tangible benefits from tourism and the outdoor-recreation economy. The third piece is community ownership—actually having the land owned by the community, which which can be a town, county, nonprofit, or other community entity. It’s a form of ownership that makes sure the community is really involved in the stewardship of the land. The last piece is permanent protection. This will ensure that the forest is conserved and that benefits continue to flow to the community for generations to come.
A: The concept of a community forest has been around for centuries or even thousands of years. So, we are building on an idea that is engrained in many cultures. But the modern Trust for Public Land–led movement took off about two decades ago with a group called the Community Forest Collaborative; The Trust for Public Land was a core member. The collaborative helped develop resources for towns to create community forests, laid out best practices, and established a federal funding program. The U.S. Forest Service’s Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program supports local communities that want to create community forests. Our advocacy led to the establishment of that program in 2014.
Q: What kind of progress have you seen in the past 20 years?
A: The first community forest we helped establish was in Randolph, New Hampshire, in 2001. Since then, we have helped to directly support the creation of more than 30 community forests across the country, covering at least 30,000 acres. The size of each forest ranges widely, from a few hundred acres to 13,000 acres. New England is our most active region, and a large part of that has to do with the strong system of town governance. That matches really well with the community forest model. Most communities have a town meeting every year, and often the community forest is voted on at the annual meeting. You get 300 people in these old town halls and everyone gets to see each other. Residents raise a green placard for Yes and red for No. It’s a great example of civic engagement and community participation. There are also community forests we’ve worked on in the Pacific Northwest, so the model has taken hold there as well. And there’s a pocket of activity in the Midwest, in places such as Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Q: One of the potential economic benefits to the town stems from sustainable forestry. What does that look like, and is it good for the forest?
A: Yes, it absolutely is. The planning for a community forest includes optimizing for wildlife and habitat, recreation, and sustainable forest management. Often there are habitats you’re trying to improve and cutting some trees will benefit a bird or mammal species. When done well, sustainable forest management is beneficial for ecology and wildlife, while also creating revenue for the town. With community forests especially, the forest management plan is written to a high standard. Any cutting of trees is done with the utmost care and concern for the health of the forest. Typically, we are purchasing from industrial forest owners motivated by a quick financial return. That kind of management leads to a heavier timber harvesting. By contrast, community forests are for the long run. In some cases, the town might harvest only what is needed to cover the lost property tax revenue from the previous owner. Other towns might lease a small patch of the forest to a maple syrup producer, which taps the trees.
Q: How does a community go about creating a community forest?
A: Sometimes, the impetus is a piece of land that suddenly comes on the market. It might be a forest that community members were allowed to use and love, and they want it to be protected. Or a community will come to us and say, ‘We don’t have a parcel in mind, but we want a community forest because we love the model and want the benefits.’ In that case, The Trust for Public Land does some mapping and finds a piece of land that is a good fit. If we partner with a town government, we have a process we work through. After identifying forestland for the community to acquire, we negotiate with the landowner to secure the property. Then we raise money through public and private funding sources. But before the land is acquired, there is a robust community planning process and a management plan is developed. Finally, we acquire the land and convey, or transfer, the forest to the town.
A: Usually, a governance committee is established to implement the management plan. Some towns host trail races through their forests and organize art festivals. A town in Vermont had a trick-or-treating event in the community forest on Halloween. Another town, in New Hampshire, created new glades for backcountry skiers and also blazed an educational trail with signage about wildflowers and animals. Some towns or nonprofits allow local residents to harvest wood from the forest to heat their homes. These places really come to life with the energy of the community. They also are all about meeting a community’s specific goals and needs.
Q: Besides the obvious conservation and economic benefits, are there other ways a community forest helps local towns and residents?
A: Yes, certainly. Community forests guarantee public access for recreation, which can lead to improvements in both mental and physical health. Studies show that exposure to nature reduces stress and alleviates depression. The forests are also an educational asset, with schools using them for outdoor learning. Then there is the social benefit—the community-building aspect. Community forests are created through a very public process. The local community comes together with a shared goal and makes collaborative decisions. Research shows that community-building creates opportunities for people to become more civically engaged and connected to their neighborhoods. Finally, community forests—like all forests—mitigate climate change since trees absorb and store carbon dioxide. New England is projected to lose 1.2 million acres of forest, along with 19 percent of its carbon-storage capacity, by 2060. A changing climate and deforestation are threatening some of the most biodiverse regions of the United States. Protection of our forested landscapes is one of the best strategies we have to combat climate change.
As a river guide on the Rio Grande in Big Bend Texas in the 1990s, Aaron Kimple’s senses were always on overload as he paddled through the remote landscape among migratory birds, past fields of wildflowers and millions of buzzing insects. One of those senses, however, was fear. His anxiety was constantly triggered during those heady days on the rapids. “We would boat that river, and we always knew that one of the big constraints was the fact that the Rio Grande didn’t flow consistently. And we weren’t guaranteed water,” he says.
Kimple eventually migrated upriver into the Pagosa Springs region of Southwest Colorado, plying the San Juan River, the Colorado River and sometimes returning to the Rio Grande. He and his wife, Kathy, fell in love with the mountains, rivers, snow and skiing, and moved to Durango in 2000. In Colorado, he found his calling.
It was the beginning of a career defined by connections — between land, water and people — and a stark realization about what needs to be done to protect them. Kimple is now the director of the Mountain Studies Institute’s forest health program, where he oversees watershed and forest health initiatives and facilitates community stakeholder groups.
That facilitation is the crux of his life’s mission. His “second job” is coordinator of the Two Watersheds, Three Rivers, Two States (2-3-2) Cohesive Strategy Partnership, a mouthful of a title that belies a simple premise: by working across boundaries, at large scale and with multiple stakeholders, land managers can achieve much more than they could by focusing on individual projects with limited boundaries, size and partners.
“It’s just an intriguing endeavor,” Kimple says of the origins of the 2-3-2. “We were really beginning this idea that we can bring money from the state side and the federal side, incorporate local and foundational investments, and instead of patchworking our work across the landscape, we can really consolidate it and have a true impact.”
This led to working across state lines with New Mexico, on water issues primarily, and on wildfires that burned across borders, including one that jumped the Continental Divide and heavily impacted the Rio Grande watershed.
“When we started recognizing those connections, we said, ‘How do we come together to think about this?’” Kimple adds. “Rather than competing, how can we work together to leverage our efforts and truly have that landscape-scale impact?”
That concept is known as shared stewardship, and it’s revolutionizing wildfire management, forest and watershed protection, drought control, and the ongoing battle with disease and pest outbreaks across the United States. Instead of focusing on disconnected, individual projects working with limited partners or agencies, shared stewardship actively encourages organizations to join forces and work across state, county or jurisdictional lines.
“Any one group, agency or landowner is not able to fix our forest health problems,” says Brian Kittler, senior director of forest restoration at American Forests. “Turning to each other, building trust and building projects together, and then finding ways to co-plan, develop, fund and implement bigger projects at a larger scale together for a greater impact — that, to me, is what shared stewardship is about.”
Working together has become increasingly important, given the growing scope of problems devastating large swaths of forest.
Kittler, for example, points to the Western U.S. as a place where a combination of stressors and disturbance patterns across a much larger scale are pushing ecosystems to a tipping point. Widespread pest outbreaks and long-term drought — both linked to climate change — are creating significant tree die-offs, he says.
“And then a large wildfire comes through and burns at very high severity. There’s essentially no live cone-bearing trees left because of the beetle outbreak and the drought that killed the trees, so you have large, large areas in some of these landscapes that aren’t going to be naturally regenerating.”
All of these stressors, when combined with a legacy of fire suppression and uncoordinated forest management, have led to critical conditions in many forests and watersheds.
Something Old, Something New
Shared stewardship is a relatively new term. A 2018 vision and policy statement by former U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Chief Vicki Christiansen helped brand the term and bring it to a much wider audience. But the idea and practices behind it have been around for decades and practiced in many parts of the world.
In the grasslands of southern Nepal and northern India, the Terai Arc Landscape links 16 protected areas into a contiguous habitat for tigers, rhinos and elephants. Community forest user groups are empowered to help man- age forest corridors between the protected areas while also benefiting from tourism income and livelihood improvement projects.
In the U.S., the USFS has long worked with tribes, states, communities and collaborative groups on reforestation and restoration. New policies, evolving science and strategic shifts toward more robust partnerships with communities and stakeholders have helped push shared stewardship to the forefront.
One of the most important policies is the Good Neighbor Authority, which since 2001 has increasingly allowed the USFS and Bureau of Land Management to work on land management projects with states, counties and Indian tribes, including those that cross boundaries. Equally important are stewardship contracting and agreement authorities, which open the door to a much wider range of local and rural project partners, such as nonprofits, community based organizations, local governments and rural contractors.
Following Christiansen’s 2018 statement and policy release, the USFS began a major push to establish formal Shared Stewardship Agreements and put them into action. The Agency has now signed agreements with 47 states, the District of Columbia and three territories. Some agreements are with individual states while others are with collective entities, such as the Western Governors’ Association and the states of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
The agreements are specific to each state, conditions on the ground and the threats and priorities they face. However, they all focus on a collaborative approach to land management that addresses challenges and opportunities that cross boundaries. Partners share decisions and goal setting, and active management by non-federal partners is encouraged to maximize the scale and impact of the work.
In a May 2019 speech in Silverdale, Wash., Christiansen summarized the reason for the USFS’s commitment to shared stewardship. “The scale of our work has to match the scale of the risks and the problems we face,” she said.
Jacqueline Buchanan is keenly aware of that scale. As the USFS deputy regional forester for the Rocky Mountain Region, she notes that “land management challenges like wildfires, insects and drought recognize no boundaries; they impact all jurisdictions.” Buchanan works closely with the Rocky Mountain Restoration Initiative, a collaboration between the USFS, the National Wild Turkey Federation and more than 40 natural resource leaders from across Colorado. In its first year, the initiative worked with more than 125 partners to improve forest conditions on over 24,000 acres of public and private lands in Southwest Colorado.
Not Just a Western Issue
In the Eastern U.S., wildfires may be less of a risk, but top of mind are pest outbreaks from invasive moths and hemlock woody adelgid, along with dis- ease outbreaks and climate change impacts. In the rural, heavily forested northwest corner of Massachusetts, the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership is working to create natural resource-based economic development opportunities aligned with the state’s shared stewardship agreement. The Partnership is driven by the residents of Western Franklin and Northern Berkshire Counties, and centered on a shared desire to conserve the region’s forests and rural way of life, while improving the region’s financial sustainability.
This region is among Massachusetts’ most economically distressed, with low wages, population decline and financial instability. However, it has high potential for tourism, sustainable forestry and other development opportunities, says Kurt Gaertner, assistant secretary for environmental policy in the Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA). “Part of the reason why we have a shared stewardship agreement with the USFS, why 17 of the 21 communities in the region have now voted to accept the partnership, is they realize the potential benefits of working together on this,” he says.
That’s big in a region that has a degree of skepticism toward government, Gaertner adds. And the vision of the Mohawk Partnership is common to many Eastern U.S. regions facing land conservation, rural economy and forest health challenges. Shared stewardship agreements follow a different model than the Western U.S., since this area has no national forest and very little federal land. For this reason, there is a much greater focus on relationships, investments and technical expertise from other parts of the USFS besides the National Forest System.
Two beneficiaries of the partnership are Patrick and Katie Banks, who worked with a startup accelerator called Lever to win a challenge grant from EEA in order to open a much needed off-the-grid campground, Foolhardy Hill. Whitewater rafting and mountain biking are big here, and there aren’t enough hotels to serve them. The project is built on old logging roads to limit its forest footprint and designed with sustainability in mind for the outdoor community. Elsewhere in the region, conservation easements helped by the Mohawk Partnership allow landowners to protect their forests but also benefit financially from them via tax breaks.
Like Aaron Kimple, Laura McCarthy is fixated on water. She has no choice. That’s because, as the state forester for New Mexico, she sees the impact of decreasing water flows. And she is alarmed.
“We just can’t do it by ourselves. Nobody can. And I think in some ways, New Mexico is out front. And that’s because we have no money. I call us a state that does things using duct tape and bubble gum,” McCarthy says.
McCarthy supervises 78 people, half of them focused on fire full time. The other half focus on forest land management. She sees the 2-3-2 as particularly important for New Mexico because of water. The water relationship between Colorado and New Mexico is complex, governed by the Rio Grande Compact, an interstate water agreement that regulates how water is allocated between the two states and Texas. But this compact is seriously outdated, created in a time that did not anticipate today’s overwhelming thirst for a limited water supply, as well as climate-driven drought. The three states are currently in litigation before the Supreme Court, arguing over the Rio Grande Compact.
“The way [the water compacts] are structured is kind of counter to any kind of collaboration or cross-boundary work,” McCarthy says. “What’s been really interesting and helpful about the 2-3-2 in the larger stewardship effort, is that it’s like a whole different arena for talking about cross-boundary work that transcends these historical issues and problems with water management.”
Kimple agrees. “One of the amazing things that we’ve found is how strong a barrier that state line can appear to be. All of our policies, all of our regulations, all of our practices, say that we need to be working within our state boundaries. But our watersheds, our fire sheds, none of those respect those boundaries that we draw.”
He describes working with McCarthy as fantastic and stresses the importance of key partners such as the Forest Stewards Guild and The Nature Conservancy, which helped develop the Rio Grande Water Fund, a public-private collaborative that invests in forest restoration projects to ensure pure, clean water in the Rio Grande Watershed.
McCarthy paints a daunting picture of the future, describing a recent conversation with the deputy regional forester about priorities for the year. “We feel like we’re in kind of a losing battle in terms of climate change. And yet, what we hear as we talk to others is that we’re far ahead when it comes to shared stewardship and our planning and what we’ve already accomplished.”
Is she hopeful? “I think what makes me hopeful is this attitude that I think is shared by many, many New Mexicans, and by pretty much uniformly everybody who’s involved in shared stewardship. The attitude is — well, it may be grim, and the odds are probably against us, but we’re going to give it everything we’ve got.”
A Post-Pandemic Reunion
On an early morning in late June, 33 people crammed into trucks, vans and SUVs in Pagosa Springs, Colo., and began the slow climb up Jackson Mountain. They were part of a study tour organized by the San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership, a participant in the 2-3-2 Cohesive Strategy Partnership.
Kimple was there, along with USFS staff, state and local forest leaders, mountain biking advocates, conservation leaders, volunteers, a homeowner’s association and an impact investment expert from Washington, D.C.
As they set off up the mountain, spirits were high for a couple of reasons. First, due to COVID-19, this was the first time many of the participants had seen each other in a year and a half. And secondly, they were witnessing the first steady rainfall in months, offering relief from a brutal, years-long drought that has raised the wildfire risk to alarming levels.
One of those joining was Pagosa Springs resident Austin Rempel, who is American Forests’ senior manager of forest restoration. Rempel notes that 60 to 70% of the traffic in town this summer was from Texas — part of the “Zoom Boom” of people moving to, and often working from, more remote locations. “It’s a place where subdivisions are rapidly expanding into the forest, right alongside USFS land,” Rempel says. “At every stop (during the study tour) we talked about the recreation pressure that the forest is seeing. The number of people in the forest is way higher than it’s ever been.”
The first stop was an active logging site run by The Forest Health Company under a stewardship contract with the USFS that allows a private entity to come in and log. The area is overgrown and at high risk for fire, notes Rempel. “We were standing in a spot that would have been an extremely dangerous place to fight fire, because it was completely overgrown — it would have been one of those uncontrollable blazes near the town.”
The arrangement relieves the USFS of the burden and cost of reducing the fuel load and disposing of excess biomass, while the company benefits from selling the timber it recovers.
At the next stops, they heard from a venture capitalist about bringing innovative finance tools to forest management and looked at how best to manage the explosive growth of mountain biking in the area. They also heard from USFS staff about new opportunities for recreation and resource use, and learned from birdwatchers about the impact of forest management on bird species.
Rempel says this type of event would be much harder without the convening power of a collaborative like 2-3-2 and organizing entities, such as Mountain Studies Institute and San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership. “This is a shining example of the kind of local and regional collaboration that I think they’re trying to enshrine with shared stewardship,” Rempel says. “It’s essentially a diverse group helping the USFS do more, and better work — be it highlighting things that aren’t working; bringing resources like volunteers, outside funding and special expertise from birders, scientists and mountain bike planning teams; or even just constructive engagement and supportive voices.”
The Long View
So, what is the long-term outlook for shared stewardship? Two people who have been looking at that question are Courtney Schultz and Chad Kooistra of the Public Lands Policy Group at Colorado State University. Their ongoing five-year study examines the effectiveness of the USFS’s 2018 Shared Stewardship Strategy during its initial implementation. After talking to over 120 people involved in shared stewardship at all levels last year, they found a high level of optimism about the strategy. Those interviewed agreed on the need for partnerships and for work on cross-boundary landscapes to address wild- fires and forest/watershed health.
But they also shared concern about the human and financial resources needed for shared stewardship. Those interviewed wanted to know how to learn from other states and other collaboratives, what works and doesn’t in terms of building relationships. There were questions about how different laws impact cross-boundary work, and how to mix and match funding sources and work with the forest products industry to leverage resources.
“A lot of people talked about shared stewardship as like a state of mind, or an ethos,” Kooistra says. “It was kind of like framing what everybody was already thinking and saying, and giving people something to unite around and just at the very least, start to have that conversation.”
As for Aaron Kimple and his long, strange trip from the Rio Grande to Colorado? He’s excited about the prospects for the 2-3-2. The partnership of 24 organizations and government agencies has helped secure over $5 million in project funding along with new Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Funding from the USFS that will likely bring in around $3 to 4 million per year. They have worked with partners to treat over 10,000 acres through prescribed fire and build wider acceptance of its importance to forest ecology and wildfire reduction. They have also created new networks for timber suppliers and elevated local alliances.
He’s also looking at the future and his hopes for his 11-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter. “We get out on the landscape and play with our kids, and they get out on the rivers, they hike and camp in the forest, they love all these resources. And to me, what I hope for them is to carry a love of this place, a love of what it offers.”
Lee Poston serves as a communications advisor and writes from University Park, Md.