Sharing is Caring: How a New Approach to Forest Management is Paying Dividends

Last updated on February 7th, 2024

Aaron Kimple, a leading proponent of shared stewardship, paddling the Animas River in Colorado. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Aaron Kimple

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

Patrick and Katie Banks opened Foolhardy Hill campground thanks to an entrepreneurial challenge grant from the Massachusetts Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. They worked with a startup accelerator called Lever to develop their pitch — an example of the kind of public/private partnerships that thrive because of shared stewardship. Photo Credit: Eric Korenman

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.

Good Neighbors

New Mexico State Forester Laura McCarthy at an overlook above the Rio Chama River, a critically important watershed in New Mexico. In the background is smoke from a managed natural wildfire that is helping reduce forest fuels close to the river. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Laura McCarthy

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

This part of Jackson Mountain in Colorado is managed by a private company under a contract with USFS that reduces the fire risk in exchange for the right to sell the timber. Photo Credit: Michael Remke Photography

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

A thunderstorm looms over Jackson Mountain in Colorado. This area is an important part of the 2-3-2 Cohesive Strategy Partnership that balances multiple interests and stakeholders to sustainably manage the landscape. Photo Credit: Michael Remke Photography

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.

This article was originally written for the American Forests Magazine.