Arguing for accord

Arguing for accord – creating a consensus among different forest conservation advocates

Jane Braxton Little

What’s best for the woods depends on who you ask. So why bring together the people who disagree the most?

High on a hillside in the northern Sierra Nevada, an afternoon debate is raging through the ponderosa pine and Douglas-fir over how to manage a thicket of dying white fir.

Doug Crandall, staff director for the U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on forests and forest health, argues for a timber harvest that emulates natural fire patterns – something “economically smart” for a healthy forest in 60 or 70 years.

Chris Bratt, an Applegate, Oregon, environmentalist, urges a landscape approach that includes local knowledge of wildlife, species mix, and weather patterns.

Mike McCloskey, chairman of the Sierra Club, questions any management at all. “Nature wants to have a lot of white firs around here,” he says from where he sits in the patch of golden grasses.

For a growing number of natural resource activists, the future of America’s forests lies here, on the ground, with a group like this – passionate polar opposites. They believe that the more people involved and the more diverse their perspectives, the better the forests will fare. This combination of questions and vigilance will produce data sorely needed to manage healthy ecosystems, according to proponents of this innovative approach.

They call it all-party monitoring.

“Nobody knows what that means, but it’s not stopping us from trying it out,” says Leah Wills, a rural development specialist involved in watershed restoration in northeastern California.

Joining her are dozens of loggers and environmentalists, civic leaders, economists, and business owners, most of them members of small partnership groups scattered in western towns surrounded by federal forests. They are exploring how to collect data, what monitoring methods are most effective, and who needs to be involved.

It’s a bootstrap operation driven by citizens who have watched national forests deteriorate and their local economies with them. They have dreams – grand dreams of healthy forests that provide wilderness as well as game, mushrooms, herbs, and enough lumber to sustain their small towns. They are convinced that national forests can be managed to safeguard both ecosystems and local economies. But they have no data to prove it.

Neither does the U.S. Forest Service. Across America’s 191 million acres of national forest, logging, grazing, and recreational development have prolific, rated for generations with scant study of the effects on the larger ecosystem or the long term. Forest Service managers have typically moved from one political mandate to another in response to agendas dictated more by the needs of Congress than the forest itself.

The agency’s pattern of logging first and evaluating later – if at all – has resulted in a public outraged by the assault on natural resources and the dearth of scientific study. Opposition to Forest Service decisions in recent decades has brought the agency’s activities in the West to a near standstill.

It is amid this angry tempest that grassroots groups are emerging to propose all-party monitoring. They don’t dispute the lack of past scientific study. But accusations, lawsuits, and the ensuing gridlock will not help guide future forest management decisions, they say. Careful scrutiny of forest activities will. In addition to providing crucial scientific data, they believe on-the-ground monitoring can restore some of the public trust critical to managing sustainable forests.

“We don’t know how to do science in the middle of all these politics but someone has to get in there and propose something. We decided to start at a very humble level,” says Wills, co-coordinator of a Feather River watershed group.

Five of the country’s most active forest community coalitions are in the initial stages of a demonstration project designed to test the possibilities of all-party monitoring.

Two, the Applegate Partnership and the Rogue Institute for Ecology and Economy in southern Oregon, are forming a team comprised of loggers, environmentalists, and representatives from the Forest Service and the federal Bureau of Land Management. Several members already worked together through the Applegate, one of the first of these such groups. Now, however, they are deliberately reaching out to their critics in an effort to work together for the benefit of the forest.

Meeting in the old Star Ranger Station, a oneroom office so enveloped by the branches of an enormous madrone tree that it feels like a tree house, Applegate team members discuss how to word their letter of invitation and who to include on the list. They need a group even more varied than the traditional enemies who came together in 1992 to create the Applegate Partnership.

“We’re talking about a real sounding board – something to take us beyond species-by-species monitoring and the spotted owl,” says Jack Shipley. a group co-founder.

In the mountains of northeastern California, the anglers, ranchers, agency hydrologists, and wildlife specialists who comprise the Feather River Coordinated Resource Management Group are selecting biological indicators to study the effects of their 13 years of stream restoration work. Although they disagree about where to site temperature control stations and how many sediment gauges to employ, they are unequivocal about their general goal: improving water quality in the Feather River basin.

The immediate challenge is to measure turbidity, stream flows, and fish populationswhatever will help determine if they are accomplishing anything, says Richard Flint, a California Department of Fish and Game watershed resources development specialist.

The Feather River group is working with the Quincy Library Group, a 1994 grassroots coalition with an ambitious management plan for 2.5 million acres of land on three national forests. One of their goals is to determine how to manage the data they are collecting and how to make it available to local and distant scientists, agency managers, and the general public. Nothing will ever take the place of an on-the-ground look but a website could help, says John Sheehan, executive director of Plumas Corporation, an economic development organization that works with the Quincy Library and other watershed groups.

A fifth community coalition in Hayfork, California, will test the principles the other groups develop. These experiments in all-party monitoring are as much about the process of making land management decisions as the decisions themselves, says Jonathan Kusel, executive director of Forest Community Research and coordinator for the pilot projects. While work on the ground is the only reality for natural resources, the way the questions are developed will determine what work ultimately gets done, he says. It’s critical’ to include all interested participants to avoid a repeat of the gridlock.

“This is about democratic decisionmaking,” says Kusel. “We’ve got to get there collectively or we’re not going to get there at all.”

Even for these seasoned veterans of collaboration, reaching out to their adversaries is a tough assignment. All have overcome personal biases to learn the benefits of working with people who represent viewpoints very different from their own. But after several years these community groups have generated their own new enemies. Some are agency officials who resent the participation of ordinary citizens. Most are members of national environmental organizations. It is precisely those people the community partners are now hoping to reach with all-party monitoring.

Louis Blumberg is among them. An assistant regional director of The Wilderness Society, he has been one of the Quincy Library Group’s most outspoken critics. But Blumberg says he and other environmentalists welcome the opportunity to participate in community-based proposals through allparty monitoring. Expanding community partnerships offers the chance to get a far more comprehensive look at what’s happening on the ground. Increasing public participation in federal land management can only benefit the decisions, he says.

Still, Blumberg is skeptical. Even if everyone interested participates, the new groups of partners face major bureaucratic hurdles in implementing all-party monitoring. He doubts the Forest Service will make any meaningful changes in the way it manages forests.

“Monitoring without connections to future management is a data-gathering exercise at best,” Blumberg says.

Then there’s the issue of money. The Forest Service has seldom allocated funding for monitoring and has made no commitment to do so in the future. This despite current policies that dictate no funding be given unless projects include monitoring.

This funding vacuum has restricted scientific evaluation of on-the-ground projects by the Forest Service, says Lynn Sprague, forester for the agency’s Pacific Southwest region. But Sprague is optimistic that a strong public push will produce the money this time.

“The truth is we just about always find money for things we want to do. If we’re, committed to monitoring and evaluation, we’ll make it happen,” says Sprague.

And he is optimistic about the future of national forests, in part because of the involvement of communities such as Hayfork, Applegate, and Quincy.

“All the things blossoming out there are moving in the right direction. The trick is to make sure we learn from it,” Sprague says.

What the community groups learn from allparty monitoring may tell them to abandon a particular technique and try something else. They may be overwhelmed by participants and deluged by innovative questions. But the process is certain to give them new information about trees, wildlife, wet meadows, and one another. It may even produce trust. And that, combined with new knowledge, will give these community groups power. It may even be enough to bring change to national forest management.

Jane Braxton Little covers community-based forestry issues for American Forests from her home in Greenville, California.

COPYRIGHT 1999 American Forests

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