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Focus: restoring watersheds, rebuilding communities.

Three thousand miles separate the urbanized Anacostia River watershed in metropolitan Washington from the rural Mattole watershed in California. The Anacostia has been called one of the nation's most polluted rivers, robbed of its basic functions by channelization, riparian and wetland loss, forest removal, sewer overflows, and other pollution.

The headwaters of the Mattole begin among stands of ancient coastal redwood and flow through Douglas-fir/hardwood forests before emptying into the Pacific Ocean near Petrolia, California. Following World War II, more than 90 percent of the watershed's old-growth coniferous forests were logged. An extensive road network developed, and by 1980 erosion rates were more than two times the average for the watershed.

That land-use and past management practices have degraded these two river systems is not unusual. Fewer than 2 percent of the rivers and streams in the contiguous 48 states remain in pristine condition. What links the Mattole and Anacostia is that restoration efforts are bringing people together to rebuild their watersheds and in the process revitalize their communities.

Why watershed conservation?

Community forestry and watershed restoration cannot be divorced from one another. Watersheds perform three vital tasks: they catch, store, and safely release water. Few land-management practices are as central to healthy, properly functioning watersheds as sound forestry.

The health of our watersheds and forests reflect their ability to produce sustainable supplies of wood products, clean water, recreational opportunities, and fish and wildlife. Healthy watersheds retain natural flows; recharge aquifers; are resilient to disturbances such as flood, fire, and drought; and are more capable of absorbing the effects of human activities.

The Mattole and the Anacostia are among 13 restoration case studies documented earlier this year in the American Fisheries Society's Watershed Restoration: Principles and Practices,which we edited and authored. Most of these efforts developed locally; all involved local landowners, farmers, and ranchers partnering with scientists, environmentalists, government agencies, and local citizens.

Why collaborative approaches?

Many conservationists look askance at community-based conservation and restoration, thinking perhaps that national interests will become "co-opted." They fear community-based efforts represent an abdication of decisionmaking responsibility, or worse yet, presage the divestiture of public resources.

These are honest concerns, but community-based collaborative efforts do not diminish federal mandates to clean our air and water, preserve endangered species, and protect public resources. These efforts actually amplify the effectiveness of the law by vesting communities with an interest in conservation.

Collaborative watershed approaches are not a panacea for resolving difficult resource issues. Three principles are critical to the creation of a successful community-based project or resource coalition: balance among the diversity of interests, a shared vision or collective goal for conserving or restoring healthy ecosystems, and a commitment to use the best available science.

Collaboration is a process, not an outcome. It should never be used to abrogate decisionmaking responsibilities, regardless of whether those responsibilities rest with federal, state, or even private landowners. The measure of success for any community-based approach is better decisions on the land and improved working relationships among interests. Long- and short-term monitoring are essential.

Like the barn raisings of old, it is equally important that community-based restoration help reunite communities and reconnect people to the health of the land that sustains them. They must show that we respect the gifts of our forebears and are committed to leaving the world a better place for future generations. This is the essence of community forestry, watershed restoration, and as conservationist Aldo Leopold might have said, a basic requirement of membership in the land community.

Mike Dombeck is chief of the Forest Service, Chris Wood is a Forest Service policy analyst, and Jack Williams is senior aquatic ecologist for the Bureau of Land Management.
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Author:Williams, Jack E.
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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