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New hope for forest communities.

Across the country, "practioner" groups are finding ways for people and forest to coexist in relationship that sustain both.

Readers who follow the national forest controversy have come to accept a certain plot and cast of characters. On one side stands the "environmentalists," representing national organizations and largely urban constituencies. Arrayed against them are the "timber interests," multinational companies allied with local timber workers and businesses. In the middle sits the U.S. Forest Service, taking shots from both sides. The seesaw nature of the war, and the vitriol and moral posturing that pass for reasoned debate, have turned national forest policy "into the environmental equivalent of abortion," as one bloodied participant recently put it.

But is this the only viable scenario? As the battle rages on in federal court and the halls of Congress, a group of community organizers is creating an alternative to the "jobs vs. environment" debate. These "forest practitioners," a term originally coined by the Santa Fe-based forest practitioner organization Forest Trust, are developing new approaches to forest management that promise vibrant, sustainable communities while protecting--even improving--the forests that surround them. And the U.S. Forest Service at least is beginning to listen to them.

Forest practitioners are a diverse bunch. They identify themselves as: "People who facilitate and coordinate natural and human resources to improve a local population's way of life. By concentrating on rural economic development, they build sustainable communities and protect the environment." They may be forestry consultants, or they may be found in environmental groups, nonprofit economic-development organizations, community action programs, government-sponsored groups, or tribal agencies. Forest practitioners can be found in most regions of the country--from Chehalis, Oregon, to Vallecitos, New Mexico; from Berea, Kentucky, to Willits, California; they represent Whites, Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans.

That brings these groups together is a commitment to "healthy communities for healthy forest ecosystems." They believe both objectives are possible if communities can diversify their economies, process timber products within the local area more efficiently, and find uses for the renewable, nontimber resources in the forest ecosystem.

In a sense, practitioner organizations are laboratories for these ideas. Thus far, the results of their experiments have been impressive.

Some practitioner projects directly improve the environment. Natural Resources Services, a division of the Redwood Community Action Agency in forest-dependent Humboldt County, California, has created numerous jobs by developing innovative programs in watershed, wetlands, and riparian restoration. Natural Resources has also initiated projects in trail construction, erosion control, and fish-habitat enhancement.

Much of the environmental damage that practitioners have restored was caused by harmful logging practices. Sungnome Madrone, project director for Natural Resources Services, sees a bright side to this legacy--past abuses have created a market for restoration projects.

Practitioners are committed to avoiding past mistakes by harvesting trees more carefully and making fuller use of the timber that is logged. La Madera, a wood-products cooperative in northern New Mexico, produces latillas, vigas, and kiva ladders for the specialized Santa Fe adobe construction market. Like many practitioners, La Madera believes that the key to environmentally sound forestry lies in doing as much processing as possible in the local area. By discovering uses and markets for specialized wood products, practitioners are able to multiply the number of jobs available.

If a tree is harvested and then shipped elsewhere to be processed, that tree has supplied only one person with work. But put a number of small sawmills in the area, and employment opportunities increase significantly. The capacity to kiln-dry and plane the wood creates even more jobs. Finally, create a marketable end product. For example, the Zuni have come up with a product that reflects the community's culture--they invented "Zuni furniture," transferring pottery skills and designs to their wood products.

The final results are that fewer trees need to be cut and more timber-related jobs are available.

In Washington State, the Columbia Pacific Resource Conservation and Development Council has initiated a number of these "value-added" projects. Columbia Pacific's Jim Walls reports that the council is especially excited about its agroforestry business. Thanks to Columbia Pacific's marketing and technical advice, many ex-loggers and others are now able to harvest wild mushrooms and berries. While some logging companies are shipping off raw logs for processing in Asia, Washington is exporting to Japan wild mushrooms that are packaged in locally harvested and crafted cedar boxes.

Some practitioners, projects do more than create jobs and protect the environment--they have brought a measure of healing to fractured communities. In Plumas County, California, the nonprofit Plumas Corporation united a community polarized over national forest policy with a plan to restore the creek running through town. Unemployed loggers used their experience with bulldozers for something other than building more roads in national forests--they restored the meander in Wolf Creek.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had straightened the creek and cemented its bed, creating an eyesore that soon became a dumping zone. In restoring the historical flow of the river, the Plumas Corporation took an important step toward reclaiming older community values that had been destroyed by persistent poverty and corrosive controversies .

Practitioners have been careful to propose economic development that makes sense to local people. The most successful projects are those that can use the skills that are part of the local culture. In Lewis County, Washington, where unemployment among loggers is high, the local Development Council discovered that many ex-loggers are skilled woodworkers. The Development Council sponsored a woodworkers cooperative, which provided marketing and funding advice. The new cooperative now has 250 full-and part-time members.

Forest practitioners must be sensitive to people's cultural expectations and assumptions. Jaime Pinkham of Nez Perc Forest Management (a tribal agency) has learned that, "In Indian country, we need to speak and understand two languages--the language of the entrepreneur and the language of the community."

In many communities, opposing interests have spent so much time butting heads that they haven't looked up long enough to recognize common goals. Michael Jenkins, from the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, sees himself as "a facilitator of communication and change. Regardless of who I'm talking to and what I'm talking about, I'm still trying to get two people to hear the same thing." Plumas Corporation's Leah Wills provided this job description of a forest practitioner: "I'm a cheerleader, I'm a nag, I'm a grant writer, I'm a consensus cop."

Practitioners have succeeded by suggesting development projects that address the concerns and desires of local interest groups. Practitioners have found, however, that though most locals want to protect the health of the forests around them, they do not want to sacrifice their livelihood or way of life to do it. As some practitioners have pointed out, few urban environmentalists would make such a trade.

The practitioner's genius lies in reversing that dilemma, offering people economic incentives to protect the forest ecosystem. Mike Brandrup, head of the Iowa State Forestry agency, tells of one practitioner organization that taught the value of replanting trees long lost to ranching and agriculture. The Chariton Valley Resource Conservation and Development Council convinced landowners to convert marginal, highly erodible land into walleye and trout farms. Chariton Valley then explained to the new fish farmers that in order to guarantee the necessary water quality, the land would have to be reforested and maintained. The erstwhile ranchers have since become devoted forest stewards .

For many who live in timber-dependent communities, the forest is both an economic and a spiritual resource. Delbert Devargas, president of La Madera, notes, "We want the land to provide wood but also fishing, hunting, and enjoyment for ourselves and our children." For Devargas, the forest is not just a pretty or useful place it is a source of life.

To rally people behind a project, practitioners assemble advisory boards representing local interests and institutions. The Greater Yellowstone Council's board of directors includes a local resort owner, several ranchers, a banker, logger, biologist, sociologist, an attorney, and a realestate agent. The Plumas Corporation has only one restriction. Wills instructs meeting participants to "leave your lawyers and guns at the door."

Until last year, many practitioners thought they were the lone voice for sustainable rural development. In 1991, Forest Trust, a Santa Fe-based organization, was urged by the Ford Foundation to create a network of forest practitioners. In June 1991, 22 practitioners from 16 states attended a working session and established the Committee for Sustainable Community Forestry (CSCF). At the same time, Forest Trust began examining how the U.S. Forest Service might better con tribute to rural development efforts.

For most of this century, Congress and the Forest Service agreed that "community stability" meant maintaining a level of cutting in the national forests that would provide a steady supply of timber jobs for local workers. Increasingly, however, critics inside and outside the Forest Service have argued that the current "sustained yield" quotas are devastating the national forests while only briefly postponing a timber-dependent community's forced withdrawal from its main source of jobs. Even if current cut levels can be maintained, critics warn, timber jobs are being lost to labor-saving technological advances and the exportation of raw logs.

Whatever the outcome of the debate over cut levels, the Forest Service has at least made a commitment to alternative forms of maintaining healthy forest-based communities. In June 1990, the Forest Service published "A Strategic Plan for the '90s: Working Together for Rural America." The plan calls for the agency to "provide leadership in working with rural people and communities on developing natural-resource-based opportunities and enterprises that contribute to the economic and social viability of rural communities." The plan places great emphasis on maintaining a community's cultural and environmental integrity, and urges Forest Service personnel to work with local organizations to achieve these goals.

Some critics claim that the Forest Service has been slow to follow up on its commitment. Forest Service representatives, however, believe the agency is now moving to support sustainable rural development. "I think we're over the inertia now," says Susan Odell, the agency's director of rural development. "I think we're starting the momentum."

Even before the Forest Service made sustainable rural development a priority, some district rangers were heading in that direction. Dave Jensen, a ranger in the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia, works with the local chamber of commerce to create innovative, sustainable uses for forest resources. Jensen set in motion a scenic byway project that was enthusiastically endorsed by the chamber of commerce. The byway will bring people past the national forest, then into town, where tourists can purchase local crafts, goods, and services. The byway will include signs that point out the different uses of the Chattahoochee National Forest and the ways it is being maintained for the future.

The Forest Trust is working to see that the Forest Service's new commitment to sustainable rural development becomes a reality. Last November, the trust brought together practitioners and Forest Service personnel to improve cooperation between them. At the conference, a number of Forest Service employees noted that the agency is caught between different political pressures. "Congress appropriates money for cutting trees," said one exasperated employee, who wished to remain anonymous. "It doesn't explicitly appropriate money for rural development."

Susan Odell hopes that Congress will soon rectify this problem by creating a separate line item in the Forest Service's budget for rural development. Until that time, Odell hopes that the agency's State and Private Forestry division will be able to spend more of its funds to support practitioners, projects.

Many practitioners note that a grant from the Forest Service's Rural Development Fund enabled them to initiate some of their most valuable projects. The fate of that fund, however, is now in doubt. Although practitioners are adept at stitching together funding from a variety of sources, they view the federal contributions as crucial. Besides providing funding, the Forest Service has donated expertise, supplies, and equipment to a number of projects.

Acquiring funding for projects remains the biggest problem. At a recent conference on forest practitioners, Luis Torres declared, "We can go on having meetings, wringing our hands, and discussing our approach, but ain't a damn thing gonna happen until they put money on the table."

Torres believes that foundations are more enamored with funding studies of problems than with funding equipment that will alleviate them. Tim Washburn, executive director of the Greenville, Maine, Office of Economic Development, concurs. "Give me a hammer to drive some nails," he declares, "not a spiralbound notebook."

Some practitioners have been critical of what they perceive as the Forest Service's bias toward large logging companies and large timber sales. Sungnome Madrone believes that a firm's environmental record and its commitment to the local community should be considered along with monetary bids when the Forest Service awards a contract. Forest Trust Executive Director Henry Carey believes that if the Forest Service spent less on money-losing big sales, more funds could be directed toward rural development.

This critique of the agency, like many by practitioners, may need to be aimed at a wider target. Congress and the Bush administration have far more influence over such matters than the Forest Service does. Many on Capitol Hill and in the White House are currently more attentive to the arguments of timber-industry lobbyists than they are to community-based development specialists.

Some practitioners realize that in order to carry their program much farther, they are going to have to acquire political clout in Washington. Tom Tuchman, a staffer for U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Forestry, and Nutrition, recently encouraged practitioners to organize their constituencies in support of national rural-development programs. "It's amazing how effective letters to your Congressman or Congresswoman are," he said. Leahy has been one of the few consistent Congressional supporters of forestbased rural development.

Whether practitioners can become a potent national force remains to be seen. Forest Trust program director Marco Lowenstein sees the CSCF continuing to grow, creating an effective voice for sustainable community forestry in Washington. Forest Trust plans to convene a conference there this spring to bring the CSCF's message to Congress, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Forest Service's Washington office. (See "A Movement in the Making: The CSCF" on this page.)

Forest Service rural development specialists, for their part, are excited about the future. "The agency has a significant window of opportunity to change how we work with rural communities," says Odell. "More Forest Service employees than ever before are actively working with people in rural America on long-term, community-based strategies." That's good news for the nation's forests, and all who depend on them.


Marco Lowenstein, program director for Forest Trust, reports that the Committee for Sustain able Community Forestry (CSCF) is eager to connect with like-minded individuals, businesses, or organizations. Forest Trust is currently acting as the coordinator of the coalition. "I suspect we are seeing just the tip of the iceberg," Lowenstein says.

The CSCF's 20-plus affiliates pay no dues and are bound by no bylaws. They are included at no cost in the CSCF's "Directory of Forest-Based Rural Development Practitioners."

The CSCF was formed last June; the affiliates pledged to promote the following goals:

* Restore and enhance the complete forest environment.

* Develop consensus within the community concerning resource development.

* Support and create living-wage jobs, including opportunities for youth.

* Create and implement "value-added" industries.

* Connect with private business whenever possible.

* Empower local users to manage resources for themselves.

* Provide training and education for the labor force.

* Work for state and national policies that will support these goals.

To obtain more information, contact Forest Trust, P.O. Box 519, Santa Fe, NM 87504-0519, or call 505-983-8992.

Michael Goldberg is a freelance writer finishing a degree from Yale University in American studies and environmental history.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Forests
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:innovations in forest management
Author:Goldberg, Michael
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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