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Putting community in forests: a look back at the evolution of American Forests' policy niche and toward recommendations for expanding the role of those who live closest to the land.

In the mid-1990s AMERICAN FORESTS, with a mandate from its Board of Directors, began to search for a "durable niche" in forest policy. The board felt national forest policy dialogue was mired both in conflict and a complex transition toward ecosystem management. So AMERICAN FORESTS reached out to local leaders, largely in the West, who were affected by these changes. Together we developed activities through which we could partner on policy issues, with AMERICAN FORESTS acting as a bridge between local and national aspects.

Community-based forestry has become our durable niche--and the central focus of our policy efforts, as we work with local partners in rural and urban communities and help them participate in national policy discussions. We have helped them understand policy processes and issues, develop information based on local knowledge and practical experience, and effectively communicate key messages. We also have shared their stories with a broader audience through this magazine.

Over the past year, we have been looking back over what we have accomplished together with our community-based forestry partners, the lessons we have learned and ways to strengthen future policy work. With support from the Ford Foundation and the Surdna Foundation, we have prepared a report for those interested in learning more about, becoming more involved in, and supporting community-based forest policy efforts. That report, from which this is taken, can be found in full on our website, www.americanforests.org.

Community-based forestry (CBF) emerged in the United States in the early 1990s, drawing from both international initiatives, such as social forestry and community-based natural resource management, and domestic experience, such as the work of collaborative watershed and urban forestry groups. While it has many dimensions, community-based forestry focuses on the interdependence of forests and communities and recognizes the vital role of communities-of-place in protecting, restoring, and maintaining forests

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Many community groups, particularly in the West, formed in response to local crises that arose from changes in federal forest policies. Those changes meant conflict; a lack of management of federal forests; a loss of mills, jobs, and related economic activities; and reduced support for essential community services such as education.

Often local groups first sought to bring diverse elements of their communities together to develop common-ground goals, strategies, plans, and actions. But when they tried to put forth these ideas, they often found themselves blocked at the regional or national level. National interest groups objected, existing laws or policies blocked them, funding wasn't available, or agencies resisted change.

So local and regional CBF groups turned to national organizations that could help them participate in the policy arena. As a national citizen conservation group long involved in forest policy AMERICAN FORESTS was a good fit. Policy activities--seeking to gain "a place at the policy table" or a voice in national policy discussions--became an important early emphasis of the community-based forestry movement.

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APPROACHES AND ACTIVITIES

First we needed to characterize community-based forestry. Four principles have become the cornerstones of CBF policy work and are consistently used by partners in their policy activities:

* Process: reflecting the need for open, inclusive, and transparent processes.

* Stewardship: the call for a greater integration of activities that restore and maintain forest ecosystems and activities that revitalize and sustain community well-being.

* Investment: recognizing the basic need for investing--or reinvesting--in both the natural capital of forest ecosystems and the social and economic capacity of communities.

* Monitoring: requires that data and information be collected on projects' environmental effects on forest ecosystems and their social and economic effects on communities. A basis for collaborative learning, trust building, and adaptive management.

CBF partners took a practical, straightforward approach to the challenges of engaging in national policy discussions. First, they worked together to identify and agree upon a set of common issues and programs on which to focus. Those include stewardship contracting and the U.S. Forest Service's Economic Action Programs. Next, they organized task groups to develop information and basic messages about these priorities. Finally, they undertook activities to engage policy audiences at the national level. These included introductory meetings, briefings, and listening sessions with interest groups and federal agencies; congressional hearings and field tours exploring CBF issues and projects; and outreach to journalists and other media regarding CBF stories and issues.

A central policy activity for more than nine years has been the CBF Week in Washington, the result of strong and continued collaboration among four national partners: AMERICAN FORESTS, the National Network of Forest Practitioners, the Communities Committee of the Seventh American Forest Congress, and the Pinchot Institute for Conservation. This annual event gives practical training to those in the CBF movement while educating a national audience about CBF policy issues through those very individuals' voices and stories.

One of the first major policy opportunities occurred in 1997 when partners were invited to organize a workshop on community-based forestry for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee's Subcommittee on Forests and Public Land Management. The subcommittee allowed partners to suggest a nontraditional process, so we urged a roundtable format, putting witnesses from different interests together at a table with senators and allowing everyone to ask questions of one another. The goal: an open and civil discussion among hearing participants, rather than the traditional setting in which separate panels representing different interests speak to congressional members seated on a dais.

The subcommittee's willingness to go along with the request led to a unique event. Elements of this unconventional congressional hearing format have been repeated in later events, though never to the same degree.

Congressional field tours have played a critical role in strengthening relationships with policymakers, showing them the context and reality of CBF projects on the ground and in rural communities. The discussions that have followed have taken issues and solutions from the abstract to the tangible. Participants generally include congressional staff, federal agency officials, and a wide range of local public and private individuals who know the issues and represent a variety of perspectives.

Regional and national CBF partners work with local groups in planning and carrying out these field tours. A total of six have been conducted since 1999. Local partners have included the Watershed Research and Training Center in northern California, Wallowa Resources in Oregon, and the Flathead Economic Policy Center in Montana. Sustainable Northwest, a regional CBF partner based in Portland, Oregon, has played a key role in organizing many of these field tours.

ACHIEVEMENTS

Community-based forestry has achieved some major accomplishments, including introducing important concepts into the national policy discussion and moving federal policies toward their vision. Often this has been accomplished by demonstrating how these concepts might work on the ground and in communities. Some examples:

* Making progress toward shifting federal forest policy away from a focus on how much timber is harvested and toward a focus on restoring the health, or natural functions, of forest ecosystems and watersheds. This may require active management, such as thinning small trees, using prescribed fires, or removing excess roads.

* Introducing the concept of multiparty monitoring as a way to build trust, collaborative learning, and adaptive management. Its use is encouraged in various programs.

* Developing information on best-value contracting, which helps agencies move beyond accepting the lowest bids by contractors, and addressing benefits to local communities, the quality of the work involved, and issues related to the skills and treatment of workers.

* Encouraging community-based planning to allow diverse stakeholders to find common ground as to where and how to implement projects.

* Focusing discussion on the need for investment in forest ecosystems and communities to restore their capacity and resilience.

LESSONS, CHALLENGES

Early on, CBF partners learned that their basic principles resonated with many individuals in national policy audiences. Policy makers frequently mentioned two basic strengths that community-based forestry groups brought to the arena:

* On-the-ground knowledge and experience, which is not often seen in national policy discussions.

* A positive, solution-oriented approach, which differs from the interest-based perspectives policymakers usually hear.

As they take part in national policy issues, CBF partners say, they need to continue to work in a transparent manner--and not be perceived as just another national interest group. Their successes to date raise hopes that policy efforts can address a broader range of CBF issues. Partners also recognize the need for including greater capacity for grassroots participation in policy efforts, better policy structure for communication within the movement, and clearer processes for identifying the movement's policy issues and priorities.

Efforts also have been made to build greater regional strength. This is most obvious in the West, where CBF groups began to organize and work together on policy issues in 2001. Sustainable Northwest has been an important partner in this effort, which has demonstrated effective strategies for developing and community policy messages. These western CBF groups also have advanced common-ground policy ideas through a broader range of organizations under the auspices of the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition.

RECOMMENDATIONS

From this look back and forward, seven recommendations emerged for enhancing future CBF policy efforts. They include:

1. Communication and Coordination Within CBF. Develop and maintain a structure for policy development, communication, and coordination within CBF partner networks.

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2. National Policy Agenda. Develop a broader and more inclusive national policy agenda for CBF.

3. Regional Policy Capacity. Create more opportunities for regional CBF partners to develop policy information and participate in national policy discussions.

4. Policy Communication at the National Level. Help local and regional partners by strengthening CBF's ability to maintain a presence and engage in policy communication at the national level.

5. Implementing and Monitoring New Policies. Strengthen local and regional CBF partners' ability to take part in implementing and monitoring new federal policies and programs.

6. Coalition Strategies. Develop national and regional coalition strategies that focus on issues or themes on which CBF partners can find common ground with other organizations.

7. Communication with the General Public. Strengthen CBF partners' means of developing information that the media will want, maintaining relationships with the media, and providing CBF sources and contacts for the media.

Gerry Gray is AMERICAN FORESTS' VP for policy.
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Title Annotation:PERSPECTIVES
Author:Gray, Gerry
Publication:American Forests
Date:Mar 22, 2007
Words:1675
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