"The care of the earth is our most ancient and most worthy and, after all, our most pleasing responsibility. To cherish what remains of it, and to foster its renewal, is our only legitimate hope." - Wendell Berry

By Kelly Beevers, Topos & Anthros

Across much of the American West, primarily the southwest, overstocked and mismanaged forests are leading to poor tree growth, increased fire danger and increases in threads to overall forest health from insects and disease. Additionally, the proper management of these same forests has the ability to create positive impacts in local economies by providing jobs and goods for regional communities. This intersection of the issues of private land stewardship and bolstering sustainable economies fits squarely within the mission of the Western Landowners Alliance (WLA).

In an effort to advance policies and practices that sustain working lands, connected landscapes, and native species, WLA recently hosted a webinar to kick off a discussion regarding private land forestry with a focus on small-scale forest management and locally-based forest-related economies. This particular forestry-focused online discussion primarily addressed the objectives, barriers, and opportunities in private-land forestry. Featuring Craig Taggart, Environmental Manager of Tercio & Trinchera Ranches Southern Colorado, Corbin Newman, Retired Regional Forester with the USFS in New Mexico, Jonas Feinstein, a Colorado State Forester with NRCS, and Shiloh Old, Vice President & International Relations with Old Wood, a private forest products company located in New Mexico known for its value-added small diameter-based products, the conversation addressed the broad topic of “How do you create a broad scale economy where the market drives financially feasible forest management practices and projects at small-scale and local levels?”

Generally speaking, the forestry objectives represented by the panelists included forest health, multi-resource benefit approach that incorporates place and ecology-based long-term sustainability of resources, and economic viability in terms of creating a healthy and vigorous landscape that produces goods and services people need. The thoughtful and wholistic objectives championed by the speakers don’t come without associated challenges. In terms of barriers to achieving the objectives outlined, the panelists collectively identified three major challenges facing local, primarily private-land forestry operations in the southwest:

  1. Cost;
  2. Lack of industry and availability of local markets; and,
  3. Social license.

Regarding cost, the cost to proactively manage forests and implement treatments on the ground are often prohibitive to landowners. Additionally, funding programs, though available, often fail to adequately connect to the needs, limitations, and risk profiles of private landowners. The cost barrier directly relates to the lack of forest industry and unavailability of local markets. Most regions lack all of the components of the supply chain for both traditional and unconventional wood products. For example, the physical distance to commercial saw mills and distributors is a great impediment to the financial feasibility of operations because transportation costs associated are often prohibitively high. Because of this, the economic driver of market stability doesn’t exist in the southwest like it does in the northwest. Finally, the social license aspect of forestry creates a barrier to achieving the objectives of sustainable management. Public misperception, the lack of education, and inadequacy of knowledge sharing are all components of the social license challenge.

In order to overcome the barriers and achieve the objectives of sustainable small-scale, private forest management in the southwest, the panelists collectively identified three overarching opportunities and suggested applicable and adoptable strategies to capitalize on each opportunity.

1. Create Local Markets

Training local economies to manage their forests and landscapes would help create jobs in individual communities. With jobs created, the local regions could each realize profits from their local forests. Additionally, local markets provide ownership opportunities for communities. If landowners could come together to collectively create a market and business environment that allows entrepreneurship and private enterprise to thrive, regional economies and the forests surrounding them would stand to benefit.

The creation of local markets looks different in different regions. In southern Colorado, the owner of the ranches managed by Craig Taggart is building a sawmill to overcome the transportation cost issue previously mentioned. The mill, which has capacity beyond the two ranches it is built to serve, will make forestry on Tercio and Trinchera more economically feasible, while also providing certainty in the larger regional market. With a conveniently-located, well-funded mill with adequate capacity in the local area, other landowners in the region can conceivably buy property or implement sustainable forest management practices knowing that there’s a mill nearby to take their wood and a burgeoning forestry industry associated.

Additionally, throughout the southwest, there is an opportunity for micro-industries to be established region by region. Whether that’s building or buying a sawmill and re-establishing operations or opening a scragg mill or fire processor, there is opportunity in creating or realizing specialty markets close to home. By honing in on value-added products on a small-scale, landowners can potentially carve out markets that make it economically viable to undertake forestry projects on a small scale and / or in forests with primarily small-diameter trees not suited for large, traditional wood markets. In New Mexico, Old Wood has been selling piñon bundles for firewood to large national retailers including Kroger, Tractor Supply, and others. As part of their firewood product line project, Old Wood has established a wood sorting yard for local folks to bring fire wood to the market in quantities as small as what fits in the back of their truck. Old Wood has provided the physical infrastructure and the marketplace to aggregate small suppliers to meet the demands of more bulk-oriented buyers.

Another idea not yet fully proven in the southwest, but present on a regional scale in parts of Europe is energy generation from in the woods. Potentially landowners could create energy in a forested area to put in the local or regional power systems. This idea was not discussed in detail by the panelists, but was presented as yet another way to approach the opportunity of creating local markets.

2. Prioritize More Robust and Reliable Public-Private Partnerships

Another opportunity identified as a means to overcome barriers and meet objectives is to prioritize, advocate for, and create more robust and reliable public-private partnerships. As individuals and together in organizations such as WLA, landowners can push for multilevel governmental partnerships that work together to create business and economic environments that allows for sustainable management and that protect the environment in an economically feasible way. The panelist from USFS and NRCS agreed with the sentiment presented by the private landowners stating that there is room for improvement and further efficiencies in public-private partnerships.

3. Promote Education and Social Licenses Based on Trust and Sound Science

Each of the panelists identified opportunities related to creating, adopting, and adhering to shared visions on a region by region basis. As part of this effort, forestry companies, landowners, industry organizations, and state and federal agencies bear the responsibility of collectively bringing facts and knowledge to the local communities that are in and depend on forests. Additionally, the effective communication of the underlying dangers and risks of mismanagement of forests should be clearly discussed with communities to help dispel misconceptions and create trust, both of which are needed as the basis for creating a social license. This opportunity is broad and multifaceted, but there are many specific strategies that could be employed to capitalize on the opportunity. One such example discussed was the idea of better integrating the industry of forestry from both a science and a career development / job-readiness angle with regional community colleges in areas where people live in and depend on the forest.

WLA is creating a series out of the larger topic of private land forestry with a focus on small-scale forest management and locally-based forest-related economies. The second webinar in the series happens on April 11th at 10am MDT. The topic is “Prescribed Fire on Private Lands.” If this topic interests you, contact WLA and stay tuned for future coverage.

For additional resources specific to private forests in New Mexico, click here.

This article was originally published by Kelly Beevers on the Topos & Anthros blog.