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Climate & Energy
Essential Tools for Sustaining America's Forests:
Reauthorizing Stewardship Contracts on Federal Lands
Brian A. Kittler and V. Alaric Sample

Al-Qaeda knows we have a forest health problem ("Al-Qaeda Urges Terrorists to Set Wildfires in Montana" The Missoulian, May 4, 2012).1 As usual, they see our vulnerabilities more clearly than we sometimes do ourselves- and how to exploit them. Why risk smuggling a bomb into the US when there are so many already here-in our forests-just waiting to be lit?

We too know we have a forest health problem. We know it has gotten bad, as insect and disease outbreaks and drought have resulted in extensive areas of dying forests and dangerous accumulations of dead wood. And we know that all this is likely to get worse as the effects of climate change become more pronounced, and more readily apparent to resource managers and stakeholders as well as scientists.

In the West, where the vast majority of federal forests are, the lingering effects of fire exclusion, overgrazing, cutbacks in silvicultural treatments, and other activities of the past century are now multiplied by the effects of climate change, contributing to the vulnerability of present-day forests. In the East, while management issues are different, they are not necessarily less challenging, and flexibility in management is needed.

In many places, the consequences of not intervening to alter the current trajectory of these ecosystems through appropriately timed and scaled management is the diminishment or outright loss of the services these resources provide—clean air, clean water, biological diversity, wildlife habitat, sequestration of atmospheric carbon, recreation opportunities, and utilitarian benefits, as well as numerous cultural, spiritual, social, and economic values.

To address challenges like this, two things are needed: knowledge, and the tools to apply that knowledge. With the wealth of recent research on climate change effects on forests, we now have a clearer understanding of what to expect, and how it will affect forest health, productivity, and essential services from these natural systems, such as water resource protection and biodiversity. Our knowledge is not perfect, nor can it ever be. But we do have a reasonably clear understanding of constructive steps that can be taken, results monitored, and adjustments made.

Stewardship Contracting Awaits Congressional Reauthorization

We also have specialized tools that are well-suited to the task. The first “stewardship contract ” pilot projects were authorized by Congress more than a decade ago. More than six dozen pilot projects were eventually authorized on National Forests around the country, their progress noted by local communities and multi-party monitoring teams, and their results reported annually to Congress. In 2003, Congress gave a strong policy endorsement to stewardship contracts by granting a 10-year extension of the stewardship contract pilot program, and expanding it to encompass all National Forest and BLM lands across the country. Unless reauthorized, the agencies’ authority to use this innovative contracting mechanism will expire on September 30, 2013.

Right now, Congress has an opportunity to ensure that federal land managers continue to have this essential ecosystem restoration tool available to them. Reauthorization of stewardship contracting in its current form has broad bipartisan support in both houses of Congress and across the interest group spectrum. The version of the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012 (i.e., the 2012 “Farm Bill”)2 passed by the Senate Agriculture Committee on April 26, 2012 contained a provision to permanently extend the authority of the Forest Service and BLM to use stewardship contracts and agreements. That bill is on its way to a vote by the full Senate, while the House has yet to take up the Farm Bill. In addition to the Farm Bill, several other legislative channel proposals for reauthorization have been made.3

Support for Stewardship Contracting

Agency heads and resource managers at both the Forest Service and BLM value stewardship contracts as one of the most effective and cost-efficient tools they have for accomplishing critical ecosystem restoration work on federal lands. As one indicator of the growth of this tool, in 2011, roughly 20 percent of all timber sold from the National Forest System was removed as a necessary part of restoration work and hazardous fuels work accomplished through stewardship contracts and agreements. For the BLM, roughly 14 percent of all timber sold from public domain lands is presently removed as part of the restoration work done under stewardship contracts.4

Studies by the Pinchot Institute show an increased acceptance of stewardship contracting by agency field managers, with 85 percent of agency personnel now saying that they would participate in another stewardship project, saying it is a “great tool” with “positive benefits.” As a Forest Service field manager in the Northern Rockies explains, “Stewardship contracting allows the Forest Service to create on-the ground results that we feel like we cannot get with the other tools available to us, like a traditional timber sale or service contract alone. Stewardship contracting utilizes the skills of our community in a way that we haven’t had available to us before in the manner that we think it’s a better result.”

Rural communities express similar feelings, citing multiple instances where stewardship contracts support jobs accomplishing something that serves the broader public interest, and building stable local economies based on conservation and the sustainable management of natural resources. In the longer term, ecosystem restoration work accomplished with stewardship contracts will help reduce the vulnerability of natural and human systems to the effects of climate change and other challenges that come our way.

Lastly, the need to reauthorize this flexible contracting approach is exemplified by its direct connection to the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP),5 a new initiative only recently created by Congress, designed to accelerate the collaborative restoration of our forests. Virtually every CFLRP project proposed during the first two years seeks extensive use of stewardship contracts and agreements in the restoration of forest ecosystems. Grounded deeply in collaboration, these projects typify the direction of Federal forest management— building from a foundation of trust to enable well placed interventions that promote ecosystem resiliency across hundreds of thousands of acres, while providing jobs in rural communities. Without stewardship contracting the CFLRP will most likely not be successful.

Building a Record of Documented Accomplishments

Since the introduction of the pilot authority in 1999, the Pinchot Institute has facilitated the community- based multi-party monitoring of the pilot projects, and helped compile the annual report to Congress that was required in the original pilot legislation.6 Through this effort, the Institute and its regional partner organizations have documented the successes and challenges of using this approach to contracting work on federal lands.

The series of annual reports show that each year a greater number of agency and non-agency personnel are utilizing stewardship contracts and discovering their value as a land management tool. Somewhat unique in the natural resources policy world, this monitoring program has allowed the federal agencies to track the successes and benefits of this contracting program.

Successes reported through the 2011 monitoring program include:
  • Restoration is being accomplished in areas where there previously was not interest or support. This appears to be building trust.
  • Existing collaborative groups continue to favor stewardship contracting and new groups have emerged partially due to their interest in stewardship authorities.
  • Agreements with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), particularly conservation NGOs, have been successful in raising matching funds, with almost half of survey respondents saying that non-agency partners bring new funds into stewardship contracts and agreements.

Benefits reported through the 2011 programmatic monitoring program include:

  • Stewardship contracting has created capacity within the workforce of rural communities to undertake the diversity of tasks comprising ecosystem management and restoration. Top benefits cited include “using local contractors,” “creating/maintaining more local jobs,” and providing “other economic benefits,” such as documented reductions in the cost of fuel treatments and expanded capacity for utilizing low-value wood biomass.
  • “Improving public trust” and “increasing opportunities for public input” are two of the greatest benefits stewardship contracting has brought to the agencies, while a broad spectrum of interest groups praise stewardship contracting.
  • Performing more work on the ground in an integrated manner (e.g., hazardous fuel reduction, habitat improvement, noxious weed control or eradication, road improvements, road obliteration, and stream restoration).
  • Increased administrative and fiscal efficiencies achieved through the use of best-value contracting, goods-for-services, designation by description and prescription, and retained receipts. 


Considering the growing reliance on stewardship contracts and the numerous success stories and benefits cited by stakeholders across the country, federal land managers need to be certain this essential tool will continue to be available to them in the future. Communities and other stakeholders who treasure the aesthetic, ecological, and spiritual benefits these lands provide, and those who depend on them for their economic vitality, are working with Congress and other political leaders to ensure that they understand the value—and proven cost-effectiveness—of stewardship contracts, and will lend their support to their legislative reauthorization.

Our federal forests are up against the greatest challenge in their hundred- year history. Environmental stresses of an already changing climate have weakened their resistance to insects and disease. Extensive areas of dead and dying trees create conditions ripe for wildfires far larger and more damaging than would naturally occur in these ecosystems. Invasive species are poised to penetrate more deeply in the aftermath of such events, changing the composition of native forests and habitats for the foreseeable future. Diminished forests are less able to provide abundant supplies of clean water, affecting not just rural communities but major cities throughout the country that depend upon healthy forest watersheds. Stewardship contracting is a primary tool for federal forest managers working to sustain the health and productivity of America’s forests, one that they need to know they can depend on having as they strive to address the challenges ahead.

Brian Kittler is Project Director at the Pinchot Institute in Portland, Oregon. V. Alaric Sample is President of the Pinchot Institute in Washington, DC.

1 The Missoulian, May 4, 2012
2 Farm Bill
3 There have been several recent attempts at reauthorization in the House of Representatives: In 2011, Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM) offered a simple reauthorization; Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) offered a two year extension; Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) offered another eight years to match Simpson's two years, and more recently Lujan introduced a 10 year extension.
4 Note that stewardship contracting is rarely used on Oregon & California lands (O&C lands) in western Oregon due to regulations.
6 Past programmatic monitoring reports are available for download here.

Six former Forest Service Chiefs call for reauthorization of stewardship contracting, noting it as the "tool of choice throughout the USFS." Read their letter here.

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