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Preparing for the Mid-term: Nearing Five Years of the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program
R. Patrick Bixler

America’s forests are undergoing changes unlike any seen before in human history. With each passing year, new precedents are being set for the extent and impacts of wildfires, and floods that often follow. Record areas of forest stands are dead or dying and in need of restoration in order to sustain the vital ecosystem services on which we depend. Moreover, climate change is profoundly shaping forests and actively altering species composition, productivity, availability of goods and services, and disturbance regimes (Vose et al. 2012). Forest conservation in the Anthropocene is going to require institutional arrangements that manage both public and private forests in a more collaborative, flexible, science-based, and adaptive way (Sample and Bixler 2014). Traditional institutional and policy frameworks are challenged by the task at hand. At the beginning of the 20th century our nation implemented the Weeks Act, a visionary law that provided a roadmap to conserve the nation’s forest and water resources. A century later, we look to build on that bold leadership by restoring forests, and the communities that depend on them, through collaborative and adaptive approaches to forest management.

The USDA Forest Service, as well as other federal land management agencies, are developing new tools and policy frameworks to enable an ‘all hands’ and ‘all lands’ approach to forest management. In 2010, USDA Secretary Vilsack announced that 10 landscape-scale restoration projects had been funded under the new Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP). Established by Congress under Title IV of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, this program supports landscape-scale ecological restoration on Forest Service lands to reduce wildland fire management costs, enhance ecological health, and promote the use of small-diameter woody biomass while bolstering collaboration throughout planning and implementation (Schultz et al. 2012). Specifically, the purpose of the Act is to “encourage the collaborative, science-based ecosystem restoration of priority forest landscapes;” to help achieve these objectives, collaboratives are guaranteed funding for ten years.
The Southwestern Crown CFLRP addresses restoration needs in the Blackfoot, Clearwater, and Swan River Valleys. Image by Meghan Brown

Along with the new National Forest System land management planning rule, the CFLRP is part of a longer-term shift in National Forest policy that has increasingly emphasized large-scale, collaborative, and adaptive planning. The CFLRP is one experiment in the emerging suite of new governance approaches that attempt to implement management activities in ways that are more flexible and adaptive, less hierarchical, and emphasize the role of collaboration and communities in setting goals and objectives on multiple-use landscapes. The CFLRP is aligned with these goals and objectives by promoting management that: 
  • Encourages ecological, economic, and social sustainability; 
  • Leverages local resources with national and private interests; 
  • Facilitates the reduction of wildlife management costs, including through reestablishing natural fire regimes and reducing the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire;
  • Demonstrates the degree to which various ecological restoration techniques achieve ecological and watershed health objectives; and, 
  • Encourages the utilization of forest restoration by-products to offset treatment costs, to benefit local rural economies, and to improve forest health.
To date, 23 CFLRPs that span the forests of the eastern and western United States have been funded through the program. The sites include a spectrum of ecological and social contexts from Arkansas, Mississippi, and Florida in the Southeast, to Colorado and Montana in the RockyMountains, to Washington State in the Pacific Northwest. California, Oregon, and Idaho each have three CFLRPs in their respective states. According to a 2012 annual report (Schwedler et al. 2013), in the first two years of implementation the 23 projects have cumulatively: 
  • Created and maintained 4,574 full- and part-time forest industry jobs; 
  • Generated nearly $320 million in labor income; 
  • Reduced the risk of mega-fire on 612,000 acres; 
  • Enhanced clean water supplies by remediating 6,000 miles of eroding roads; 
  • Sold 95.1 million cubic feet of timber;  Improved 537,000 acres of wildlife habitat; and, 
  • Restored nearly 400 miles of fish habitat.
These are impressive accomplishments for a program nearing its five-year “mid-term,”—a program established and implemented during the recent environment of federal budget constraints, increasing wildfire and dying forests, and increasing uncertainty associated with accelerating ecological change. However, providing an institutional framework that incorporates this change into systems of knowledge and management is precisely what makes CFLRP promising. The CFLR program has the potential to reduce uncertainty through systematically and collaboratively planned, implemented, and monitored management actions.
Blackfoot Challenge conservation partners tour riparian buffers in Montana. Courtesy Blackfoot Challenge Conservation partners of the Blackfoot Challenge tour restoration sites of the Southwestern Crown Collaborative CFLRP by Ali Duvall
CFLRP, Multi-Party Monitoring and Adaptive Management
The CFLRP legislation is somewhat unique in that it requires both the funding and implementation of multi-party monitoring for ecological, social, and economic outcomes of each individually awarded CFLR project. This authorization requires reporting broader and more detailed information than typical reports detailing amount of timber cut or acres burned. The policy objective of the legislation and subsequent intention of the robust multi-party monitoring is to contribute to knowledge generation and learning, promote trust among stakeholders, reduce uncertainty regarding landscape-scale and long-term effects of restoration, and support adaptive management frameworks that facilitate changes in project planning and implementation. Multi-party monitoring provides information critical to the adaptive management feedback loop, improving projects as they evolve and assuring accountability of projects to all stakeholders.

The Pinchot Institute has long been an advocate and practitioner of multi-party monitoring, with a rich history of evaluating the program design and implementation of stewardship contracting. Since 2003, multi-party monitoring has provided valuable and constructive feedback to help agencies and local communities develop joint action plans, analyze how well the plans are working, and provide insight on how to modify behavior and management practices for better results. The promise of the CFLR program is to take the insights and lessons learned through collaborative and multi-party monitoring of stewardship contracting, and apply it to a broader spectrum of adaptive forest management objectives and tools.

Using monitoring to enact adaptive management in the CFLRPs includes explicit recognition of learning as a management objective, systematic observations of resource conditions and subsequent analysis and interpretation, and adjusting future management based on new information. This implies that the multi-party monitoring is an important precursor to multi-party learning. Groups that have completed collaborative planning and monitoring are frustrated when lessons learned are not captured and used to inform ongoing work, or the project planning process does not facilitate incorporation of new information generated through monitoring (Pinchot Institute for Conservation 2013). Organizational and social learning emphasize information sharing and meaningful collaboration across organizations, and among people with different experiences, helping collaborative groups avoid positional debates and circular discussions. Multi-party social learning is a critical aspect to the ‘back-loop’ of adaptive management: using what is learned to adjust future management, seeking to reduce uncertainty and improve management by monitoring programs and projects and comparing results to management objectives. This learning is at once both within collaboratives and between collaboratives, as informal and professional networks contribute to horizontal information transfer among local groups and vertical information transfer between local groups and policymakers.

Across the individual CFLR projects, monitoring strategies are driven by a desire to measure the effectiveness of treatments to meet ecological and socioeconomic objectives, create and sustain social license to conduct restoration, and resolve key uncertainties at the landscape scale. Management approaches that integrate these monitoring strategies and anticipate and respond to change by guiding development and adaptation of forest ecosystem structures and functions will be more likely to sustain desired ecosystem services and values across large landscapes and multiple decades. One key dimension of the CFLR efforts is the directed focus to the landscape scale, and it is at this scale that preparing for and being resilient to wildfire occurs.

Collaborative Landscape Restoration and Wildfire
It is pretty well received now that fire in the landscape is a natural phenomenon, supporting both ecological processes and in many cases cultural practices (Pyne 2012). However, the social impact of wildfires makes them disastrous, further magnified by demographic changes and exurban residential development in the wildland-urban interface. The solutions to wildfire management and mitigation are not just engineered or environmental, but are often social and include a role and responsibility for collaborative community work in mitigating risk.Wildfire preparedness is advocated as an important means by which communities can reduce vulnerability and increase resilience to wildfire, minimizing the consequences of the hazard and increasing the ability of people to cope with, recover from, and adapt to wildfire. In this regard, CFLRPs are fostering the capacity and skills for hazardous fuels treatments that can provide protection for communities and affect the size, spread, and severity of wildfires.

Many CFLRPs, especially in the West, are engaging with thinning and prescribed fire to achieve landscape-scale forest restoration. Hazardous fuels reduction near communities has become a high priority for many collaboratives, reducing the potential for mega-fire near outlying residential areas. Ideally, entire communities would be “fire adapted,” where fire should be able to pass through communities without causing extensive damage. To achieve this, however, requires implementing forest treatments that are grounded in scientific research, and doing so in a context that allows for collaborative planning, joint fact-finding, and continued monitoring. Disagreements about fire management needs and practices are not always resolved through technical analyses and rational planning processes, but require mutual understanding of different worldviews and political realities. This is the promise of the CFLRPs—collaboratively solving and learning from these complex problems of forest restoration with the intent to help us better understand and direct the course of wildfire, as well as prepare for and adapt to other changes in the Anthropocene.

Opportunities and Challenges Ahead
The Blackfoot Valley in Montana, part of the Southwestern Crown Collaborative CFLRP by Robb Kendrick The CFLR program has been a catalyst and an arena for stakeholders to have difficult forest management conversations, and we can now observe many places where divisive and adversarial tactics have given way to communities actively working together to improve the health and resilience of forest ecosystems. Restoration activities once considered off limits are now on top of the agenda in many collaboratives. These collaboratives have not only created a space for dialogue in situations where scientific and social uncertainty is high, but have also created sufficient social connectivity and capacity to undertake ambitious restoration projects.

However, with increased understanding of the role of climate change as a factor behind widespread insect- and disease-related tree mortality and subsequent catastrophic wildfires, a subtle shift in thinking is taking place—the CFLR program may be too short-term and nearsighted in its focus to prepare for and adapt to economic, social, and climatic changes upon us. Many of these collaborative efforts remain separate initiatives, only loosely affiliated under the common brand of CFLR. The potential for wheel reinvention is high, but the opportunity for deliberate transformative learning is real as well. The Forest Service has held a few webinars to share lessons learned and discuss monitoring activities, but these are preliminary efforts and much more is needed. There is limited communication between these groups, although they have similar objectives and face similar challenges. For the Forest Service, these groups collectively represent an emerging community of practice and a political constituency, as well as a model of institutional and policy innovation that is adaptive and responsive to challenging and diverse contexts.

In addition to assessing the successes and challenges from a programmatic level, there is a broader need for CFLR projects to exchange information, strategies, and ideas. Social learning in the CFLRPs is the key to remaining adaptive and addressing complexity and uncertainty inherent in natural resource management today, and is the backbone to the collective action and reflection that is needed to improve forest conservation in the Anthropocene. Knowledge transfer and exchange helps collaborative adaptive management move beyond incremental, project-level change to incorporate learning into policy and professional practice. A common theme in the CFLRP is that restoration should be science-based, yet science-based forest ecosystem management remains a construct that few collaborative groups have realized and integrated into the collaborative decision-making process. The opportunity, and the challenge, moving forward will be to use science-based practices to accomplish goals while ensuring collaboration. By striving toward these ends, the CFLRP is a way to bring people together and build a long-term partnership between the Forest Service, communities, and the forests that we all care about.

Patrick Bixler is a Research Fellow with the Pinchot Institute in Washington, DC.

References:
Pinchot Institute for Conservation, 2013. Independent Science Panel Report: Herger-Feinstein Quincy Library Group Forest Recovery Act. http://www.pinchot.org/qlg

Pyne, S. 2012. Fire: Nature and Culture. London, UK: Reaktion Books Ltd.

Sample, V.A. and Bixler, R.P. (eds.). 2014 [forthcoming]. Forest Conservation and Management in the Anthropocene. General Technical Report. Fort Collins, CO: US Department of Agriculture, Forest Service. Rocky Mountain Research Station. [Conference presentations and other information available at: http://www.pinchot.org/2013_forest_conservation_symposium].

Schultz, C., Jedd, T., Beam. 2012. The Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program: A History and Overview of the First Projects. Journal of Forestry, 110 (7): 381-391.

Schwedler, J., McCarthy, L., Murphy, D., and Young, J. 2013. People Restoring America’s Forests: 2012 Report on the Collaborative Forest Landscape Program. Online only at www.nature.org/CFLR.

Vose, J., Peterson, D., and Patel- Weynand, T. (eds). 2012. Effects of Climatic Variability and Change on Forest Ecosytems: A Comprehensive Science Synthesis for the US Forest Sector. General Technical Report PNWGTR- 870. Portland, Oregon: US Forest Service, Pacific Northwest Research Station. 265 pp.
 
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