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Climate & Energy
Lessons Learned from an Unprecedented Experiment in Collaborative Forest Management
Will Price

Since the creation of the National Forest System, how we manage our forest resources in light of many competing interests has been a flashpoint for debate and controversy. The Lassen, Plumas and Tahoe National Forests of northern California are no exception. In the last two decades this landscape, comprising more than 3.1million acres (4,885 mi2), has been the testing ground for a new way of incorporating stakeholder interests and ideas in planning and management. This happened through an Act of Congress, the Herger-Feinstein Quincy Library Group Forest Recovery Act of 1998 (HFQLG Act), but began well before this time through the efforts of a coalition of local interests who had become frustrated with the conflict dominating management of these forests.

The first seeds for the emergence of the Quincy Library Group (named for where they came to regularly meet) were planted by local environmental groups during a period of heavy timber harvesting throughout the California Sierras. The total volume of timber harvested from the Sierra Nevada National Forests in 1988 was 1.29 billion board feet, compared to 183.6 million board feet in 2010 (Charnley and Long 2013). In the mid-1980’s, environmental groups were pressing the USDA Forest Service and the timber industry, through any means possible, to reduce harvesting and to take streamside areas, old-growth, and roadless areas off the timber-base. Their plan, presented to the Forest Service in 1986 by the Friends of the Plumas Wilderness, was considered as a management plan alternative in the Forest Service’s forest planning process, but was subsequently rejected.

California spotted owl nestling on the San Jacinto Mountains courtesy William LaHaye Soon afterwards however, timber harvesting began to decline—slowly at first, because the anticipated volume was not there, and quickly as soon as the Forest Service began to deal with the recommendations of a report on the status of the California spotted owl, or the “CASPO” report (Verner et. al. 1992). The forthcoming CASPO guidelines and change in the White House widened interest in constructive dialogue and potential collaboration. So in 1992 a company forester, a county supervisor, and an environmentalist first met to discuss how to ameliorate the conflict, which had destabilized the community and escalated hostilities toward leaders of various interest groups (Gutierrez et. al. 2014). Through subsequent meetings the gathering swelled to 30members who regularly met in the town library in Quincy, California. They sought to establish a consensus policy that would appropriately balance timber harvesting, forest restoration, and protection for sensitive species, especially the California spotted owl. By the fall of 1993, QLG had adopted its Community Stability Proposal, which was presented for consideration to the Forest Service. The plan included silvicultural prescriptions intended to reduce fire susceptibility and severity, protection priorities (e.g. for streams and California spotted owls), and a roadmap they thought could accommodate prior management guidance and priorities (e.g. the Scientific Analysis Team’s guidelines, Small Business Administration set-asides, and others).

The proposal was hailed as a cure-all by its supporters and a potential model for locally-driven collaborative management across the West. However, some in the Forest Service and several national environmental groups were skeptical of the proposal, especially worried about the precedent it set for how public land management decisions are made. Their concerns only escalated when, after engaging the Forest Service Chief and Forest Supervisors for the three National Forests, QLG representatives went to Congress (Marston 1997).

QLG presented its Community Sustainability Proposal to their elected representatives as a “win-win” solution for management of National Forests. The group won the support of then-Congressman Wally Herger (R-CA) and Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA), who led efforts in their respective bodies to gain bipartisan support. After contentious debate, the proposal became the main language of the HFQLG Act of 1998, passing 429 to 1 (Rep. Ron Paul of Texas voted against it).

The HFQLG pilot project authorized in the HFQLG Act was to run for five years, from 1999–2004, at which time its success would be evaluated by an Independent Science Panel (ISP). The pilot project was extended in 2003 and again in 2008, and ended on September 30, 2012. The charge established by Congress in the Act was for the ISP to determine “whether, and to what extent, implementation of the pilot project under this section achieved the goals stated in the Quincy Library Group Community Stability Proposal, including improved ecological health and community stability.”

The Pinchot Institute convened the ISP, bringing together a group of scientists representing an appropriate range of disciplines necessary to conduct the two-stage review. The first phase occurred in 2008, when the ISP reviewed the Forest Service’s monitoring program. The second review began in October 2012, 16 days following the expiration of the pilot, and was completed in 2013 (Pinchot Institute 2013).

The reviews included many types of inquiry, and were by no means limited to the formal documentation of the HFQLG pilot project compiled by the Forest Service in their annual reporting to Congress. Panelists reviewed published literature, unpublished reports, associated source materials, and raw data—provided by many sources from within and outside the agency. Both stages of the review also included extensive consultation with key stakeholders, especially current and former members of QLG, through in-person meetings, phone interviews, and surveys.

The final report of the ISP (available at http://www.pinchot.org/qlg) is technical in nature, reflecting the goals established by the QLG and the HFQLG Act, and the panel took great care to avoid attributing reasons for successes and failures when these reasons could not be substantiated. Overall, the ISP identified nine key findings addressing the resourcemanagement issues affected by the pilot project and about which Congress wanted to learn:
  1. The pace and scale of HFQLG pilot project treatment implementation did not meet expectations for the supply of wood fiber or the number of acres treated.
  2. The pilot was unable to provide local economic stability through an adequate and continuous supply of timber to local mills.
  3. The pilot leveraged significant external funding and support contributing to positive social and organizational changes within the agency.
  4. Implementation of the pilot fire and fuel management treatments typically reduced localized fire severity and had benefits for fire suppression activities.
  5. Fuel reduction and silvicultural treatments, where implemented, helped develop all-age, multistory, and fire-resilient stands, but it is uncertain how these treatments affected ecological integrity at the landscape level.
  6. California spotted owl nest and roost sites were protected during implementation of the pilot, but the project ultimately failed to assess if there were adverse environmental impacts to the owl population resulting from treatments.
  7. The pilot successfully implemented measures designed to protect water bodies, but scientific studies did not adequately determine how treatments affected water resources, and the pilot project treatments did not protect streams and riparian areas from the impacts of catastrophic wildfire.
  8. Protection measures, management strategies, and monitoring activities helped reduce some adverse environmental impacts.Other impacts, including to some species of concern, were uncertain because scientific evaluations were uneven, ineffective, or not completed.
  9. The pilot expanded and supported existing wetland and riparian restoration activities, but did not implement a new program of water resource protection and management referenced by the HFQLG Act.
One of the foundational precepts of the Community Stability Proposal was support for the local economy through projects within the pilot area. The proposal and the subsequent legislation set ambitious targets that were meant to increase the pace and scale of work across the forests using methods that would create fire-resilient conditions, and protect and restore wildlife habitat. In this sense, it was supposed to achieve a “triple bottom line” by protecting the environment, providing jobs, and contributing to the welfare of local communities.

In the end, the HFQLG pilot project did not achieve these goals. Harvesting and employment decreased over the period of implementation. The status of the California spotted owl is still uncertain, and more importantly, the pilot’s effects on spotted owls has yet to be determined. Furthermore, over the course of the thirteen years the hard-won truce between local environmental groups and the QLG dissolved. In some way this dissolution happened at the outset, when the “win” represented by the passage of the HFQLG Act, was perceived by some to diminish the need for further engagement and compromise. Challenges to pilot project treatments mounted over the years; and while appeals and litigation involved only a small minority of projects, they reportedly changed the complexion of the planning process.

Members of the Independent Science Panel on the Plumas National Forest courtesy John Gunn The feedback given to the Independent Science Panel suggests that many factors accounted for the pilot project’s shortcomings— involving the actions and attitudes of all stakeholders involved, including the Forest Service. The agency clearly had difficulty meeting the demands of the pilot, a situation not helped by frequent changes in leadership on the three forests (i.e. 11 different Supervisors during the pilot project). Nevertheless, feedback from stakeholders and the Forest Service suggested that there was greater support for the HFQLG pilot project in the later years of implementation. This was partially a result of new science published in agency publications (North et al. 2009). This renewed emergence of support perhaps reinforces the value of science-based dialogue that was an essential component of the plan developed by the Friends of the Plumas Wilderness, and later the Community Stability Proposal.

The collaboration that led to the Quincy Library Group’s Community Stability Proposal has been celebrated as a potentially transformative approach for federal lands management. Whereas the HFQLG pilot project originated through an unprecedented type of collaboration, it also represented an unprecedented type and level of federal investment (approximately $300 million over 13 years). Despite these precedents, full implementation was not accomplished in the twice-extended term of the HFQLG Act. The degree to which local economic stability has been accomplished or how the California spotted owl and other species of conservation concern will fare over the long term has not been answered. However, where implemented, the pilot project treatments helped reduce the damaging effects of wildfire. The treatments also produced some much needed local economic stimulus, perhaps muting what was a general decline in employment and the broader economy.

What the pilot project was able to accomplish helped demonstrate some of the potential of collaborative engagement. Yet, after more than a decade it cannot be considered the model for how institutions and collaborative partnerships achieve the complex outcomes of promoting forest health and economic stability while maintaining environmental values. Throughout the country there are situations demanding new models of collaboration and management to enable restoration and adaptation to climate change, at a massive pace and scale. The efforts of those who envisioned and influenced the HFQLG pilot project—the Quincy Library Group, companies, scientists, environmental groups, the Forest Service, and others—offer valuable lessons on what can be avoided and what should be emulated across the country in order to meet this challenge.

Will Price is Director of Conservation Programs at the Pinchot Institute in Princeton, NJ. He was a member and the coordinator of the HFQLG Independent Science Panel. The views expressed are those of the author and not a formal statement of ISP findings.

Charnley, Susan, and Long, Jonathan. “9.5 Managing Forest Products for Community Benefit” Final Draft 1/9/2013. http://www.fs.fed.us/psw/publications /reports/psw_sciencesynthesis2013/psw _sciencesynthesis2013_9_5.pdf. Accessed January 2014.

Marston, Ed. 1997. “The Timber Wars Evolve into a Divisive Attempt at Peace.” High Country News. September 29, 1997. http://www.hcn.org/issues/115/3656. Accessed October 2013.

North, M., Stine, P.A., O’Hara, K.L., Zielinski, W.J., and Stephens, S.L. 2009 An Ecosystems Management Strategy for Sierra Mixed-Conifer Forests. General Technical Report PSW-GTR-220. USDA Forest Service, Pacific Southwest Research Station, Albany, CA. 49 p.

Pinchot Institute for Conservation, 2013. Independent Science Panel Report: Herger-Feinstein Quincy Library Group Forest Recovery Act.

Verner, J., McKelvey, K.S., Noon, B.R., Gutiérrez, R.J., Gould, Jr., G.I., Beck, T.W. 1992. The California Spotted Owl: A Technical Assessment of its Current Status. PSW-GTR-133. Pacific Southwest Research Station, USDA Forest Service, Albany, CA.
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