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Pinchot focus areas:

Climate & Energy
Investing in Natural Infrastructure
Mary Mitsos and Marcus Selig

Water is one of our most essential natural resources. Its scarcity shapes ecosystems and human infrastructure perhaps more than any other factor. Indeed, provision of water flows was foundational to the establishment of public lands, particularly National Forests. Now, with climate change and legacy management issues, more people are recognizing the critical role our public lands play in delivering our most precious resource. Yet, investments in the forests and watersheds where our drinking water is born remain relatively small. Although many of the programs designed to spur such watershed investments are nascent and few in number, some lessons learned are already beginning to emerge. This article discusses the rationales and needs for greater investment in watershed investment programs and provides two examples of successful models in the West.

Our Headwaters
As the nation’s single largest source of fresh water, our National Forests provide water to more than 123 million people. Thousands of communities— including cities such as Denver, Atlanta and Los Angeles—depend on our National Forests for a reliable supply of high-quality water. Our forested watersheds reduce storm runoff, stabilize streambanks, shade surface water, cycle nutrients and filter pollutants—all important functions that contribute to high quality water downstream. In addition to local communities, American businesses have long benefitted from cold, clean and reliable sources of water to support their operations.

Proactive hand-thinning and piling activities on the Coconino National Forest supported through the Northern AZ Forest Fund. Credit: National Forest Foundation In recent years, our water supplies have been challenged by myriad factors including climate change, legacy management issues, and increased demand at the tap. As these pressures mount, there is increased attention to the roles of businesses in water stewardship.

The importance of public-private partnerships to improve our forested watersheds cannot be overstated. Federal, state, and local land managers are confronted with seemingly insurmountable challenges across tens of millions of acres of unhealthy and at risk forested landscapes. Using ever tightening agency budgets, land management agencies must find the means to address uncharacteristically severe wildfires, outbreaks of insects and disease, drought, and invasive species. To overcome this management conundrum, land managers are recognizing the need to rely more heavily on private partners to accomplish proactive forest restoration projects. Partnerships provide an opportunity to expedite and expand restoration using outside funding and collaborative working relationships.

Fortunately, water utilities, private corporations, and other downstream beneficiaries across the nation are also recognizing the value of investing in and supporting work to improve watershed health. Although the particular rationale for investment may vary among partners, the common factor for participation is improved water quality and long-term water certainty. Activities in headwater forests that reduce the risk of uncharacteristically severe wildfire, limit erosion and sedimentation, and improve wetlands and stream channels help ensure that reliable, high quality water arrives at downstream facilities.

The economic case for investing in the health of our forests and watershed is not difficult to make. Proactive watershed stewardship helps avoid costs associated with building new or repairing existing infrastructure or increasing water treatment activities, which may otherwise be necessary to address the effects and consequences of an unhealthy watershed. For many investors, there is a long-term financial risk associated with not investing in watershed health. In particular, increasing water treatment requirements, decreased reservoir storage capacity, and loss of supply compels interests when rising costs can be directly attributed to business practices and bottom lines.

Receiving public recognition for investing in watershed restoration projects may also provide a strong incentive to partner with land managers. For many, the idea of improved environmental conditions is a “feel good” decision and makes sense from a personal level.With increasing consumer demand for businesses to make socially responsible decisions and set sustainability targets, many corporations are looking for ways to demonstrate their commitments to the environment. More and more are demonstrating that commitment through investment in watershed improvement projects.

Whether a business decides to invest in watershed improvement projects to help their bottom line, demonstrate their commitment to the environment, or just do the right thing, the decision to invest is fairly easy. The more challenging question is often how and where to invest.

Finding Solutions: The National Forest Foundation
Post-fire landscape following the Hayman Fire, demonstrating the lack of forest regrowth several years after the wildfire scorched soils and seedbeds. Credit: National Forest Foundation One organization working with private investors on watershed stewardship is the National Forest Foundation (NFF). As the only non-governmental organization solely dedicated to enhancing our National Forest System lands, the NFF is well positioned to improve our forested headwaters. The organization brings a broad understanding of the threats facing National Forest, and knows effective ways to reduce those threats.

The NFF’s signature Our Forests, Our Water program perpetuates America’s great legacy of public lands through conservation of our most precious resource: water. The NFF works closely with the U.S. Forest Service and its network of local community partners to identify watershed improvement projects in high value watersheds across the country. Understanding the water footprint and interests of our partners, the organization ensures that these projects align with donors’ water stewardship strategies. Below are a couple examples of how.

Restoring Burned Landscapes — Hayman Restoration Partnership
In June of 2002, the perfect conditions for a devastating fire converged in the forests near Denver, Colorado. For twenty days, the Hayman Fire raged through the Pike National Forest and neighboring lands, burning a total of 137,760 acres. The fire consumed 600 structures, jeopardized habitat for numerous wildlife species, damaged trails and roads, and severely impacted the water source for more than 75% of Colorado’s 4.3 million residents and states downstream.

An example of the post-fire erosion the Hayman Restoration Partnership worked to prevent into Trail Creek, an important tributary of the South Platte River. Credit: National Forest Foundation Although natural recovery occurred across many acres, several drainages within the South Platte River watershed remained in significant need for restoration. Erosion is especially problematic in this area since it feeds sediment into one of the main sources of water for the Denve rMetro area. This increase in sediment negatively impacts fish and wildlife habitat, streamflow, watershed health, reservoir storage capacity and the quality and cost of Colorado residents’ water supply.

The Trail Creek watershed, a critical sub-watershed of the Upper South Platte River, represented the highest priority for addressing sediment issues. Although the problems facing the Trail Creek watershed were clear, the solutions were not.Working collaboratively with the Forest Service and local partners, the NFF developed specific goals for restoration of the Trail Creek watershed and then worked with a diverse group of partners to accomplish these mutually-developed goals.Work across the project area included activities that were designed to restore degraded perennial streams and ephemeral stream channels, improve aquatic and terrestrial habitats, and reduce erosion and downstream sediment flow.

The NFF worked with old and new funders to raise the money needed to implement restoration projects.With instrumental leadership support from Colorado-based Vail Resorts, the NFF was able to garner additional support from national corporations such as Coca-Cola, dependent water utilities such as Aurora Water, and philanthropic giving from foundations such as the Gates Family Foundation. The community and funders truly rallied to repair this damaged landscape.

The NFF’s focus on building local capacity and a lasting constituency of supporters were keys to its successful restoration efforts. By providing grants to local conservation organizations and local contractors, NFF invested in the local community, built the skills and knowledge of local groups, and supported the regional economy.

Keeping Our Watersheds Healthy — Northern Arizona Forest Fund
In 2014, the Salt River Project (SRP) and the NFF launched a program that provides an easy way for businesses, municipalities and residents of Arizona to invest in helping the lands and watersheds they depend on stay healthy. The Northern Arizona Forest Fund (NAFF) proactively addresses watershed health and provides a credible, reliable means for downstream beneficiaries to invest in watershed improvement activities.

The Northern AZ Forest Fund is helping return low-intensity, more natural fire to the Coconino National Forest by supporting forest thinning and prescribed burning activities. Credit: National Forest FoundationEach year, the NFF works with the Forest Service to identify unfunded, high-priority watershed improvement projects on National Forests in the Salt and Verde River watersheds, which supply surface water supplies to the Phoenix metro area. All projects must be “shovel ready” and completely implementable in one year. Those projects are reviewed by a local advisory council that the selects the NAFF’s annual projects. The suite of projects include activities that reduce wildfire risk, improve streams and wetlands, enhance wildlife habitat, restore native plants, and limit erosion and sediment into Arizona waterways.

The NFF and SRP work hand-in-hand to raise funds from Arizona businesses, municipalities, foundations and individuals to support project implementation. Funds are held and managed by the NFF. On a regular basis, the NFF deploys funds to local nonprofit organizations, private contractors, and the U.S. Forest Service to complete the previously identified projects. Each year, program partners and contributors receive official reports detailing stewardship accomplishments associated with these projects.

The strong partnership between SRP and the NFF and the integrity of this approach to watershed investment has created significant success for the NAFF. In its first two years of operation, the NAFF completed eight high-priority restoration projects with tangible results on all five National Forests in northern Arizona and garnered over $2M in investments.

Although neither of these watershed investment examples may be directly replicable in other communities or watersheds, they both provide important lessons. Businesses and foundations understand the importance of watershed health and are investing. A well-respected, trusted investor and partner can catalyze greater investment. Effectively measuring and reporting on conservation outcomes and improved watershed conditions is necessary to continue to spur investments.Working together with our public land managers and nonprofit partners, we can make meaningful impacts that improve and repair our watersheds.

A former employee of the Pinchot Institute, Mary Mitsos is President of the National Forest Foundation. Marcus Selig is the National Forest Foundation’s Vice President of Field Programs.
Credit: Salt River Project
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