Federal–State “Shared Stewardship” Strategy Takes Hold

By October 14, 2019Community, News

By Steve Wilent

On May 8, Washington State became the second state to sign a “shared stewardship” memorandum of understanding (MOU) agreement with the US Forest Service. The MOU calls for the state and the Forest Service “to work collaboratively toward mutual goals and effectively respond to the increasing suite of challenges facing communities, landscapes, and natural resources across the state. The partnership will work together to improve forest health—a cornerstone of clean water and abundant wildlife habitat—and create exceptional recreational and outdoor opportunities across the state,” according to a joint announcement.

“Wildfire, forest health, and habitat loss are not issues that respect property lines,” said Washington commissioner of public lands Hilary Franz. “To truly tackle our wildfire and forest health crisis, at the pace and scale this crisis demands, we need a strong partnership between Washington State and the USDA Forest Service. This agreement ensures that our response will be unified, well-coordinated, and deliver maximum benefit for the people.”

Idaho was the first state to enter into a shared stewardship agreement with the Forest Service.

Shared Stewardship, forest, state

On May 8, 2019, Hilary Franz, Washington State’s commissioner of public lands, announces the signing of a shared stewardship memorandum of understanding between the state and the US Forest Service (USFS), calling it a model for other states to follow. USFS Chief Vicki Christiansen looks on. Photo: Washington Department of Natural Resources.

“By pooling resources, sharing expertise and making decisions together, the State of Idaho and the Forest Service can get more work done in our forests to protect communities and provide jobs,” said Jim Hubbard, USDA Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, when announcing the agreement on December 8, 2018.

A few days later, on December 12, the Western Governors’ Association (WGA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) signed an MOU to “establish a framework to allow the Forest Service and WGA to work collaboratively to accomplish mutual goals, further common interests, and effectively respond to the increasing suite of challenges facing western landscapes.”

The parties said that the MOU is an outgrowth of two ongoing activities: The Forest Service’s shared stewardship initiative as outlined in “Toward Shared Stewardship Across Landscapes: An Outcome-Based Investment Strategy,” a report released in August 2018 (tinyurl.com/y8eoodzs), and the WGA’s National Forest and Rangeland Management Initiative (tinyurl.com/y3v8uoer).

As the title of the report indicates, emphasis will be placed on assessing the outcomes of shared stewardship:

“In short, the Forest Service long ago learned how to account for activity targets. Now we must become adept at accounting for meaningful outcomes as well. To do so, we envision joining together with partners and stakeholders to learn about shared risks, discuss potential common goals, agree on joint planning areas across stewardship landscapes, and jointly develop desired outcomes and how to measure them through key performance indicators.”

In February, speaking at the National Wild Turkey Federation’s Conservation Awards Luncheon in Nashville, Tennessee, Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen said that the agency’s “approach will be to work with the states and other partners—through partnerships like Making Tracks—to use the right tools in the right places at the right scales for outcomes that meet shared goals across shared landscapes. We are now holding talks with partners across the country about the tremendous potential of this new approach to land management.”

The federation’s Making Tracks award recognizes people and projects that best incorporate conservation education, partnerships, and wild turkey management. Four Forest Service employees received the award for their efforts in 2018.

In testimony on the Forest Service’s 2020 budget request before the Senate Appropriations Committee on May 15, Christiansen said: “Our forests across the nation are in peril—we all know that. We need to really work on treating the right acres that are going to do the most to reduce risk. It’s not necessarily about just treating the most acres, it’s treating the right acres. That is really the call to action in the shared stewardship framework. Alaska’s needs are going to be slightly different than New Mexico’s needs, for example, and we want to be in conversations, convening the partners at the state level to talk about that. That’s our approach. It’s not federal dominance—we’re all in this together. We want to look together at the landscape.”

The notion of working collaboratively across boundaries isn’t new. In a speech in Seattle, Washington, in 2009, then Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack outlined an “all-lands approach” to managing forests: “[The] Forest Service must not be viewed as an agency concerned only with the fate of our National Forests, but must instead be acknowledged for its work in protecting and maintaining all American forests, including state and private lands.”

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell described “An All-Lands Approach to Conservation” at the Western States Land Commissioners Association’s Winter 2010 Conference in Little Rock, Arkansas.

“An all-lands approach brings landowners and stakeholders together across boundaries to decide on common goals for the landscapes they share. It brings them together to achieve long- term outcomes. Our collective responsibility is to work through landscape-scale conservation to meet public expectations for all the services people get from forests and grasslands,” said Tidwell.

The Forest Service’s 2012 planning rule incorporates the cross-boundary approach for all national forests: “Ecological and social systems are not confined within NFS unit boundaries. Ecosystem services produced by national forests and grasslands affect and are affected by land management activities on adjacent private, state, local, and other federal government lands. Responsible officials will take an all-lands approach into account when developing plan components for ecological sustainability and multiple uses and ecosystem services.”

The Good Neighbor Authority (GNA), authorized by Congress in the 2014 Farm Bill, allows the Forest Service to enter into agreements with state forestry agencies to conduct forest-management work on federal and adjacent non-federal lands. Since then, 32 states have taken part in more than 130 GNA projects, according to the National Association of State Foresters.

President Trump’s Executive Order 13855 of December 21, 2018, includes an all-lands directive:

“Sec. 6. Collaborative Partnerships. To reduce fuel loads, restore watersheds, and improve forest, rangeland, and other Federal land conditions, and to utilize available expertise and efficiently deploy resources, the Secretaries shall expand collaboration with States, tribes, communities, nonprofit organizations, and the private sector.”

More Than Good Neighbor Authority

Jay Farrell, executive director of the National Association of State Foresters (NASF), said that shared stewardship goes well beyond the Good Neighbor Authority.

“State foresters are able, capable, willing, and stepping up to the plate on the Good Neighbor Authority, and that’s a good thing—it’s getting needed work done on federal lands,” he said. “But shared stewardship is much more than just using state-agency expertise and capacity to get work done on national forests. Shared stewardship is much broader than that and may be a good opportunity for the nation’s forests, not just federal forests.”

Shared stewardship involves not only federal and state forest managers, but also private and local-government landowners, nonprofit organizations, and other interested parties.

“USDA clearly recognizes that working with states to set priorities and share decisionmaking—a federal-state partnership—is a foundation for shared stewardship. And that really isn’t new—state forestry agencies and the Forest Service have had strong partnerships for more than 100 years,” he said. “Shared stewardship goes beyond the Good Neighbor Authority, beyond the Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act [of 1978], but the federal-state partnership allows a lot of other good things to happen across the landscape.”

Farrell noted that NASF will celebrate its centennial in 2020 and that Gifford Pinchot presided over its first meeting in 1920.

States are well-positioned to have knowledge of the condition and management needs and opportunities, in part because each state has created a Forest Action Plan, as required by the 2008 farm bill, that includes in-depth analyses of forest conditions and trends.

“From a state perspective, one-size-fits-all federal approaches don’t work very well, especially in a natural-resources context. So states need the flexibility to adapt and decide what shared stewardship means for them, and having governor-level support for shared decision-making—and in particular, support for the professionals working for the state forestry agencies—is crucial,” Farrell said. “For states, shared decisionmaking and shared priority setting are two key components of shared stewardship.”

Erin Connelly, a senior policy assistant with the Forest Service who focuses on shared stewardship, characterizes shared stewardship as an evolution in the long relationship the agency has had with states and other partners.

“We’ve been learning a lot from the partnerships we’ve been engaged with over the last decade or so,” she said. “We’ve been learning a lot from the science and the research that we’ve been doing, and we’ve been successful in using the authorities that help us to work across boundaries. Now we’re looking at continuing that evolution, but kind of kicking it up a notch. Part of that is working with states to develop mutual priorities at scale. We’ve been moving from project-based vegetation management to the watershed scale, and now we’re looking at statewide issues.”

Connelly noted that working to decrease wildfire risk is not the only purpose of the shared stewardship strategy.

“Water is a priority in some areas, such as Arizona, and in many states in the West it is both water and fire risk reduction. Reducing wildfire risk may not be priorities for states in the Northeast, who are looking at watershed restoration and other priorities. There are opportunities to work across boundaries with lots of different partners.”

New Partners

“There isn’t a one-size-fits-all definition of shared stewardship,” said Tom Schultz, vice president of governmental affairs for Idaho Forest Group (IFG), who previously served as the director of the Idaho Department of Lands, from September 2011 to January 2018. “Under Secretary Hubbard has come to the states and said, ‘what do you want this to be?’ The Forest Service has targets [for forest health and restoration], but he’s also looking for feedback from the states about how they want those programs to work in those states. There’s a recognition that the states need to have input and an ownership in this process.”

Schultz added that “Shared stewardship is working together, not necessarily to prescribe management regimes, but to provide information and encourage land managers, where it’s appropriate, to participate in coordinated management where it can benefit everyone.”

One example under discussion in Idaho is the management of the Interstate 90 corridor east of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where land is held by a variety of owners.

“We’re looking at identifying the threats from fire and perhaps placing strategic fuel breaks,” he said. “Those fuel breaks could be on the state, federal, or private land. You can look at data to see where lightning strikes have occurred, where fires have occurred in the past, forest health and mortality, and other wildfire risk factors, and share that information with landowners and encourage them to consider participating in the effort to create strategic fuel breaks.”

Schultz said that utility companies around the nation are very interested in the shared stewardship concept.

“Utilities are very interested in fire hazard and risk assessment, especially after what happened in California [in 2017 and 2018],” Schultz said. “There are new players that we haven’t typically collaborated with. You can imagine that oil and gas pipeline companies and municipal water companies would have an interest in this, too.

“Shared stewardship is about looking beyond the traditional players, either agitators or cooperators, in identifying who are the true stakeholders in a broader sense, sharing information, and encouraging some degree of coordinated management across a large landscape.”

From The Forestry Source, June 2019. © 2019, The Society of American Foresters