Building Communities

Community and Economic Development and Forest Planning

2014 ushered in a new opportunity for rural communities that are often dependent upon nearby national forests for their livelihood and many kinds of recreation.  The U.S. Forest Service is developing a new forest planning process that will allow for greater inclusion of area communities in the forest plans that are vital to their local economies and quality of life.

In general, it has been a very challenging last three decades for rural communities, especially ones that traditionally have relied on the forest products industry as a mainstay of their local economy.

Timber.  Harvest of timber and other forest products from National Forest System (NFS) lands contributed to more than 44,000 full- and part-time jobs, with labor income totaling more than $2 billion in 2009.  This is, however, a small fraction of the economic benefit during the prior 25 years.  Timber harvest on such lands has declined from over 12 billion board feet in 1985 to approximately two billion board feet in 2009.

Grazing.  Livestock grazing on NFS lands contributes to an estimated 3,695 jobs, and labor income totaling $91.9 million per year.  This activity has also declined over the past 25 years.   In 1985, there were over eight million cattle, sheep and other domestic animals grazing on NFS lands.  In 2009, this number dropped to approximately six million.

Tourism.  The only bright spot has been the upward trend in visitor expenditures.  Recreation visits to NFS lands have increased over this same period.  The U.S. Forest Service reports that spending by recreation visitors in areas within 50 miles of National Forests and grasslands amounts to nearly $13 billion yearly.  These expenditures sustain more than 224,000 full- and part-time jobs.  Recreation accounts for more than half of all jobs and income attributable to Forest Service programs.

A New Era of Collaboration is Possible

In the United States, there are 155 National Forests containing almost 190 million acres of land.  These lands comprise 8.5% of the total land area of the United States, an area about the size of Texas.  Some 87% of National Forest land lies west of the Mississippi River; Alaska alone accounts for 12% of all National Forest land.  Many communities are adjacent to such lands.

Many rural community leaders and local citizens have felt disconnected from the forest planning process.   Because the planning process has historically only focused on federal land, and not the land and people surrounding the National Forests, there has been a separation  between the people and the government agency that serves them.

At the same time, the U.S. Forest Service must manage the land for all Americans, not just the people who live close to the forests.   The citizen in New York City has as much right to benefit from the National Forests as the person whose home abuts forest land.

There is a better way to plan for our forests that recognizes the land is to benefit all Americans, and yet respects the fact that neighboring rural communities have a greater stake in the future of “their” forest than the citizen residing on a 60th floor townhouse in New York City.

A New Forest Planning Process

Due to virtually non-stop legal challenges to the forest planning process, the U.S. Forest Service is generally using the same planning process as it did in 1982.  No one is particularly pleased with the process—especially industry, the environmental community and the forest communities.  While nearly everyone knows that our nation must balance environmental and economic goals, achieving this balance has proven nearly impossible.

Building Communities has conducted community and economic development strategic planning in northern Arizona, arguably the finest example of a collaborative planning approach that is designed to sustain the health of the national forest.   The collaboration is also designed to give greater certainty of timber harvest needed by industry to establish a business environment conducive for investment and job creation.   Even with this superb example of collaboration, the actual creation of jobs has been challenging.

The answer is to design and implement a broader planning effort that provides public input earlier in the process, as well as respects nearby communities’ frequent need for help in diversifying their economies and enhancing their quality of life.   This is consistent with the “all lands” approach that calls for the Forest Service to take into account the larger landscape.

Enter Building Communities

The Building Communities strategic planning approach has always included all possible strategies that rural communities can employ to diversify their economies.   Included in this approach are strategies relevant to forest lands including:

Not only is the Building Communities process relevant to forest communities, but it is also highly engaging.  By using this process, National Forests can be assured that local communities will find a new, relevant, broad and engaging process that will start the new forest planning effort in a very positive fashion.

This process can be used throughout the entire forest planning effort to help maintain a constructive dialogue that will be very helpful when the more challenging issues of timber harvest, road access and environmental sustainability come to the forefront.


©2017 Building Communities, Inc.