Logging in national forests might take on a radically different look in coming years.
The forest service might be moving away from the old-school timber sale, where stands of trees were auctioned to the highest bidder and then left to the loggers to harvest. Instead, the forest service is looking to private foresters or organizations to be long-range partners — not merely extracting timber but also managing the forest for its overall health.
Called stewardship contracts, the forest service has been testing this new way of doing business with a handful of pilot projects in recent years.
“Basically we were allowed to go out and try different things to see what works and what doesn’t,” said Dale Remington, sales forester for the National Forests in North Carolina.
The new approach means the forest service can award bids based on the “best contract” rather than the most money, Remington said. The contract could go to a timber company, but could likewise be awarded to an environmental group or hunting club.
Under stewardship contracts, the Forest Service could lay out the goals and objectives and let the contractor tell them how they planned to achieve those goals, he said. And unlike the traditional timber sale, those goals could even include wildlife diversity and protecting old growth stands.
Stewardship contracts differ greatly from the old timber sale bids.
“There are many differences,” Remington said. “To begin with it’s a collaborative effort from the start.”
He said the Forest Service tries to get its partners, the public, interested non-profits, prospective contractors and other interested parties involved from the outset shaping the goals and defining the concerns for forest tracts.
“In my 30-year career, I’ve seen the service at odds with any number of groups and now we’re talking with them,” said Remington. “We won’t agree on everything, but we try and come up with a plan that everyone can live with.”
Ben Prater, associate executive director of Wild South, said his organization has been involved in some of the pilot programs and believes stewardship contracting is the wave of the future.
“It’s a new way of doing business and if done right, it’s a great tool,” Prater said.
Prater believes that the openness and upfront collaboration incorporated by the stewardship model may help ease the litigious relationship many environmental groups had with the Forest Service. “Under the old timber-driven contracts, the NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] process was basically the only way the public could have any input — and that usually meant lawsuits,” he said.
“It’s a different business, it’s a different time and everybody has to adapt. I like the stewardship contract because it allows us to step back and look at the bigger picture,” he said.
Stewardship contracts can also be spread over a larger area than conventional timber sales. Most conventional timber sales are confined to only the specific area the logging will be done. Most of them impact around 150 to 250 acres. Under stewardship contracts, the Forest Service designates the stewardship area and it can range from a simple stream corridor to an entire basin encompassing 2,000 or more acres.
Contractors may be asked, as part of the contract, to create wildlife openings, to treat exotic invasives or to reduce forest fire hazards, for example.
Putting the plan on the ground
Stewardship contracts not only have fans among environmental groups, but also hunting advocacy organizations.
Dave Wilson, director of stewardship with the National Wild Turkey Federation, believes stewardship contracts provide a holistic approach to managing forests — one that could be good for game species like turkeys.
The NWTF was one of the earliest groups to be awarded stewardship agreements with the Forest Service. It has worked on projects across the country, including North Carolina. It is currently working on the Mulberry/Globe stewardship project in the Grandfather District.
Wilson said he believes stewardship contracts offer a better understanding of “outcomes value.”
“It allows us or whoever the contractor is to utilize the value of the timber sold to do much needed restoration work,” said Wilson.
Putting the plan on the ground puts local companies to work. And the fact that stewardship contracts can have a 10-year lifespan means they can keep people working for a while. It might require a new mindset and some new skill sets, but Wilson said most timber companies don’t mind the learning curve.
“We have timber contractors willing to stay after they’ve cut the marketable timber and create wildlife openings or do other types of restoration work,” said Wilson. “The bottom line for us is that increasing and improving habitat improves the forests, and thus improves the habitat for wild turkeys as well as other wildlife.”
Spreading the word
Stewardship contracts first became an option for the forest service in 1999, thanks to some fine print tucked into the Congressional budget bill that year. Congress gave the forest service authority “to enter into stewardship projects … to perform services to achieve land management goals for the National Forests or public lands that meet local and rural community needs.”
North Carolina has seen a couple of pilot stewardship contracts since then. Remington said the projects were well received, and as a result the Forest Service was given the authority to continue using stewardship contracts to manage National Forests through 2013.
“And I believe it will be extended beyond that deadline because it’s been so successful,” Remington said.
The Smoky Mountain News will go to print before the Pisgah Chapter of the Society of American Foresters meets on Tuesday night (Jan. 18), but Dale Remington will be talking to the chapter about stewardship contracting and the opportunities for regional natural resource professionals and organizations.
Rob Lamb, chair of the Pisgah Chapter and executive director of Forest Stewards, a nonprofit connected with Western Carolina University to promote and implement forest stewardship in the Appalachians, said he would be wearing both of his hats to the meeting Tuesday. Lamb said it would be interesting to find out what kind of roles registered foresters might play in stewardship plans and what kinds of roles might be available to Forest Stewards.
“I’m especially pleased to see the bigger landscape approach and learn about all the new opportunities that could result from stewardship contracting,” Lamb said.