In 2013, the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS), Wyoming State Forestry Department and Weston County Natural Resource District joined forces to combat the mountain pine beetle before it destroyed Black Hills Forest.
Now, the partnership is reaching further into privately-owned forest land, providing a variety of forestry management options and opening doors to new funding.
Jennifer Hinkhouse is the Campbell County Conservation District manager and also serves as the Southwest Region Representative for the NACD Forestry Resource Policy Group (RPG). She said “this process made us come together as a group, and now we’ve been able to do so much with forest health and forest management, and it all started with this one problem.”
The group was recently awarded $1.3 million in funding through NRCS’ Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) for private landowner cost assistance for forest health in this specific area.
In 2013, aerial surveys showed the native pine beetle reached epidemic populations affecting more than 430,000 acres of the Black Hills (including portions of the forest in South Dakota) since 1996. With more than 60 percent of the Black Hills Forest privately-owned, conservation professionals knew they had to do something. Local legislators worked to secure emergency funding to address the pine beetle epidemic, while local natural resource professionals work on a plan. A major part of the plan was a need to increase capacity. The conservation district, Wyoming State Forestry Division, NRCS and the NWTF pooled their resources to create a shared forester position, which is held by NWTF and stationed in the local NRCS field office. The position not only helped to increase the capacity to address the growing pine beetle epidemic, but it also “lent itself to better efficiency,” said Austin Sommerville, who has served in the position for two years. “Instead of offering one program that’s set up by a single agency, I can find the program that best suits the landowner’s needs; that helps ensure forestry health, and it increases landowner participation.”
Last year, aerial surveys recorded just 4,700 acres affected by the beetle, and while monitoring continues, Sommerville is on to additional assistance. He is working with landowners on tree thinning, forest management plans and Tree Farm certifications.
It can be a challenge for a forester to convince landowners, particularly new ones, on the need to manage their woodlands by cutting down trees. “A lot of times it’s why they bought the land in the first place, but it’s made it easier when they can see what happens when they don’t,” Sommerville said. “More people are aware of the programs available.”
Sommerville said the Wyoming State Forestry Division has a list of landowners who have contacted the office to meet and review management practices. “We’ve been trying to encourage people to not just plan for this year, but plan 10 years down the road,” Sommerville said. “In some cases, having a management plan is a requirement for enrolling in some of the programs.”
The agencies have specific items for the forester to address. Occasionally, efforts are seasonal, like working with applications for NRCS programs in the spring and targeting conservation district needs more heavily over the summer. But there is overlap that also helps keep everyone on the same page, he said.
This overlap helps with agencies who aren’t necessarily partners. For example, during the mountain pine beetle epidemic, Wyoming and South Dakota natural resource agencies worked together to combat the epidemic from coordinating strategies to working to pool financial and technical resources to perform annual aerial surveys.
The shared position has not only helped to connect landowners with available resources, but has created stronger relationships between agencies as well. “Viewing needs and goals through different perspectives create solid partnerships and extended outreach, which allows for development of new projects and troubleshooting solutions,” Hinkhouse said.
Agencies already are working on funding for the program for additional years; some funds come out of agency budgets, while other funding is tied to grants. Though each partner funds the position through different capacities, they all work together to determine what duties the forester should complete, where and when, all with a focus on sustainable forest health.
“For the conservation districts, it’s important to see that the time and effort you put into making a partnership is going to pay off 100 times what you put into it,” Hinkhouse said. “If you create a solid partnership, it won’t just help you with whatever issue you’re facing today, it will continue to develop into new projects and help you solve new problems in the future.”