Communities and private landowners across the country are embracing the U.S. Forest Service’s Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program (Community Forest Program), a program designed to manage private property for public access and the good of the community.
The Community Forest Program complements conservation districts’ efforts to conserve and promote healthy environments, whether it is soils, water, forests or wildlife, and develop locally-driven solutions to natural resource concerns.
The program was created in the 2008 Farm Bill and implemented in 2012 to establish community-owned and managed forest land nationwide that provide public benefits. Program funding depends on Congress. In 2015-17, Congress appropriated $2 million annually. Last year, the funding increased to $4 million.
A community forest must be at least 75 percent forested, acquired by an eligible entity willing to provide public access, and managed according to a community forest plan to provide community benefits. These benefits may be ecological, recreational, educational and/or economic.
“Once they acquire and establish that community forest, it’s all up to them,” Forest Service Landowner Assistance Program Manager Brad Siemens said. “The main program requirement is to maintain the acquired land base as a community forest, but the concept really is to empower local communities to decide what benefits they want this forest to provide, and how to manage it accordingly. Management may be similar to industrial timberland, it could be similar to national forest lands, or it could be similar to a local system of trails. It’s up to the community.”
Local conservation districts are able to join with the private landowners to assist in the Community Forest Program (CFP) in a number of ways, including technical assistance, a position on the board, or regular contact concerning land management practices. Regardless of the level of involvement, the management direction and the function of the community forest is up to those who own it.
“The ideal is the community forest governing board is large enough to have both sides of the issue at the table to work through that and find common ground,” Siemens said. “It’s designed for communities to enjoy the community forest as both an embodiment of their culture and an extension of their shared values.”
Since 2012, the program has conserved 12,375 acres through fee-simple purchases and supported 51 community-driven projects across 21 states and territories.
What is a community forest?
For the purposes of the program, a community forest is defined as forest land that is at least five acres in size, at least 75 percent forested, and can provide community benefits, including any of the following:
- Economic benefits such as timber and non-timber products resulting from sustainable forest management and tourism
- Environmental benefits, including clean air and water, storm water management and wildlife habitat
- Benefits from forest-based educational programs, including vocational education programs in forestry
- Benefits from serving as replicable models of effective forest stewardship for private landowners
- Recreational benefits, such as hiking, hunting and fishing
Things to know:
- Full fee title acquisition is required. Conservation easements are not eligible.
- Community forests can be owned by local governments, tribal governments and qualified nonprofit entities
- The program pays up to 50 percent of the project costs and requires a 50 percent non-federal match
- Public access is required for Community Forest Program projects
- Lands acquired through the program are actively managed in accordance with a community forest plan to provide community benefits
- The Forest Service periodically publishes a call for applications; projects are evaluated for the type and extent of community benefits, contribution to landscape conservation initiatives, extent of community engagement, and the likelihood of conversion.
Community Forest Program project examples
The Community Forest Program was created to protect important forest land from conversion and provide community benefits by establishing community owned and managed forests. Here are a few Community Forest Program project examples:
Nisqually Community Forest, Washington
The result of broad community support, the 655-acre Nisqually Community Forest in Washington permanently conserves riparian and upland forests that provide healthy salmon runs, clean water, wildlife habitat and expanded recreation opportunities. Now owned by the Nisqually Land Trust, the project supports the recovery of the Nisqually steelhead trout and Chinook salmon, which depend on a healthy watershed, and provides permanent public access to a key section of a popular cross-country ski trail. Sustainable timber harvests on the property will support local logging, trucking, milling and manufacturing jobs. Thurston County Conservation District assisted in the planning phase of this project.
Hall Mountain Community Forest, North Carolina
The Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians secured a culturally and historically significant 108-acre tract called Hall Mountain; the mountain rises above a sharp bend in the Little Tennessee River in Macon County, N.C. The Hall Mountain Community Forest contains a scenic hiking trail system that exhibits traditional uses of natural resources while white-oak regeneration on the property will allow local artisans to obtain the resources needed to make their crafts. The Cherokee actively manage the forest through traditional forest management practices.
Milan Community Forest, New Hampshire
The 1,342-acre Milan Community Forest creates a block of permanently conserved forest land in New Hampshire. Residents in this small, rural town maintain strong ties to the land through their work in the logging, farming or outdoor recreation industries. Owned and managed by the Town of Milan, the Milan Community Forest will continue to provide economic and social benefits through timber income, outdoor education for children and public access for hunting and fishing.
Mt. Adams Community Forest, Washington
The Mt. Adams Resource Stewards (MARS) led a community-based effort to conserve 278-acres of productive forestland in Klickitat, Yakima and Skamania Counties in Washington state. The Mt. Adams Community Forest provides jobs associated with local mills, guarantees access for traditional uses such as fishing and hunting, and also preserves the rural character of the area, which is cherished by local residents and visitors. Local conservation districts were involved in this project on a variety of levels.
Alvord Lake Community Forest, Montana
With the acquisition of the last private holding along scenic Alvord Lake, the 142-acre Alvord Lake Community Forest in Montana expands and secures public access to this popular lake and its forested shoreline. Adjacent to the Kootenai National Forest, this community forest also preserves wildlife habitat and habitat connectivity for grizzly bear, wolves, mountain lions, Merriman’s turkey and bobcats. The forest is now owned and actively managed by the Vital Ground Foundation.
Albert Family Community Forest, New York
The Albert Family Community Forest, now owned by the Rensselaer Plateau Alliance, conserves 353 acres of working community forest land on New York’s Rensselaer Plateau. As the Plateau area continues to develop, this community forest conserves a mosaic of high-quality natural communities and the public values they provide, such as clean water, storm water management and flood resiliency and wildlife habitat. The community forest will act as part of a broader initiative to increase recreational tourism, bringing economic development opportunities to the local community.
Midcoast Conservancy’s Hidden Valley Nature Center, Maine
In Maine, the Midcoast Conservancy’s Hidden Valley Nature Center permanently conserves ponds, vernal pools, a kettle hole bog, campsites and a mile of shore frontage on Little Dyer Pond, all knit together by more than 25 miles of trails. The 942-acre Nature Center also serves as a hub for nature-based education and demonstrations about low-impact and sustainable forestry.
Tags: Forestry Notes