Ponderosa Pine Forest Partnership

Posted: Apr 1, 2005
Written by: 
Jane Braxton Little

San Juan National Forest, Montezuma County, Colorado

Objective: To work with the U.S. Forest Service to improve the health of the ponderosa pine forest and support the private timber industry, a key component of the local economy.

Participants: Montezuma County, San Juan National Forest, Colorado State Forest Service, Colorado State University, Fort Lewis College, Colorado Timber Industry Association, San Juan Citizens Alliance.

History: Montezuma County had a strong timber industry until the late 1980s, when the federal land managers that control 70 percent of the county began slashing the volume of timber they made available for public sale. One by one, the county's 20 sawmills began to close. Instead of joining "wise use" and "county supremacy" movements, in 1992 the county commissioners created a federal lands office to work with the Forest Service, timber industry, scientists and local citizens. They wanted to avoid the polarization other Western communities were facing and create something constructive for people and the landscapes that sustain them.

That was the beginning of new relationships, which in 1993 resulted in the formation of the Ponderosa Pine Forest Partnership. Before the partners attempted to accomplish anything on the ground, they spent time getting to know one another. Through field trips and meetings, they discovered many common values that helped them address ecosystem health from a community perspective. The goals they established included:
  • Demonstrate that a healthy ecosystem and healthy economy are compatible.
  • Reduce hazards of insect and disease infestation and catastrophic fire.
  • Restore the ponderosa pine forest by allowing old-growth pines to re-emerge, with grasses and forbs benefiting from opening the canopy and wildlife from a diversity of habitat.
  • Create a sustainable commercial approach to thinning second-growth pine.
  • Assist industry in transitioning to small-diameter timber.
  • Demonstrate a process of coupling scientific analysis with broad public input to inform management.
In 1995, the Partnership launched a pilot project on 500 acres of the San Juan National Forest, offering five timber sales under administrative use regulations. Montezuma County bought the sales for $9,999 and resold them to local loggers. Confronted with the new challenge of marketing small-diameter materials, the loggers lost money. The partners then changed the harvest guidelines on an experimental 100-acre sale, which allowed the loggers to earn a profit.

Those early experiments convinced the Partnership to bring in an ecologist to design thinning projects around forest restoration, and a forest economist to determine a break-even point for loggers. This commitment to both forest health and the local economy won the trust of the environmental and timber communities. Until 2003, none of the Ponderosa Pine Forest Partnership's timber sales had been litigated.

Accomplishments: The Partnership has demonstrated the value of developing strong relationships before taking on ambitious, tangible goals. Once the partners tackled work on the ground, they were armed with a common understanding of their mutual objectives. By including ecologists and economists in planning the initial timber sales, they kept their focus on restoration designed to improve forest health.

Ponderosa Pine Forest Partnership media tour
Photo by Jane Braxton Little
Because the timber sales they have planned are small in scope, the Partnership has avoided widespread scrutiny. The San Juan National Forest is one of the few places in the West to mount and maintain a community-based commercial timber program. This has allowed local operators to develop non-traditional forest products and find markets for them.

The modest scale of the Partnership's program has also fostered adaptive management, which has improved the design and execution of each subsequent project. The partners have developed a monitoring model based on science but accessible to the citizens who do much of the work. They have kept their commitment to monitor all ponderosa pine sales, and they have no plans to stop.

Challenges/constraints: Repeated shifts in federal policy have forced Forest Service officials to deal with a constant barrage of issues that take their time and attention away from restoring the ponderosa pine forest and the related timber sale program. The Partnership views these bureaucratic mandates as frustrating distractions that empty the forest products pipeline and throw the local economy into disarray.

The partners had pinned their hopes for timber operators on the Missionary Ridge Salvage Sale, planned for around 1,500 acres that burned in a 2002 wildland fire. It would have kept two mills operating for at least a year, supporting 200 local jobs. After losing its appeal of the salvage sale, Colorado Wild went to court, where a federal judge in Denver ruled in favor of the environmental group. Despite these disappointments, the Partnership itself continues to function smoothly. Its meetings, once monthly, are now only held occasionally.

For more information see:

Univ. of Michigan Ponderosa Pine Partnership Profile

Fort Lewis College-Ponderosa Pine Forest Partnership Case Study

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