Magazine article American Forests

The Woods: Reclaiming the Neighborhood

Magazine article American Forests

The Woods: Reclaiming the Neighborhood

Article excerpt

Some call it a mutiny of upstarts, others a dangerous dogma to challenge business as usual. For those involved - environmentalists and loggers, store owners and elected officials, housewives, students, and bureaucrats - this grass-roots movement is a birthright. They are reclaiming their communities and redefining their relationships: with each other and with the trees, the streams, and the land in their own backyards.

They call it community-based forestry, a bold, sometimes desperate bootstrap operation to save neighborhoods and the woods around them. From towns as small as Applegate, Oregon, to cities as big as Baltimore, Maryland, community leaders are united by the belief that if they take care of the forest, the forest will take care of them.

If they succeed, these pioneers could recreate an interdependence between land and people to last through time. Families could count on forests for jobs harvesting big and small trees, repairing eroded stream banks, and picking mushrooms, herbs, and other woodland fruits. In return, the forest ecosystems could depend on communities to tend their timber stands, heal their overused meadows, and restore their natural fire patterns.

If the new movement fails, it's back to gridlock or, almost worse, the grinding cycle of boom and bust, which has been sucking the lifeblood out of both forests and forest communities for decades.

"Will it turn out happily ever after? I don't know," says Lynn Jungwirth, director of the Watershed Research and Training Center in Hayfork, California. "Is it pie in the sky? Probably. But if we don't get off our butts and try to do something, nothing happens. That's not OK on my watch."

People like Jungwirth, chairwoman of the Seventh American Forest Congress Communities Committee, are launching new companies to market wood chips, small-dimension lumber, manzanita, mullein, and other nontraditional forest products. They are training a new labor force to do the work and designing new equipment more sensitive to ecosystems than conventional woods machines.

In northern New Mexico, Forest Trust Lumber is linking businesses producing specialty woods and standard dimension lumber with urban markets. The most visible result is a $5 million renovation of La Fonda, Santa Fe's oldest hotel, using lumber exclusively from forests certified for management practices that protect forest ecosystems.

In the northern Sierra Nevada of California, community foresters are testing the specialty market for fine-grained lumber cut from trees logged in crowded stands that suppressed their growth. The project is experimenting with equipment that can turn small-diameter logs into two-by-fours, four-by-fours, or chips.

These and hundreds of similar projects all have been developed by local people seeking to provide jobs while preserving the long-term health of the forest. They worked closely with their neighbors, often overcoming years of hostilities to cultivate trust based on a shared commitment to their communities.

"We've passed beyond rock throwing and yelling. Everybody realized that nobody was winning and the big loser was the environment," says Carol Daly, president of the Flathead Economic Policy Center in Kalispell, Montana.

Lessons from abroad

The inspiration for community-based forestry came from far-away forests and unfamiliar neighborhoods. In India, Africa, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere, natural resources were being depleted at rates even more alarming than in the United States. Because those societies depended almost exclusively on forests for their livelihoods, the methods they developed to renew the health of their natural ecosystems were survival tools.

The irony of Americans, "the wisest people in resource management," learning so valuable a lesson from dirt-poor developing countries is humbling, says Henry Carey, director of the Forest Trust in Santa Fe. "They were simply way ahead of us. …

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