Last month, the Idaho Conservation League helped host a forest restoration conference  that brought together forest collaboratives from across the state. Participants included conservationists, foresters, timber company representatives, county commissioners and U.S. Forest Service staff. ICL is a founding member of the Idaho Forest Restoration Partnership, an umbrella group created to support collaboratives. This was  the IFRP’s the seventh  conference. The goal was to discuss the evolving  world of forest restoration collaboratives, consider  the challenges of decreasing Forest Service budgets, and celebrate restoration successes.

Forest collaboratives have grown out of  a shared sense of frustration with the status quo on our national forests. Decades of fire suppression, over-harvesting of large trees, and road construction in sensitive watersheds have  led to poor forest and watershed conditions. The Forest Service, whipsawed from litigation by  both conservationists  and the logging industry, grew increasingly tentative about either timber harvests or restoration projects. As a result, timber companies couldn’t even get a small timber sale in the roaded front country and conservationists couldn’t get commonsense watershed improvements done.

As collaboratives have discovered, conservationists  aren’t necessarily opposed to timber harvests that target small and medium-sized trees in overgrown stands in the roaded front country. And timber companies aren’t automatically opposed to watershed restoration projects such as relocating roads from stream bottoms to ridge tops.

Forest collaborative projects focus on the "zone of agreement" where parties can agree to both ecological and economic goals. In addition, collaboratives include recreationists, private property owners, and county representatives to improve the status quo substantively for multiple interests. While no project is perfect, collaboratives  are designed from the beginning to avoid "deal killers" and include priorities for each party.

In addition to the Idaho Forest Restoration Partnership, ICL is involved with 8 different forest collaborative groups in Idaho, each with multiple projects.  Groups have seen successes on smaller-scale restoration projects and are working to increase the pace and scale of  landscape-level projects. For example, the Payette Forest Coalition  helped craft the Lost Creek Boulder Creek Project  on the Payette National Forest. The 80,000-acre project includes 140 miles of road decommissioning, as well as a steady and sustainable supply of timber from the roaded front country for local mills. Timber companies are using  the "restoration economy"  to put their employees to work relocating roads and restoring watersheds.

This new investment in collaboratives doesn’t mean we have stopped scrutinizing projects. ICL will still challenge a  Forest Service project if we think the agency violated the law, but by through  the collaborative process, we can help craft projects from the start so that restoration is a core component, not just an afterthought.

If you are interested in attending a collaborative field trip or joining a collaborative in your area, you can find out more.  Collaboratives are always looking for new members and you don’t have to have a degree in forestry, economics or conservation biology. You just have to be able to be a good listener, a good advocate for your interest, and have  an eye for finding common ground.