Photo Credit: Partners gather in the field to look at watershed treatments in northern New Mexico. Photo by Esmé Cadiente, Forest Stewards Guild
I encourage everyone to be naive and optimistic; hey, it worked for me. It all started back in 2005 with a 3.5 million-acre collaborative landscape assessment in north-central New Mexico. We had stakeholders from across the spectrum, a veritable army of geographic information system (GIS) analysts at the ready, and amazing continuous fire modeling tools at our fingertips. Scenarios were run and re-run, and eventually we prioritized 10 percent of the landscape for treatment to reduce the negative impacts of high severity fire.
The Forest Stewards Guild (the Guild) took those high priority pixels and worked with partners to find out where those areas matched up with projects that had current National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) compliance. Then, through a grant from New Mexico’s Collaborative Forest Restoration Program (CFRP), we cut and piled forest fuels throughout hundreds of acres, across three jurisdictions (Bureau of Land Management — or BLM — property, National Forests, and traditional Land Grant lands).
At the end of the implementation, in late 2010, the partners came back together and asked, “What’s next?” Land managers said that they were short on NEPA shelf-stock.
Being naive and optimistic, I jumped up and said, “Let’s submit a grant proposal to complete NEPA planning across four jurisdictions on 10,000 acres!” No one counseled the group against this, so we wrote a proposal and were awarded a three-year grant to start the work in 2011.
To get the project started, we met with all of the jurisdictions, partners and NEPA contractors. We did the right things, like developing a prioritization model that focused on wildfire risks in communities, ground-truthing the model, convening public meetings, and engaging archaeologists and biologists to collect data and write reports.
We were aiming for one environmental assessment with four decisions, one for each jurisdiction (our project area included land managed by the BLM, a Native American tribe, the US Forest Service — or USFS — and the state). But things were getting delayed. There was staff turnover and new staff had different expectations about the technical reports’ content and format. There was a newly listed species that needed its own surveys. When an archaeologist left and the agency was unable to fill the position quickly, I had to dust off my undergraduate degree in archaeology and inspect field surveys. Things were not going as planned. After a grant extension, the second deadline loomed. We had 10,000 acres of cultural surveys, many completed technical reports, yet only one jurisdiction had a signed decision, and it was only for seven percent of our 10,000-acre goal.
The grant ended in 2014 with a whimper, and I was left feeling like I failed the communities that we had aimed to serve. The Guild got to work on thinning and burning that seven percent, but we knew it was incomplete. To really make communities safer, we needed to treat more acres.
Then I started getting emails and calls from USFS and BLM staff asking for maps, GIS data, and specialist reports. Turns out that the partners were following up on what the CFRP started and were plugging away as they could. Now, the USFS is about six months away from a NEPA decision, and the BLM is wrapping their piece of the project into a larger landscape decision.
Now it looks like over 80 percent of the original target acres will have a NEPA decision in less than a year. In talking with partners, I’m hearing things like, “thanks for getting us started in this landscape, it’s really important to us.” I’m also getting important questions like, “What would you do differently?” and “How can we avoid this sort of delay in the future?”
When I respond to those questions, I come back to the delays. Expect staff turnover. Spend time early on hammering out the details of the technical reports with the agency specialists so that when you deliver a report two years later to a different person, it’s accepted. While it was nice to dust off my archaeology résumé and help out with surveys, I can see a different approach in hindsight. Looking back, that should have been a clue that I needed to secure additional funding so that the Guild and our partners could continue the work after the CFRP deadline passed.
So there you have it. Be bold, think big, push the envelope, but also know that big, bold ideas may require more time than you anticipate.
Editor’s note: This post is part of FAC Net’s Fantastic Failures blog series. Learn more about the series and how to participate.
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