Partners gather in the field to look at watershed treatments in northern New Mexico. Credit: Esmé Cadiente, Forest Stewards Guild

Fantastic Failure! Multi-Jurisdictional NEPA: Big Dreams Take Time

By: Eytan Krasilovsky, Forest Stewards Guild

Topic: Collaboration Fuels treatment / Prescribed fire

Type: Fantastic Failure

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.

Map of the 3.5 million acre project area, displaying priority treatment areas

Our prioritization of the 3.5 million-acre area. Credit: Forest ERA

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.

Woody debris piles in a recently burned forest, one of the many on the ground projects that are part of this multi-jurisdictional NEPA

Though it took time, thinning treatments are occurring, and in fact, this treated area will soon be burned during a Prescribed Fire Training Exchange. Credit: Forest Stewards Guild

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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11 thoughts on “Fantastic Failure! Multi-Jurisdictional NEPA: Big Dreams Take Time”

  1. Mary Huffman says:

    Thanks for this wonderful, inspiring story. I love it because it so plainly reflects reality and the courage it takes to persevere to success. Our partners that do NEPA are working in a challenging environment. I recently learned from the US Forest Research Director that 40 percent of the agency’s staff is working in acting roles. Wow.

  2. Eytan Krasilovsky says:

    Thanks Mary! Wow, 40% in acting roles sure sounds challenging.

  3. Emily Troisi says:

    Thank you for sharing this story, Eytan!

  4. Annie Schmidt says:

    Love this! Thanks Eytan!!!

  5. Marie Rodriguez, New Mexico says:

    Eytan, there is so much to learn from your experience. The reality you describe is the reality that is pervasive everywhere, all the time. If we move forward and do the best we can with what we have, we may not achieve everything we set out to, but we will definitely make progress! Thanks for sharing your story!

  6. Jana Carp says:

    Part of what I enjoy so much about this story is your experience of not knowing that partners are moving the collective vision forward, then the pleasure of recognizing that the buy-in from the beginning was real. Great groundwork!

  7. Rebecca Samulski says:

    I am curious what repercussions you may have faced on further grant opportunities with the funder or how you have overcome that. Is the fear of failure on a grant overblown or did you have to do a lot of re-framing after the fact and sharing of lessons learned to keep the funding partner buying-in? I also dream of dusting off the Archaeology hat and supporting when the agency personnel don’t exist for this, but I’m curious how you managed to legitimize that work to the agencies as a non-profit partner. This sounds like a good conversation starter for the next time our paths cross.

  8. I agree Marie. We may not get to the scale and effect we are shooting for, but we have to push and try new approaches. Jana, I agree. I was so excited to know that progress was continuing! Becca, I’m happy to dive into the nitty-gritty next time we meet and catch-up. Thanks everyone for your comments and thoughts.

  9. Hot off the press! A recent decision (10/20/17) by the USFS now has 67% of the original 10K acre landscape under decision. Now for the hard work of implementation.

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