Prescribed burns could be a part of stewardship contracts

Tucked away in the fine print of the Fiscal Year 1999 Omnibus Appropriations Act was section 323 of Public Law 108-7. This section granted authority to the USDA Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, “to enter into stewardship projects with private persons or public or private entities, by contract or by agreement, to perform services to achieve land management goals for the National Forests or public lands that meet local and rural community needs.”

Learning curve

According to Dale Remington, sales forester for the National Forests in North Carolina, stewardship contracts were restricted to pilot projects in the beginning. “Basically we were allowed to go out and try different things to see what works and what doesn’t,” Remington said. He said there were a couple of projects in North Carolina plus scores of projects across the country. Remington said the projects were well received by all parties and that the Forest Service was given the authority to continue using stewardship contracts to manage National Forests through 2013. “And I believe it [stewardship contracting] will be extended beyond that deadline,” Remington said, “because it’s been so successful.”

Stewardship contracts differ greatly from the old timber sale bids. “There are many differences,” Remington said. “To begin with it’s a collaborative effort from the start.” He said the Forest Service tries to get its partners, the public, interested non-profits, prospective contractors and other interested parties involved early in the scoping process. “In my 30-year career, I’ve seen the Service at odds with any number of groups and now we’re talking with them,” said Remington. “We won’t agree on everything but we try and come up with a plan that everyone can live with.”

Ben Prater, associate executive director of Wild South, said his organization has been involved in some of the pilot programs and believes stewardship contracting is the wave of the future. “It’s a new way of doing business and if done right, it’s a great tool,” Prater said.

Prater and Remington were on the same page regarding the benefits of stewardship contracting too. They both lauded the fact that stewardship contracting allows the revenue generated to stay in the region. In the past, the majority of revenue collected from a timber sale went to the treasury department. But under a stewardship contract that money stays local and can be used for other projects without further appropriation.

Where conventional timber sales are basically revenue generators and usually go to the highest bidder, stewardship contracts are tools used to achieve forest management goals. According to Remington that means he can award bids based on the “best contract” rather than the most money. He said that under stewardship contracts the Forest Service could lay out the goals and objectives and let the contractor tell them how they planned to achieve those goals.

Stewardship contracts can also be spread over a larger area than conventional timber sales. Most conventional timber sales are confined to only the specific area the commercial timber is going to come from. Most of them only impact around 150 to 250 acres. Under stewardship contracts, the Forest Service designates the stewardship area and it can range from a simple stream corridor to an entire basin and encompass as many as 2,000 or more acres. Contractors may be asked, as part of the contract, to create wildlife openings, to treat exotic invasives, to implement timber stand improvements, to reduce fuel load and/or perform other silviculture treatment designed to enhance the overall forest health.

Prater believes that the openness and up front collaboration incorporated by the stewardship model may help ease the litigious relationship many environmental groups had with the Forest Service. “Under the old timber-driven contracts, the NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] process was basically the only way the public could have any input – and that usually meant law suits,” he said.

Remington said, “it’s a different business, it’s a different time and everybody has to adapt. I like the stewardship contract because it allows us to step back and look at the bigger picture.”

Putting the plan on the ground

“We don’t care if we’re the primary contractor, the secondary contractor or a consultant,” said Dave Wilson, director of stewardship with the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), “we just want to see the program on the ground.”

The NWTF was one of the earliest groups to partner with the Forest Service in conjunction with stewardship contracting. They have worked on projects across the country, including North Carolina and are currently working on the Mulberry/Globe stewardship project in the Grandfather District.

Wilson said he believes stewardship contracts offer a better understanding of “outcomes value.” He said, “it allows us or whoever the contractor is to utilize the value of the timber sold to do much needed restoration work.”

And putting the plan on the ground puts local companies to work. And the fact that stewardship contracts can have a 10-year lifespan, they can keep people working for a while. It might require a new mindset and some new skill sets but Wilson said most timber companies don’t mind the learning curve. “We have timber contractors willing to stay after they’ve cut the marketable timber and create wildlife openings or do other types of restoration work.

“The bottom line for us is that increasing and improving habitat, improves the forests, thus improves the habitat for wild turkeys as well as other wildlife.”

Spreading the word

Smoky Mountain News will go to print before the Pisgah Chapter of the Society of American Foresters meets on Tuesday night (January 18) but Dale Remington will be talking to the chapter about stewardship contracting and the opportunities for regional natural resource professionals and organizations. Rob Lamb, chair of the Pisgah Chapter and executive director of Forest Stewards, a non-profit connected with Western Carolina University to promote and implement forest stewardship in the Appalachians, said he would be wearing both of his hats to the meeting Tuesday. Lamb said it would be interesting to find out what kind of roles registered foresters might play in stewardship plans and what kinds of roles might be available to Forest Stewards.

“I’m especially pleased to see the bigger landscape approach and learn about all the new opportunities that could result from stewardship contracting,” Lamb said.