A New Way of Doing Business? Collaborating with the U.S. Forest Service

By Kailey Kornhauser for EDRBlog.org

In 2012 the US Forest Service adopted a new Planning Rule. Planning Rules are policy that regulate how the Forest Service conducts management planning processes and monitoring. These plans include components regarding wildlife, recreation, roads, wilderness, conservation, fire, and more. The 2012 Planning Rule introduced a new way of doing business for the agency. Among many changes, the new Planning Rule requires Forests to engage the public at a higher level, and to use collaboration when possible during the plan revision process. This was in part to address the complex nature of landscape level management planning, and to build trust with the public. As the climate begins to change, collaboration becomes a crucial tool for adaption. However, many National Forests have been slow to adopt formal collaboration as a method of forest management planning. One reason being is that there has been a 64% decrease in overall spending on land management in the agency since 2001. This is in part due to the increase in resources being dedicated to fire management. This shift in financial focus for the agency, partnered with trust issues in forest communities, and a need for social acceptability of forest planning, call for collaboration to be used as a tool.

While forest management planning under the 2012 Planning Rule has been slow to adopt collaboration as a tool, other Forest Service programs and partnerships that are not in relation to the Planning Rule have been in existence prior to 2012 and have had a great amount of collaborative success. Programs like the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP) and the Fire Learning Network (FLN) serve as great examples of collaboration between the Forest Service, private landowners, non-government agencies, and members of the public. The obstacles facing the adoption of collaboration at the management planning level of the agencies are not unique to the Forest Service. By examining some of the best practices, and successes of the CFLR Program and FLN, we can learn how to adopt characteristics of the collaborative networks into forest management planning.

The Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program

In 2009 the US Forest Service established the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program in hopes of encouraging landscape level collaborative restoration efforts. This program began providing funding for restoration collaborations in 2010 and has supported 23 programs. Some of the goals of the CFLRP have been to reestablish natural forest fires, to restore watersheds, and to harness the financial gains of restoration byproducts to offset restoration costs. The CFLRP promotes joint-monitoring of restoration projects, meaning that monitoring is conducted by the Forest Service in conjunction with stakeholders like universities and NGOs.

Get notified when new articles are posted to the EDR blog – sign up for our email list »

In 2015, the Forest Service published a 5-year report summarizing the successes and challenges of the CFLRP. They report that the collaborations in the program produced 1,256 million board feet of timber, $661 million in labor, 4,360 new jobs, and $76.1 million in partner matched funds. The Forest Service developed a set of indicators with the National Forest Foundation for evaluating the collaborations. These indicators were: economic impacts, fire risk and cost, ecological conditions, collaboration, and leveraged funds. The Forest Service reported that CFLRP groups worked to decrease risk of fire, decrease damage of watershed, and build community partnerships, all while decreasing costs to the agency.

Successful Practices:

  • Formal program with funding: The CFLR Program was created with a piece of legislation and has a set budget. This means that staff are dedicated to carrying out collaborations, and collaborations have funding and support from the Forest Service. This formalized method of creating funded collaborations has had a side-effect of creating a learning network between the collaborative restoration projects.
  • Partnering with local groups and NGOS: The CFLR Program requires National Forests to partner with local groups in order to conduct restoration projects. In order to receive funding, Forests establish partnerships with public entities and formalize a collaboration. At the national level, the Forest Service has partnered with the National Forest Foundation to provide training and support to CFLR projects which adds a level of expertise outside of the agencies capacity.
  • Project focus: Each collaboration that is funded and supported by the Forest Service is based on a single restoration project. Some of these restoration efforts encompass multiple aspects of social-ecological management, but all are formed with a set of restoration goals that can be accomplished through collaboration.

The Fire Learning Network

The Fire Learning Network (FLN) was established in 2002 as a partnership effort between the Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy with other land management agencies. The Network consists of local, regional, and national collaborations that not only collaborate on their own, but amongst each other sharing resources and lessons learned across geographies. The FLN provided an avenue for the Forest Service to shift out of the old methods of managing fire into a new and more adaptive management process. The fire managers have been resituated in the narrative of disaster as leaders, not roadblocks. Most successfully, the FLN has built a network of fire management collaborations that share a common identity and build community resilience to catastrophic fire.

Successful Practices:

  • 3-tiered approach: The network approach of the FLN is unique. Each fire collaboration is considered to be a “landscape collaboration” while there are regional networks that encompass multiple landscape collaborations in an area, and a national network that encompasses all of the regional networks. This tiered network allows for tools and resources to be shared across landscapes and regions. It also builds a sense of community across these collaborations.
  • Focus on adaption: FLN collaborations are supported in large part by The Nature Conservancy, who has put emphasis on collaborations that produce fire management plans that can adapt. In addition to the FLN they have created the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network to share resources and lessons learned regarding adaptation.
  • Shared risk: Similarly to the CFLR Projects, the FLN brings collaborations together with the goal of creating adaptable fire management plans. The risk of catastrophic fire impacts both the Forest Service, and non-government stakeholders. Because of the high level of risk, stakeholders can recognize their interdependency as a collaboration whose role is to reduce risk related to fire.

The Forest Service is just beginning to use collaboration under 2012 Planning Rule, but there are positive examples of collaboration within the agency. From efforts like the CFLR Program, it is clear that national level funding and project based collaboration has had major success. The FLN has proven that shared risk amongst stakeholders and a 3-tiered network to share lessons learned across regions and the agency provide solid foundation and a sense of collaborative community. Incorporating features of both the CRLF Program and the FLN into land management planning under the 2012 Planning Rule will increase capacity for collaboration and successful outcomes. As the landscapes of the west become increasingly complex, the growing need for land management collaborations both inside the Forest Service and across the field of natural resource management is clear. While the Forest Service is not alone in facing obstacles to collaboration, examples such as the CFLR Program and the FLN can provide models for future collaborative groups and networks.


Kailey Kornhauser is currently a PhD student in Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University where she studies collaborative forest management. Prior to her recent move to Oregon, she earned a Masters of Science in Environmental Humanities from the University of Utah during which she served as a fellow for the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program. She also earned a BA from Westminster College in History. When she isn’t in school or working on a collaboration, Kailey enjoys riding her bike long distances very slowly.