CRM Journal

Book Review

Forest Communities, Community Forests

Edited by Jonathan Kusel and Elisa Adler. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003; 192 pp., notes, references, index; cloth $60.00; paper $21.95.


Forest Communities, Community Forests cover

Editors Jonathan Kusel and Elisa Adler offer 12 case studies that validate an important trend in American forestry: community-based public involvement in the planning, use, and management of forest ecosystems. The citizen groups, public-private partnerships, and nongovernmental organizations presented in these essays provide convincing evidence that an inclusive, collaborative approach offers hope for neglected or mismanaged forests, or for people who are locked in conflict over forest use. This optimism is the book's greatest strength and its most important contribution. Those who are engaged in such struggles, or who are hesitant to participate, are the readers who will benefit most.

To their credit, the editors and contributors are careful to identify places where the goals of these organizations remain unrealized. Most of the essays underscore the critical balance between healthy communities and healthy forests, and reveal the futility of emphasizing one at the expense of the other. Sam Burns, who writes about New Mexico's Catron County Citizens Group, states it well: "one cannot heal the land while destroying a community." For all these reasons, the book is to be commended.

Initially, the book's title requires explanation to better guide prospective readers. Seeds of the book were sown at the Seventh American Forest Congress, which convened in Washington, DC, in 1996. The congress established a Communities Committee to consider, among other things, links between forests and the vitality of rural and urban communities. The essays gathered by the committee examine many different types of forests across the country. Among those represented are New York City's Catskill and Delaware watersheds spreading across 35 communities in upstate New York, the Hoopa Reservation in northwestern California, Aitken County in northern Minnesota, the Upper Swan Valley in Montana, and the Willapa Hills of southwestern Washington State.

Town forests or municipal forests, terms that describe woodlands owned and managed by local governments, are omitted in this volume. Such forests multiplied in number during the first decades of the 20th century, principally in New England and a few other northeastern states. The U.S. Forest Service briefly participated in the town forest movement, offering its own definition of community forests in 1939 and expanding the term to include land owned by county governments or community organizations such as churches and schools. A separate U.S. Forest Service program, Urban and Community Forestry, emerged several decades later, and Ann Moote's essay, "Revitalizing Baltimore: Urban Forestry at the Watershed Scale," begins to explore some of these realms.

Not surprisingly, the communities of forest users—or forest communities—are quite different. In New Mexico, for example, Catron County encompasses 7,800 square miles but has a population of only 3,000 people. Sixty-five percent of the land is owned and managed by the Federal Government, including the Gila National Forest (3.3 million acres), and within it the Gila Wilderness. Loggers, ranchers, environmentalists, U.S. Forest Service rangers, and wildlife are the principal forest users, but economic, political, and social conflicts have forced ordinary citizens to become participants as well.

By contrast, the Beaver Brook Association, a small nonprofit conservation organization, holds 2,200 acres of the Merrimack River watershed in southern New Hampshire. The land is a forest reserve amid suburban sprawl, and the woodland is managed as open space for recreational activities and wildlife habitat. Selective logging pays management costs.

Although distances among the many different forests and forest users are enormous, the authors tie them neatly together with a common thread: the inventive and energetic makeup of the various organizations. The book is worth reading for this reason alone. Selecting a single example is probably unfair, but events in Minnesota illustrate the type of collaboration possible among government, nonprofit, and private sectors. There, the Aitken County Land Department obtained sustainable forest certification from Smartwood, a Vermont-based program of the international nonprofit Rainforest Alliance. Eric Bloomquist's Colonial Craft, a progressive wood products manufacturer, aided the county's goals by agreeing to purchase only certified timber.

Despite the book's many strengths, several weaknesses are apparent. Implicit throughout the case studies is the inability of existing government programs alone to solve complex problems involving forest ecosystems. This can often be true, especially where conflicts between jobs and resources become acute. Other government programs should explore ways to help community models grow and flourish.

Many New England municipal governments already offer similar models in the form of town forest committees or conservation commissions. Membership in these groups reflects diverse points of view, and committees provide a permanent structure that can survive the inevitable decline in energy among members, or their changing perspectives. As some contributors observe, maintaining the momentum of community-based organizations is crucial and sometimes difficult.

Jonathan Kusel states the case much too narrowly when he concludes that community-based involvement in natural resource management is a relatively new phenomenon. In truth, many parts of New England have been active in this area for most of the 20th century. In Calais, Vermont, for example, proceeds from timber harvesting on the Gospel Hollow Town Forest are given to the local conservation commission. In Groton, Massachusetts, the town forest committee has successfully managed periodic timber sales since 1926. Many of these town forests are simply progeny of much older 19th century public woodlands managed by local governments. Models such as these continue to offer valuable lessons and should not be overlooked.

Finally, the potential for community involvement in forest management can be strengthened by a multi-disciplinary approach that recognizes forests as both cultural and natural resources. A few of the articles, notably the one devoted to the forests of the Hoopa people in northern California, emphasize strong cultural ties. However, readers seeking forest history and a sense of place may be left wanting more. This is not so much a criticism of this book as it is a plea for writers in both fields to be cognizant of the other and to search for ways to expand community involvement.

Robert L. McCullough
University of Vermont