The Carson National Forest, located in Northern New Mexico, sits on a 1.2 million acre-area comprised of mountains, valleys, and high grasslands. In the late 1700s, Spanish Land Grants provided ample acreage to early settlers. This site was historically owned by Hispanic, Anglo, and American Indian communities, which still depend on it for wood, materials, livestock and water for crops.
Even today, most families still heat and cook with wood fuel. Changing ownership many times, the Carson Forest is now part of the National Forest System of the U.S. Forest Service. The growth of the timber industry in this region and its resulting environmental pressures have led to deep fractions between the government and local citizenry. Divisions have arisen among the various stakeholders that rely on or benefit from the forest. The Collaborative Stewardship Program, conceived and run by the Camino Real Ranger District (CRRD), seeks to bridge these differences through extensive collaboration and a breakdown of larger processes into smaller, locally beneficial ones. To date, it has proven to be an effective grassroots forestry program.
Until several years ago, the CRRD, a Forest Service field office, was involved in large timber sales of forest products to major companies. While planning for these large sales, it was also able to provide a sustained flow of fuelwood and building materials to local communities. However, large timber sale analyses were taking years to complete, and were tied up for several years in litigation and appeals. Moreover, opposition led to a District Court injunction stopping all timber sales. In response, the CRRD decided to change its traditional practice and work collaboratively with the public. It sought a new approach by conducting a house-to-house survey to identify local interests and concerns. It brought together various stakeholders and interest groups (residents, environmental groups, timber industry) to address their concerns in a productive manner. Most importantly, the CRRD went from selling large trees to big companies to selling small trees to local businesses and residents. This led to job creation and income generation for the local economy. By relying on small projects, the District has not only ensured the sustenance of native communities but also of the forest itself. Numerous small projects are improving the ecosystem and serving local families.
The Collaborative Stewardship project has led to a dramatic change in the relationship between the U.S. government and local citizens. The CRRD has been transformed from a bureaucratic organization issuing policy directives to a responsive, customer-focused facilitator of local change. Its employees have discovered the real needs of their constituents and made substantial efforts to address them. By involving many stakeholders, the project has sought viable, longer lasting solutions. Though many of its projects are relatively small and specialized, each is sustainable and environmentally friendly. Top managers of the USFS are keen on adapting this program in other jurisdictions including the entire American Southwest region. The central tenets of the project have applicability in almost all federal and state land use agencies and well beyond. Successful adoption, however, depends on the ability of these agencies to share power, actively involve the public and ensure priority of local needs.