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Community forestry initiatives
for the creation of sustainable rural livelihoods:
a case from North America

C. Danks

Cecilia Danks is Director of Socioeconomic
Research at the Watershed Research and
Training Center, Hayfork, California, United
States. A Switzer Environmental Leadership
Grant helped to fund the writing of the article.
The research was supported in part by funds
provided by the Pacific Southwest Research Station,
Forest Service, United States Department of Agriculture.

In Trinity County, California, United States, community forestry is seeking to provide livelihood opportunities in forest stewardship for poor forest communities that were formerly dependent on timber extraction.

New work opportunities in forest stewardship: these Trinity County
forest workers have built a bridge as part of a campground restoration


Many forest communities in the United States are poor despite the abundance of forest resources that surround them. Indeed, achieving sustainable rural livelihoods and food security can be as much of a challenge in poor forest communities in the United States as in many developing countries.

Community forestry efforts aim to create opportunities for natural resource-based livelihoods by developing local assets (especially human, social and physical capital) and by promoting the institutional changes needed to allow the residents of forest communities to make a living as stewards of the forests.

This article describes a case in Trinity County, California, an area formerly dependent on timber extraction. A community-based organization has partnered with government agencies and other groups to develop the asset base of local forest communities by training workers, creating stewardship work opportunities, developing harvesting and value-added processing technologies and finding and developing markets for forest products that can be sustainably produced by local residents.


Many forest communities in the United States are relatively poor and have little control over the forests that surround them (see, for example, Fortmann and Kusel, 1991; Hoffmann and Fortmann, 1996). Of course, forest communities in the United States are diverse, differing in terms of both socio-economic factors and the natural environment. Some forest communities are shrinking because of declining forest industries, while others are swelling in size with urban refugees seeking a higher quality of life at low prices. In the more remote communities, residents are facing the challenges of developing sustainable livelihoods for working class people who formerly depended on timber extraction.

Residents of forest communities often refer to their areas as "colonies" because outside control and extraction of resources have left local people relatively poor and powerless. Although United States forest communities obtain some benefit from the technology and financial resources of an advanced industrialized country, they nevertheless often share many characteristics with mar-ginalized forest communities around the world (see Danks, 1997):


The role of communities vis-^-vis the State varies widely around the world. In the United States, the formal role of communities in national forest management has been fairly limited.

The Forest Service of the United States Department of Agriculture manages 57 million ha of national forests. The Forest Service manages land to produce commodities, as well as for recreation and other objectives. (The National Park Service, in contrast, manages land primarily for recreation and protection.) Revenue generated from the national forests is returned to the United States Treasury. Of this revenue, 25 percent is given to counties for schools and roads, since no taxes (which would ordinarily pay for these services) are collected on the large area of federally owned land. Local communities have also benefited from employment opportunities associated with forest activities, especially timber harvesting and processing.

In decision-making, community members are considered part of the general public, which is allowed to provide feedback on options presented in planning documents during the public comment period - after many basic choices have already been made. The Forest Service (or other federal land management agencies) provides the expertise and much of the labour involved in forest management. Many community members, however, are employed or contracted by the Forest Service.

The United States Government's main approach to forest communities near national forests has been to offer a steady amount of timber for sale, which was thought to promote community stability (see Dana and Fairfax, 1980). However, as illustrated below by the case of Trinity County, timber alone does not make for sustainable rural livelihoods.

National forests in transition: shocks and opportunities for forest communities

Timber has been harvested heavily in the Pacific Northwest (including northern California), especially in the late 1980s. Clear-cutting, construction of timber roads, fire suppression and conversion of forest land to non-forest uses have altered the forest ecosystems and put a number of animal and plant species at risk.

Americans are increasingly concerned about protecting forests from overexploitation. Conservation of biodiversity is now a high management priority for national forests (see Committee of Scientists, 1999). In response to environmental conditions and societal concerns, the Forest Service is changing its focus from timber production to "ecosystem management", which implies managing for the integrity of ecosystem functions. Thus commodities such as timber and non-wood forest products are no longer seen as the primary purpose of management activities. The shift to ecosystem management has resulted in a dramatic drop in timber harvesting - which has been a strong shock to communities traditionally dependent on timber.

On the other hand, ecosystem management also offers communities new economic opportunities not related to industrial timber production. However, in order for community members to build on their past experience and develop the new capacities needed to work as stewards of the forest ecosystem, investments in human, physical, social and financial capital are required (see Danks, 2000)


Trinity County exemplifies conditions in vulnerable forest communities in the United States. Trinity is a rural county of about 810 000 ha and 13 000 people in northern California. Its rugged mountains are covered with rich, mixed coniferous forests as well as some oak woodlands and grasslands. Weaverville, the county seat, has a population of 3 200. Hayfork, the second largest town, located in the middle of Trinity National Forest, has a population of 2 500. The only local government is the Trinity County Board of Supervisors. There are no incorporated towns, no mayors, no town councils and no traffic lights. Most communities are fairly isolated with large tracts of forest land between them.

More than 70 percent of the land area in Trinity County is controlled by the Federal Government, primarily the United States Forest Service but also the Bureau of Land Management, another federal land management agency. Out-of-county owners hold more than 99 percent of private timber land in Trinity County (Trinity County Assessor, 1996).

Trinity County lies in the Klamath Province, a biodiversity centre of global significance (WWF, 1998). Over the past 150 years, the environment has been somewhat degraded by mining, grazing, logging, roads, fire suppression, dams and catastrophic fire, but the forest resource remains fairly rich.

Seventy percent of the homes in Trinity County are heated with wood; in some communities about 90 percent are wood-heated (Bureau of the Census, 1993) (Figure 1). Hunting and fishing are not only popular forms of recreation, but also supplement the diet of many local residents.


Source: Bureau of the Census (1993).

Trinity County is one of the most forest-dependent areas in the Pacific Northwest. The timber and recreation industries are the core sectors of the economy. More than 30 percent of employment in Trinity County was in the timber industry in the late 1980s (Greber, 1994). Other than local commercial and support services (e.g. stores, schools, government services), almost all of the economic activity, public and private, is directly related to management of the national forest, e.g. logging, lumber mills, recreation, tourism, reforestation, watershed management and fire management. Agriculture and mining currently contribute very little to local income.

Because of their isolation, dependence on national forests, lack of economic diversity and the outside control of natural resources, the communities of Trinity County are vulnerable to economic shocks resulting from changes in forest management priorities. In 1991, after unusually high timber cutting in the late 1980s, a court stopped all federal timber sales in much of the Pacific Northwest, including all of Trinity County, because of a number of environmental concerns.

To address those concerns, the Federal Government developed a new ecosystem management plan for the region, the Northwest Forest Plan, which was initiated in 1994. Prior to that year, timber towns had weathered market fluctuations, such as those that occurred in 1982 when a stagnant housing market drove timber prices down. Under the Northwest Forest Plan, however, timber harvest levels were permanently reduced by 76 percent regionwide, and in Trinity County the federal timber cut dropped 89 percent in six years. A further shock was the 1996 closure of the Hayfork sawmill, formerly the major employer in the community and the largest business in the county. The town immediately lost 150 jobs. A number of stores closed in subsequent months, and the population dropped slightly in 1997 and 1998 as people moved away to look for work.


Source: Mountain Valley Unified School District and
Trinity County Office of Education statistics (1999).

Even before the mill closure, Trinity County had relatively high poverty and unemployment. Between 1980 and 1990, the poverty rate in Trinity County increased by 62 percent - by far the largest increase in poverty of any California county. In 1989, 30 percent of individuals and nearly 50 percent of children in Hayfork lived below the poverty level (defined as the threshold below which incomes are not adequate to provide the least costly nutritionally adequate diet plus basic living expenses, i.e. US$6 310 per annum for a single individual and US$12 674 for a family of four in 1989) (Bureau of the Census, 1992; 1993). Countywide, 19 percent of all residents and 27 percent of children lived below the poverty level in 1989, compared with 13 percent of Californians and 18 percent of California's children (Bureau of the Census, 1992).

Poverty has continued to increase in the 1990s. Participation in programmes that provide free or reduced-price lunches at school for children from low-income families who cannot afford a midday meal has increased since 1989 (Figure 2). Currently more than half of the county's schoolchildren qualify for this programme. In Hayfork, 80 percent of schoolchildren are in school lunch programmes. For many of these children, it is their only nutritious meal of the day.

For more than a decade, the annual unemployment rate in Trinity County has been about twice that of the state of California. Trinity County has not shared in the economic growth experienced by much of the rest of California and the United States in the 1990s. In 1998, the unemployment rate was 13.0 percent in Trinity County, while it was 5.9 percent statewide in California (California Employment Development Department, 1999). Employment is highly seasonal in Trinity County, with the highest unemployment occurring during the winter months (Figure 3). Dependence on the forest for employment related to both timber and recreation contributes to these seasonal fluctuations.

CALIFORNIA, 1983-1998

Source: California Employment Development Department (1999).


The large proportion of the population employed in timber-related industries might seem to suggest that the increase in poverty is directly related to the decline of timber harvested. However, measures of local well-being do not correlate well with timber harvest levels in Trinity County. Poverty, as measured by the number of families on welfare, has generally risen despite fluctuations in timber harvest (Figure 4).


Sources: California State Board of Equalization and California Department
of Social Services statistics.

In the past, manufacturing employment in Trinity County rose and fell with timber harvest levels. Over the past 15 years, however, although 90 percent of manufacturing jobs are still in the timber industry, these jobs have not been related to harvest levels (Figure 5).

Poverty, unemployment and environmental degradation in forest regions may be better explained by a disconnection from forest resources, rather than simply by an overreliance on them. A study of timber sales and field service contracts showed that Trinity County residents receive only about 7 percent of the timber sold and 6 percent of the service work available in Trinity National Forest (Danks and Jungwirth, 1999), and a similar pattern has been found in other forest areas. Large companies from outside forest communities control most of the work in the forest, be it hightechnology mapping or tree planting. Government agencies work more readily with large companies that can move employees and equipment from job to job.

The trend in wood processing parallels that of work in the forest. In the past, sawmills were among the major sources of stable employment in forest communities. Over time, mills in small towns have closed as the consolidation of the timber industry has resulted in fewer but larger mills that are centrally located. Most of the wood cut locally is now processed outside the county.


Sources: California State Board of Equalization and California Department
of Social Services statistics.


Reconnecting forest communities with nearby forests requires changes in how the Forest Service does business as well as the development of local capacities. Community forestry - an institutional arrangement in which local communities have a share in the benefits from nearby forests, a voice in decision-making and an active role in forest management - is seen by many advocates as a way to implement these needed changes.

Hayfork has become the centre of a comprehensive array of efforts to develop sustainable rural livelihoods through community forestry. The Watershed Research and Training Center, a community-based non-governmental organization that was founded in 1993 to help communities make the transition from timber dependence to sustainable alternatives, was instrumental in helping Hayfork build the capacity to adapt to change. Government officials and local managers of the national forest were active partners. Important policies that facilitated the building of community capacity included an increase in emphasis on community involvement (c.f. Committee of Scientists, 1999; Forest Service/Bureau of Land Management, 1994; FEMAT, 1993), funding to help forest communities adapt to declines in harvest levels (e.g. through an Economic Adjustment Initiative to promote community economic revitalization, which accompanied the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan) and the designation of the area around Hayfork as one of ten Adaptive Management Areas created by the Northwest Forest Plan as prototypes for innovative community forest management (Forest Service/Bureau of Land Management, 1994). The Hayfork Adaptive Management Area also became an International Model Forest.

Ecosystem Management Technician Training Program: building human capital

United States Forest Service management plans suggest that, although traditional timber jobs are on the decline, the future holds new work opportunities in ecosystem management. The Watershed Research and Training Center, together with the Forest Service and other partners, set up the Ecosystem Management Technician Training Program in Trinity County in 1995 to retrain dislocated workers for jobs in the emerging field of ecosystem management. The programme integrated on-the-job training with study in accredited college courses. It built on the field experience and local knowledge that many residents already possessed.

Ecosystem management work requires skills in inventory, data collection and use of global positioning units and geographical information systems; techniques for wildlife habitat restoration, erosion control and fire hazard reduction; and an understanding of ecosystem processes and functions. The training programme sought to provide these kinds of skills and knowledge to local workers so that they could compete successfully for new jobs associated with the transition to ecosystem management.

The Watershed Center designed the curricula and brought together the funding and the government partners. The Forest Service provided and partially financed most of the work projects used for training. The Hayfork training programme became a prototype for a number of other ecosystem management technician training programmes in the states of California and Oregon. It trained 20 workers each year from 1995 to 1997. Seventy percent of graduates found work in ecosystem management, although many could only find short-term jobs. Since 1998, the Watershed Center has conducted training in advanced skills and contracting capacity to help improve the job options for newly trained workers.

Stewardship: making the institutional changes needed to restore forests and forest communities

As the ecosystem management focus is changing the type of work done in the forest, local people are interested in having opportunities to work as stewards of the land rather than as resource extractors for the benefit of corporations. There is widespread support for some form of local stewardship, not only because it would increase benefits to local communities, but also because it should result in better management and healthier forests by drawing on local knowledge of specific sites, greater opportunities for cost effectiveness and closer links between the workers and the desired outcomes.

The Ecosystem Management
Technician Training Program
helped residents adapt old
skills and learn new ones:
A trainee learns to put his
chainsaw skills to work
creating nesting cavities in
large trees for bats who lost
their habitat when old-growth
trees were logged


Timber cutting and service work in national forests has usually been offered through short-term contracts issued separately for different tasks, even on the same site and in the same year. Each job must be done within a short time frame - usually a few weeks - and inspected by the Forest Service. Stewardship contracts, in contrast, make one local contractor responsible for multiple ecosystem management tasks (such as inventory, vegetation management, road maintenance and wildlife monitoring) on a given site over several seasons. This arrangement allows the contractor to spread the work out over the year and make sensible economic and ecological choices. It is also advantageous for forest workers because they are able to use their skills near home and to participate in community and family life. Moreover, the Forest Service can get more work done for less money as there are fewer contracts to prepare, bid and administer.

The Grassy Flats Project, one of 23 national pilot projects in stewardship contracting, is an example of a stewardship contract designed to meet community and agency needs. A group of local contractors and interested community members began meeting in 1997 to see how contracting practices could be modified to help workers in struggling forest communities. With input from the group, the Forest Service designed a three-year package of mixed stewardship work scaled appropriately for local contractors. The stewardship contract has been put out for open bidding, and a local Monitoring and Evaluation Team has been set up to collect data, evaluate the project and make recommendations for future stewardship contracts.

Chopsticks: building the knowledge, skills and technology for harvesting and utilization of small-diameter wood

Common by-products of forest management are thinnings of plantation pine and suppressed Douglas fir of less than 25.5 cm in diameter, which have little market value. In the past, the Forest Service paid labourers to carry out thinnings so as to increase stand vigour and reduce fuel loading. The products of thinning were usually piled and burnt in place or, depending on the market, sold as chips. The Watershed Center was interested in developing a higher value for this wood to help make thinning more economical for both the Forest Service and local contractors and to provide wood locally for value-added processing. Turning thinning products into profitable outputs required an investment in research which addressed each of the factors that had made the commercial sale of such thinnings unviable in the past.

A trainee learns to use a global
positioning system to inventory roads

In an administrative study entitled "Chopsticks", conducted with the Forest Service, the Watershed Center:

Workers were trained to use locally designed low-impact equipment and to handle and transport small logs efficiently. The studies showed that the suppressed fir, although small in diameter, had the strength of old-growth timber but required special treatment in milling and drying to prevent twisting. Once these processes were worked out, the Watershed Center could begin building a market for this "new" product.

With the Hayfork sawmill closed, the
Watershed Center, seeking to develop
local small-scale processing capacity,
purchased a small portable sawmill to
process trees of less than 25.5 cm in


The Chopsticks Administrative Study provided the Forest Service with useful information on how better to measure the volume of small-diameter trees, how to estimate their value, how to write appropriate prescriptions and contract specifications and how to identify potential markets. Such information can help the Forest Service turn costly service contracts for treating fuel hazards into income-generating timber sales. The Forest Service sent personnel from Washington, DC to study what the Watershed Center had learned about utilizing small-diameter thinnings.

Marketing of value-added products

Income from forest products is needed for agencies to implement management activities and for communities to benefit from them. However, small-scale manufacturers in forest communities often have difficulty marketing their products because of the small volumes, isolation from marketing networks and high transportation costs.

Workers in the "Chopsticks" study measure
small-diameter logs from suppressed
understorey trees


Accordingly, the Watershed Center teamed up with a regional non-governmental organization, Sustainable Northwest, to develop a marketing cooperative to serve small-scale producers of wood products from recycled wood or small-diameter thinnings such as poles (for fencing and teepees), flooring, shelves and furniture sold regionally. By combining efforts with other forest communities, these producers are able to offer the quantities and buy the expertise needed to obtain access to speciality markets.

The name of the marketing cooperative, Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities, implies that the products not only are environmentally friendly, but also address the social goals of forest communities. Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities appeals to consumers by labelling products with the story (verified by the cooperative's monitoring programme) of where the wood comes from, who makes the product and how its sale contributes to the community. While the cooperative must offer competitive prices, the products' story of social and environmental responsibility helps in obtaining access to some urban markets.

Special equipment for efficient handling
of small logs - such as the grippers
on this loader - was designed and
fabricated locally



New skills, contracting procedures, harvesting and processing of thinning products and marketing of value-added products are all needed for community forestry to provide sustainable rural livelihoods. Each step requires not only the development of local capacities, but also changes in government agency policies and practices. Similar efforts are occurring in forest communities scattered throughout the United States. Hayfork is outstanding only because these four components are all being pioneered in one place.

Community members offer not only their organizational capacity, permanence and local knowledge, but also their unique perspectives as both forest workers and the people who must live with the consequences of forest management. For these reasons, community-based organizations make good partners with government agencies in managing forest lands. Some poor forest communities may require government attention to build their assets and capacity so that they may become partners in the future. The activities described in this article were initiated and implemented by community groups. Their efforts, however, were sparked and aided by policy directives at the highest levels recommending that federal agencies work with local communities.

Growing a community-based industry that stewards and enriches forest lands will take time. After five years of trying, Hayfork residents are still struggling. It is unlikely that forest-based livelihoods will solve all the economic and social problems of towns such as Hayfork. The approach outlined in this article, however, can be a viable form of economic development because it builds on the existing talents and resources found in forest communities.

Investments in human, physical, financial and social capital can help to develop livelihoods that restore natural capital. Community forestry in the United States is still in an incipient phase, but it shows great promise for improving the health of forest ecosystems and forest communities.


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