1. Governance and community forestry in the United States of America

Mark Baker and Jonathan Kusel 1


Practitioners and supporters of community forestry in the United States of America reject the continued disenfranchisement of communities and workers from forest management decision-making and planning. They criticize the ways in which the practice of traditional science has not stewarded ecosystems. And they call for a stop to the all-too pervasive trends of long-term disinvestment in ecosystems and communities that characterize the dominant forest-management paradigm. In its place they are developing a new set of guiding principles for structuring relations between people and forests - one that is based on the belief that sustaining forest ecosystems requires that forest communities and workers also be sustained. This paper, based on a recently completed national review, presents a framework, based on the notion of natural and social capital, for exploring the governance challenges associated with community forestry. It then discusses two governance challenges that must be met in order for community forestry to be successful. The first concerns investment. The authors suggest that effective investments for community forestry require an integration of natural and social capital, as well as an appreciation of the diverse capitals that together comprise a community's overall capacity. Depending upon a community's capacity, investment in a combination of different community capitals may be needed for community forestry to take root. The second governance issue this paper addresses concerns the equity implications of decentralized decision-making arrangements. Community forestry practitioners and supporters in the USA espouse participatory democratic processes as an alternative to the dominant paradigm of interest-group pluralism. The possible pitfalls of devolution, from an equity standpoint, are considered, and strategies for avoiding them are reviewed.


Across the United States people have taken up the challenging task of creating new relations between themselves and the forest ecosystems on which they depend. Their common goal is to improve the health of the land and the well-being of their communities. Often, their efforts have arisen from desperate circumstances: political gridlock and intractable social conflict concerning forest management, local economic crisis resulting from reduced access to resources essential to communities' survival, and large-scale patterns of forest degradation and fragmentation that threaten the integrity and sustainability of working forest landscapes. To redress these shortcomings, practitioners of community forestry are developing a new approach and new ideas about structuring relations between people and forests. A key tenet of this approach is the belief that sustaining forest ecosystems demands that forest communities and workers also be sustained. Realizing this vision of sustained forests and communities entails a re-orientation of the ways in which democracy is practised, markets and institutions influence patterns of disinvestment and investment, and resource management agencies mediate relations between government and society.

This paper, based on a recently completed national review of community forestry in the United States (Baker and Kusel, forthcoming), presents a framework, based on the notion of natural and social capital, that elucidates key community forestry governance issues. Two of these issues are explored: community-scale investment and the relationship between decentralization and equity.

Community Forestry: Place-based Integration of Economy, Environment, and Equity

Community forestry is at heart a place-based, integrative enterprise that may be thought of as a three-legged stool. The three legs - environment, economy, and equity - are equally important components. Unless all three legs are sturdy, the stability of the stool itself is threatened. The focus on environment reflects community forestry practitioners' commitment to sustaining forest health, ecosystem function, and biodiversity. This commitment manifests itself in the practice of stewardship, which aims to restore and manage forests in a manner that conserves or enhances ecological processes and productivity and generates sustainable streams of ecosystem goods and services.

Economy, the second leg of the stool, is central to the "success" of any community forestry effort. The failure of the market to require investment and the general failure of the beneficiaries of forest outputs and products to invest in sustaining ecosystems and communities - what we call long-term disinvestment - have contributed to the impoverishment of both. Reinvestment strategies are needed that advance community-scale responses to disinvestment and that recognize the wide array of natural and social capitals across which investment is needed.

Equity, the third leg of the stool, is fundamentally concerned with the (re)assertion of diverse claims, local and non-local, to forests and the resources they provide. Equity is itself a multi-dimensional concept that refers to the distribution of power, knowledge, and economic benefit. Sustainable forest-related development incorporating equity concerns must confront the issues of who is included and who benefits and who does not. Addressing and resolving the claims of all whose well-being depends on the forest involves a complex renegotiation and realignment of the interests and claims of local and non-local groups, organizations, and people.

Community forestry integrates and advances environment, economy, and equity together in one place. This approach is unique not only because of its multi-dimensional focus, but because of its focus on place and community-scale solutions. Community-scale work is a "bottom up" approach to problem solving, involving people with local knowledge working on integrative solutions at the appropriate scale or the "problem-shed." What is unique about this approach is the recognition that successful problem resolution is effective at the community-scale. Because of the resistance to bottom-up approaches, community-scale work requires considerable community capacity to succeed.

The "capital assets" framework facilitates understanding of the constituent components that are both necessary for and advanced by community-scale work. This framework also simultaneously clarifies a) the separation between communities and forest resources that impedes the advance of community forestry approaches and b) effective policy and programmatic approaches for building natural and community capital and transcending the institutional barriers that separate them. The assets framework builds on and extends work in which a) ecologically minded economists view natural capital as essential to human health and not, as conventional economists treat it, substitutable with financial capital or labor (Prugh 1995), b) poverty alleviation is achieved by building financial and physical capital (Sherraden 1991) and natural capital (Boyce and Shelly, forthcoming), and c) forest community well-being is reconceptualized (Kusel 1996, 2001). The assets approach involves a focus on system assets or stocks of natural wealth and community wealth that are integral to community and worker well-being.

A fundamental premise of community-based forestry practitioners is that the natural capital of the forest (comprising diverse biophysical elements of the forest ecosystem) and community well-being are interdependent, and that the long-broken linkages between them need to be re-established. Community well-being involves five capital assets: (1) physical capital, which includes a community physical infrastructure; (2) financial capital, which includes money, credit, and other financial resources available for local use; (3) human capital, which includes the skills, education, experiences and general capabilities of members; (4) cultural capital, the myths, beliefs, norms, and lifeways that serve to organize groups and facilitate survival; and (5) social capital, which includes the willingness of residents to work together toward community goals (and not just self-interest goals). These five capitals together make up community capacity, which is how community members collectively respond to stresses, create and take advantage of opportunities, and meet member needs.

Figure 1 Linkages and Barriers: Natural and Community Capital

Figure 1 shows natural capital and the multiple community capitals and highlights the role of institutions in mediating between them. Failure to recognize the role of institutions that mediate the relationship between community capitals and natural capital has contributed to a misunderstanding of the causal factors of diminished natural and community capital and a misunderstanding of the mechanisms needed for investing in and improving both. Understanding and working to improve the performance of institutions to re-connect management of natural capital with communities of place and workers will ultimately lead to better environmental stewardship, improved economy through capital investment, and equity through the recognition of the multiple communities and corresponding capital assets dependent on sound resource stewardship and improved democratic practice.

Forest and Community Asset Building - Investing in Natural and Community Capital

The capitals framework and asset building approach highlight the relationships between environmental degradation and community impoverishment - the twin, interdependent concerns of community forestry. They focus attention on the relationship between degraded environments, the distribution of resource access and use rights, and chronic poverty. The capitals framework emphasizes the importance of developing community-scale investment strategies that simultaneously address forest ecosystem health and community well-being. It explicitly identifies the various potential dimensions along which investment may occur, facilitates the process of determining how to most effectively develop interlinked and integrated forms of investment, and provides the rationale for why investment is needed across multiple assets, natural and social, in order for community forestry to be successful. It suggests that in places characterized by both environmental degradation and social impoverishment, strategies that focus on community-wide asset improvements and not just income improvement will be fruitful and should be promoted. Considering the sustainability and asset maintenance of natural, social, human, physical and financial capital as integrated goals enables the development of integrated solutions to related problems.

This principle emerges powerfully from Forest Community Research's study of the U.S. government's recently concluded $1.2 billion Northwest Economic Adjustment Initiative (NEAI) in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States (Kusel et al. forthcoming). Established in 1993, the NEAI is the socioeconomic assistance program that was created to mitigate the negative effects on rural, resource-dependent communities of the reduction in timber harvests associated with the Clinton Administration's Northwest Forest Plan. We learned that investments in various aspects of community capacity, such as leadership development, community-based planning and visioning, and building networking skills and cultural capital, are vital elements of successful community-based economic development efforts. One of the most powerful lessons of the NEAI is the recognition of the importance of investing in social, human and cultural capacity building - "soft infrastructure" - to the success of community development. Federal and state agencies learned that financial investment alone is inadequate for supporting community-based forms of development. Without an emphasis on building human skills and social capital, only the most advantaged of the disadvantaged are able to take advantage of and benefit from government programs. Concentrating on building physical and financial capital without concomitant attention to strengthening the other constituent capitals that together make up community capacity is unlikely to work unless communities already have relatively high levels of organizational capacity and social, human and cultural capital.

There is a clearly an unmet need for forms of investment, analysis and policy that simultaneously address the interconnected problems of impoverished communities and environmental degradation that are central to community forestry. Conceptually, the capitals framework emphasizes the analytical potential of strengthening connections between economic policy, environmental health, and community well-being through identification of the multiple forms of natural and community capital that need investment and support if community forestry is to flourish.

The Equity Implications of Decentralized Decision Making Arrangements

Many community forestry practitioners and supporters in the United States describe community forestry as a way to strengthen participatory processes through face-to-face deliberations about the management and use of natural resources. Through the devolution of management and decision-making authority to local levels, community forestry empowers people and communities to take a more active role in the management, processing, and utilization of forest and other resources.

Community forestry practitioners and supporters argue for local empowerment and the importance of strengthening local voice and decision-making capacities as a necessary but insufficient condition for simultaneously and effectively addressing social and ecological degradation. They call for increased community participation in natural resource planning and management on public and private lands, for more empowering and collaborative planning processes than the "traditional" forms of public input, and for increased consideration of the local effects - social, economic and ecological - of management decisions. They also argue that local empowerment is necessary because it taps into important forest management knowledge that exists at community level. Equally importantly, it is only through the sorts of face-to-face interaction, communication and deliberation that occur at the local and subregional level that seemingly intractable conflicts may be resolved as, through deliberative processes, trust slowly builds, values and priorities shift, and the radical center associated with community forestry emerges. Rather than a winner-take-all pitched battle between opposing interest groups, community forestry champions local empowerment and participation, and provides incentives for individuals to rise above their particular interests and concerns in an effort to take steps towards realizing a "public or common good."

Do decentralized decision-making arrangements incorporate concerns about social equity and justice that extend to all groups that use, work in, and depend on the forest resource? Is there a place for everyone with a stake in the forest to occupy public spaces for deliberating on issues of common concern? The short answer is no; neither civic republicanism nor other forms of devolution necessarily incorporate equity and social justice concerns. The exclusionary history of civic republicanism in the United States (only landed, elite, Anglo males were enfranchised to engage in public debate about the "public interest") raises the concern that the "common good" may be aligned with the interests and values of powerful elite groups, rather than with the true diversity of groups and perspectives. Thus consensus-based and participatory democratic processes may give more credence to the experiences and perspectives of advantaged groups than to those of disadvantaged or oppressed groups, whose concerns and interests may simply never be expressed or shared.

Once it is accepted, for both philosophical and pragmatic reasons, that advancing equity and social justice is a desirable objective of community forestry, the question then arises of how to avoid the pitfalls of democracy associated with the difference-suppressing effects of the "public interest" and the ideal of the homogenous community. What is needed is a political process that supports the development of participatory structures that explicitly acknowledge and encourage the representation of the diverse perspectives and interests among the actual people involved in community forestry. When conceived in this manner, community forestry can become a vehicle for advancing equity and social justice.

Achieving this goal requires acknowledging the cultural diversity inherent in the forestry sector; this entails understanding the histories of localities and of different social groups, and the recognition of the social diversity embedded in our own landscapes and historical patterns of social and ecological change. It also entails strengthening the participation of underrepresented groups in community forestry, and increasing their visibility. Engendering the full and meaningful participation of all stakeholders, especially those previously excluded, requires more than setting a place at the community forestry table and inviting "new" participants to join the discussion. As Brown (2001:300) notes, forest workers would most likely not immediately take a seat "at the table," if it was offered, because a strategy of avoiding the "table" has evolved in response to decades of exclusion from natural resources decision-making processes and, in the U.S., in response to direct and indirect retaliation by employers when workers did attempt to speak out. This points to the necessity of strengthening workers' forest enfranchisement so that they can participate in public, participatory forums without fear of retaliation. Encouraging participation of underrepresented groups follows enfranchisement. It involves thinking strategically about how to facilitate communication and collaborative decision making both within and between stakeholder groups, and providing support to communication capacities, networking, and organizational and leadership capacity development.

The notion of community that emerges from this discussion is one that acknowledges the validity of the different perspectives and interests of diverse, empowered social groups and stakeholders that share common concerns for ecosystem health, and worker and community well-being. Empowerment therefore is central to this notion of community. Empowerment implies the ability to participate effectively in decision making. It is linked to justice, and thereby to democracy, through the development of institutional mechanisms that enable diverse people to participate effectively in decisions that affect them or the conditions within which they act. This notion of empowerment avoids the exclusion and repression of difference associated with localism while embracing the multi-level, fluid dynamic of effective participation within the diverse, multi-cultural setting of community forestry. It fosters engagement with the policy process at local, regional and national levels and seeks ways to ensure that information, ideas and representation flow as freely as possible among these levels. While acknowledging the importance and relevance of local knowledge and history and place-based community participation, it also avoids the pitfall of over-emphasizing the local, thereby becoming vulnerable to non-local processes.


The natural and community capital framework highlights the institutional linkages and barriers between the forest and the communities that depend on it. The framework elucidates the variety of community capitals necessary for community forestry to succeed. Several key governance issues emerge from this analysis. Two of them, investment and equity, are explored in this paper. The multiple capitals that together comprise community capacity imply that multiple forms of community-scale investment may be needed. Insights from the recently completed assessment of the Northwest Economic Adjustment Initiative confirm the importance of government investment in both hard and soft forms of community infrastructure. Equity, the shortest leg of the three-legged environment, economy, and equity community forestry stool, represents a key governance challenge. This is especially true given the potential negative equity effects of the decentralization of decision-making authority. The challenge is to ensure and enhance equity by empowering diverse groups of people to participate in democratic decision making processes.


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1 Executive Director, Forest Community Research, P.O. Box 11, Taylorsville, CA, 95983, USA. [email protected]