For the past two decades, we’ve pioneered a movement that not only saves precious forests but also generates social and economic benefits. And we do it by putting communities at the center, championing local ownership and increasing access.
Forested lands comprise about a third of our nation’s lands. But today, real estate development, aggressive timber harvesting, and wildfires are resulting in a net loss of our nation’s forests. According to a 2017 study by Harvard University, New England alone is losing 65 acres of forest every day.
Betsy Cook, the Maine state director at Trust for Public Land, talks with us about the community forest model and why it holds promise to protect this vital resource.
A: Community forests are forests managed by the community for the community. Four pillars define our approach to community forests. First, the community participates in the management decisions about the land. The second is that benefits flow to community. That could mean proceeds from sustainable timber harvesting or less tangible benefits from tourism and the outdoor-recreation economy. The third piece is community ownership—actually having the land owned by the community, which can be a town, county, nonprofit, tribe, or other local entity. It’s a form of ownership that makes sure the community is really involved in the stewardship of the land. The last piece is permanent protection. This will ensure that the forest is conserved and that benefits continue to flow to the community for generations to come.
Exploring the Bethel Community Forest in Bethel, Maine. Photo: Jerry and Marcy Monkman
Q: How did the community forest model come about?
A: The concept of a community forest has been around for centuries or even thousands of years. So, we are building on an idea that is engrained in many cultures. But the modern Trust for Public Land–led movement took off about two decades ago with a group called the Community Forest Collaborative; we were a core member. The collaborative helped develop resources for towns to create community forests, laid out best practices, and established a federal funding program. The U.S. Forest Service’s Community Forest and Open Space Conservation Program supports local communities that want to create community forests. Our advocacy led to the establishment of that program in 2014.
Q: What kind of progress have you seen in the past 20 years?
A: The first community forest we helped establish was in Randolph, New Hampshire, in 2001. Since then, we have helped to directly support the creation of more than 30 community forests across the country, covering at least 30,000 acres. Our most recent is Rumford Community Forest in Maine, which protects beloved trails and important trout habitat. The size of each forest ranges widely, from a few hundred acres to 13,000 acres. New England is our most active region, and a large part of that has to do with the strong system of town governance. That matches really well with the community forest model. Most communities have a town meeting every year, and often the community forest is voted on at the annual meeting. You get 300 people in these old town halls and everyone gets to see each other. Residents raise a green placard for Yes and red for No. It’s a great example of civic engagement and community participation. There are also community forests we’ve worked on in the Pacific Northwest, so the model has taken hold there as well. And there’s a pocket of activity in the Midwest, in places such as Wisconsin and Minnesota.