The panel sets high standards and makes its decisions by consensus, says Melissa Savage, a retired UCLA forest ecologist now living in Santa Fe, who served on the panel in the program’s first years. "It was the most pleasurable collaborative project I’ve ever been on," she says. "A lot of knowledge is shared. The forest community is small in New Mexico, and there’s now a wonderfully good feeling around that community."

The grants have gone to a wide range of applicants, including many tribes, a number of small start-up businesses, even a Taos pottery collective. Applications must be submitted by an ad hoc consortium of stakeholders, rather than by a single entity. It is perhaps a sign of the "wonderfully good feeling" Savage describes that Forest Guardians, once so hated for its opposition to logging, won its own $360,000 grant this year. It’s for a fire-protection project on the Santa Fe National Forest that will entail cutting numerous trees for roadside firebreaks.

"A couple of years ago, the idea of a group like Forest Guardians saying anything complimentary about anything the Forest Service was doing — that would have been astounding," says Dunn. He believes the alliances created by CFRP will ultimately lead to better-designed projects that detour smoothly around the roadblocks of the past.

In another sign of today’s changed relationships, Forest Guardians joined the Center for Biological Diversity in signing onto a set of "New Mexico Forest Restoration Principles" this May. The 11 other organizations involved include the Forest Service, the state forestry service, and the state’s largest electric utility. The principles, which support the harvesting of small-diameter trees for energy production, echo those of the CFRP: Collaborate; leave large trees standing; use low-impact techniques; monitor.

Clear evidence of declining forest health has encouraged environmental groups to embrace limited logging. "We’d been after the Forest Service to stop cutting old growth," says Todd Schulke of the Center for Biological Diversity, "but now there was this clear problem with fire. We saw that, from a management standpoint, the Forest Service had much stronger arguments for thinning than it ever had had for old-growth logging."

Schulke has been a prime mover in Gila WoodNet, a CFRP-funded project that thins small-diameter trees from the Gila National Forest near Silver City and turns them into value-added products such as furniture, house trusses, and cabins. He’s come a long way since the 1990s, when his group played a key role in shutting down most of the Southwest’s logging industry (HCN, 3/30/98). These days, "I spend more time talking about economics and utilization (of wood) than I do about ecology," he says. It is because of CFRP that the Forest Service has his ear, he says: "We wouldn’t even be able to have conversations with the agency if we didn’t have these resources to offer."

Though they now wield chain saws, their groups’ core values have not changed. "We believe strongly in a healthy tension between enforcing existing laws and demonstrating that we want proactive work on the ground," Bird says. "The people who fund us want us to hold a line there."

 

Luis Torres, however, says the "wonderfully good feeling" in the forestry community has its limits. He and Chacon are often frustrated by what they see as a hidebound federal agency: the Forest Service.

Each national forest in New Mexico has a CFRP coordinator. Ignacio Peralta works for the Carson, and Chacon and Torres have recently been arguing with him over the disposal of logging slash from one of the Ensenada thinning sites. Chacon and Torres say the project proposal doesn’t require them to remove the slash; Peralta maintains that it does. Peralta says a compromise is being worked out, but in the meantime the dispute has kept Chacon and his loggers off the project since early summer. For Torres, a longtime Hispano activist, it’s a reminder of still-painful wounds in the relationship between traditional communities and the federal agency.

"The greatest amount of energy in running a CFRP project goes to relating to the Forest Service," says Torres. "The legislation is so loose that the implementation is left up to the (Forest Service) coordinators. The CFRP is a penetration of community-based forestry into the old system," he adds, "but it did not have built into it reform of the Forest Service."

Torres believes the program’s method of dispersing funds works to the disadvantage of small operators like Chacon. Grantees receive most of their funding in the form of reimbursements rather than advances, and that can be a challenge for small operators with limited capital. Torres has lobbied to change that. Dunn, however, says paying more advances would require more paperwork. That would mean that more of the program’s budget would go to administrative costs, currently about 16 percent of the $5 million annual budget. "I’d rather see that money go to grants," Dunn says.

Yet if the CFRP process has been hard on the grantees, it has probably been even more challenging for the Forest Service. The agency is not accustomed to working with outside grantees or sharing decision-making power with an outside panel.

"It’s their (the Forest Service’s) land," says Melissa Savage, "and now they’re being asked to accommodate a collaborative project that can bring a lot of money and resources onto the forest. They should be delighted. Some are."

"I don’t know that I’d call it a conflict," says Ruben Montes, CFRP coordinator on the Santa Fe National Forest, "but a readjustment has been needed by some of the old guard who weren’t used to having outside groups in the driver’s seat on these projects. I had to do quite a bit of mediation to help the groups meet each other halfway."