One day in the winter of 1992, officials from Montezuma County in southwestern Colorado did what many of the West's county officials were doing: They attended a public-lands conference in Steamboat Springs. Amid the Sturm und Drang of the burgeoning counties' movement and its exhortations to kick the federal government off public lands, one nugget of information stuck: Counties already had the ability to influence federal-land managers.
So instead of going home, hunkering
down, and declaring war on the government, Montezuma County
officials did something unusual: They visited their local forest
The county's relationship with the
Forest Service had long been perfunctory; the district ranger sent
them notices of proposed logging and grazing activities on the
forest, and they customarily returned a pro-commodity rubber stamp.
"I was nervous about them, and they were nervous
about me," recalls Mike Znerold (pronounced Zu nair old), Dolores
district ranger on the San Juan National Forest. When the county
commissioners, plus a local planner, appeared on his doorstep, "I
took a deep breath, brewed a pot of coffee and we sat down to
talk." And when it became clear the officials were seeking real
involvement in what was happening on the ground, as well as wanting
his agency to pay attention to the human community, the coffee
really started to work.
"I knew in my heart
everything was connected, and at that point everything changed for
me," said Znerold. "Sharing control is scary. It's cumbersome and
time-consuming. But when you can reach consensus and make a
decision that everyone understands ... that's a really great
Sharing control has yielded plenty for
Montezuma County over the past four years:
County commissioners have tromped through the forests and sagebrush
with federal land managers, environmentalists, ranchers and loggers
to check out timber sales and grazing
* Federal and county planning staffs
have routinely shared information and maps;
Money from county, state and federal coffers has been pooled to
send scientists into the forests and economists into the towns to
gather basic information;
* The county has
purchased a Forest Service timber contract in an attempt to
jump-start a torpid timber industry.
has been slow and, to a casual observer, relatively unremarkable.
But the players have steadily gathered information about the
economy and the ecology of the area and used it to make alliances,
decisions and goals. Although it is too early to judge the
long-term success of this experiment in cooperation, the strident
voices of the Sagebrush rebels have quieted, environmentalists have
given grudging respect to the partnership, and a county undergoing
rapid change has gained some hope that it can hold onto its
Montezuma's success is tied
directly to two people: Commissioner Tom Colbert and Mike Preston,
a planner who works under the auspices of the Office of Community
Affairs at Fort Lewis College in Durango. Colbert, a tall,
ruddy-faced man with piercing blue eyes, has provided the political
will. His stature as a rancher, and his willingness to take the
heat for decisions unpopular with his agricultural constituents,
have been essential to the effort. Preston, a slender, affable man
with a gap-toothed smile, has provided the glue, deftly moving
between the worlds of academia, business and the federal, state and
local governments. Together, they have attracted a spectrum of
leaders who share their vision.
Some of that
vision is based on what the county does not want. To the east, in
La Plata County, the town of Durango had almost overnight become a
tourist and recreation mecca for hikers, rafters, kayakers and
mountain bikers. Ranching was basically dead and environmentalist
appeals and lawsuits had brought to its knees a logging industry
grasping for the last old-growth stands.
similar fate could befall Montezuma County, Colbert and Preston
knew, with its still-affordable real estate and abundant public
lands, including world-renowned Mesa Verde National Park. They
wanted to keep the ranching and timber industries on their feet and
avoid becoming too dependent on a tourism and recreation-based
Early on, Colbert and Preston decided
to get on the mailing list for every decision notice and
announcement the federal agencies made. Soon they had a stack of
documents several feet deep. Preston read through them all and
began briefing the commissoners on those that were relevant.
Next they arranged meetings with the local
agency managers, first in the office and then in the field. "There
is no substitute for getting out on the ground to look at and
discuss federal land issues first hand," says Preston. "The
expression "common ground" takes on new meaning."
The Forest Service's receptivity was due in part
to some management changes of its own. Jim Webb, a believer in
ecosystem management, a delegator and a good communicator, had
recently been named supervisor of the San Juan National Forest.
Under his regime, district rangers like Znerold
had more autonomy and involvement with local constituents, and the
health of the forest took precedence over simply meeting goals for
timber production and grazing levels. Even environmentalists found
his approach refreshing.
Znerold took advantage
of the new latitude. "Our timber, range and wildlife people were in
their own worlds," he says, "so we created interdisciplinary teams,
each focused on one part of the forest. The land became the basic
building block, instead of timber."
public needed to participate, too, but to do that would require
good clear information about the land and the communities it
supported. The county and the Forest Service began exploring ways
to share information, beginning with maps. "There's nothing like a
good map for people to gather around and share their knowledge
about a place," says Preston. Soon, a joint GIS (Geographical
Information System) database shared by the county, the Forest
Service and the Colorado Department of Transportation was up and
The county then convinced the Forest
Service to help fund a regional economic study, which gave the
commissioners a basic understanding of the role public lands play
in their county. The data from this study have been used over and
over again in subsequent planning efforts.
subscribe to the theory of residuals," says Preston. "You start
from where you left off on the last project."
In the pine
If you drive northwest out of Dolores, a
dusty town with a two-block downtown, a road winds upward into a
180,000-acre section of the San Juan National Forest dominated by
ponderosa pine. In the early 1900s, private timber interests built
a railroad spur up from the dry mesas below into this pine zone,
which lies between 7,500 and 8,000 feet in elevation. They cut and
hauled out virtually every big tree they could
It is here, amid a thick, second-growth
ponderosa pine forest, that Montezuma County and the Forest Service
have staked out their most ambitious turf. It began in the summer
of 1993, when Colbert, Znerold and mill owner Dudley Millard
visited the area. Millard, who is also president of the Colorado
Timber Industry Association, told Znerold the timber industry was
dying because it needed more federal timber; Znerold told Millard
he had a forest-health issue that needed solving. The choked stands
of ponderosa pine were increasingly vulnerable to fire and beetle
infestations. Why not design some timber sales that would meet both
Thus was born the Ponderosa Pine Forest
Partnership between Montezuma County, the Forest Service, the
Office of Community Affairs at Fort Lewis College and the Colorado
Timber Association. The partnership decided to start with a
demonstration sale, and it won a $30,000 grant from the Department
of Agriculture's Rural Community Assistance Program to carry it
With some of the money, it hired ecologist
Bill Romme of Fort Lewis College. Romme had cut his teeth studying
fire in the Yellowstone ecosystem and brought with him the
scientific background needed to give the project
Romme helped the Forest Service draw
up plans for a 447-acre test sale. The sale would be
counterintuitive: Loggers could, for the most part, cut only trees
with diameters less than 16 inches. Larger trees would be left in
clumps to mimic the historic pattern of the forest before
clearcutting and grazing changed it. Following the harvest, fire
would be reintroduced to the system to keep down the oak brush and
stimulate the growth of grasses and forbs that used to dominate the
spaces between trees.
It took nearly two years,
but in the summer of 1995 chainsaws began cutting. The controlled
burns will take place this summer, followed by five seasons of
monitoring by Romme and his students.
gestation has been frustrating. Znerold says the Forest Service had
difficulty pricing the small-diameter trees. "We're dealing with a
different piece of wood than the old appraisal system dealt with,"
he says. "These trees aren't worth hardly anything, but we can't
give them away."
The Forest Service eventually
got around the pricing problem by selling the trees first to the
county, which in turn reduced the price of the trees for the local
loggers who cut them. Znerold says that won't work as a long-term
solution. The agency must create a formal niche for timber sales
based on the pine zone model, a task it is still working on. Some
local mills are re-tooling operations to process small logs, and
more would do so if a steady supply were ensured.
The partnership hopes to test the model on a
larger scale when the Forest Service offers a 1-2 million
board-foot sale later this summer, Znerold
Though it has not been an active
participant, the environmental community, which mostly resides in
La Plata County, supports the pine-zone test
"But it's the only place you could do this
kind of thing (without generating controversy)," says Rocky Smith,
a staffer for the Denver-based Colorado Environmental Coalition who
works closely with forest activists throughout the state. "It's
already roaded and there's lots of trees."
Environmentalists have even more concerns about
the partnership's latest initiative: large-acre aspen cutting. With
Romme's help, the Forest Service has designed a commercial sale
that, instead of the traditional 20- or 40-acre patches, calls for
a 300-acre clearcut to mimic the size of historic fires that
occurred in the aspen ecosystem. Loggers would leave 15-20 percent
of the vegetation on the ground, and a follow-up prescribed burn
would send the nutrients from this material back into the
"I'm not against logging and then trying
some fire," says Smith. "But 300 acres is another story. Logging is
not a substitute for fire."
Smith and activists
in Durango say they still have some doubts about the partnership's
commitment to ecosystem management. "It could still be in the back
of their minds that they want to get out the timber, by hook or
crook," says Smith.
"No one is very satisfied
with the traditional way of logging aspen," counters Romme. "It
causes major fragmentation of the forest, which diminishes
Romme emphasizes that
large-acre aspen cutting shouldn't take place everywhere in the
forest. "First, you have to decide whether you want to exploit or
not. But if you do, then you should leave as much undisturbed as
possible. It seems to me this is worth a try."
Despite their reservations, Smith and other
environmentalists give the San Juan Forest credit for stepping out
on a limb.
The Community-Federal Lands Partnership
may hit it big in the next few months. The New York City-based Ford
Foundation has expressed an interest in investing between $100,000
and $200,000 in the pine-zone experiment. A chunk of the money,
according to Preston, would be dedicated to distilling and
disseminating the lessons the partnership has learned to
communities throughout the West.
Preston just fine. For the past several years, he has traveled
almost nonstop, preaching the gospel of collaboration and public
participation. "I must get a half-dozen calls a week from people
wanting me to come and speak to them about our work," he says. "We
could really use help so we can keep things rolling on the ground."
One of the projects he needs to keep rolling is
the San Juan forest plan revision. Preston and his partner, Sam
Burns, who heads the Office of Community Services, have already
held meetings with the three working groups of citizens who will
help the Forest Service rewrite the 10-year planning document. The
model for citizens' participation will be novel and incredibly
time-consuming, resembling a year-long graduate school seminar for
100 "students' who have volunteered their services. The list
includes environmentalists, raft guides, ranchers, loggers and
The process will
test Preston's belief that sustained, informal communication is the
most important ingredient in public policy decision making.
"The environmentalists and the Forest Service
talk a different language than the loggers, and it scares the hell
out of them," he adds. "Both sides burrow themselves a deeper hole
talking only to each other, pumping each other up. But when real
people get together in a place-oriented community, it leads to
In the meantime, Preston and
Colbert are not waiting for foundation money to share what
Montezuma County has learned.
They have given
advice to a similar partnership that has sprung up in western
Colorado's Montrose and Delta counties. But their success may not
be directly translatable to the situations of other counties, says
Mary Chapman, who lives in Delta. "The leadership for this type of
effort has to come from more than one place," she says. In
Montezuma's case, it has. In the case of Delta/Montrose, the Forest
Service has not been a leader. The partnership also suffers because
it lacks a strong academic community, she
District Ranger Znerold echoes that
thought. "The reason this collaboration has happened is because of
who I am, who Colbert and Preston and Romme are. It has something
to do with chemistry and maturity."
has studied 22 partnerships in the West for the Denver-based
think-tank, Center for the New West, says the Montezuma effort is
unique. Some partnerships function as special interest groups, she
says, flexing their political muscle to force agencies to accept
the partnership's charted course. But Montezuma County has worked
within the existing institutional structures.
they can make the system work, it will have profound implications
for rural communities throughout the West," Chapman says. "If it
doesn't, then maybe nothing works."
Paul Larmer is associate
editor of High Country