A Colorado county tries a novel approach: work the system

  • Map of Montezuma County

  • Montezuma's county commissioners look at land with officials

    Ann Bond/USFS
  • Loggers cut most of the big ponderosa pine in Montezuma County earlier in the century

  • Today the county is leading an effort to restore these forests

  • Mock wedding of the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management

    Ann Bond/USFS
  • Mike Znerold

    Ann Bond/US Forest Service

Note: this article is one of several feature stories in a special issue about collaboration in the West.

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 ranger.

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 feeling."

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 allotments;

* 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.

The progress 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 working-class roots.

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.

A 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 economy.

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 commissioners 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."

The broader 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 running.

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.

"I subscribe to the theory of residuals," says Preston. "You start from where you left off on the last project."

In the pine zone

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 find.

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 goals?

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 out.

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 credibility.

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.

The long 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 says.

Though it has not been an active participant, the environmental community, which mostly resides in La Plata County, supports the pine-zone test sales.

"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 soil.

"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 biological diversity."

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.

Into the future

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.

That suits 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 small-business entrepreneurs.

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 problem-solving."

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 says.

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."

Chapman, who 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.

"If 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 News.

The following sidebar article accompanies this feature story:

- A progressive commissioner takes the heat

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