Communication & Networking
“When we get together to talk, I can see the big picture. Then you can find your place."
In many respects, collaboration is communication and vice versa; and a major FCSFP role was to coordinate communication and networking among individuals, projects, and communities who were limited in expertise, by remoteness of the community, and by poor communication networks or opportunities. This was so important in the minds of so many that it was recommended in a progress assessment report to the FCSFP early on in its existence (Richard and Burns, August 2001). One desired, and recommended, objective was to spread information and emerging knowledge quickly and efficiently by creating a communication network among local, state, and federal government agencies, NGO assistance providers, and private and academic research organizations, business community members, environmental activists, and others with a stake or interest, tied in closely with the public relations campaign that was underway at the time.
The FCSFP was in a position to provide an infrastructure for information exchange that could in turn build greater capacity for community forestry to grow regionally, while also supporting local applications. While effort was put into this, somewhat effectively, timely and relevant communication remains a challenge. People continue to work in relative isolation across the region. While methods and tools were usually applied at a regional level, much interaction occurred at local levels, as well. The latter often came in the form of education, oriented towards technical transfers, marketing assistance, and some business skills training. Communication at local levels seems to have improved as people have cultivated stronger working relationships over time and gained better understandings of common goals.
Other information exchange activities included an annual workshop for grant recipients, a media publicity campaign, field tours, an occasional newsletter, newspaper articles, and evaluation reports.
Increasingly, since the FCSFP inception in 1999, a wealth of information about community forestry amassed. Organizations have emerged that are providing new knowledge related to the attributes listed in this document (e.g., The Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University, the Wood Center at Colorado State University, Jobs and Biodiversity Coalition in Silver City, New Mexico, Ruidoso Wildland-Urban Interface Working Group, etc.). All of these activities are contributing to the knowledge available to FCSFP partners. However, entrepreneurs are probably not interacting consistently enough to enhance their businesses and on-the-ground development of community forestry. This is probably due to the fact that a more consistent structure for communication is yet to be established at state and multi-county levels, but it is also due to the nature of communication itself. It simply takes time for new knowledge to work its way to all levels of the region.
One of the original concerns of the participants of the Taos Roundtable was the lack of an educated citizenry about what community forestry is and what it offers as an alternative to historical approaches of timber harvesting and community development. To address this issue in part, the FCSFP steering committee contracted with a Colorado media consulting firm to enhance awareness and acceptance of the work of community forestry and the FCSFP in the news media. Many media contacts were made, stories appeared in newspapers, magazines and on the radio, and the FCSFP received heightened presence in media over about a two-year period. During that time wildfires became a big news story and the consultants began offering stories about the FCSFP as already addressing the issues of wildfire mitigation. Some debate took place over the efficacy of conducting a media contact and publicity campaign, when the funds could have gone to other uses. Some questioned whether publicity was, in fact, education, or vice versa.
Consultants held brief trainings for grantees, teaching them techniques for speaking with reporters and other news providers. The thinking behind this kind of educational information relates to the continuing need to clarify to Americans what community forestry is and what it can mean for rural economies and for the health of forests. Despite these and other efforts among many local, regional and national partnerships, we are not yet to a point where restoration forestry and the stewardship philosophy that drives it are commonly understood among the general public.
It is unclear how effective the campaign was in building common understanding and acceptance of community forestry, although interest has been high among project representatives to see strong communication tools and methods made available and every opportunity to network has been highly valued. Certainly to some degree it contributed significantly to raise awareness of community-based forestry and the health of forests as one activity among many others.
FCSFP’s annual workshop was perhaps the networking activity most well-received by grantees as a chance to meet other grantees/business owners from across the region. It was also a venue for experts, researchers, and government and agency representatives to share their knowledge and publicize their services. The annual workshop continues to be a popular tool and will probably be revived in some form at state levels after the FCSFP has finished its work.
A strong and effective component of the annual meetings occurred when individual entrepreneurs told their stories. By doing this simple thing, the significance and potential of what they were doing came through. The message has become “this is not industrial forestry; this is a practice of stewardship.” The need to continue disseminating this message remains. Who better to speak about it than those average people in rural communities leading grassroots efforts to revive an economy and discover new relationships with the landscapes where they live?
Past evaluative reporting on the progress of FCSFP grantees lists characteristics of communication and networking that are still significant (Richard and Burns, August 2001, pp 34-35). The assumption was made that regular, timely, long-term information exchanges between participants across the region would be an essential and effective influence for advancing efforts. And while it may not have been a well-planned strategy, there was a commitment to an identifiable process of communication through the newsletter, the annual meetings and the various workshops.
While community forestry partnerships need to evolve based on the needs and resources within their own region, several basic elements or factors seem to be common: Communication and networking, capital reinvestment, various forms of technical assistance, and a variety of ways to utilize and market the new products of restoration forestry.
It is important that community forestry partnerships develop their own methods of communication with their partners, constituent interests, and funders. To neglect this activity is to run the risk of not building necessary internal membership and external public support for the partnership’s goals.
Collaborative partnerships cannot be sustained without fairly consistent, on-going communication. Communication strengthens needed social relationships, and insures the transfer of critical knowledge that creates opportunities and skills for future, mutually beneficial actions.