The Grand Canyon Stewardship Project
The Grand Canyon Stewardship Project, more commonly known as the Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership (GFFP), is located on the Coconino NF in northern Arizona. Various stewardship contracting authorities, often in concert with National Fire Plan initiatives and funding, have been utilized to restore the ponderosa pine forest ecosystem and reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire in the Flagstaff Wildland/Urban Interface. Learning the intricacies of stewardship contracting—an amalgam of both traditional timber contracting and common service contracting, for services such as road maintenance, forest thinning or other activities—has rarely been a smooth process for the pilot projects. The GFFP, with its strong community collaboration and elaborate long-term strategy for working in the Flagstaff WUI, has been successful in testing and implementing the majority of stewardship contracting authorities. While certainly not a seamless progression, with guidance by both agency and public participants knowledgeable about stewardship contracting regulations, intent and available authorities, the GFFP has steadily used these new tools to effectively pursue its goals.
Nearly all the pilot locations, including the GFFP, have struggled to learn the proper use of and benefits from stewardship contract authorities. One of the most glaring challenges faced by the program has been the ongoing inability of agency contracting officers to reconcile the distinct timber and service contracting mechanisms. This gap was overcome in Flagstaff with diligent communication between the timber and service contract staff, which often do not interact in normal FS operations, and guidance from the few stewardship contracting specialists within the agency. It was, however, the non-profit GFFP that created the first stewardship contract in Flagstaff and was often responsible for encouraging and guiding the FS to follow suit in subsequent Partnership projects.
Indeed, this lack of internal agency guidance, especially on the contracting particulars for procurement and service contracts, has been a consistent nationwide dilemma, sometimes to the point of scuttling otherwise legitimate projects. In recent years, the FS, responding to repeated requests, has proactively begun to provide the necessary direction to placate contracting officers. The agency and other organizations involved in stewardship contracting are also now providing trainings and tools so that local initiative in project planning and decision-making on contract particulars can effectively proceed.
As the Flagstaff experience suggests, local capacity has often been critical
for the success of many of the original pilot projects. Community collaboration
is an expressed intent of the program. Without consistent and ongoing
community engagement the ultimate value of stewardship contracting for
practitioners—increased opportunity for work in the woods—can
not be realized. The FS, while mandated through NEPA and other regulations
to communicate and even cooperate with the public, has, in many locations,
not yet developed the understanding or skills to effectively collaborate.
Collaboration and the development of trusting personal and organizational
relationships take time to cultivate. If stewardship contracting is to
reach its full potential--achieving land management goals on the national
forests while also meeting the needs of local and rural communities--all
partners, particularly the FS, which has lost much of the public’s
confidence, must consistently pursue community collaboration. The agency,
due to a recently-released GAO report critical of the FS for a lack of
community involvement in stewardship contracting projects, is seeking
to provide more internal guidance on community participation and collaboration.
With stewardship contracting having both devout critics and impassioned supporters, members of the Southwest Regional Monitoring Team realized that a definitive assessment could certainly not yet be made. The short duration of the pilot program and the fact that the regional monitoring teams are being disbanded in late 2004 led to an incomplete evaluation. Administrative and implementation trends of utilizing stewardship contracting authorities, some of which are listed here, have been recognized and are being addressed. Nevertheless, the unfinished analysis might suggest two very different perspectives about the current state of the stewardship contract program: some might see the new authorities as an end, themselves, and simply having them in the proverbial toolbox is good enough; practitioners and forest-dependent communities recognize something completely different—stewardship contracting is a means to community stability—and not agree at all that stewardship projects, as they are currently being proposed and even implemented, are any more valuable than the Forest Service’s traditional timber sales and other ways of doing business. Consequently, the ultimate effectiveness and utilization of stewardship contracting—on the ground—has yet to come into focus.