The Southern Utah Forest Products Association: A Case Study
An Argument for Greater Attention to Organizational Sustainability
By Brian Cottam
As a wood products cooperative of third and fourth generation forest and wood workers, the Southern Utah Forest Products Association (SUFPA) became an important local industry resource and recognized symbol for sustainable, community-based forestry in Utah and beyond. Centered in Wayne County in south-central Utah, SUFPA sought to pioneer and develop new techniques and strategies for accessing restoration work and timber supply in surrounding national forests. To complement this effort, the cooperative also worked to identify new market opportunities for low-value forest restoration byproducts and value-added finished wood products.
Traditional agricultural industries, including forestry, formed the economic backbone of the many small communities that have persisted in Wayne and neighboring Garfield County. However, when confronted with many of the same challenges the FCSFP was created to address, several of the once-numerous small, family-owned sawmills were idled, and loggers, unable to compete for increasingly larger and, thereby, more expensive U.S. Forest Service (FS) timber sales, were forced to find other work elsewhere. In 1995, the remaining loggers and sawmill operators in this area were successfully convened by Panoramaland RC&D and the Utah Department of Community and Economic Development. They all met to jointly consider the mounting challenges that were effectively eliminating this long-standing, local industry. SUFPA, from its inception, focused on two prevailing notions. First, local operators were increasingly unable to compete for FS timber sales; typically, the volume was too large and the minimum bid price too high. Second, timber produced from this region—traditionally milled into mining supports for nearby coal mines—was of low and diminishing value.
With government and private sector partners, the loose-knit association
began to analyze potential new value-added market opportunities. Their
findings identified several emerging markets for the wood types available
in the surrounding forests (principally Engelman spruce, sub-alpine fir,
quaking aspen, and a very limited amount of ponderosa pine). Unfortunately,
the scale of the identified markets was significantly larger than any
one operator could serve. Furthermore, meeting the requirements for these
markets required a commitment of capital resources and technical expertise
greater than any one operator could likely access, particularly with uncertain
supply scenarios being the norm.
SUFPA was formally incorporated as an agricultural cooperative in late 1998. In 1999, the FCSFP, through their first round of community demonstration grants, allowed the cooperative to hire its first executive director, whose focus it was to effectively build the organizational capacity of the co-op. A complementary graduate thesis provided the organizational blueprint necessary to pursue SUFPA’s groundbreaking path as a forest products cooperative. SUFPA was unique from other forestry co-ops scattered throughout the country in which members owned their own woodlands and, thereby, their raw material. SUFPA, in contrast, was comprised of a fully integrated sampling of southern Utah’s community forestry industry—from logger to wood craftspeople—focusing primarily on raw material and service work from nearby national forest lands.
SUFPA was positioned to successfully address its two major concerns of raw material supply and the creation and marketing of value-added wood products. Discussions were on-going with both the Dixie and Fishlake NFs concerning sustainable, appropriately-scaled access to and projects in surrounding forests. Before long, planning for possible forest restoration and stewardship contracts, which were just then coming into vogue, also began to occur. The Fishlake NF particularly responded with the Monroe Mountain Ecosystem Restoration Project (one of the original 28 stewardship contract pilot projects) and the Thousand Lake Community Forestry Initiative, especially convened for SUFPA’s sake. SUFPA also embarked, with the assistance of the Utah Rural Development Council, on a multi-faceted business outreach and associated marketing campaign to potential co-op members. This campaign also included a concerted program of new product development, placement and marketing for SUFPA members. At the start of the new century, SUFPA relocated its Resource Center and reopened the office alongside its first retail outlet on the Main Street of Torrey, the gateway to Capitol Reef National Park.
SUFPA was a cooperative, community forestry experiment without equal in the entire country, not just the Four Corners region, and was gaining recognition as a model for a practical, grassroots approach to responsible, community-based forest management. Its future was promising as coffers were full, with operating and program funds readily flowing towards the positive progress of the cooperative. Stewardship work and wood supply was being planned on nearby federal and state lands, with the cooperative structure allowing for creative solutions that plagued each business individually. And with the retail store and resource center in operation on the busiest street in Wayne County, membership was strong, growing and active. SUFPA was on the verge of meeting all of its original goals and objectives while positioning itself for even greater accomplishments of cooperatively owned equipment, stewardship contract management and branches of the retail store. All of this was being contemplated within the framework of a long-term strategic plan that would replace grant funding with internally generated capital, exactly how a formal cooperative should be operated.
This promise and potential was not realized, though, as three years hence SUFPA is in the midst of finalizing its organizational and legal dissolution. Identifying and understanding potential reasons for this situation can provide valuable lessons for other community forestry partnerships. Certainly it was a combination of factors that led to the current circumstance, but a rapid turnover in both staff and then the co-op’s board of directors led to:
Undoubtedly, these are all pitfalls that could confront any organization.But in the case of SUFPA, and potentially other forestry partnerships, the possibility for occurrence and the resulting effects were magnified as those in positions of authority were often more inclined for work in the forests, as opposed to the boardroom. Moreover, in a rural area such as Wayne County staffing needs were also difficult to meet, particularly for a complex cooperative business model. The necessary knowledge, skills and abilities were not easily come by and staff and board turnover removed some of the organizational capacity SUFPA developed early on. These inherent challenges, therefore, suggest more attention to the hazards listed above and greater diligence to avoid them would be required.
This steady organizational attention is also the case for a community organization’s partners and team of resource providers. As these various support agencies, which FCSFP has actively encouraged to be more involved, are often more accustomed to the paperwork and bureaucracy intrinsic to organizational development and maintenance it is their proper role to offer this administrative oversight and assistance. Particularly when public funds are involved, this guidance should be provided and relationship preserved even when it may seem burdensome or the community recipient is unreceptive. This support is their appropriate professional role and often obligation—as in the case of fiscal agents—and neglecting this responsibility is unacceptable.
A great deal can be learned from SUFPA: from its many early struggles and successes, to its groundbreaking cooperative structure and programming, as well as from its untimely conclusion and the factors that led to this end. These varied experiences and associated lessons can provide constructive guidance for existing and future partnerships and associations. Community forestry throughout the region will only grow if there is a continually informed effort to emulate and implement the many shared accomplishments and successes while striving to avoid the pitfalls and trials that can plague any organization.