Community-owned Forests:
Possibilities, experiences, and lessons learned

Community-owned forests may be the answer for some U.S. communities now confronting unanticipated and unwanted large scale land use changes – changes that could irrevocably change their local landscapes and quality of life. Across the country, millions of acres of private forest lands are being put up for sale as the forest products companies who own them find other, cheaper sources of supply. If, as is likely, purchasers divide and convert the forests to residential or other development uses, nearby communities face losing the critical economic, environmental, recreational, social, cultural, and aesthetic values and benefits those forests have traditionally provided.

Affected localities are urgently seeking alternatives, such as government acquisition of the land and its addition to existing state or federal forests, identification of private purchasers who will maintain forest uses and/or limit development intensity, the purchase of development rights on the properties, or negotiation of conservation easements. Increasingly, however, forward thinking communities are pursuing a more exciting – and challenging – option: acquiring the lands to manage them as community forests, now and for the future.

Community-owned and –managed forests can be found around the world, and are not a new concept. Some New England “town forests,” for instance were established nearly a century ago. The recent surge of interest in community forests in the U.S., however is unprecedented. In response, a three-day national conference was held in Missoula, Montana, in 2005, to bring together practitioners from around the country to explore issues, options, and experiences in community forest establishment, governance, management, and use. Through presentations, group discussions, poster sessions, and field tours to proposed community forests in the nearby Blackfoot and Swan Valleys the conference addressed:

Understanding the issues

  • Current and historic community forests in North America

  • Corporate forest land divestiture – issues and opportunities for companies and communities

Exploring the possibilities

  • Assessing local readiness and capacity to establish a community forest

  • Forest land acquisition and financing; options, tools, and techniques

  • Costs and revenues: doing the calculations, making the choices

Making it work

  • Developing and sustaining a collective vision for a community forest

  • Forest management models that have worked – and some that haven’t

  • Building needed social, financial, institutional, and technical capacity

  • Community learning: multiparty monitoring and participatory science

Facing the challenges

  • Defining the “community”

  • Dealing with issues of property, tenure, responsibility, risk, and governance

  • Managing a forest for multiple public and private values

  • Ensuring effective community leadership, investment, and control over the long term

  • The missing pieces: needed new or revised laws, policies, and financing tool

The conference agenda, Powerpoint presentations given at the conference, and additional information and up-dates about new developments and accomplishments in community-owned forests that we have received since the conference are also available on this site.

Conference sponsors include the Communities Committee, the Bolle Center for People and Forests at the University of Montana, The Wilderness Society, the Montana Chapter of The Nature Conservancy, the Swan Ecosystem Center, the Blackfoot Challenge, the Flathead Economic Policy Center, the Pinchot Institute for Conservation, American Forests, the Natural Resources Law Center of the University of Colorado, the Ford Foundation, Plum Creek, and the USDA/Forest Service, Forest Legacy Program.