In a major organizational milestone, RGS & AWS has reached an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to start innovative stewardship projects in the Green Mountain, Allegheny, Superior and Chippewa national forests.
By Kristyn Brady
Photo by U.S. Forest Service, Eastern Region
In September 2023, the Ruffed Grouse Society & American Woodcock Society (RGS & AWS) entered into its latest agreement with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to support forest management and implement on-the-ground habitat improvements on nearly 6,000 acres across four iconic American national forests from Minnesota to Vermont.
This is to be celebrated, and not only as the next step in the organization’s efforts to build robust partnerships and advance landscape-level solutions. Better still, the agreement with the USFS’s Eastern Region (R9) also pushes RGS & AWS’s reach and impact to a new high.
Why This Achievement Matters
The agreement marks one obvious milestone: With more than $2 million committed by the Forest Service and over $440,000 of matching funds negotiated by the RGS & AWS national office, this is the largest dollar value attached to any of the organization’s more than 20 stewardship agreements thus far.
But the money also signifies RGS & AWS playing a role in applying federal funding toward forest management work — the types of initiatives that RGS & AWS members support.
The federal funds were made available through 2021 legislation that invests in America’s infrastructure and creates conservation jobs, with a total of $5.5 billion provided to the Forest Service “to tackle the most pressing issues facing our natural resources and associated infrastructure, such as trails, roads and bridges,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The habitat work executed in the R9 agreement will be among early examples of this much-celebrated funding being implemented for on-the-ground habitat conservation.
Further, the RGS & AWS agreement greenlights opportunities to shape wildlife habitat and forest resilience in Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest and in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny National Forest. Existing projects in Minnesota’s Superior and Chippewa national forests will also be expanded.
“This agreement is substantial, from the scale of the investment to the impact we’ll make for wildlife, our members and our conservation partners,” says Ben Jones, RGS & AWS president and CEO. “We’ve been ramping up to work in these places for years, and this next step allows us to kick-start habitat improvements on additional public lands, while also finding solutions that help the Service achieve forest plan goals.”
How It Works
To craft such an agreement, RGS & AWS staff work closely with local Forest Service specialists to propose a tailored mix of projects that advance RGS & AWS’s conservation mission and align with national forest plans and state wildlife action plans. In the R9 agreement, this includes prepping, hiring and smoothing the way for commercially supported forest management, as well as adding staff forester capacity, controlling invasive species, improving forest access and performing some stream and meadow restoration.
Here’s the full breakdown of the work promised in the Region 9 agreement.
Green Mountain National Forest
Getting involved on Vermont’s only national forest has been a top priority for RGS & AWS for a number of years, says Todd Waldron, forest conservation director for the Northeast Region. The R9 agreement begins this meaningful partnership and promises to lead to an even bigger impact in the region.
First, Waldron will hire a new RGS & AWS staff person in 2024 to serve in a boots-on-the-ground forestry role within the Green Mountain National Forest. “Forty hours a week, this person will work with the Forest Service to move projects forward,” he says. An important part of the job will be doing assessment and inventory work to help prepare for timber sales that will ultimately pay for further habitat projects, including stream restoration work to improve fish passage and water quality, as well as tree planting and meadow establishment.
This is the innovative part of the RGS & AWS approach in these stewardship agreements: The commercially supported forest management will encourage species diversity, forest resiliency and the advancement of young oak stands, in particular — these are habitat improvements in and of themselves. “But when the timber sale hits,” explains Waldron, “that money is put right back into conservation here in the forest. So this is a situation where we’re able to grow the RGS & AWS team, so we can advance our impact for our members and for birds and habitat, and we’re helping the Forest Service get their work done more efficiently.”
The goal is to directly impact more than 1,200 acres in the Green Mountain National Forest over the next three years. “From a scale standpoint, we’re ramping up by about tenfold, and that’s a lot more than we’ve ever gotten done in the Northeast,” says Waldron. “The fieldwork of our volunteers and the 5- and 6-acre projects we continue to do are still very significant, but this is an extremely exciting opportunity to work at the landscape level.”
It’s also one that Waldron hopes to pitch to the White Mountain National Forest, using success in the Green Mountain National Forest as a model for what is possible on New Hampshire’s 800,000 federally managed acres. “Hopefully this is just the beginning,” he says.
Allegheny National Forest
The R9 agreement also gives RGS & AWS its first chance to collaborate with the Service on habitat work in Pennsylvania’s 514,000-acre Allegheny National Forest north of Pittsburgh, another high-priority area for the organization. Though the project is on a smaller scale than in the Green and does not require expanding staff ranks, the work will be accomplished quickly, and the hope is it’ll be an important stepping stone to further stewardship together in the Allegheny.
“This infusion of funds gives us an opportunity to work on solid habitat projects and actually get the work wrapped up as soon as this winter,” says Ben Larson, director of forest market strategy and forest conservation director for the Mid-Atlantic region.
First, he’ll hire a contractor to remove vegetation that’s competing with and shading out young oak stands on about 700 acres. “This regeneration work needs to be done by hand, because you’re cutting small-diameter brush and small trees, and there’s no market for that kind of material, so commercial timber sale isn’t a good fit in this case,” he says.
There’s also money in the agreement to remove invasive buckthorn, a nonnative shrub that crowds out “almost everything else,” according to Larson. “This is just the beginning of a much larger project to get buckthorn under control in that part of Pennsylvania, which will take many years and millions of dollars. That’s obviously far beyond what’s in this agreement, but we’re glad to get started working with the Allegheny and a lot of other partners on the effort.”
Superior National Forest
Buckthorn management also features in the plan for Minnesota’s 3-million-acre Superior National Forest, where the R9 agreement expands on existing collaborative conservation. “Of the 11 national forests in the region I oversee, we have existing agreements in six of them,” says Jon Steigerwaldt, forest conservation director for the Great Lakes and Upper Midwest region. “So this agreement doubles down on some of our most important program areas and allows us to lead on really innovative approaches.”
As in the Green Mountain National Forest, the agreement in the Superior includes RGS & AWS-led timber sale assessments for more than 1,000 acres, but in this case, the staff will help address habitat management projects that went “no bid” by local contractors due to a number of challenges.
“The first major way we can tip the scales and push some areas toward being commercially viable is looking at how we can create access where it’s needed,” explains Steigerwaldt. This could include paying for things such as road grading, maintenance and even bridges or water crossings that would also benefit water quality.
Staff will also look into ways to ensure that local mills can receive and utilize wood from habitat projects. This often leads to the best results from a habitat response standpoint and helps local economies where forest industry jobs are important.
“At the end of the day, if we can find a way to make some of these acres commercially viable, we’ll benefit the community and set aside money in our stewardship agreement for additional work like shrub planting, stream restoration, prescribed fire or invasive plant management,” says Steigerwaldt.
Where Steigerwaldt’s team can coax out more timber sales, the revenue will go back into habitat practices, including buckthorn removal. “That’s the innovative part of this approach,” he says, “and I’ve already heard from personnel at other forests saying they’re interested in applying this same formula.”
Chippewa National Forest
West of the Superior, RGS & AWS has already completed two rounds of forest habitat work in the Chippewa National Forest through the earliest of all the organization’s stewardship agreements. So Steigerwaldt is excited to take on exclusively supplemental project work in this latest agreement. “In this round, we’ll hire foresters to mark commercially viable timber sales across 1,800 acres,” he says. “We’ll also hire contractors to go in and mechanically release areas of young oak that are struggling to thrive due to a lack of forest disturbance.”
Once treated, these oak stands won’t become prime ruffed grouse habitat right away, which may be disappointing for hunters, says Steigerwaldt. But forest management can be a long game at times — the forest plans reflect this and so does the RGS & AWS mission. “We trust our members to understand that, yes, it’s going to take awhile, maybe as long as 10 years,” he says. “But in the long term, we’ll see the results for wildlife habitat and sustainability.”
Benefits on Both Sides
The benefits of this forest management work across some 6,000 acres are more than clear, but some people may wonder why the Forest Service would partner with a nonprofit to get this work done rather than forge ahead alone. Simply because it’s a win-win.
The technical expertise of RGS & AWS staff helps to ensure that federal funding is being implemented locally in a way that benefits wildlife, sportsmen and sportswomen and surrounding communities. And the blueprint for the work is coming directly from RGS & AWS with Forest Service approval, giving members a strong voice in broad-scale conservation efforts.
Meanwhile, a nonprofit partner can often hire crews and execute contracts more efficiently than a government agency, achieving the same habitat outcomes in less time. That’s attractive to the Service and to all stakeholders.
This model is working well for both sides, and interest in stewardship agreements is only growing.
“We’ve already increased our direct involvement in forest management from a handful of agreements in 2020 to nearly two dozen agreements today, including this one, our biggest yet,” says Jones. “It’s a fulfillment of our vision for growing RGS & AWS’s impact, and we’re excited to see it working operationally. RGS & AWS members, supporters, staff — our whole community — should be very proud of that.”
Learn more about how you can support RGS & AWS’s sustainable habitat management work.