by Benjamin C. Jones | RGS & AWS President & CEO
The National Forest System is important to many of us. It equates to tens of millions of acres for hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation. The majority of our members have a national forest within 100 miles of home, or even right next door. I killed my first white-tailed deer on a national forest and I’ve enjoyed countless memorable hunts since. Indeed, national forests are meaningful, and their management is an ongoing priority for RGS & AWS. Not many single landowners hold as much habitat opportunity as the U.S. Forest Service!
Yet at times, advocating for national forest management can be challenging. Without question, the topics I discuss most with members involve this federal land base, specifically how to improve forest management. I’ve pondered the same questions as many of you. “Forest management is called for in approved plans. Why are so many forests behind on their goals? Why does managing our national forests have to be so difficult?”
To start, we have to recognize the complexity of managing nearly 200 million acres in the public trust, not to mention responsibility for forest fire protection across all lands. These are big tasks for a big organization, and the wheels can move slowly. This isn’t justification, merely a statement of reality when it comes to working with a large public agency. Yes, there are challenges, but along with those challenges come unparalleled opportunities. We have to dig in, learn the system and navigate it as best we can.
As a wise person once said, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” We have to continue our 60-year record of being part of pragmatic solutions.
Fortunately, there are processes and supportive staff within the Forest Service to help clear hurdles – in other words, ways for RGS & AWS to work with the Forest Service on proactive solutions. You’ve likely heard about some of these recently as we ink new agreements with the agency founded by Gifford Pinchot.
RGS & AWS increased our direct involvement in national forest management from a handful of projects in early 2020 to 16 agreements (20,500 acres) at the end of 2022. This is just the start. Each venture is designed to build infrastructure, capacity and trust that will lead to greater habitat improvement. Instead of just telling the Forest Service, “You need to do A, B and C,” we’re asking, “How can we help?” and using available programs to get things started. It’s a steady build. Patience and diligence are essential for RGS & AWS staff, members and our partners in the Forest Service.
Members play another significant role in national forest management. Public comment is part of most projects, and groups opposing management always show up. We must do the same, with an unwavering voice for forest and wildlife management. While RGS & AWS does submit comments on a national level, the greatest impact occurs locally when members attend open houses, field days and stakeholder meetings. I’ve heard often from Forest Service staff about how much it means when RGS & AWS members voice support for proposed habitat projects. It does make a difference.
Trust and understanding are taking hold among Forest Service and RGS & AWS staff. Relationships are being built. As our conservation partners, the Forest Service sees opportunity to work with RGS & AWS to improve habitat, including some projects that have been on hold for years. They appreciate our collaborative tone and see our business model as a way to build capacity and make a difference for wildlife and hunting opportunities. Progress is being made, and still greater prospects lie ahead. Together with the Forest Service, we share a responsibility to steward our national forests. No, it’s not easy. Yes, there are days when we and Forest Service staffers both get frustrated. Nonetheless, it’s work worth doing, and we’re motivated to push forward, seeking solutions.