Working Lands, Working Communities Initiative Survey Results


WGA distributed a survey to state and local agencies and interested stakeholders soliciting feedback on the interdependent relationships between western communities and state and federal land / resource management entities, and the role that local communities play in successful land planning and management processes.

The survey included questions addressing land management and planning, cross-boundary collaboration, forest and rangeland management, and rural development, as well as two general questions. Questions and survey results can be found below.

Themes and issues identified in the survey will inform the work of the Chair initiative of Governor Brad Little of Idaho, Working Lands, Working Communities. The initiative’s activities – including workshops and webinars – will explore these themes in greater detail and provide recommendations to improve community resilience and land management processes.

Summary Results

Several general themes emerged from the survey results. One of the most common observations was the need for greater collaboration between governments and between governments and communities in land use planning processes. Widely-mentioned comments included:

  • The need for better engagement with local communities on cross-boundary management and resource planning;
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Shared Stewardship strategy is an important tool for improving project coordination between states and the federal government; and 
  • Integrating planning processes between federal, state, local and tribal governments would improve management outcomes.

Many respondents supported improved sharing of data – across all levels of government – as an important aspect of expanded collaboration and better project outcomes. According to survey respondents, local data is often available, but lack of staff and funding capacity, partnerships, and communication between local, state and federal agencies creates complications in considering all data, assuring data is high quality and reliable, and fully capturing the story the data tells. Additionally, the lack of established standards for data collection and processing can lead to difficulty integrating data from multiple sources.

Respondents noted the importance of ensuring parties are invested in project outcomes, from engaging in the planning process to having a financial stake in project execution. Promoting multiple sources of funding for projects ensures parties are invested in the goals of the management work and the need to address regulatory issues that may impede the pace and scale of mitigation and restoration activity.

Long term assurances, clear agreements and protection for local landowners, producers, and communities have helped increase engagement. Access to external funding from government grants or non-governmental organizations (NGOs) has allowed communities lacking financial capacity to participate in planning processes and project execution.

Most respondents expressed support for federal Farm Bill forestry authorities like Good Neighbor Authority (GNA) and Stewardship Contracting Authority (SCA). Most respondents felt that authorities should be expanded to other federal agencies and to other management areas, including invasive species, recreation, and fish and wildlife applications. Most people think the biggest obstacles to the use of these authorities are a lack of federal funding and state and federal workforce for projects, a lack of understanding about how the programs work, and a lack of enthusiasm from line officers. Respondents said that policymakers should assess opportunities to more rapidly deploy tools such as GNA, SCA, and implementation of Forest Action Plans, versus creating new tools.

The most common obstacles to the use of USDA Rural Development (RD) programs cited were: 1) the difficulty of the application process and lack of expertise or capacity of potential applicants to submit acceptable applications; 2) the system favors larger operations, thus the same entities routinely win; and 3) there is not enough coordination between RD staff and federal land management agencies/staff to take advantage of resource management or restoration opportunities.

Survey Questions

Land Management and Planning

Question 1: What are some strategies to improve cross‐boundary and cross‐jurisdictional natural resource planning and management in the West? How can these strategies be better incorporated into federal forest and rangeland planning and resource management plan development?

Better communication and information sharing – between governments and with local landowners – is fundamental to improving planning, management and outcomes.

The need for better engagement with local communities on cross-boundary resource planning was, by far, the most frequent suggestion from respondents. There was consensus that USDA’s Shared Stewardship strategy is an important tool for improving project coordination between states and USDA. The benefits of integrating planning processes between federal, state, local and tribal governments was also a common theme.

Multiple respondents mentioned improving the sharing of data – across all levels of government to improve collaboration and project outcomes.

Other common suggestions included promoting multiple sources of funding for projects to ensure parties are invested in management work, and the need to address regulatory matters that impede the pace and scale of mitigation and restoration work.

Question 2: How can federal agencies more effectively collect and utilize local‐ or state‐level data – including quantitative and qualitative information – in decision‐making processes that impact western working lands?

According to survey respondents, local data is often available, but lack of staff and funding capacity, partnerships, and communication between agencies creates complications in considering all data, assuring data is high quality and reliable, and fully capturing the story the data tells. Additionally, the lack of established standards for data collection and processing can lead to difficulty integrating data from multiple sources.

The lack of data standards and consistency was a reoccurring theme across multiple responses. Established standards would allow amalgamated data from non-governmental, local, state and federal sources to be efficiently compared and utilized. Varying methods of collection and processing lead to agencies not accessing or using potentially valuable data without creating new systems or procedures. Many respondents noted the need to update databases and database software to reflect new data, science and the use of modern software tools.

Other respondents noted that there needs to be agreement on what data is important for a particular end goal. Additionally, that data needs to be translated into an understandable narrative that provides useable, useful information to the reader. Due to lack of data standards, data may be shared, but other groups may not know how to properly interpret that data. Respondents specifically noted that State Forest Action Plans and the Shared Wildfire Risk Mitigation Tool are being underutilized for developing shared priorities, and could be excellent systems for quantifying project accomplishments.

Lack of capacity for adequate data collection was another common response throughout the survey. Some respondents explained their staff lack the necessary training to use data collection equipment and software, while others simply lack staff members and resources altogether. Building a chain of partnerships between every level of group or agency collecting data was a proffered solution. State agency resources may allow local groups to increase capacity for effective data collection, and in turn, states could work with federal agencies to provide collected data. These partnerships could include NGOs and universities engaged in relevant research as well as private landowners. Often, members of one organization or agency don’t even know what data has already been collected and processed by another.

Question 2a: What privacy issues could foreseeably prevent state and local governments from sharing data with federal agencies? How could these issues be addressed?

Privacy, security and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) concerns were the number one issue respondents discussed. State agencies are hesitant about sharing state data with federal agencies due to FOIA requirements potentially resulting in sensitive state data being released publicly. This is especially prevalent in rural areas with low populations because of the corresponding low number of data points. Survey respondents expressed a need for adjustments to statute and regulation that allow data to be more readily available while protecting privacy and confidentiality.

Some respondents recommended uses of non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements to address this, but also encouraged building trust and relationships to increase a willingness to share data. Respondents identified, as another possible solution, aggregating data or collecting data at different scales. USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service was noted as an example of an agency aggregating data at smaller scales and using undisclosed locations if landowners could be easily identified. Others recommended anonymous attribution of data, or for using NGOs or other organizations not subject to FOIA to maintain data.

The lack of transparency and trust between local landowners and local and state agencies and how their data may be used by other parties was another significant concern. Survey respondents noted trespassing on private land for data collection to be a barrier to trust for sharing data with government agencies. Respondents interpreted the need for transparency in different ways. Some requested legal transparency and protection for landowners, as data has been used in lawsuits and protests against private landowners and grazing permittees.

Question 2b: What obstacles currently prevent state and local governments from accessing data from federal agencies that is needed for their own decision‐making processes? How could these obstacles be overcome?

Like the previous question, many survey respondents identify security concerns as a major barrier to data sharing. The lack of legal protection and threats of lawsuits can make it difficult for landowners to trust their data won’t be misused once shared.

Additionally, federal agencies’ internal barriers and tendency to create silos within agencies makes it difficult for others to understand what data is available, and what clear conduits are to access it. Again, respondents highlighted lack of standards and compatibility across platforms makes data sharing difficult. Federal data can be hidden behind proprietary systems and is not publicly available, contributing to lack of transparency needed from other organizations and agencies to build trust with federal data collection. Respondents noted a need for increased shared commitment to resources from federal agencies.

State and local governments lack training in federal processes and require technical assistance in needed areas. Professional development programs were also suggested by respondents to ensure when data is accessed, it can also be properly interpreted.

Cross‐Boundary Collaboration

Question 1: In natural resource planning and management efforts you have been involved with, what models of collaboration have you used that have been able to successfully balance the needs of communities and working lands with species and ecosystem protection? How have you incorporated tribal or local knowledge and practices into those efforts?

Respondents replied that all affected entities (federal, state, local and tribal governments, private landowners and stakeholders) should be involved in the early stages of project planning. Having local collaborative groups that work directly with agencies to provide feedback on agency plans and programs have shown success. These models include planning with communities to determine mutual priority areas. These projects should be well-balanced and not over promise results.

Building and maintaining trust throughout the process is essential for long-term success. Some respondents noted the effort that goes into planning may fall short in the implementation phase due to lost interest or partners failing to deliver on agreed-upon actions. These shortfalls can erode trust and make it difficult to participate in future efforts. Cost-sharing agreements can help incentivize groups to stay engaged. Using NGOs to handle logistics and coordination and facilitate intergovernmental and stakeholder collaboration and planning can take the burden off governments and embed responsibility in a specific entity.

Survey respondents noted the lack of incentives for participation in collaborative efforts for tribes, producers and other local working community members. Engaging in project planning can take a significant time commitment and patience is needed to see results from coordinated efforts. Tribes are often not incentivized to participate in collaborative efforts as they are party to their own government-to-government consultation. Engagement in certain collaborations can weaken their position with federal or state governments. Respondents noted the role of meaningful, separate consultation with tribes early in the process in addressing this issue.

Question 2: What planning or management tools or policies (federal, state and local) have you used or seen in action that have contributed to voluntary and meaningful participation from local landowners and community members?

Long term assurances, clear agreements and protection for local landowners, producers, and communities have helped increase engagement. Respondents noted that it takes a long time to build trust and relationships. Frequent interactions between landowners and land managers have fostered of mutual understanding and decreased confrontation. Community involvement in federal projects has cultivated a sense of ownership within those communities, generating respect and voluntary contributions. Several respondents also noted that conversations will start out collaboratively, but then certain parties will fail to follow through on their part of agreements.

Respondents noted that additional further outreach and advertisement of opportunities for engagement can garner greater support and participation. In some cases, potential partners are simply unaware that these opportunities exist. Additionally, meetings should be timed to allow community members to attend: many respondents encouraged scheduling these meetings outside of regular working hours and the use of field trips to allow stakeholders to see firsthand the land management challenges facing a community.

Access to external funding from government grants or NGOs has allowed greater participation in communities lacking the financial capacity to do so on their own. Financial incentives to bring parties to the table were a theme throughout the survey, but without resources many collaborative groups are unable to do so. Cost sharing of activities is another way to fund projects as well as ensure parties are inclined to continue projects through completion. Respondents noted there are a wide range of tools available, from conservation easements to university extension programs, that should be more widely advertised.

Forest and Rangeland Management

Question 1: How do federal forest management authorities under the Farm Bill, including Good Neighbor Authority, Stewardship Contracting Authority, and Insect and Disease Designations, support the economic and ecological health of western working lands? How could these tools be approved and utilized more effectively and expansively?

Most respondents expressed support for existing authorities and said that they enable and enhance projects in their states. The most popular programs were GNA and SCA – respondents encouraged the continuation and expansion of these programs in the next Farm Bill. Less was said about Insect and Disease (I&D) designation: only two respondents mentioned I&D; one of them felt that the program was not successful and not desired by states.

Most felt that when the GNA and SCA programs didn’t work, it was because they were misapplied to a project. The most common reason for problems with GNA and SCA is a lack of federal funding for projects, and most respondents recommended that federal appropriations for these projects be increased. One proposed solution was to broaden GNA to include counties and private companies to increase the number of potential project funders. Others said that funding issues could be alleviated if the programs were broadened beyond timber projects.

The second most-mentioned obstacle to the use of these programs is a lack of training, education, and acceptance by US Forest Service (USFS) line officers. Several respondents recommended more training to the federal staff that administer these authorities. Without training, line officers might use them like standard contracts because they are more familiar with that format.

Respondents felt that GNA and SCA are underutilized in rangeland management. This was attributed partly to a lack of understanding or acculturation around their use by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), but more often because of economic factors. Low-yield projects, including rangeland management projects and small diameter timber projects, can make funding GNA and SCA projects more difficult. Respondents recommended the authorities be expanded to other federal agencies and to other management areas, including invasive species, recreation, and fish and wildlife applications. Some respondents felt that the authorities should be expanded to cover more landowner categories and types of activities. One respondent encouraged a greater commitment to using the "best value" provisions of stewardship contracting to emphasize local economic benefit.

Question 2: Has your community or region explored or invested in using forest or agricultural biomass as an energy source? If so, do you have any insights to share regarding business development strategies, markets, infrastructure needs, or natural resource management opportunities?

Respondents were split about the long-term prospects for biomass utilization for energy production. About half of the respondents felt that the lack of an economic case for biomass might prevent it from ever becoming a feasible energy source. The other half felt that biomass may be successful if markets are created for it to work at scale. Several respondents mentioned carbon credits and cap and trade as ways to support markets. There was more enthusiasm about the use of biomass as organic matter, such as biochar, for agriculture and native grasslands restoration.

Opinions differed about the feasibility and long-term prospects for biomass markets. Comments and critiques generally formed in terms of scale. Optimists felt that the use of biomass for energy production could be viable if markets are first created through government subsidies. Once markets are operational, they may be able to function without the use of long-term subsidies. Respondents noted specific projects successfully using biomass. Biomass facilities need certainty of supply, which has proved to be challenging.

Pessimists felt that biomass would never be viable at scale. Several examples where it had been attempted over the last several decades and failed were provided. The most common reason for failure was the low cost-energy ratio of biofuels. The most cited issue with biomass was the lack of supply certainty. Federal land management agencies (mainly USFS) can only guarantee a year-toyear supply chain. Most investors will not support a biomass energy project unless there is a 5 or 10-year supply certainty.

Respondents were more hopeful about the use of biomass for non-energy purposes because the economics can become more favorable (the energy expenditure vs. energy yield ratio is not as vital). Biochar came up again and again as a tool that shows promise, and several respondents encourage the use of biochar for agriculture and restoration of native grasslands. Biochar can sequester carbon when used as a soil amendment or an animal feed amendment.

Several respondents mentioned carbon credits and cap and trade as ways to support markets. They felt that creating a national carbon market and expediting development and adoption of a forestry carbon protocol could help significantly. Carbon credits and cap and trade may have a role in enticing future development of biomass markets and opportunities.

Rural Development

Question 1: Do US Department of Agriculture Rural Development programs or other federal assistance programs provide adequate assistance for communities, businesses or entrepreneurs who are interested in conducting natural resources management activities or developing restoration‐based economic activity? If not, please explain what kind of resources or program changes are needed.

Although the question is specific to USDA RD programs for fostering natural resource management and restoration-based economic activity, many responses mentioned Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) programs, suggesting that among respondents, there was less familiarity with RD. Of those responses that did address RD programs, about three-quarters felt that RD does not provide adequate assistance to develop restoration-based economic activity in rural communities.

A key obstacle identified by respondents was unfavorable market dynamics that prevent this type of economic activity from being profitable and sustainable. Possible solutions to this challenge included fostering small and medium sized operations through government contracting and creating a tax incentive structure to create a better market.

A variety of obstacles with RD programs were also identified. Several respondents commented that the programs are too confusing and that it is impossible for businesses to access resources without significant assistance or hiring a specialist. Capacity to complete application processes is lacking.

Additionally, RD staff are overextended and may be unable to give individual applicants assistance. Some respondents recommended that RD work more with relevant organizations and groups in communities, including conservation districts, to provide assistance and build capacity.

Another challenge noted is the lack of coordination among RD programs and staff and between RD and the land management agencies. Some suggested this leads to missed opportunities; if RD were more attuned to land management decisions affecting the communities they serve, they may be able to help local businesses capitalize on new opportunities.

Some respondents also noted the need for flexibility and that programs should seek to achieve consistent goals without prescribing activities to get there.

Question 2: What would it take for active forest and rangeland management and wildfire and /or insect and disease restoration to become a viable component of the local economy in your community or rural western communities broadly? What obstacles exist, or what conditions are currently lacking?

For all types of active management, certainty, large scale investment, and longer time horizons are needed to encourage private investment and entrepreneurship. Many responses noted that grant programs can only yield small scale success. Larger temporal and spatial scale, like longer stewardship contracts or long-term commitments of funds, are needed to generate an industry response.

For timber and biomass, most respondents recommended actions to develop a more favorable market. The most frequent response was that to reduce costs and make enterprises profitable, either the appropriate infrastructure needs to be present where the work is occurring or transportation needs to be cost-effective. Some suggested that investments should be focused on those places with existing mills and other infrastructure, both to increase the cost-effectiveness of investments and to maintain existing logging and hauling infrastructure.

Some respondents noted that more funding for work on public lands that does not yield a marketable product, such as erosion control, prescribed fire, and invasive weed control, could spur the development of local businesses and an economy based on that work, but it may not be permanent or sustainable over longer time horizons (20 years of more).

Some suggested the federal land management agencies need a cultural shift to be more welcoming of private investors or to be able to work directly with contractors. Federal land management agencies also may not have the policies or tools to allow them to contract with private companies. One respondent suggested that conservation districts and county weed and pest programs are an effective intermediary.

One obstacle to getting to larger temporal and spatial scale is the limited planning capacity in USFS. Respondents stated that the USFS budget and the current focus on wildfire suppression funding limits planning resources and staff for routine management activities. The result is “hand to mouth” projects that take too long to implement. Using all the tools available to USFS, including Healthy Forests Restoration Act authorities and categorical exclusion authorities, could make planning more efficient.

Respondents noted that communities need to want to be involved, which is not always the case. Some said this is due to distrust of the federal agencies. For some communities, capacity to engage is also a limitation. Funding is also limited at the local level and respondents noted that other needs may take priority. Better communication at the local level, focusing on locally relevant messages, would result in more buy-in and social license for the federal agencies to do the work.

Finally, there are workforce challenges. Respondents noted a need for grants to help the private sector build out training programs. Others said that many more trained foresters, biologists, and professional loggers are needed to work with NGOs, governments and landowners to site, design, plan and implement projects across multiple landownerships and landscapes. Training in prescribed fire, in particular, is needed to expand use of that tool.

Other Resources

Question 1: What other programs, policies, or ideas in cross‐boundary natural resource management should WGA consider in the planning of this Initiative?

Survey respondents provided a host of diverse recommendations in response to this question. Popular recommendations with opportunities for WGA engagement include:

  • Assess opportunities to more rapidly deploy tools such as GNA, SCA, the Landscape Conservation Collaboratives Program, the Joint Chiefs Landscape Restoration Partnership, Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration projects, and Forest Action Plans, versus creating new tools; 
  • Focus on opportunities for modernization of USFS staff, including the use of year-round wildland fire and mitigation teams; 
  • Explore the use of regional-scale Habitat Conservation Plans and Candidate Conservation Agreements with Assurances; 
  • Highlight case studies of successful biomass markets in areas that cannot support traditional timber markets; 
  • Encourage the increased use of categorical exclusion authorities granted to federal land managers; 
  • Explore how climate adaptation strategies (stream rehab, reforestation, fence removal, etc.) can connect to overall natural resource management goals;
  • Seek to coordinate individual state efforts related to wildlife migration corridors;
  • Examine increased tourism to public lands and associated infrastructure challenges; and
  • Highlight the socioeconomic and ecological effect of invasive species on western working lands, and seek greater use of grazing to address invasive annual grasses.

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