Charter Forests Could Bring Innovation to Land Management

Published August 6, 2015

A new report by the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC) offers an alternative approach to national forest management: the concept of “chartered forests.”

            Building on the charter schools experiment, the key principle is freedom and flexibility tied to accountability.

            The report’s author, Robert Nelson of the University of Maryland, told Environment & Climate News how chartered forests would work.

            “A charter forest would function outside the administration of the Forest Service, although the land would remain federal,” Nelson said.

            “Instead of Forest Service administrators, management and policy directions would be set by a charter forest board of directors,” Nelson said. “A charter forest would be free from … forest planning requirements that the Forest Service now must comply with, which often serve as an open invitation to disruptive litigation.”

            The PERC report suggests chartered forests ought to be required to meet broad land use goals and environmental quality performance standards, with each chartered forest having the flexibility to develop and implement innovative programs to meet the goals.

            “Preliminary reactions have shown strong interest in the concept and a desire to explore further details that would be necessary for implementation,” Nelson said

            “I met, for example, with the county commissioners of Shoshone County in northern Idaho in June to discuss the concept, and they decided to launch a program for public meetings and further technical analysis of the possibility of a charter forest in the county,” Nelson said. 

Conditions for Success

PERC lists 10 conditions considered necessary for chartered forests to succeed.

            Among these, though still under federal ownership, charter forests wouldn’t operate under traditional U.S. Forest Service control and management and regulatory requirements. Management responsibility would be transferred to a board of directors for each forest, which would set policies for its individual forests. A national charter forest board would be established to determine whether each charter forest achieves broad land use goals and performance standards.

            At least at the outset, charter forests would continue receiving some federal funding to cover part of their operating costs, with individual charter forests having the authority to set user fees and retain the revenues. The federal government would continue to provide wildfire management for charter forests.

            “It is unlikely the Forest Service or [the Bureau of Land Management] would advocate for charter forests,” Nelson said. “In any case, implementation of charter forests—perhaps a pilot program at first—would require federal legislation, so the decision would be in the hands of Congress.”

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.