Forest At Work: Conservation And Sustainable Management Of The Former Finch Pruyn Lands

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Major selloffs of industrial timberlands in the U.S. in the past two decades have prompted environmental concerns about fragmentation and conversion of forest lands, as well as social and economic concerns about the loss of traditional livelihoods in forestry and rural community decline. In an effort to maintain intact forests and the many ecological and socioeconomic values they provide, conservation organizations, public agencies, and local communities are investing in complex "working forest" land deals in which land and property rights are divided among multiple actors. These transactions represent large, expensive, and relatively untested experiments in integrating conservation, sustainable forest management, and economic development. As such, there is a need for critical assessment in order to evaluate outcomes, manage adaptively, and inform the design of future transactions. We reviewed existing definitions of sustainable forest management, as well as case studies of working forests, to evaluate how ecological and socioeconomic indicators are incorporated in forest management and policy. We also undertook an in-depth case study of a working forest transaction involving the former Finch Pruyn lands in New York State, to explore how this particular arrangement integrates international, regional, and local sustainability goals. We found that our current ability to learn from past experience with working forests is severely limited by a lack of integrated, iterative monitoring data. Monitoring programs tend to be short-term and stymied by small budgets, high staff turnover, and the complexity of the underlying socio-ecological systems. We also found that management objectives for the Finch Pruyn working forest reflect ecological criteria that are consistent with international standards for sustainable forest management, as well as many of the goals described by regional and local actors, such as providing new public recreation opportunities and maintaining some level of forest- related employment. Specific goals related to supporting local economic development were less well reflected in management objectives. Such goals, however, are arguably beyond the scope of a single land deal. In general, we found that working forest transactions have the potential to achieve multiple conservation and sustainability goals, as well as helping to reconcile long-held disputes over forest land management. However, our current ability to assess outcomes is limited by the relatively recent emergence of this strategy and a lack of empirical evidence, particularly related to socioeconomic outcomes. The lack of evidence could exacerbate existing disputes about the relationship between forest land use, ecological integrity, and socioeconomic well-being. Given the inherent complexity of the issues surrounding working forests, we recommend integrated ecological and socioeconomic monitoring to support adaptive management and to build on existing networks between conservation groups, environmental agencies, forest landowners, and local communities. By bringing critical attention to these large, complex experiments in forest conservation and sustainable management, we hope to inform efforts to simultaneously protect ecological integrity and meet the needs of current and future generations.

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