Assessing Community Forest Potential in Washington and Montana

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Case Studies, Forest Stories

Enabling Conditions and Barriers to Community Forest Development in the Pacific Northwest


In June of 2016, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) initiated the Community Forest Study in collaboration with faculty and post-docs at the University of Washington (UW) School of Environmental and Forest Sciences and University of Montana (UM) College of Forestry and Conservation. The purpose of the study was to provide preliminary information relevant to the possible development of community forests on TNC’s properties in the Blackfoot River Valley of Montana, and the Central Cascades and Olympic Rainforest regions of Washington.

Study goals included

  1.  gain a better understanding of the three properties and the human communities around them,
  2. conduct a survey of community forests nationally to learn how they operate, and
  3. begin to understand enabling conditions and barriers that could influence the development of community forests in these project areas.

This report provides a summary of findings from Phase I of the Community Forest Study, the goals of which are to describe the three TNC properties and to identify different types of community forests that could inform future ownership and management in these areas. As a first step towards learning about the three properties, the research team interviewed individuals with a close connection to the areas and an understanding of the local context.

The team conducted six semi-structured interviews (two for each project area) with interviewees identified by TNC staff and an analysis of existing management documents such as property maps and management plans.


The interviews were designed to gain an understanding of each respondent’s perspectives on:
1) The ecological and social characteristics of the three properties including the (human) communities around them and who have used them over time 2) Historical, current and possible future ownership and management of the property 3) Their view regarding the definition of a “community forest” and the conditions under which they work best, and 4) Potential enabling conditions and barriers in their respective site that could influence the development of a community forest in the area.

The corresponding report represents a preliminary effort to collect information about the project areas, identify key themes for further study, and consider the potential for some type of community forest development.

Summary of Main Themes

The main themes that emerged from interviews across the three project areas highlight respondent perspectives on the future ownership and management trajectory of the properties and the potential for community forest development.

Range of potential models

Respondents described a range of potential community forest ownership models and governance structures that could possibly meet the needs of resource users and nearby resident communities. They were generally less concerned about the specific ownership model used and, instead, emphasized the importance of inclusive public process and promoting public involvement in management decisions regardless of ownership.

Different perspectives on ownership

Respondents in the Blackfoot and Central Cascades did not envision the property becoming a community “owned” forest, meaning a forest collectively owned and managed by a private group of people. Reasons for this included an inability to identify a group they thought would be interested in owning the property and a concern that a broad array of interests would not be served through ownership by a particular group. In contrast, respondents from the Olympic Rainforest sites could envision the property remaining in private ownership and being somehow community owned.

Decision-making authority

In describing their definition and vision of a community forest, respondents emphasized the importance of conferring a level of decision-making authority for forest management to the focal community. Several respondents were critical of collaborative approaches to public lands management where communities provide recommendations to the property owner or management agency but lack actual decision-making authority. Efforts that do not permit a high degree of authority were highlighted as the type of public involvement respondents do not want to see in a community forest and among the key motivations for seeking an alternative model.

Local benefit streams

Respondents emphasized the importance of ensuring that the values and benefit streams derived from the property go directly into local enterprises which benefit the broader community. Again, several respondents referred to collaboration on public lands as a counter-example where local individuals, enterprises and the broader community does not directly receive the values and benefits resulting from how the property is managed.

Broad access

Maintaining access to the properties by a range of public users was a key issue raised during the interviews and respondents frequently emphasized the importance of access in terms of what communities of place as well as communities of use (i.e., who may reside further away from the property) want from the land. At the same time, respondents were keenly aware of multiple and sometimes competing uses of the property and existing or potential future conflicts among user groups.

In terms of a community forest, respondents emphasized the need to secure access for a broad array of uses and did not want to be seen as favoring any one group over another.

Inclusive process

A majority of respondents were interested in supporting an inclusive and community-driven process. These respondents did not want to be perceived as making decisions regarding the property and potential community forest development ahead of conversations with others.


There was a perceived need to ensure long term ecological conservation of the properties. Respondents from the Blackfoot and Central Cascades expressed concerns that a community forest might not protect forest conservation values (e.g. landscape connectivity, habitat protection, sensitive species management) and thus violate the reason for acquiring the land in the first place. In response to this concern, respondents suggested the need to apply strong and concrete “sideboards” (e.g. a management plan or conservation easement) to the management of a community forest to ensure a level of conservation. Additionally, sideboards were perceived as potentially beneficial to clarify management goals and objectives and facilitate a more deliberate and efficient community-based decision-making process. In contrast, respondents from the Olympic Rainforest expressed a somewhat different perspective regarding the need for sideboards. These respondents recognized that management of the property would likely be restricted to ensure a level of conservation, but expressed less concerned about how the forest would be managed as long as management is consistent with local communities’ values.

Blocked versus checkerboard

All three properties include multiple, geographically separate parcels some in blocked and others in checkboard ownership pattern. Respondents from the Blackfoot Valley and the Central Cascades suggested several sections could be split into different ownership and management trajectories. For example, all respondents from these two areas thought the sections checker-boarded with public lands might be more appropriately owned by the neighboring agency to foster connectivity and continuity. However, there was concern, especially in the Blackfoot Valley that some community members would not be comfortable with additional federal land ownership. In contrast, respondents from the Olympic Peninsula site thought the lands should be owned and managed as a single unit and potentially expanded upon to increase opportunities for timber management and revenue generation.

Public-private partnership

Many spoke of the potential value of public-private partnerships as a model for community forest development (least interest in the Olympic site where private ownership was emphasized). These partnerships were described as having the potential to maximize the benefits of each type of ownership. It was noted that private organizations have more avenues for raising funds, more flexibility and less bureaucracy than public agencies whereas agencies provide some operational money and management stability.

Existing community forests

The existence of a neighboring community forest influenced respondent’s perspectives on the potential for future community forest development. In the Blackfoot Valley, respondents described the Blackfoot Community Conservation Area as a highly effective model and perceived great opportunity to build upon the work already taking place whether that be an extension of the existing model or the development of an entirely new type of ownership. In contrast, Central Cascades respondents were skeptical about potential community forest development based on their experiences with the Teanaway Community Forest. One respondent at the Central Cascades perceived an opportunity for TNC to garner local support for a community forest by leveraging resources to help the Teanaway Community Forest function more effectively.

Download the full report