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Is sharing caring? UGA professor investigates federal-state agreements

USDA grant calls for review of new ‘shared stewardship’ land management strategy

 

When former Gov. Sonny Purdue came to Athens last fall, the first item on his agenda wasn’t the University of Georgia football game (although it was a close second).

His initial stop on that Saturday morning took him to UGA’s Whitehall Forest, where he and Gov. Brian Kemp signed a memorandum of understanding called a “shared stewardship” agreement between Georgia and the federal government. Loosely defined, the MOU formalizes a shared commitment to federal-state cooperation and coordination in forest management.

But if you’re looking for a more specific definition, you might have to look to UGA assistant professor Jesse Abrams, who has been tapped by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to assess the goals and achievements of these shared stewardship agreements over the next five years. Why states enter into them, what they perceive as benefits, and how the partnerships play out across various landscapes will all be examined by Abrams and his research team, which specializes in environmental and land-use policies.

Courtney Schultz, associate professor at Colorado State University and director of the Public Lands Policy Group, is the project lead. UGA’s Abrams is co-principal investigator with Heidi Huber-Stearns, assistant research professor and director of the University of Oregon’s Ecosystem Workforce Program.

 “The purpose of the research is to figure out, if states are signing these agreements, does it change anything in terms of the states committing resources or hiring natural resources staff? Does it change how contracting is done? Does it change how the feds and the states interact? Does it change any other actors who are part of this, such as tribes or counties?” says Abrams. “And so, now that states are beginning to sign, we’ll do studies of each of these states in the first year or two to understand what they signed, what do they think is going to happen and what is their vision for shared stewardship.”

The U.S. Forest Service, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, represents the country’s largest firefighting agency and is entrusted with land management for 193 million acres of national forests. Shared stewardship agreements aim to better connect federal and state resources, which could, for example, apply to wildfire resources in western states or help shape policies in eastern states that better coordinate forest insect management across ownerships.

This is what makes these types of policies so interesting, says Abrams, because they can be applied differently across the country. For example, a state like Massachusetts, one of the first to sign a shared stewardship agreement with the USDA, has no national forestlands. So, the outcome of that state’s shared stewardship agreement will look very different from Oregon or Utah, where large swaths of the state are covered in national forests.

“So, in some ways, it makes me imagine that for eastern states, what that concept looks like is going to be different from where you go out west,” he adds. “It means states, tribes, counties and utilities are going to have a more substantive role in managing federal forestland in the west, while in some eastern states, maybe it will be the opposite; maybe it’s more federal resources brought to these priority landscapes that have been identified for species conservation, for fire protection, watershed issues or insect issues.”

In Georgia, where non-industrial, private landowners own the majority of forested land, the challenge is finding ways to coordinate management for common objectives across numerous individual ownerships. Abrams plans to bring on a graduate student starting this fall to better understand the challenges and opportunities of shared stewardship specific to Georgia and other eastern states.

Academic institutions play an integral role in assessing these types of programs. By offering an independent assessment, Abrams says, government agencies know the information is coming from an outside, credible source that can offer a critical assessment along with pros and cons of the program.

For now, Abrams and his team are conducting interviews with national policymakers, program leads, state-level leaders, and non-governmental organization representatives in the first states to sign shared stewardship agreements. Over the five years of the grant, their focus will change from aspirations and goals to actual results. The final step will be to assess how well the goals lined up with how the agreement panned out. They plan to publish results each year, with the first products coming out later in 2020.

“It’s primarily interview and case-study based, and right now we’re interviewing folks at the state level, or some of the strategic positions at the national level, asking, ‘How do you define shared stewardship?’ and, ‘What do you expect to get out of it? What are some of the anticipated changes?’ says Abrams. “So, we’ll follow that over the years and see how well practices line up with expectations.”

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