Shared stewardship agreement

Representatives from N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and the N.C. Forest Service sign an agreement to work more collaboratively. From left to right, Erik Christofferson, deputy director of operations of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission; Jim Hubbard, USDA Natural Resources and Environment under secretary; Steve Troxler, North Carolina agricultural commissioner; Scott Bissette, assistant commissioner of North Carolina Forest Service and Vicki Christiansen, USDA Forest Service chief.

ASHEVILLE – A new shared stewardship agreement between federal and state agencies has the hopes of providing better coordination for land management activities and emergency events, according to officials involved with the process.

The agreement was signed between the United States Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the North Carolina Forest Service and the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission during a Sept. 26 ceremony in Asheville.

“Federal, state and private managers of land in N.C. face a range of challenges, among them, population increases leading to more development, catastrophic storms, droughts, flooding, insect and disease outbreaks, invasive species and a lack of adequate markets to help drive investments in sustainable forest management,” the purpose of the agreement states. “We recognize that these challenges must be met with proactive measures across all lands including restoring fire-adaptive communities and reducing the risk of wildfire; identifying, managing and reducing threats to forest and ecosystem health; and conserving working forestland.”

Locally, the Pisgah National Forest includes the Grandfather and Appalachian ranger districts that are managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Parks such as Elk Knob, Mount Jefferson and Grandfather Mountain are part of the N.C. State Parks’ system. In addition, conservation groups such as New River Conservancy and Blue Ridge Conservancy manage tracts of land aimed for preservation.

The shared stewardship agreement won’t mean any additional law enforcement presence across land boundaries, but rather how to better work together, according to Scott Bissette, assistant commissioner of the N.C. Forest Service.

“Members of the public may not notice major differences; however they may observe increased joint communications and collaborative actions between the agencies on implementing forest management practices, such as addressing invasive species or weeds,” Bissette stated on Oct. 8. “Greater efficiencies will be possible when we’re working together between adjacent private, federal and state lands.”

“Basically it means we’ll be looking across the landscape on state and federal land and see where we can do projects together,” Cathy Dowd of the U.S. Forest Service said.

Beth Romer of the N.C. Forest Service and N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services explained that “shared stewardship” is a new term, but not a new concept.

“It’s taking a good collaboration between federal and state agencies, nonprofits and people in project planning and taking it to the next level across jurisdiction boundaries,” Romer said.

Romer said issues such as wildlife, invasive weed and declining species numbers don’t know federal and state land boundaries, hence the need for more partnership.

Richard Thornburg, district ranger for the Appalachian Ranger District of the Pisgah National Forest, noted that partnership across federal and state lands could help protect species, such as the golden-winged warbler, a migratory songbird that is found in the highlands around Avery County and Roan Mountain. Thornburg said the warbler has been in a “steep decline” over the last few decades.

“I think it’ll inform us about what people’s interests are beyond our boundaries,” Thornburg said.

Bissette said that in a time of tightening agency budgets, shared stewardship brings “forest management wins” for N.C. landowners.

Wildfires were another point brought up by Bissette, in particular the response to the 2016 Western N.C. wildfires, which including the Horton Fire in eastern Watauga County. From October to December 2016, tens of thousands of acres burned in several N.C. counties due to fires, either man-made or caused by lightning, that were accelerated by exceptionally dry conditions.

“One of the biggest takeaways from the intense wildfire season we experienced in 2016 was a confirmed need for N.C. natural resource agencies to not only work together, but also train together to establish and reinforce standardized and consistent incident management efficiencies between fully integrated agencies,” Bissette said. “Since then, we have invested in providing increased cross-agency training opportunities between the N.C. Forest Service, USDA Forest Service, N.C. State Parks and N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission as well as other key partners.”

“The magnitude of wildfire activity during the fall of 2016 was more than the N.C. Forest Service could manage alone and we greatly appreciated assistance we received from outside sources,” Bissette added. “It’s crucial these partnerships are maintained for whatever emergency response needs come North Carolina’s way.”

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