July 2023 Science Corner | A multi-benefit framework for funding forest management in fire-driven ecosystems across the Western U.S.

Members of the Blue Forest science team, alongside an interdisciplinary group of collaborators, set out to identify those benefits and strategies to leverage them to engage new public and private beneficiaries.

Authors: Kimberly Quesnel Seipp, Tessa Maurer, Micah Elias, Phil Saksa, Catherine Keske, Kirsten Oleson, Benis Egoh, Rachael Cleveland, Charity Nyelele, Nicolas Goncalves, Kyle Hemes, Peter Wyrsch, David Lewis, Min Gon Chung, Han Guo, Martha Conklin, Roger Bales

Science Corner by: Tessa Maurer, PhD & Kim Seipp, PhD

Photo: Wildland Firefighters with the Shasta Trinity National Forest monitor a prescribed fire on Backbone Ridge, near Shasta Lake April 15, 2023. (USDA Forest Service photo by Andrew Avitt)

Through the Forest Resilience Bond, Blue Forest has successfully leveraged the fire risk reduction and water security benefits of resilient forests to engage beneficiaries like water utilities and corporations. Though these beneficiaries are interested in vastly different outcomes, they have both contributed to the same projects, increasing overall available funding and ensuring work can be done at a meaningful scale. However, there are many more societal benefits that we gain from healthy forests, like carbon sequestration and recreation—and finding a way to leverage them for additional funding would allow for even larger and faster projects to combat the threats facing our forests.

Members of the Blue Forest science team, alongside an interdisciplinary group of collaborators, set out to identify those benefits and strategies  to leverage them to engage new public and private beneficiaries. The result of that effort is a new study published in the Journal of Environmental Management last month, which describes a framework for funding forest management in the Western U.S. The paper aims to provide an approach to stimulate investment and increase the pace and scale of urgently needed forest management activities. The study lays out a process for identifying project benefits, engaging project beneficiaries, and ultimately, stacking contributions from different parties to reach the total project cost. The authors also provide a list of eleven benefits from ecological forest management and characterize those benefits in terms of how easily they can be leveraged to drive project investments.

“Advancing the pace and scale of forest restoration through fuels treatment requires more capacity and funding than have historically been available to federal and state land managers or private landowners,” said Dr. Roger Bales, a hydrologist and one of the study’s co-authors. “Multi-benefit partnerships that undertake innovative financing that includes monetizing co-benefits of management can fill this gap.”

Frameworks for environmental management are common in the scientific literature, but most studies tend to focus on the planning stages of management rather than implementation. Before this, few had tackled the particular problem of forest management – especially on public lands. In addition, the authors were keenly aware that many frameworks in academic studies don’t account for real-world needs and are consequently not that useful in practice. To combat that tendency, the authors reviewed successful, real-world projects as well as previous scientific literature before formulating the framework.

A key feature of the framework lies in the process of identifying and engaging beneficiaries through co-produced benefit evaluation. The authors place heavy emphasis on this step of engagement, characterizing their framework as “iterative and collaborative”. Engaging beneficiaries can be the biggest challenge to the entire process, but by assessing benefits with those that benefit there is an opportunity to create trust and buy-in that can support management in a sustained, long-term way. The authors also identify areas for policy change and future research to improve the monetizability and transactability of the eleven identified benefits and make them easier to leverage for funding.

“For some, restoring a forest is akin to a spiritual or moral imperative. For others, restoring forests could be about growing higher quality trees for timber. The latter is an easier benefit to place a monetary value on, because the timber company has a good idea of the market value of the wood, and will invest in land management,” noted Dr. Kirsten Oleson, an ecological economist and co-author. “However, the former is far harder to ‘monetize’ – how do we estimate the benefits of the forest to people who share kinship ties with the trees or who recharge under the forest’s wondrous canopy? We need to understand the scale of these less tangible benefits to know how much to invest in forest restoration, but also to find new sources of funding from diverse beneficiaries to make up the funding gap.”

It is important to note that some regions may simply not have well-resourced beneficiaries able to meaningfully contribute to projects, without which the framework is not usable. Even in places that do have these beneficiaries, cost sharing of management can seem at best new and perhaps even tangential to the primary goals of many organizations. This highlights the importance of building trust and understanding with potential project beneficiaries.

The study itself highlights the interdisciplinary nature of forest management: the author list includes natural scientists, social scientists, and economists. This diversity of perspectives was critical for developing a framework that accounts for quantifying and monetizing benefits of management as well as considering the behavioral and institutional hurdles of stakeholder-based work. Though interdisciplinary work can be challenging, especially since academic disciplines continue to be relatively siloed, such perspectives are urgently important for addressing the current environmental challenges.

“Forests are dynamic ecosystems produced and influenced by complex and often interacting social and ecological processes (in an ever-changing global context!),” said Dr. Charity Nyelele, a co-author who researches ecosystem services through an environmental justice and equity lens. “As such, interdisciplinary expertise that includes the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities is needed to not only understand these complex processes, but to also support investments, policies, and sustainable forest management practices that provide both biodiversity and ecosystem services.”

In particular, the authors noted that the paper leaves several questions open to future research, particularly more deeply exploring metrics and policies for more easily monetizing benefits that are currently hard to leverage. Blue Forest and our science collaborators will continue to pursue these and other research questions to further support forest and ecosystem management work.