Forest to Faucets: A New Model for Forest Management

This is a guest blog by Mike DeBonis. Mike is Executive Director at The Forest Guild, where he works to practice and promote ecologically, economically, and socially responsible forestry as a means of sustaining the integrity of forest ecosystems and the human communities dependent upon them.

The traditional way a forester thinks about trees and  forests – as a source of solid wood products – is being challenged by the increased emphasis on managing forests for “non-timber “products and environmental services.  Today’s foresters are responsible for managing forests to meet the full suite of social, economic, and ecological needs of society, while maintaining a healthy functioning forest system for future generations.

With over 60% of fresh water flowing from forests, water is arguably the most important product that forests provide.  In the Southeast United States, much of the forestland is privately owned placing the responsibility of producing clean, abundant water in the hands of private landowners. While we understand that well managed forests are essential for producing clean water, with very few exceptions, water has no market value and forest landowners lack incentives to go beyond basic practices.

The job of owning and managing forestland isn’t getting any easier either. Taxes, management costs, and weak forest product markets make it challenging for landowners to maintain their lands as working forests. In some cases, the cost of owning land is too much and landowners are faced with the tough choice of selling or converting their land to other uses. While the challenges facing some landowners are steep, new programs and incentives are emerging that can help landowners meet their land management goals while providing necessary environmental benefits.

Compensating landowners for maintaining well-managed lands that produce clean water is the concept behind Payments for Watershed Services (PWS) markets. PWS markets pay upstream landowners to implement certain management practices that yield ecosystem services, like clean water, for downstream water users. Investments in well managed forests makes sense because the water quality benefits can be more cost effective than investing in traditional grey infrastructure such as water treatment plants and reservoirs.

For example, conserving 80,000 acres within the Catskill Mountain watershed that supplies drinking water to New York City saved city water managers several billion dollars over the cost of building and maintaining a water filtration plant. In Raleigh, North Carolina, the city funded 57 miles of stream bank improvement and 5,460 acres of land enhancement in the Upper Neuse River Basin through a small tax on water withdrawn in Raleigh and Durham. The $5.40 per ratepayer per year surcharge generated about $1.8 million dollars for watershed protection in the first year.

Where the ecological and economic conditions are appropriate, payments for watershed services markets can provide solutions to meeting our water needs while providing economic benefits to landowners and water users. The Forest to Faucets guide makes the connection between well managed forests and clean water in the Etowah River watershed in Georgia. The Guide also lays the groundwork for incentives and markets to support forest practices that go beyond minimum standards and produce clean and abundant water.