Pact bonds state, federal forestry efforts
Written by: John Lovett
Published by: Times Record
An agreement between the state of Arkansas and the U.S. Department of Agriculture signed Thursday is meant to ensure longevity in collaborative forest management efforts between state and federal agencies.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue made his third trip to Arkansas since 2017 to sign the Shared Stewardship Strategy agreement with Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
The U.S. Forest Service, a division of the USDA, announced the new strategy of shared stewardship in August 2018 after the release of “Toward Shared Stewardship Across Landscapes.” The report outlines the USDA’s plans “to work more closely with states to identify landscape-scale priorities for targeted practices in areas with the highest forest health opportunities.”
With more than half of Arkansas’ public and private land covered in forest, Hutchinson said the agreement is an “important step to further support, protect and preserve Arkansas’ most valuable resource” and help preserve the state’s “rich ecosystem that supports our communities, watersheds, and economy.”
The memorandum of understanding signed Wednesday at the Arkansas Department of Agriculture by Hutchinson and U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue marks the first such agreement in the southern United States and is the first one in the nation to include the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
State Forester Joe Fox of the Arkansas Forestry Commission told the Times Record on Thursday although Arkansas state agencies have worked well with federal agencies in the past, this agreement helps take politics out of the equation and would encourage cooperation under future leadership. The Forestry Commission is a division of the Arkansas Agriculture Department.
Because there are many acres of private land in Arkansas that border federal lands like the Ouachita National Forest, prescribed burns conducted on private property by the Arkansas Forestry Commission helps cut down on the potential wildfires spreading.
More funding for prescribed burns on private land that borders federal land may also be a potential benefit, Fox said.
“We have worked together a long time, and we’ll plan together and make decisions together, but this could help us collaborate more,” Fox said. “This is just a formal pledge to work together. It makes it more formal for your successors.”
Fox noted “landscape restoration,” which comes with prescribed burns, is recommended every two to five years in both Arkansas and Oklahoma. If the burns are done just once every 10 years, for example, it is “wasted money,” Fox said.
Fox noted that prescribed burns on private land is “all volunteer.”
While the most immediate benefit of a prescribed burn is to keep forest fuels down, it also promotes native grasses to grow, which in turn promotes the native food chain and “more desirable” trees, Fox added.
As described by the governor, the MOU “establishes a framework for the participating agencies to work more closely together to accomplish mutual goals, further common interests, and effectively respond to ecological challenges and natural resource concerns in Arkansas.”
A key component of the shared-stewardship strategy is to prioritize investment decisions on forest practices to protect communities and create resilient forests and landscapes, Hutchinson added.
U.S. Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, was also at the signing Wednesday with U.S. Reps. French Hill and Rick Crawford and Arkansas Agriculture Secretary Wes Ward.
Westerman represents the state’s 4th Congressional District, which includes areas around Fort Smith. Westerman is the only licensed forester in Congress.
Westerman said the agreement is important because “the federal government cannot possibly oversee every aspect of American agriculture effectively.”
“Local stakeholders and officials are far more equipped to meet needs on the ground, protect wildland urban interfaces and enact best practices,′ Westerman said. “This community involvement is best for long-term forest health. I’m so glad to see Arkansas collaborating with USFS, and hope this is the start of many more effective partnerships to come.”
The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) introduced the Shared Stewardship Strategy as a means of addressing forestry challenges on a local level, Westerman’s office explained.
“Many forest land managers are facing wildfires, pest infections and more public demand, and need the input of USFS officials,” a news release from Westerman’s office states. ” The Shared Stewardship Agreements ensure that forest managers have the tools they need to steward their land, as well as increase the scope and scale of forest treatments. At the same time, these managers will provide valuable input to USFS regarding the effectiveness and long-term sustainability of these projects.”
The state agencies participating in the agreement are the Arkansas Agriculture Department and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. The federal participating agencies are the U.S. Forest Service and the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.
“This is an important next step in our land-management efforts with the State of Arkansas,” Perdue said at the signing. “Shared Stewardship is about setting cross-boundary priorities together to achieve landscape-scale outcomes. USDA looks forward to working closely with the state to improve health and conditions on both public and private lands.”
In addition to a discussion with agriculture stakeholders and the signing at the Arkansas Agriculture Department, Perdue also visited with poultry industry leaders and conducted a precision agriculture tour. Perdue last visited Arkansas in January to met with Hutchinson, Ward, Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and agriculture leaders from across the state.