Partners empower each other to push projects forward and strengthen their communities. At the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, much like public lands across America, the landscape and the community shape one another. The beautiful Gorge and diversity of landscapes inspire citizens to increase access to recreation, protect natural resources, and educate youth. The area's lifeblood, the Gorge connects the metropolitan Portland area to 292,500 acres of Forest Service lands. By working with partners, the Forest Service can increase their impact- from miles of trail restored to busloads of students planting native flowers. Leveraging the expertise and capacity of trails, restoration, community, and educational groups, the CRGNSA accomplishes more on-the-ground work while engaging a broader community of people.

To leverage these relationships for mutual benefit, the Partnerships on Every Forest (PEF) program conducts partnership assessments at Forest Service units nationwide. PEF staff recently interviewed Forest Service staff and partners at the CRGNSA to identify strengths and challenges in partnerships to offer suggestions to strengthen partnerships for mutual benefit. Here are our key learnings that are relevant to Forest Service units across the country:

Empower partners to navigate Forest Service administrative policy.

Partners should feel empowered to engage with the Forest Service, which requires feeling empowered to reach out to appropriate staff, navigate bureaucracy, and draft partnership agreements. Forest Service staff could create a webpage to direct partners to find information, such as how to find the best contact and a breakdown of regulations and necessary permits to make working with the Forest Service more accessible. Furthermore, partnership networks could be leveraged to help facilitate broader communication and leverage existing relationships and knowledge that less experienced or smaller partner organizations can lean on.

Provide clear direction regarding Forest priorities.

Forest leadership could provide clear direction regarding forest priorities and a partnership strategy to increase coordination. Partner spotlights on Forest’s websites can be an effective way to highlight ongoing projects and effective partnerships, express appreciation, and share information about how the public can get involved. See the CRGNSA StoryMap as an example, where potential volunteers can travel through the Gorge to explore partners and projects in the area.

Engage with and empower underrepresented communities.

Stewardship and conservation are loaded terms with a complicated history. Limited conceptualizations of conservation and the outdoors have historically excluded Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), disability communities, immigrant communities, and LGBTQIA+ communities and can deter underrepresented groups from engaging. Centering the voices of underrepresented communities (e.g., co-creating collaborative project goals) is critical for engagement and shifting what conservation and land stewardship look like.

Providing resources to and making space for underrepresented organizations is critical to engaging and serving diverse populations. Forests could provide resources to support these partners by directly funding organizations doing Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) work. Partners with existing connections to underrepresented communities are a resource for the Forest to develop relationships with and engage different communities.

Build personal relationships.

Positive relationships built upon mutual respect, trust, and appreciation between partners and Forest Service staff, and are critical to carrying out projects effectively. Hosting social opportunities can help to build trust and relationships, including attending partner events, is critical to understanding partner needs and priorities, enabling the Forest to form mutually beneficial relationships. Intentional outreach to BIPOC organizations is critical to engage underrepresented communities and will foster a sense of belonging and encourage diversity.

Effective collaborative stewardship among government agencies and non-profit organizations will help our nation address complex challenges around climate change, environmental justice, and biodiversity loss. By aligning efforts and empowering one another to engage meaningfully, partnerships will become more effective and efficient in achieving stewardship outcomes in public lands that we are all connected to.

Learn more about the NFF’s collaborative work and Partnerships on Every Forest program.

Nerissa Barling is a 2023 Conservation Connect Fellow pursuing a PhD in Earth and Planetary Sciences from the University of California Santa Cruz.

National Forest Foundation