News Release

Research to Promote Rural Prosperity through Community Forests

June 7, 2021

Research Triangle Park, NC — Forests in the United States offer a mix of timber and nontimber goods, ecosystem services, and amenities that can support livelihoods, enhance environmental quality, and foster social benefits. However, many rural communities, including in forested areas, have low-income levels and lack diverse economic opportunities.

“Community forests” are a concept that has gained traction in other parts of the world in recent decades to support conservation and economic benefits for local communities. These initiatives involve forest areas that are governed and managed by local communities, with benefits directed to local communities. In the U.S. there are traditional and new forms of community forests.

USDA Forest Service researchers from the Southern Research Station, Pacific Northwest Research Station, and International Institute for Tropical Forestry, along with scientists from North Carolina State University and Oregon State University, will examine the benefits of community forests in the U.S. at local scales. In a new three-year research project funded by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), the team will provide policy and practical insights for the establishment and support of community forests as an innovative approach to enhance forest conservation and rural prosperity in the U.S. The collaboration will:

  • Identify, inventory, and document key community forest characteristics such as landownership types, management approaches and objectives, governance structures, and user access rights and regimes
  • Classify community forests in the U.S. based on these key characteristics
  • Identify direct and indirect forest outputs and services and economic benefits and costs
  • Help understand community forest governance, management, and use approaches that have had successes and failures in advancing rural opportunities and prosperity
  • Explore the relationships between key forest and community characteristics and rural prosperity

“Our research team has studied community forests in other countries and published about their governance, use, and economic benefits – like jobs and income – for local residents,” said Greg Frey, research forester and lead Project Investigator. “This new project is a chance to view community forests in the U.S. through this international lens: are these lands providing similar community benefits? How are they contributing to rural prosperity? What practices can other communities adopt to find similar success with communal forest management?”

The project includes a review of existing documents and analysis of key characteristic data from more than 100 community forests. The team will also extensively document and investigate around ten community forests of different types in different regions of the U.S. and complete detailed social and economic analyses.