What is SWARS?
An Introduction to Hawaii’s Assessment of Forest Conditions and Long-Term Resource Strategy
One of the major functions of DOFAW is to provide assistance to private forest landowners through a number of programs that are funded by the State and by the Federal Government. Historically our main Federal partner has been the State and Private Forestry organization of the USDA Forest Service. State and Private Forestry(S&P) is in the process of restructuring itself to better serve its constituents in a four year process called the S&P Redesign. As the S&P Redesign concept was being developed, the Forest Service was going to require that each State produce two documents in order to qualify for S&P funding under the Cooperative Forestry Assistance Act. These two documents would eventually come to be called, 1) A Statewide Assessment of Forest Conditions, and, 2) A Long-Term Resource Strategy.
The New Competitive Grant Process
Another key component of the Redesign process was the creation of a new procedure for S&P grants, where each project would compete for funds from a limited “pot” of money. This new “pot” of competitive funds was first created two years ago by taking a percentage of the entire S&P budget and creating a process for States to submit projects which are evaluated by a Forest Service team, and selecting those projects which would most likely achieve the goals of the S&P program. Two years ago, during he first round of this new grant process, unfortunately none of the projects submitted from Hawaii were selected for funding. Last year however, we were more successful, and $623,328 State of Hawaii and Pacific Region projects were funded to the tune of $550,000
Enter the 2008 Farm Bill
While all of this Redesigning was going on, Congress passed the 2008 Farm Bill (Technically Named the 2008 Food, Conservation and Energy Bill). The Farm Bills have become one of the biggest pieces of legislation that Congress passes every five years or so. They create and authorize funding for the US Department of Agriculture, which includes the Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service among many other agencies and programs. At 662 pages, The 2008 Farm Bill is massive in its scope, and the funding that it authorizes is in the hundred of billions of dollars annually. This year, the 2008 Farm Bill included an entirely new provision in the Forestry Section (Title VIII), which requires that each State Forester must submit to the Secretary of Agriculture two documents, 1) A Statewide Assessment of Forest Conditions, and, 2) A Long-Term Resource Strategy in order to qualify for S&P programs. Moreover, it set a deadline of June 18, 2010 for the submission of these two documents. The Farm Bill goes into some detail on what these documents must contain and which local committees must be consulted in the creation of the documents. It should be noted that President Bush vetoed the 2008 Farm Bill (for a variety of reasons not associated with the Forestry Section), and both the House of Representatives and the Senate overrode his veto by a large margin. In other words, these documents, and the deadline of June 2010 are written in stone, and would literally take an Act of Congress to change.
Applicability of the State Assessment and Strategy to Other USDA Programs
The creation of a comprehensive assessment of forest conditions, across all land ownerships is an idea whose time has come. We all recognize the interrelation of land use, good stewardship, sound science, and meaningful public participation in managing our lands, forests, water supplies, wildlife and coastal waters. Especially here in Hawaii, the ahupua`a system evolved to balance human needs and natural ecosystem processes. Native Americans developed their own systems, which in many ecosystems included the systematic use of fire to reduce fuels and manage wildlife. We see now what happens when land use practices are not in balance with natural processes, and what can happen when individuals and agencies fail to work together for the common good.
The authors of the 2008 Farm Bill have recognized this too, and for that reason, the idea of applying the comprehensive State Assessments and Strategies has been broadened so that they will very likely be used for many USDA programs above and beyond the Forest Service’s State & Private Forestry organization.
Enter the Financial Crisis
Shortly after the enactment of the Farm Bill, the current financial crisis began to unfold. Budgets are being slashed, and jobs are being eliminated at all levels of government, as well as in the private sector. One consequence of this current situation is that Forest Service has not been able to provide the level of funding and technical support that a planning exercise of this magnitude requires. We have been able to scrape together funding to hire a student intern to assist with the map making, and funding has just been provided to support a full-time position to assist with the technical writing. But like many other States, Hawaii is experiencing our own fiscal crisis, and no one knows for sure what measures will be required to balance our State budget in 2009 and beyond. Currently, virtually all vacant State positions have been frozen, government revenues at the State and local level are declining, and budgets will continue to shrink for the foreseeable future.
Regardless of budget and staff reductions, we must not only produce Hawaii’s Assessment and Strategy documents in order to qualify for Federal funds, but now, more than ever, we must use the best science and strive to reach concensus on the condition of our forests. In these documents, we must make our case for investing in our forestlands, and set forth a strategy for protecting and enhancing our precious forest resources. We have two primary audiences, our own island ohana, and the Federal government. Here at home, where government budgets are shrinking, we will undoubtedly be challenged to set priorities for using limited resources to address very real issues of public safety, education, infrastructure, social welfare programs, and environmental protection.
Each of these decisions will have costs and benefits. These documents should clearly identify those costs and benefits for forestland protection.
At the Federal level, Hawaii will have to compete with the other States and Territories, each with their own pressing needs, not only for S&P competetive grant programs, for almost certainly for base funding for a variety of Federal programs. The guidance documents set forth a set of national priorities which must be addressed in our State Assessment and Strategy. We must clearly articulate how our relatively tiny islands, which total a mere four million acres in size (and that includes a million acres of almost bare lava!), fit into the bigger picture of the entire country.
Charting Our Course for Developing Hawaii’s Assessment and Strategy
The DOFAW Administrator, and State Forester Paul Conry has directed me to coordinate the production of the Assessment and Strategy. I am thrilled by the challenge of producing these documents.
First, Use Existing Data and In-House Expertise
The 2008 Farm Bill and Forest Service guidelines require that we utilize the best information available, and specifically require that we produce maps showing where we intend to concentrate our forestry activities such as watershed protection, wildland fire presupression, land acquisiton, native habitat conservation, and environmental education. The complete set of guidelines for preparing the State Assessment and Resource Strategy can be found on the State & Private Forestry Redesign Website. A group of Southern states has developed a Methodology for Developing the Texas Assessment of Forest Conditions, as well as a DRAFT Texas Assessment of Forest Conditions. We will carefully follow the guidelines, and take into account the lessons learned in the Texas process.
Fortunately, the Texas approach to their Assessment is based on a recently completed project of the Forest Stewardship program project called the Spatial Analysis Project (SAP). DOFAW successfully completed the Hawaii SAP in June 2008, and in the process we learned a great deal about the quality of our local data. Since then, we have been working diligently to improve the quality of some of the weaker data layers.
Prior to completing our SAP, a group of us from all of the US-affiliated tropical islands (Hawaii, Guam, Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, Republic of Palau, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands) got together and developed a white paper, outlining some of the forest issues that we had in common. In collaborating on the white paper, the islands were able to collectively articulate our concerns and unique qualities, and state with one voice how the US Tropical Islands fit into the bigger picture of the United States.
Here in Hawaii we are very fortunate to have excellent publicly available Geographic Information System (GIS) data for producing these analyses and maps. Moreover, DOFAW has a good deal of institutional capability to use GIS data. We have very good working relationship with our cooperators, including other Federal and State agencies, the counties, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the military and non-profit organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited and the Hawaii Geographic Information Coordinating Council (HIGICC). So as far as data, technical skill and support go, Hawaii is in great shape.
Second, Building New Partnerships
We are developing creative new partnerships to create win/win opportunities for agencies, researchers, students and the general public. DOFAW will do its part to implement a new and visionary Memorandum of Understanding recently signed byt teh Forest Service, Natural Resources Conservation Service, National Association of State Foresters and National Association of Conservation Districts. In addition, we have developed an intern position for a student in the University of Hawaii School of Natural Resource and Environmental Management. The student benefits from an excellent educational experience, the project benefits by having an enthusiastic fresh mind, and a new and exciting partnership is established between UH and DOFAW. We are developing similar enhanced working relationships with the UH Department of Economics. Finally, we hope to be able to feature our State Assessment at the 2009 Hawaii Conservation Conference.
Fourth, we will utilize the web, email, videoconferencing, on-demand publishing, and other powerful new technologies to communicate and coordinate. A new website has been established at http://www.hawaiistateassessment.info to utilize the power of the internet to save money on travel, postage, etc. Please visit that site, and let us know what you think.
Our intention is to complete the first draft of our State Assessment in the next several months, and present our findings at the 2009 Conservation Conference. Concurrently, we will be working on our Long-Term Strategy, with a target of April 2010 for a first full draft.