A Win/Win Proposition
The Blandin Foundation championed inclusivity across sectors to promote healthy forests and communitiesand along the way won the Council's 2006 Paul Ylvisaker Award for Public Policy Engagement.
Politics. Sex. Religion. Most of us know to avoid those topics in social situations. These days we could add a fourth taboo topic: the environment. But the Blandin Foundation, based in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, did not let etiquette get in the way of the needs of the communities it serves and boldly created forward-thinking public policy on forestry. It approached its tasks in ways that diffused polarization and brought "all the voices into a big tent," as Bernadine Joselyn, the foundation's director of public policy and engagement, put it. "We encouraged all responsible perspectives and invited inclusivity."
Because of the Blandin Foundation's role as a leader in Minnesota's public policy arena, it was recently named the 2006 winner of the Council on Foundations' Paul Ylvisaker Award for Public Policy Engagement. The foundation's efforts were innovative, enabling it "to recognize and effectively interface between society and the environment," says Susan Stafford, dean of the College of Natural Resources at the University of Minnesota. "The really big challenge as we look to the future is exactly in that interface. The [Vital Forest/Vital Communities] initiative recognizes that you can have a vital forest, vital natural resources, a vital environment, and a vital community and economy. Typically, in the past, the question has been, which is more important? The Vital Forests/Vital Communities initiative realizes that we can have both."
The foundation's leadership role was solidly founded on its knowledge base, notes Brad Moore, assistant commissioner with Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources. "Often foundations focus on only one small part of a problem, but Blandin has looked at this issue from A to Z." In doing so, Moore adds, the foundation also took into consideration all the organizations and people who are affected by the issue, "from the small business owners to the international companies and made a place in its efforts for each one of those entities."
A History Rooted in Forestry
The Blandin Foundation has long roots in Minnesota's forests. Founded in 1941 by Charles K. Blandin, head of Grand Rapids' Blandin Paper Company, the foundation's original goal was to provide assistance to the Grand Rapids community, which relies heavily on forestryrelated industries. Today, the foundation, which is now an independent organization, focuses on the economic viability of rural Minnesota, especially the Grand Rapids area.
Historically, explains Joselyn, the foundation has had "two main lines of business. One of them was grantmaking to local, regional and state nonprofit organizations. Our second area of focus has been community leadership, through a cohort-based community development program." According to Joselyn, foundation staff and trustees believed that one of the most effective ways to build capacity in local communities was through skill-building for local leaders who wanted to improve their communities. In 2001, the board decided that the foundation could achieve even better results by adding an explicit focus on helping local leaders address some of the public policy challenges and opportunities critical to the future of rural communities. The foundation focused its new public policy work on helping connect local leaders with the bigger systems that influence local communities' well-being and viability.
Joselyn describes the process that eventually led to a strategy focused on natural resource use under the umbrella of the Vital Forests/Vital Communities initiative, "The first question was, 'What are the criteria by which we would identify areas of focus for the public policy work we could do?' The first criterion was that the public policy area we selected had to enhance the economic vitality of rural areas. Second, we wanted it to build on the foundation's existing programs and be relevant to the alumni of our leadership programs. Third, we wanted to identify a topic that would allow us to collaborate with others And, fourth, we wanted to address systemic change. In other words, instead of being on our knees in the basement mopping up the flood on the floor, we wanted to be up in the attic shutting off the dripping water."
Based on those criteria and the foundation's traditional focus on the state's rural economy, it was a "short path to our decision to focus on forest resources," says Joselyn, given that forests and forest-related industry are critical to the state and regional economies. Then came the next hurdleidentifying the specific opportunities and challenges facing Minnesotans in ensuring long-term forest health and the competitiveness of both related forest-based industries and the communities that have a forestry-based economy. In 2003, the foundation convened a series of call-to-action conferences that launched the Vital Forest/Vital Communities initiative and created an advisory board to help frame the effort.
The foundation's approach was very much a consultative one. "The Vital Forests/Vital Communities initiative has skillfully brought together people from a variety of backgrounds and interests, and created an environment of trust and honest discussion," says Stafford.
"We challenged our partners to identify the challenges," Joselyn says. "They came up with seven potential areas for work and the advisory board created action teams around each of those issues. Over a six- to eight-week period, each group came up with a set of recommendations for opportunities where we could take action." Those recommendations, grouped under three main categoriesforested land base and resource, forest management and economic developmentbecame the objectives that make up the Vital Forests/Vital Communities initiative.
The initiative has spawned a number of projects and programs, including a forest certification effort for privately owned forestlands and a partnership to use conservation easements to protect large-scale working forest landscapes, the two projects noted in the foundation's nomination for the Ylvisaker Award.
A Critical Need for Certification
According to David Zumeta, executive director of the Minnesota Forest Resources Council, Blandin's effort to develop a third-party certification framework for private landowners aims to protect up to 300,000 acres of family forestland, ensure water quality and flow, and protect wildlife habitat by giving owners access to professional assistance, written management plans and expert logging practices. Approximately 40 percent of Minnesota's forestland, which produces almost half of the state's timber, is privately owned, which is why a certification framework for private landowners is critical, explains Zumeta.
There has been a global trend toward third-party certification of forest management practices, says Zumeta. Time Inc., for example, will require by the end of 2006 that 80 percent of the paper it buys (and it buys a lot of paper) be certified as coming from providers that practice sustainable forest management. And Time is just one of many companies making certification a requirement. "Certification is a critical component of doing business for the forest products industry, which is one of the top five manufacturing industries statewide," says Zumeta. "In the north, especially, certification is extremely important to jobs and the economy."
Recognizing the importance of certification, the Blandin Foundations Vital Forests/Vital Communities Advisory Board led the effort to develop a framework for third-party certification of family forestlands that served as the blueprint for a four-county pilot program now underway in the states key wood basket counties. Working with the board and a number of partners, the foundation coordinated the development of a proposal to fund that pilot project, which was submitted for funding to the state government. The University of Minnesota partnered with the foundation and served as the grant applicant and fiscal sponsor. Advisory board members and foundation staff put together a coalition of implementing organizations and a governance structure for the project, which was successfully funded.
The Minnesota State Legislature saw private certification as essential to its efforts and provided funding to pilot the Vital Forest Initiatives program to encourage private owners to certify their lands, Zumeta says, State funding for foundation-initiated conservation efforts is rare.
Stafford credits the Blandin Foundation with pushing open the certification door. Without their vision, development of strong public private partnershipsincluding state government, academia and nonprofit organizationsand funding, it is unlikely that the state would be able to facilitate certification of family forests. Private foundations pursuing state government funding alone or as part of a coalition are advised to work with knowledgeable counsel to ensure adherence to the IRS regulations for private foundations.
In addition, the foundation convened conferences that brought in international speakers to talk about best practices in their countries and gave participants an opportunity to strategize about how those best practices could be adapted to Minnesota. The conferences also brought together key stakeholders, including policymakers and forest resource managers, to establish professional contacts and increase their commitment to certification.
"Some very useful results have come out of the foundation's activities," Zumeta says. "One of the approaches that needed to be pursued was logger certification. The foundation provided funding to the Minnesota Logger Education Program, which was pivotal in helping the statewide logger certification program to become only the third such program recognized in the United States by Time Inc." The foundation's leadership in educating landowners about the benefits to them and their land has been instrumental in breaking down objections. The Logger Education Program is a good example of the foundation's efforts, Zumeta says.
A Protective Partnership
Blandin's Itasca Forest Legacy Partnership, a collaboration with the Nature Conservancy and others, will use conservation easements to protect working forest landscapes on up to 75,000 acres of environmentally important private land in the north central area of Minnesota, where Grand Rapids is located. Moore describes the importance of preserving those forested acres. "For 100 years, those forests have provided habitat for wildlife and places for people to recreate, and have served as a source for wood fiber. Increasing land prices and changes in the economics of the forest products industry have caused hundreds of thousands of acres of Minnesota forestland to be sold to timber investment organizations or sold and parceled off for development."
For example, in 2005, Boise Cascade Corporation sold 309,000 acres it owned in Minnesota. The buyer was a Boston-based firm, Forest Capital Partners, which owns forest land primarily for its investment value, according to a recent article in Minnesota Conservation Volunteer magazine, produced by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. Other major landowners are following suit, the article said, including USX Corporation, Minnesota Power and Wolfwood Corporation.
Subdivision often results in lack of public access, Zumeta says, and threats to the environment. "Public access is critically important to tourism. These lands provide critical wildlife habitat for both large animals and small ones, which matters to hunters and birdwatchers, for example Breaking up the land, much of which is located near the headwaters of the Mississippi, also adversely affects water quality for people in Minneapolis/St. Paul who drink that water."
The Blandin Foundation and its partners created the Legacy Partnership to provide a counter-trend to the land sales and the subdivision that often results from them. The permanent conservation easements that are the partnership's goal will provide public access for a variety of recreation uses, including hunting, hiking, snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and fishing.
The foundation's role in leveraging funds was critical to the Forest Legacy Partnership, says Moore. "The Blandin Foundation issued a $6 million challenge grant to purchase conservation easements on industrial forestlands and has committed to help raise additional private dollars from other funders. Already, that effort has resulted in an additional $1 million in private foundation money and a proposal for $10 million in matching state bonding dollars Blandin, by being the first entity to commit dollars to this effort, has provided the important leadership to get the project moving forward. The importance of the foundation's initial grant to the success of this major forest conservation project cannot be overstated."
Through its pursuit of a public policy agenda, the Blandin Foundation has succeeded in doing what many believed couldn't be done: It created an initiative that both promotes the ecological health of Minnesota's forests and provides economic support for the surrounding rural communities.
© Richard Hamilton Smith/CORBIS