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From the Woods: Q&A with the National Forest Foundation

Bill Possiel, President of the National Forest Foundation, talked to us about the country’s woods, a place that gives us so much, but needs our help.

You may not even know it, but seven out of every ten Americans live within 100 miles of a National Forest. And while we aren’t talking National Parks, the lesser-known National Forest System in our country is home to some of the most beautiful land and valuable resources we claim within our borders.

But, these National Forests are often taken for granted by an American society that is further removed from nature and the outdoors each day. If the National Forest Foundation (NFF) has something to say about it, that won’t be the case for long.

Bill Possiel

Bill PossielBill Possiel joined the NFF in 1998. He has worked with the board, staff, the Forest Service and community-based partner organizations to build a high impact/high leverage organization that has supported 1,200 conservation projects, through 500 distinct conservation organizations across the US.

Bill Possiel is the president of the NFF, and after speaking with him, there’s no doubt that the person in charge of this massive responsibility is the right man for the job.

Possiel (BP in the interview below) had much to say about the foundation, how it affects hunting and angling on public lands, and the struggles involved in raising awareness for natural resources in today’s world.

Wide Open Spaces: What does the NFF do, what is behind its objectives?

Bill Possiel: The Foundation is dedicated to involving the American public in caring for the 193 million acre National Forest System. These are often referred to as “the people’s land,” and we can talk a little more about that and its relationship to sportsmen, but we feel it’s really important to involve people in a variety of activities and give them a stake in the future of these places that we often refer to as “America’s backyard.”

WOS: And you work closely with the National Forest Service, correct?

BP: Yes we do, we’re a congressionally chartered organization, so we are principle partners with the Forest Service, but we support hundreds of community-based non-profits across the country, to engage with the Forest Service and other organizations with similar objectives to help improve the condition of the National Forest System as well as access and use of the National Forest System, and its enjoyment.

WOS: It seems like the grassroots portion of the NFF’s movement is pretty integral to the core concepts of the foundation. Can you address the community-based aspect, and how important that is?

BP: Yeah, well, it’s essential to what we do. And the reason is that if these places are going to persist over time, we have to have people who are ready to have a stake in the future, who really care about resources, and who want to get involved on some level. I think the era of depending upon the Federal government to make decisions and take all the necessary actions is behind us. I think this is an era where people are accepting more responsibility; we’ve seen a phenomenal growth in the number and the activities of community-based conservation organizations. And in fact, they are not all conservation organizations. We work with the Chamber of Commerce and the Community of Sisters in Oregon. They really use the natural resource space there as an important attractor, if you will, for more eco-tourism. So we have a very diverse array of organizations that we work with. Actually, one of the things we’re known for is bringing diverse interests to the table, so that a variety of voices can be heard and we can reach some consensus on decisions for the future.

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WOS: You eluded to the idea of “the people’s land” and how that relates to the NFF’s partnership with hunters, anglers and other sportsmen. Can you talk about what that relationship is like?

BP: We work with and support a lot of organizations that are really qualified as sportsmen organizations: the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Trout Unlimited, and a whole host of others; and these public resources are really important for a diverse array of uses. You know, from hiking to bird watching, to mountain biking, and of course hunting and fishing, which as you know is an American tradition. When a sportsman is looking for some place in the fall to get out for hunting season, they’re most likely going to be looking for public lands, because of the access issues associated with private lands. So, National Forests end up being a very important destination for sportsmen. And obviously, the primary reason that they are an important destination for sportsmen is that they have the full array of game species that can be found on public land. Actually, the public land estate, if you will, is at a large enough scale that the natural processes of biological diversity can be maintained and a species can move around, based on their natural migration patterns. With so much pressure related to habitat fragmentation and human impacts on natural areas, it’s important to have these places of scale to help maintain healthy populations of native species.

“National Forests end up being a very important destination for sportsmen.”

WOS: That’s something that’s important to our readers as well. I know that people are eager to find those quality public land hunting opportunities, and that’s not always a simple task. The National Forest Foundation’s web presence is pretty significant, with some interesting online features. Can you talk about the importance of a foundation like yours to maintain an Internet presence, and give people the information they are looking for?

BP: Well, I think that American society is changing pretty dramatically. We see that, in daily life, all you need to do is go to any public venue, or to an airport, and see how many people are looking down at their devices. Also, we have a demographic trend that is moving people away from a rural lifestyle into a more urban or suburban lifestyle. When the NFF was created, 80% of the US population was rural and 20% was urban. Now, 82% of the American population is urban and suburban, and 18% lives in rural areas. So we have to really think about how we communicate with people, and how we help to inform them about the value of these places, as American society becomes more disconnected from outdoor experiences and a personal connection to nature. So, technology plays a role in that. We have to figure out how to connect with people, and so social media is obviously a way that we can do that. We find out that many of the people we work with across the country, and often our supporters, find out about us through a Web search. So that Web presence is really critical to us; connecting  with the variety of audiences can really make the difference in terms of appreciating, understanding, and playing a role in the future of our natural systems.

WOS: Give us an idea of your background, and what it was that led you down the path that ended up with you working for the NFF.

MBS NF_Johnson Ridge_Zack Porter

BP: Well, I grew up in the East, in a suburban, post-WWII setting, and my first degree was in business. I realized pretty early on that I was happiest when I was outdoors, so I went back to school for natural resources and forestry school at Oregon State. I got my master’s in natural resources and anthropology, and I was motivated by a genuine interest and passion for the outdoors, stimulated by fishing as much as anything else. I’m still an avid fly fisherman to this day. So, what led me here was really an interest in the environment, and a variety of jobs along the way led me from one thing to another. Back in 1998 I came from the Nature Conservancy to the National Forest Foundation, and I saw an opportunity to play a role in caring for this vast resource of public land. In aggregate, the National Forest System is larger than the state of Texas. These are all public resources that are so important. I was working a lot with the Nature Conservancy on private land issues, and we were involved in a planning effort, looking at how you protect representative samples of native systems in North America. In order to protect them, you’ve got to have scale, and public lands are the places that provide that scale. So that’s what attracted me to come to work and focus on National Forests as a natural resource space.

WOS: So, it’s a labor of love and passion for you, is that right?

BP: Yeah, I think it’s probably the same thing for you and what you’re doing. I think I’m fortunate and privileged enough to have a career in natural resources. It’s a thing that, when I wake up in the morning, I know a lot of people who, some of them have done very, very well, but they are not very happy in their jobs. And I hear a lot of people talking about when they’re going to be able to retire and not work again, and that’s just not a part of the way I think. I mean, I wake up in the morning excited to come to work and feel like we’re making a contribution. It’s a privilege to be able to do this, and so yeah, it’s a labor of love, and I feel pretty darn fortunate to have evolved into it.

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From the Woods: Q&A with the National Forest Foundation