Editor’s note: FAC Net’s backbone organization, The Watershed Research and Training Center, is one of several non profit organizations that are partnering with the U.S. Forest Service on a new “Community Navigator initiative” to better connect communities with federal funding and partnerships for wildfire and climate resilience. This initiative hopes to strengthen capacity within local-level partners to access resources and relationships to help further their goals, with a focus on communities that have limited experience engaging with federal programs, or have faced barriers in doing so. The initiative especially emphasizes the funding opportunities offered through the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (also referred to as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law) and the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. 

In addition to the staff from the Watershed Center and FAC Net that are supporting our involvement in this initiative, we’re excited to be working with a handful of longtime FAC Net members and Fire Networks partners that have strong local connections and funding know-how. These organizations will serve in regional community navigator roles, which include providing 1:1 assistance on applying for and managing funding, outreaching to new communities and partners, and offering mentorship on other aspects of wildfire resilience work. 

The following interview with two of these regional navigators explores the Community Navigator initiative’s goals, offerings, and changemaking potential. To learn more or to connect with our navigator services, please visit our Community Navigator Project page at www.thewatershedcenter.com/featured-projects-cnp.

“I’ve Got Them Non-Profit Funding Blues,” reads Bill Trimarco’s Fire Networks blog post about the perpetual struggle to fund community wildfire adaptation efforts and navigate complex federal programs. “Building fire adapted communities does not happen by itself – it requires funding and capital; a spark so to speak that initiates the process,” Bill wrote in the piece. A few lines later, he narrated one of those sparks – a tip-off about a federal funding opportunity from a partner in the know, a network of partners who could quickly turn around a proposal, and final sign of support from local government officials. Through the story, it also became apparent that behind the spark were many embers, fostered over months and years.

As part of our engagement with the Forest Service’s Community Navigators initiative, FAC Net and the Watershed Center are excited to kindle more embers and more sparks within the many local organizations and community leaders working on wildfire resilience in places across the country. To support this goal, we are grateful to be partnering with several star FAC Net members who have deep experience in how to fund and build organizational capacity for this work. For this week’s blog, two of those organizations – Dovetail Partners and the Forest Stewards Guild – volunteered to share their perspectives on community navigation and how they see engaging in this effort.

Dovetail Partners is a non-profit environmental think tank based in Minnesota that has served as a core partner in the Midwest for FAC work for more than a decade, doing community-based wildfire resiliency work in the Arrowhead region of the state. The organization is now exploring expansion to support communities in Wisconsin and Michigan through involvement in the Community Navigators initiative.

The Forest Stewards Guild is a nationwide non-profit that practices and promotes responsible forestry as a means of sustaining the integrity of forest ecosystems and the human communities dependent upon them. The Guild also stewards New Mexico’s state FAC Network, Fire Adapted New Mexico. 

How does your team envision “community navigation”? How do you foresee engaging with communities through the Community Navigators initiative? 

Dovetail Partners Team (Kathryn Fernholz, Gloria Erickson, Eliza Meyer,Teresa Floberg, and Sarah Beth Hobby): Our vision of community navigation is all about relationships. We envision continuing to prioritize a local presence with the communities we engage with, and we will focus on listening first. To support this vision, a first step was hiring additional navigators to our team to have a local presence in the regions where we want to expand our engagement, namely Wisconsin and Michigan. These new team members complement the established local presence we have with communities in northeastern Minnesota.

Forest Stewards Guild (Gabe Kohler): Our team envisions community navigation as an opportunity to deepen relationships and provide specific technical assistance to underrepresented groups. We hope to engage with communities by building on the relationships we have built through our projects and programs – both past and present. In many landscapes where we work, we can deepen connections and build local capacity for more durable investments and initiatives. Where relationships are missing, we hope to network with current partners to identify outreach strategies that will be best received by community leaders who we have yet to work with. 

What is your team excited to do or work on through this program, broad or specific? 

Dovetail Partners: We are excited to test our ideas about how to expand our program – will what has worked in northern Minnesota translate to other regions and communities? What changes will be needed and what will we learn along the way? What additional perspectives and experiences will our partners bring to the table? We are excited to apply what we know and expand through new partnerships, experiences, and collaborative learning opportunities.

Forest Stewards Guild: We are excited to provide grant writing and management support for Tribal and traditional communities in the Rio Chama Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP) area in northern New Mexico and southern Colorado. This culturally and ecologically rich landscape is the ancestral land of over a dozen Tribal and Pueblo governments as well as many Spanish Land Grant communities and other traditional communities. To deliver on the social and economic goals of this effort, we need to work effectively with these communities and their unique knowledge and skills. 

A group of people stand and mingle around a large wooden table.
This meeting from earlier in 2024 identified priority actions for engaging with Tribal and Traditional Communities in Rio Chama CFLRP landscape. The Guild is working with partners in the Rio Chama CFLRP landscape to identify federal funding proposals that may align with the goals of
the CFLRP. Photo credit: Forest Stewards Guild.

What 1-2 thoughts come to mind as wisdom you feel your team could offer to communities through this initiative?

Dovetail Partners: We really believe in taking the long-term view with this work. Even though a funding deadline creates a certain sense of short-term timing and urgency to provide immediate deliverables, this is multi-generational work for a community to engage in. Community-based work is social work, and since this work involves wildfire preparedness, it is also environmental and nature-centered work. We have to think of the cycles of people and forests that are intertwined and long-term, passing from generation to generation. So, it is most important to focus on the relationships and developing sustainable systems that will work in the long-run rather than short-term rash decisions. A key consideration is to include as many people as possible. That can be complicated and seem to slow things down at the start, but in the long-run it will take as many people as possible working together to meet the needs of the community. 

A group of 25-30 people stand outside in front of fire engines in a grassy field and smile for a group photo.
Partners at a fire adaptation event supported by Dovetail Partners.

Forest Stewards Guild: Our organization has a sophisticated system for tracking in-kind funding that makes it easier for us to deliver on the match requirements of federal funding. I hope we can share some of this know-how so that other organizations are not scared off by match expectations. We also hope to work to identify when match can be reduced or waived under new authorities and directives. 

The Guild and Dovetail Partners already have experience accessing Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) funding opportunities and/or helping others do so. Could you share 1-2 reflections on key strategies, enabling factors, or lessons you’ve learned about accessing this funding that we’re hearing so much about? 

Dovetail Partners: Don’t be afraid of federal grants. Federal grants can be intimidating and unfamiliar to some organizations, but you can start small with just one federal program and get a feel for it. The nicest thing about federal grants is also one of the most frustrating things – all of the forms that are required! These forms can be mind-boggling at first, but once you get the hang of it they are wonderfully consistent and reliable – almost boring! The other advice is to put all kinds of due dates in your calendar! Note the funding end date, reporting dates, etc. Let your calendar do the work for your memory!

Forest Stewards Guild: Pay close attention to how you describe social vulnerability in addition to how you describe biophysical hazard (e.g. wildfire hazard). Many of the IRA and BIL funding programs have a clear requirement to prioritize funding where it will benefit disadvantaged populations. The more clearly and concisely applicants can link their work to reducing risk or providing benefits to those populations (e.g. those facing socioeconomic, environmental or other stressors and burdens), the more competitive a proposal will be. 

Part of the Community Navigator effort involves capturing feedback from community practitioners about ways to make federal programs and opportunities more accessible, both through small tweaks and bigger systems-level changes. What are 1-2 systems-level changes that you think would increase program accessibility for community partners? 

Dovetail Partners: Key improvements for federal programs to be more accessible to communities include: 

  • Greatly reducing or ideally eliminating match requirements (i.e., 0-25% rather than 1:1)
  • Providing more multi-year grants (i.e., 3-5 years rather than 1-2)
  • Standardizing reporting to be annual or every six months at the most (rather than quarterly). 
  • Allowing a wider range of eligible applicants for grant programs – nonprofits and government entities, as well as business interests.

Forest Stewards Guild: The Forest Service’s 2022 decision to waive match requirements for Tribal partners is a great example of a systems change that improved program accessibility. Additionally it is important to account for and address the administrative burden associated with receiving federal funds. Simplifying reporting and other administrative tasks, ensuring that grant awards fully cover the staff time and organizational capacity required to administer them, and improving advances and reimbursements are all ways to mitigate that burden. 

Why did your organization say ‘yes’ to being involved in the Community Navigators initiative? What value do you all see in this work – both for your organization and for the communities you’ll be working with?

Dovetail Partners: Dovetail has been involved with community-based work from the very beginning of our organization more than 20 years ago, and many of our team members’ experience extends much longer than that. Over the decades, Dovetail has worked on affordable housing, local energy self-reliance, cooperative development, and other economic and social enterprises. The Community Navigators initiative is a natural fit with our organization’s intent to support local capacity to meet local needs. It also aligns with the communities we have been and will be working with that are interested in developing their self-reliance and capacities. We see value in this because of our role to support, encourage, and empower. We don’t want to create situations where communities are dependent (or co-dependent) on us. The community members are the leaders and are ultimately responsible for making the work their own and for its sustainability and long-term success.

Two people stand and place stickers on a poster hanging on a wall.
Participants at a Community Wildfire strategic planning meeting. Photo credit: Gloria Erickson/Dovetail Partners.

Forest Stewards Guild: The Community Navigators initiative provides the Forest Stewards Guild with resources to achieve some of our organizational goals related to promoting social justice and supporting equitable access to resources for underrepresented groups. Over decades, the Guild has become effective at applying for and administering federal funds. Our organization has benefited tremendously from these skillsets. The Community Navigators funding supports us in sharing these skillsets so other organizations that are working from a different starting point than the Guild can receive the benefits of federal funding. 

We appreciate that the Community Navigators initiative uses a network approach, providing federal funding technical assistance by working through organizations that already have relationships and trust. We have found this approach to be advantageous when working with low-income and underrepresented populations who may be reticent to engage with the federal land management agencies due to histories of disenfranchisement. We are excited to be a part of this innovative approach.


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