Lake Arrowhead’s Man with a Plan: A Conversation with David Kelly

Jul 31, 2023

With decades of forestry and community outreach experience behind him, David Kelly felt he had more to give after retiring as Division Chief for the U.S Forest Service. Now, he's the Forest Specialist for the Arrowhead Lake Association (ALA), where his experience with the San Bernardino National Forest can be implemented at a smaller scale. “The first thing I said to [ALA] was, what's your forest management plan?” Kelly remarks.

Looking back, Kelly explains that the concept of forest management was not always celebrated in the Lake Arrowhead community. Years ago, homeowner's associations and local ordinances made it difficult for a landowner to undergo management projects. Today, there is a clear difference in how the topic is approached publicly.

Why the change after nearly 20 years? Kelly attributes a large part of it to the 2005 bark beetle infestation around the lake, coupled with the Old Fire of 2003. This led to a collective realization that allowing landowners to complete forest management projects was necessary. “Forest management has slowly gotten into the community,” Kelly notes, “so that the trees remain healthy, and the ecosystem remains functional.” Interest in prescribed fire is now on the rise, he mentions, with the local PBAs (Prescribed Burn Associations) and Fire Safe Councils being very active.

Still, not everyone in the community exhibits the same enthusiasm for forest management. To bridge these gaps in management philosophy, Kelly finds that investing time into personal interactions is a strong start. He's adamant that being active with community members is what builds trust, which he describes as a ‘two-way street'. “An ‘expert' stamp doesn't do much,” he laughs, “the personal touch is what builds trust.” While in the ALA office, he'll get calls once or twice a week from folks about “someone they saw marking some trees”. That someone, of course, being Kelly. “I tell them, yeah! That was me!” he says, oftentimes encouraging them to ask him questions the next time they see him in the field. He notes that being receptive to curiosity is low energy on his part and goes a long way towards building community trust.

With his neighbors' newfound curiosity in forest management, Kelly utilizes his past community outreach experience to help explain the reality of undertaking projects to landowners. He's developed some analogies to help folks understand, like this ‘haircut' one: “If you have a date next week,” Kelly begins, “you're going to want to get a haircut now, so that it will have time to grow in and look exactly how you want it by next week.” The logic here can be applied to forest management projects as well, he says. People have a goal for what they want their forestland to look like, but don't often realize it takes time after project completion for their forestland to look how they envisioned.

“I try to convince people that you have to get a couple years of management in before it looks perfect,” Kelly says. This, he points out, is why planning is of utmost importance. Using ALA as an example, he points out that there are different constrictions he must plan his projects around: “We're constrained to working outside of boating season, and we have to think about snow, fire, etc.”. Kelly explains that ALA typically completes two big projects a year, one in spring and one in the fall. Seasonal constraints are one of many things forest landowners should consider when thinking about projects and is information that helps guide a forest management plan.

Careful tending is necessary for both community trust and forestland. “The forest grows every day, and it's always changing, whether you see it or not,” Kelly says. “If you turn your back on it, it'll be a mess. If you manage it, you can trend it to whatever you'd want it to be, but it takes a plan.”

Registration for the UCANR San Bernardino Forest Stewardship Workshop is now open! Participants who complete the nine-week series will be eligible for a free site visit from a California Certified Range Manager, Burn Boss, or Registered Professional Forester. Sign up here. Registration is $60, and scholarship funding for registration fee is available. If you have any questions, please contact



By Grace Dean
Author - Forest Stewardship Communications Specialist