Earth to FS Planning: Get a Blog!

Yes I know that the FS thinks it has a Planning Rule blog. But it doesn’t. Not a real blog anyway. All it has, so far, is a poor excuse for a comment aggregator. The other day I decided to leave a comment on Peter Williams’ recent post on the “official blog”. Guess what? The so-called blog won’t accept comments that include paragraph breaks. No HTML is allowed. And, best I can tell, even simple “http” references are not converted to active links. So I decided that until and unless the FS is willing to at least fix the paragraph breaks problem—or tell folks how to use the blog so that it will include “breaks”—I will just use real blogs outside the “official” smokescreen. Here is the comment I intended to post as a response to Peter, slightly edited:

Here is my “take” on Peter Williams’ final two questions, restated a wee bit:

How might the planning rule provide for an all lands approach and address the contribution of NFS lands to local communities?
  • How can the new planning rule, by itself or as a road map for developing forest plans, reflect the interdependency of social, economic, and ecological systems in a way that supports sustainable management of national forests and grasslands?
  • How can it help provide or ensure opportunities for goods and services to support vibrant rural, regional, and national economies?

My guess is that any planning rule that is developed in the long tradition of “rules” dating back to 1979 will not be helpful in achieving the goals embedded in the questions. Why? Because the focus of each “rule” has always been on developing a “Forest Plan” as if there were wide discretion in that process and “as if” the forest administrative unit made sense as an overall “catchall” for decision-making. Neither is the case.

One problem is that there can not be wide discretion in forest-level decision-making if only because the ecosystems embedded in each administrative unit of the national forest system are themselves part of broader ecosystem wholes, e.g. larger watersheds, larger “basin and range” systems, both, and more. This means that what works for sustainability (instead of against) re: “forest subsystem contributions” to ecosystems must be informed by the needs of broader wholes. So too with social systems. An “all lands approach” must be scaled, hierarchically, to guide development of plans at subscales. Maybe a NFMA “rule” can address such, but we haven’t seen one yet. Only with such an adaptive management assessment information system could forest-level decision-making begin to make any sense. And the ecosystems/social systems scale problem is but one of many problems that impede wide discretion in decision-making. Another is what I call the “wicked problem” problem.

The Forest Service has never (to my knowledge) addressed “wicked problems” (Wikipedia link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicked_problem. Such problems were first introduced to the Forest Service in 1986 by Allen and Gould (Journal of Forestry) and to the world by Rittel and Webber in 1973 (Policy Sciences). Anyone who has studied forest management problems knows that they are indeed politically wicked and cry out for approaches much different from the “comprehensive rational planning” approach that the Forest Service always gravitates toward. Even when dressed up with terms like “adaptive” or “adaptive management” the reality of the approaches used always have rational-planning at their core.

One thing is certain when dealing with wicked problems: You can only hope to accomplish anything when you are able to define the scope the problem (time, space, issues, etc.) into “decision containers” that people (stakeholders, administrators, etc) can get their minds around. It seems that traditional “forest plan” containers are hopelessly over-filled when land management zoning, land management goals and objectives, program goals and objectives, and related “standards and guidelines” are all in play — and “in play” in a spatial container that isn’t really relevant to many of the objectives at hand. I have long felt that rational planning approaches simply can’t work. Here is how I put it in my Epistle to the Clinton-era Committee of Scientists (link: http://www.fs.fed.us/eco/eco-watch/cos_greenplans.html) , written when I was an employee of the Forest Service:

… [W]e have failed to learn the lesson that there is a difference between complex problems and wicked problems (see: G.M. Allen’ and E.M. Gould. 1986. “Complexity, wickedness, and public forests.” J.For 84(4):20-23, also Henry Mintzberg. 1994. The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning). According to Allen and Gould, politically wicked problems can not be solved by any multi-step planning process designed to “collect more data, build bigger models, and crunch more numbers … [expecting that] surely the right answer would be forthcoming.” Allen and Gould suggest that the Forest Service’s general operating norm for planning–more data, fancier analysis, more computing power, more scientists–reflects a “naive hope that science can eliminate politics.” This problem went unresolved–is still unresolved–because [Forest Service] ‘professional arrogance’ wouldn’t allow [the agency] to admit that national forest management and planning is ‘political’.

Why not try adaptive management, better still Adaptive Co-Management (Resilience Alliance Link: http://www.resalliance.org/2448.php) when thinking in terms of an “all lands approach”. Note here that the adaptive management I’m talking about is multiple-scale oriented, addresses wicked problems, and involves double loop learning (More here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Organizational_learning). Maybe such adaptive co-management can be and will be fit into the NFMA “rule” rewrite. But I doubt it. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I hope I am proven wrong.

Final thought: If adaptive co-management is to work, decision-makers will have to constantly check and “be checked” to make sure that decisions (cumulatively) aren’t afflicted with policy “decision traps.” E.g. a set of decisions might be afflicted with “policy drift” — a “tyranny of small decisions” that eventually runs counter to policy aims due to the cumulative effects of sequential or segmented decisions.

6 Comments

  1. Dave-I bet the kludginess of the official blog is more even more annoying to the people running it who have to deal with it every day, than it is to the commenters. I have to give the people working on it a lot of credit- they are trying under less than optimal circumstances (security requirements, software procured that might not be state-of-the art, etc.), and pioneering new terrain in public involvement for the FS (trying to build a bike and ride it at the same time). I certainly wouldn’t have had the patience, and hence this blog.. much thanks to the University of Montana for hosting! But I like the idea of reposting the questions here.

    One new topic that came up this week at work (you’d think we’d have discussed every possible aspect of planning in the last four years, but we got some new people involved in thinking about our response to the NOI) which relates to your statements, is that with consolidation, some “national forest administrative units” don’t make sense as units for forest plans. They can be so big that the social-sheds are very different, as well as environmental conditions. Which goes back to the fundamental question of what needs to be decided, if anything, in a forest (perhaps we should say “landscape scale” plan.) Landscapes make more sense to deal with in terms of “all lands.” Perhaps more than artificial NF administrative unit boundaries.

    So how bout this? mapped “potential development intensity” by landscape for “landscape plans” that address all lands and collaborate with other landowners as well as the public. Objectives by administrative unit as part of the budget process. Standards on a species or regional basis for a given topic (I’ll post on this next week).Monitoring at the scale appropriate to the question (project, river, species). Call it good.

  2. I advocate for flexibility in setting up assessment and decision forums, as well as monitoring and evaluation forums, etc. No “one size fits all.”

    Sometimes, e.g. utility corridor designation, the geographical scale may be very large. Sometimes, e.g. ski resort boundary adjustment, the geographical scale may be very small. All fits under the adaptive co-management umbrella.

    What is at issue, when dealing with Wicked Problems is that there is both “time sensitivity” as well as, in some sense “time insensivity” in play. There is as well the notions of interconnectedness and cumulative effects. There is need to deal with what is urgent, as well as with what is important in the longer run. And so on.

    Peter Drucker used to write about the “futurity of current decisions”, that is to look at that will emanate from each decision, as it relates to all other decisions. But to act in as close to “real time” as possible, and adjust policy and program and all else to accommodate emergent realities. I call this “just in time decision-making” or “once and forever decision-making.”

    Henry Mintzberg helps us better understand the decision traps that happen when we try to control too much, and for too long a time period, through comprehensive rational planning. This is what I call “once and for all decision-making.” Both Drucker and Mintzberg, along with Deming, Senge, Weick, Wheatley, and a long list of others advocate for situational framing for problem assessment and decision-making. So do I.

    Teasing out the realities and implications of “wicked problems”, appropriate framing, and aligning our assessment forums, our decision-making forums, and our monitoring and evaluation forums is the urgent task before us. But I fear that we will not deal with any of it, instead once-again resorting to a quick fix mentality.

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