It’s Complicated: Forest Management’s Wicked Problems

Most people view the problems of forest management from the narrow perspective of their own interests. They understand that there are “many great interests on the National Forests which sometimes conflict a little,” as Gifford Pinchot described the situation a century ago. While we must honor specific interests, the Forest Service’s charge under Organic Act of 1897 stewardship framing, then broadened and altered by subsequent law is more complex. It is never as easy as getting folks together to sit across a table and working out a “forest plan.”

The Forest Service came into being at the end of a very rapacious period in American history. Hence the emphasis on “reserves” in the Organic Act , and later in the Weeks Act of 1911. The public lands had been attacked by many as the so-called settlement of the American West proceeded after the Civil War. It was perceived and used as a “commons” and plundered and burned in too many places. That caused the public outrage that led to the forest reserves.

After successfully bringing the reserves into the national forest system, Gifford Pinchot wanted to regulate all forest practices in the US. Pinchot could not achieve his dream, and the private lands were over-cut for a long time. Even Weyerhauser, where I worked for a summer in the late 1970s—and deemed the “Best of the SOBs” by Forbes magazine, knew but were reluctant to admit in public that their “fee lands” were being cut faster than their “High Yield Forestry” tree farms could replace the volume being cut and milled during that late period of the US housing boom. There would be a “gap.” And sure enough, just as soon as their and other private land owners “gaps” appeared the pressure mounted to cut the national forests. And cut they did, until the environmentalists, working public attitudes/pressures/law shut it down, amid great angst for locals particularly in the Northwest.

As the timber wars raged, more people with new-found affluence were using the national forests and more conflicts emerged between recreationists and cattle and sheep grazers on the national forests. And there were two emergent back-country recreationist movements that were destined to clash one with another: the “primitive back-packers” and the “ATV/OHV users”. In addition, primitive canoe, kayak, float boat enthusiasts were clashing ever-more with commercial outfitters and motorboat enthusiasts, not to mention personal watercraft. And then there were Wilderness advocates clashing against motorheads of all ilks. The wars were on.

Amid this upwelling of controversy, the US Congress penned the Renewable Resources Planning Act of 1974. But before the ink dried on that law, timber cutting on the national forests, clearcutting to be precise slammed to an immediate legal halt via a lawsuit on the Izaak Walton League. Then under a panic to reopen clearcutting on the national forests, the National Forest Management Act of 1976 was born, and so was forest-level planning. But there was little in either the RPA nor its amendment the NFMA that was destined to settle the controversies. The controversies were the stuff of wicked problems in public forests as noted first by Allen and Gould in 1986.

So here we are more than 30 years after NFMA, with the same controversies raging, overlaid by more people wanting more (and different) things from the national forests, more people living much closer to the national forests, global climate change controversy, species loss controversies that stem from more people (and roads/dams/power lines/energy corridors/etc.) across the landscape and from more stress on both “sources” (resources) and “sinks” (particularly air and water sheds where pollution is dumped)added in, etc..

And all the while the Forest Service continues to pretend that forest planning, pretty much as designed in the late 1970s, but having dropped economic rationality in favor of ecological rationality, will somehow save the day. Or at least that’s how I read the Draft Planning Rule (pdf)

It is my feeling that the only path forward that will afford any chance to allow forest users to sit across tables and talk seriously about prudent use of individual forests, watersheds, or mountain ranges, is for their to be some means to continue to discuss, debate, and develop policy for “broader scale” issues that will set boundaries on discussions of use and conservation at “local scales,” including but not limited to the national forest-scale.

That is why I continually suggest that an Adaptive Governance approach be developed in the NFMA rule. It could as well be developed apart from the NFMA rulemaking process. But until and unless it is developed, there is little or no chance that national interest groups will allow for the type across-the-table “use discussions” that more local interest groups advocate. This conclusion is not mine alone. Consider this from 1999, subtitled Making Sense of Wicked Problems:

What is the answer then, to these complex (wicked) problems? How do we organize ourselves to deal with diverse values and expectations about sustainable forest management? Shannon (1992) asserted that the answer lies in the notion of informed governance. That is, we need places where people can learn, question, debate, and come to an informed judgment of what choices are best (FEMAT 1993). In Coming to Public Judgment , Yankelovich (1991) determined that the most critical barrier to making effective and informed choices in a complex world is the lack of forums in which the process of “working through” value differences and preferences can occur. There is growing support among natural resource professionals that a public dialogue must be an integral part of achieving social and political acceptance of forest practices (e.g., Bengston 1994, Clark and Stankey 1991, Shepard 1992). Regardless of value differences, if people are to come to an understanding of, if not agreement on, the problems and choices that confront public lands management, it is likely to be in public forums where open and honest discussion can occur. Unfortunately, from their research on adaptive approaches to forest management, Stankey and Shindler (1997) conclude that such forums are most notable by their scarcity. (emphasis added)

Anybody want to explain to me where I (we) have got it wrong?
[Note this post was precipitated by this comment. Thanks Brian]


  1. Dave, I appreciate your posting these last few weeks..

    If I understand what you are saying, you are saying:

    (1) These problems are wicked and need dialogue and people sharing views and perspectives to move forward

    (2) but some questions are broader than local (where it is fairly easy for that kind of collaboration to take place) and need fora at the right levels for the decisions

    and (3) those fora don’t yet exist .

    Is that what you are saying?

    Is that right?

    • That’s pretty much it, except for the idea that if the Forest Service ever wants the wars to move toward fierce conversations instead, they had better wake up to adaptive governance with a “heavy dose” of collaboration. Where “collaboration” looks more like “strategic arms limitations talks” (SALT) than the inform and involve engagement that is all too common in natural resources circles.

  2. I’ve been following the planning rule revision effort for the past 10 years or so, and I can’t make any sense of it all. Like many I’ve wondered if the USFS leadership is simply incompetent, or if they intend to fail so completely that Congress will have to act to make things better.

    I agree that we’ve got wicked problems in public lands management. No matter what happens someone ends up under the bus, and if unsatisfied stakeholders have the resources they can use the courts or political connections to throw someone else under the bus instead. And it goes around and around.

    Adaptive governance, well executed, could maybe make things a little better. Maybe. I’m skeptical.

  3. I suggested in a reply to Sharon that collaboration in the “Forest Wars” setting is more akin to “Strategic Arms Limitation Talks” than the typical inform and involve meetings that the FS usually stages. I used to talk about this a lot in the early days of “collaboration chatter” in the FS, but I can’t find any hyperlinks right now. Running from 1969 to 1979, when the US and the USSR were in the early stages of negotiating Strategic Arms Limitations Treaties, it was noted that sometimes weeks would be spent just deciding who would sit where. Then the talks would proceed, break up, reconvene, etc. Tough issues, tough players, and agreements a very long time in the making.

    So too if the FS ever gets serious about working out differences in the Forest Wars.

  4. Likening the Forest Service to the Russian Communist regime. Oh, how far we have come, so far! During my career, the average cut tree diameter of my first timber sale was 47″ dbh (never got logged). The average diameter of my last timber sale (2007) was 14″ dbh. Yep, that’s just not “serious” enough, eh, Dave? Stubborn Commies?!?

  5. Sharon,

    The approach you reference uses “interest-based bargaining” as opposed to “position-based bargaining. That is like the SALT talks. Unlike the SALT talks, however this was a one day, 17 hr. negotiation instead of a series of discussions/agreement-building sessions.

    What distinguishes this process from traditional negotiations … is that parties don’t come to the table with specific proposals to accomplish an end. Instead, they openly express their concerns, needs and interests, and try to hammer out a solution acceptable to all.

    “Generally speaking,” Numair says, “it’s easier to use this process when there are gains to be had for each side. …

    Summit participants agreed that whatever budget proposals emerged would be a “package deal” — an all-or-nothing proposition in which individual elements couldn’t be “cherry- picked” for change. …

    A big part of workable process will be to use techniques that are already in use in the USFS, via Dialogos. But we’ve yet to see the WO unveil a broader strategy for use of dialogic techniques generally. I view blogs like this as an extended form of dialogue, that is if/when we can get people to settle-down long enough to engage in interest-based thought/policy-development.

  6. I just found a particularly good article in Ecology and Society that looks at using adaptive management as a conflict resolution tool: Adaptive Management Planning Projects as Conflict Resolution Processes, Greg Walkerden, 2006. From the introduction:

    Lawrence Susskind remarks (Susskind 1994:7), “Too few people realize that the processes used to negotiate global agreements are as important as the technical capabilities and scientific understanding that the negotiators bring to the bargaining table.” This is equally true at regional and local scales, of course. The design of processes to facilitate decision making in multifaceted, contested situations is a central issue in natural resource and environmental management. …

    [How] can adaptive management planning processes be adapted so that they can work better as conflict resolution processes? This is a pivotal question for practitioners, because processes that both probe uncertainty and engage conflict well are essential for good policy development. Science derived processes like adaptive management planning address uncertainty much more skillfully than they address conflict. On the other hand, processes derived from bargaining traditions such as principled negotiation (Fisher and Ury 1981) engage conflict much more skillfully than they engage uncertainty. Crossing the two can lead us to process designs that are a better fit to these science intensive public policy conflicts.

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