A few years ago I received a phone call from from a researcher conducting a study about grassroots environmental organizations’ attitudes and behaviors toward ‘collaboration’ in national forest management.
Caitlin Burke, Ph.D., with the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources at North Carolina State University wanted to know about the factors that affect state and local environmental groups’ participation in collaboration, and how that affects representation, diversity, and inclusion in collaborative processes.
Burke set out by collecting data from eleven western states (Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming), conducting a survey of 101 environmental groups that addressed forest-related issues and operated in the study area. The survey gathered information about the organizations and their attitudes and behaviors toward collaboration, to test relationships between organizational characteristics and strategy choice.
Next, Burke did case study research of four organizations operating in US Forest Service Regions 4 and 6. Fourteen interviews were conducted and various archival documents were analyzed to examine in greater detail the correlations between organizational characteristics and the choice of collaboration or confrontation.
Burke’s full research (all 268 pages of it) is available here. A more accessible summary of the research findings can be found here. In Burke’s own words, below are some snipped paragraphs from that summary based on her extensive research:
“The results show that large, more professionalized organizations and those with multiple values use a collaborating strategy; small, less professionalized organizations and those with a single environmental value use a confronting strategy. In other words, collaboration is not representative of all environmental groups – smaller groups and more ideological groups are not involved. This research serves as a caution to those who would use, or advocate the use of, collaboration – its use must be carefully considered and its process carefully designed to ensure the most balanced representation possible.”
“If smaller, more ideological environmental groups are not involved in collaborative decision-making, then collaboration is not representative of all affected interests and collaborative decisions do not reflect the concerns of all stakeholders.”
“Given the rocky history between environmental groups and the US Forest Service, it will be hard for the Forest Service to build relationships and trust as it initiates or participates in collaboration. Moreover, given that collaboration does not ensure representation by all interests, it will be hard for the agency to create representative and participatory processes. Finally, given non-collaborators’ reliance on law and regulations to participate in decision-making, the agency will continue to meet resistance to efforts perceived as undermining the statutory framework for environmental protection”
It goes without saying that Burke’s new research certainly provides some additional – and well researched – food for thought on the topic of ‘collaboration’ and how it’s impacting everything from national forest management, politics and public policy, to the relationships between various environmental organizations. Without a doubt, Burke’s research and findings should be required reading for those currently engaged in collaboration and those interested in the future of national forest management.