Thanks to Jim Furnish’s for his take on “what makes a land management decision right?” (Others are welcome to submit posts on this topic).
This poses THE trenchant question when working one’s way through a controversy. The very existence of controversy indicates opposition, unease, and concern about the status quo or new proposal. The science and art of finding the most elegant solution is the responsibility of decision-makers, but “right” decisions can prove elusive. Good leaders excel here; poor ones flounder. Difficulty increases because outcomes often remain unknown for some time, meaning that knowing what’s right at decision time may be impossible. I’ll share what worked for me, acknowledging that one has to tailor their decision-making methods to their own skills and character.
Before proceeding, let me address what I consider to be an oft-stated but errant myth: “good decisions leave all parties of a conflict equally upset.” In my experience, this became almost dogma as I heard many decision-makers explain their rationale for a course of action, thinking that the right decision necessarily lay in a brokered middle ground that left both sides angered and neither whole. I find this notion confounding. A right decision should incorporate as much common ground as possible, leaving both sides feeling they achieved important aims; “win-win”, to echo a trite saying.
Realistically, this is often not possible. Which leads to another common brokering concept: what can all sides “live with”? This suggests optimality. It has a positive feel, but this hints at settling for some least offensive solution. It also reflects a social construct, neglecting an all-important priority — does the decision do right by the land?
I consider the land ethic issue to be the essential element of right decisions for natural resource managers. This may not factor in decisions for a banker or insurance manager, but must be a priority if one is managing land. In my view, this was the essence of my national forest business. Here I give some deference (not much) to private land managers for whom economics and profits play a more prominent role, but for public lands I think a bias for environmental considerations exists, or should.
Why? Public lands must be managed to benefit the citizenry, and this basic stewardship responsibility underpins all decisions. Commercial transactions commonly involve forest products, ski areas, grazing, and concessions among others, and private entities naturally focus on their bottom line. I never considered it my responsibility to assure the financial health of a business contractor. But if my decision did not focus primarily on the environmental effects of commercial entities doing business on public land – in my role as steward – who would see to it? I think “citizen owners” of public land have every right to expect and demand this of public land managers.
How to apply this in trying to reach a right decision? Context matters. As an example, consider ATV use, a heated issue since ATVs burst on the recreation scene about the 1980s. Most agencies found themselves caught flat-footed as ATV users exploited a cheap, fast, and nimble ride to essentially replace 4WD vehicles. New trails laced forest and alpine, and solitude disappeared. How does one find the right balance between exclusion and permission? Do users have an inherent right to go virtually anywhere outside Wilderness areas?
I begin with the adage “just because you can doesn’t mean you should”. The FS took an important, long overdue step about 2005 by requiring that ATVs stay on designated routes, to be determined by comprehensive travel plans. A major issue was whether illegally created ATV trails could or should become a designated route. The FS left that door open to be determined locally. The battle was on. Enviros pushed for minimal routes and large scale exclusion zones. ATVers wanted almost every existing track to become a designated route. I slide toward the enviro end in seeking the right balance on that spectrum.
I try to simplify an arguably complex issue by asserting that ATV use is capable of significant soil and water damage, wildlife impacts, noise, and loss of solitude. ATV use is legitimate but needs restrictions as per Nixon’s Executive Order 11644. Accordingly, ATV use is permissible after negative effects are minimized and/or mitigated. Environmental issues as well as effects on other users must be accounted for. This means that ATV users should get the short(er) end of the stick. All things considered, this is not unfair and it’s “right” in my book.
I think historic context is crucial in working through other conflicts like logging and grazing. Timber industry had it their way for decades until the spotted owl solution in the Pacific Northwest came down heavily in favor of wildlife habitat and fish protections. The agencies doled out pain unequally; again, right in my view. Similarly, ranchers historically received preferential treatment and federal grazing has been supported at well below market value for decades. This context should tilt “right decisions” toward an environmental bias to help restore balance, especially when necessary to restore degraded environments.
Ultimately, I tried to weigh all factors in reaching a just outcome, but this didn’t mean I tried to make everything equal. Strive to help all sides to an issue achieve their aims, but it’s often necessary to take from one side to give to another in reaching a right decision.