The Purpose of Planning

Contributed by Jim Burchfield, Interim Dean, College of Forestry and Conservation, University of Montana

Beyond rulemaking, environmental analyses, and the myriad of necessary procedural steps, land management planning on National Forests will be well-served to adhere to fundamental principles.  Planning strives to meet two interlocking objectives: (1) To create a more desirable future; and (2) To link knowledge to action.  Both of these objectives require ongoing effort, such that planning does not become a once-per-decade tedium of covering all contingencies via numbing documentation, but a continuing learning experiment.  Especially in an environment as complicated and dynamic as any given National Forest, the creation and re-creation of a coherent, “actionable” vision for a desirable future implies repeated political exercises of clarifying and allocating human values.  Unfortunately, the Forest Service is not quite ready for an immersion into these messy, real-world negotiations because, ironically, it’s afraid to make mistakes.  I say, bring on the arguments and dissatisfaction.  Confrontation breeds learning.  Plans will not be perfect.  Good.  If we learn from our mistakes we make the next iteration better.  We make progress.  What is necessary is comfort in imperfection.

The creation of learning-oriented planning argues for two unnerving transformations in the current planning process.  First, the roles of agency experts must change, and second, investments in analysis must be reversed from the front to the back end of the planning processes.  A more meaningful role for the mangers and scientists who guide the planning process is to promote landscape-level trials of different management possibilities – some “let burn” here, some intensive logging there – not much concerned with a particular site’s “suitability” but more focused on the responses of these lands to experimental actions (some obvious, already established criteria for suitability allocations, such as unstable soils, already exist and may continue).  Concurrently, these agency sponsors engage in new, interactive, political forums with the gamut of interested parties to negotiate where and at what intensity these experiments take place.  Design will be important and prior assessments of resource conditions relevant, but they will not overwhelm the overarching demands to act and learn.  The proposals emerging from deliberative arguments among multiple interests will commonly generate creative ideas for action, and importantly, a set of normative indicators of benefit that can be subsequently measured.  Each action is a risk, but a worthy one.  The good news, of course, is that nature is highly resilient, recovering from all types of human shenanigans.  We simply negotiate a new set of outcomes, and try our best.

Simultaneously, the attention of planning must be turned on its head from the tiresome tradition of pre-planning “assessment” to the dynamic practice of post-treatment evaluation.  The biggest change to realize this reversal is the funding of a systematized process to measure consequences, that is, a serious commitment to monitoring and evaluation (two distinct and often wrongly conflated processes).  The absence of evaluation is the commonly recognized Achilles heel of planning success, which is why adaptive management has been so rightly criticized.  Behaviors can’t be adjusted or “adapted” when there’s been no confident measurement of change.  The roles of different actors in planning become further clarified, as the science capacity of the agency comes into play far more significantly in the aftermath of planning (while it is now misplaced in the early phases), and the normative interests of the public ascend in importance in planning’s developmental stages.  Scientists will be crucial in clarifying robust measures of change and completing analyses of consequences, even though it will be the participants of planning exercises, including non-professionals, who help conduct these measurements, learning as they go whether the results of actions indeed create the conditions expected.

What bothers many professionals is that this form of planning – deliberative, action-oriented, and uncertain – means things go wrong.  But utopia remains an illusion as the land and its inhabitants change too fast for idealized models to keep up.  The measurements made in monitoring could show something entirely different than the anticipated results.  Fine.   After all, management actions aren’t the only forces at play, especially with latent, large-scale perturbations (think climate change or big wildfires) overwhelming modest interventions.  What will have changed, however, is that whatever the outcome, we know we have only ourselves to blame, and this democratization of blame takes the sting from negative consequences that have been previously viewed as career-ending mistakes.   We are not just wounded but wiser. 

This commitment to knowledge from planning means that we have participants in planning who aren’t vested in being correct.  We need humble, curious planners, who are capable of setting up public learning systems.  That planning is so imprecise, ongoing, and political annoys scientists to no end, which is why they are such lousy planners.  They are trained to be cautious and correct.  It’s not that we don’t need scientists – we need them desperately.  They simply need to be empowered to be evaluators instead of creators.  Perhaps school teachers would be better planners.  They understand conflict.  They are trained to discover what their constituents want.  They can encourage people to do work.  They are skilled at demonstrating the tools for measurement. The next day’s class starts the process again.  We might even get something done.

7 thoughts on “The Purpose of Planning”

  1. I’d offer some additional objectives of planning. In addition to describing a desirable future, and linking knowledge into action, good planning does two more things. It provides a fair process, open to all who wish to participate, with some parameters on how to participate. Ideally the process is transparent and understandable. Because a fair process can build trust, the process may sometimes be more important than the product. It also builds relationships, and those relationships can carry forward into specific actions on the ground, and into monitoring. Both of these objectives are people oriented, perhaps giving more reasons why school teachers might make good planners.

  2. Jim,

    Interesting piece. I’m curious, though, if you believe such an approach to planning can be done within the current legal-planning process, NEPA/NFMA most importantly? And what are your thoughts about a mandated monitoring approach as a response to the problem you’ve identified with the implementation of adaptive management? Big questions I know, but any thoughts?

    • Martin, I don’t really see how the current process blocks adaptive, learning-centered planning. You would still do NEPA, but wouldn’t be all that concerned about bullet-proofing, especially if the real proof of the pudding would come out in implementation. Mandating monitoring would be a responsibility of allocating resources more effectively, either through petitioning Congress for the money, or by not doing so much up-front assessment. These are brief answers, but then, I’ll have some other longer entries on this soon.

  3. Jim, I am pretty much with you and Andy about changing the focus from up front analysis to considering the future, taking action, monitoring the action, and changing if necessary.. with full public participation and involvement.

    Oddly enough, it was those very ideas (less upfront analysis,therefore let’s do CEs) and forced and structured monitoring and evaluation (EMS) that met with so much disfavor. It could be we are in substantial agreement about the problem, just not the solutions.

    Also, the FS is a complex organization as we all know. When you say “Unfortunately, the Forest Service is not quite ready for an immersion into these messy, real-world negotiations because, ironically, it’s afraid to make mistakes” it doesn’t fit well with my everyday experience of folks who make and correct mistakes every day. Maybe you are thinking some kind of institutional or cultural thing, but I think that trying to locate these statements more specifically (Forest Supervisors, people in DC, forest planners or even regional planning directors (!) are afraid), I think would help in advancing the discussion.

    Talking about the “FS” reminds me of an excellent (highly recommended) class I took at the Kennedy School at Harvard where, among other topics, we looked at a case study of the decision making during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The take-home message was that understanding what “the Russians” were going to do was helped by not looking at “Russians” as an entity, but rather understanding the dynamics of the different interests within the government.

  4. In response to Sharon’s comment on January 9th: I prefer the more inclusive term “Feds” rather than just “Forest Service” to describe a bunch of individually minded agency employees ; ) Jim is right on, per usual, in identifying the need to shift the emphasis and resources from the front end, pre-implementation to the post-implementation side of the “Forest Plan Implementation Triangle” (I believe the statistics are in and the FPI Triangle has now surpassed the Bermuda triangle in unexplained disappearnaces, ahem). Interestignly I have been in some discussions with other Forests here in R1 about our ability to use monitoring data in effects analysis in project-scale NEPA vs. using peer-reviewed literature to predict direct indirect cumulative effects. Bottom line is that monitoring data rocks! and provides some pretty bullet-proof responses to commentors questioning the validity of predicted effects, etc. Not that the point is to bullet-proof necessarily, but rather if the intent of commentors is to improve the process for predicting effects (includign addressign best available science, uncertainty, etc.) then this on-the-ground data is perhaps the best we are going to get and thus addresses the aforementioned scientific integrity question better than, lets say, the “Beschta report”. Although that report was perhaps appropriate for its time, it aint site-specific, it aint peer-reviewed, and bottom line it aint that useful at the site-specific, cause-effect level of analysis. How well we can predict cause-effect relationships in the office using google earth and models is the real issue certain commentors are getting at. So lets monitor! I would love to be doing more monitoring, but, alas, its expensive and takes time and the resources arent there. We’re doing more of it despite the emphasis being put on the NEPA anlaysis and decisions so that we can fix toilets and trails and permit ski areas and all the other things that need done out there that havent been gettign done for years. Add to this the belief that we arent really having any detrimental environmental effects anyway, at least not any lasting “significant” ones, and you have an unconcious bias against monitoring. Heck we’re lucky if we actually implement what the NEPA decision says (this doesnt happen oftern but it has happened), let alone monitor to determine whether we correctly predicted the effects. It takes an extremely creative FS line officer to do more monitoring with the colors of money that come to the agency now.

  5. Welcome to the blog, Alex! You raise some interesting points re monitoring. I’ll post something to initiate more discussion on this.. another thing we have attempted to address a couple of times, like process predicament, and not sure where we are.


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