Forest Planning #2- The Participation-Shed

Jim Burchfield
January 18, 2009

If genuine, deliberative collaborative processes become an inviolate principle in the development and implementation of a new generation of National Forest plans, then the geographic scale of planning becomes one of the most important early decisions in the establishment of planning rules. I will argue that a vital, but not singular variable in determining a planning area boundary is the capacity of resident populations to participate in ongoing deliberations, “a participation-shed,” if you will. Even though participation has many styles and flavors, the type upon which meaningful collaboration has depended for some time is the form in which people see, hear, touch, and even smell each other – face-to-face deliberation. There is no more meaningful or creative decision environment, in terms of empathy, compromise, and learning, than the physical confrontation with your adversaries and friends. Technology gives us the ability to supplement these direct interactions, of course, and it will continue to provide enormous advantages in exchanging information and ideas, but the virtual world will always fall short of the goal to make progress. Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.

So how do we design a set of geographic areas that create opportunities for people to get together and confront our very real resource management problems? I would suggest considering a few additional variables that encourage action and the ongoing measurement of consequences. First, watersheds have a logical as well as historical significance in the management of western lands. The availability of clean, fresh water will only accelerate under warming climatic conditions. Second, local government boundaries, such as state and county lines, remain stubbornly stable and administratively unavoidable. We can’t make a specious claims that these “artificial” boundaries don’t count. They do. Finally, we have the administrative boundaries of the National Forests and their dependent Ranger Districts. A planning area requires a leader to convene and guide public discussions. This is often best fulfilled by a trained, responsible federal official, a person who pays attention to the actions emerging from planning and the monitoring and evaluation that follows to adapt to new conditions. The perfect unit for planning on a National Forest would be a place like the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, where the 4th code hydrologic unit happens to coincide nicely with the Ravalli County and National Forest boundary. These cases are rare, so for everywhere else, there will be fudge factors.

What we cannot fudge, however, is the potential for citizens to engage regularly, honestly, and with feeling. Someone has to be able to get in their car after work and attend a well-organized, focused meeting that lasts no longer than two hours, isn’t a lot more frequent than once per month, and gets something done on the ground within a year. This is not too much to ask, and in fact, has been done on many occasions in the past. Yet participation in Forest Service meetings often does not go well, either because of poor meeting design, lack of independent, quality facilitation, a myopia on assessment, and a never-ending ambivalence on the purpose of planning (again, all together now: getting something done to change the future!). Having planning units defined on geographic areas that would encompass recognized, community-centered places would get all of us very far down the path. Just think of all the Ranger Districts that already meet the criteria of being a relatively short driving distance (less than an hour) from the land to be affected. The genius of the National Forest System has always been its administrative decentralization. Let’s use it.

This does not imply that the geographic area is the only unit of analysis in preparing planning documents. Larger scale patterns on regional areas inform more localized decisions and offer critical explanations for potential consequences of actions. Other stochastic, broad-scale disturbances might require rather rapid changes in planning assumptions used on the geographic scale. But then, planning isn’t perfect, which is why it’s an ongoing, learning activity. Allowing people to be able to regularly participate in the decision-making regarding actions, and then to help evaluate whether the future has been changed toward a desirable trajectory allows Forest Service professional to be responsive to the highest quality knowledge and commitment of the most directly affected stakeholders. It will make planning into the political activity that is deserves to be. It will build confidence and capacity among the population. It might even foster a nation of conservationists.

Note: Sharon posted this entry and this was the only photo she could find within the time available. She would appreciate any real “forest planning” photos to use here.

10 thoughts on “Forest Planning #2- The Participation-Shed”

  1. Jim’s thoughts make a lot of sense. Im wondering though, if there is one more geographic factor that we might want to puzzle about. While using forest ranger districts makes sense (for legal reasons if nothing else, and decentralization is something a lot of folks value) and watersheds do too (because stubbornly, John Wesley Powell just wont go away) I wonder if we need to watch how people organize themselves to participate and deliberate, and why they do it “that” way…granting of course that some of the way they do organize is because its presented that way to them.

  2. I like Jim’s notion of a “participation-shed” and find that in many ways it mirrors the challenge of defining “community” in community-based conservation. But, it also mirrors some of the concerns about who gets to define “community” and who gets to define and validate “participation”. Ranger Districts were established for particular logistical and managerial purposes and the boundaries are continually re-assessed with those efficiencies in mind (eg. merging districts). But, there may be social justice reasons why those boundaries might not be as politically valid.

    The question always seems to boil down to who gets to sit at the table and how. As Jim rightly points out, new technology provides opportunities for different people to be involved, in different ways. Busy people, with strong attachment and knowledge of place, may not be able to be physically present but still wish to be considered a stakeholder. Perhaps the challenge is how to have those people ‘present’ and not have to resort to a proxy to represent their interest and interests.

  3. I think we need to chat more about what decisions are to be made. Then, perchance we can have a more meaningful discussion as to what makes sense in setting up geographical boundaries. For example, if we are talking about setting up wildlife corridors, e.g. Yellowstone to Yukon in the Wildlands Project context, maybe the scale of the endeavor is large from the get-go. But what is allowed/disallowed within specific corridors might be tweaked at smaller scales.

    I suspect Jim is talking about watershed conservation measures which might be done at local scales, although looking at broader scales (similar watershed issues in larger ecosystems/social systems) might make more sense for policy-making. Still, some local input could be drawn in making larger scale policy.

    Certainly all federal decision-making (where major federal actions are at stake) ought to be done with full public participation. I have long been an advocate of collaboration in public participation–having attended way too many boring “show and tell” public input meetings put on by the USFS during my years there. Decisions, however, are still reserved for those deemed “responsible officials” as per statute. I have no problem with that as long as such officials keep in mind their public trust and legal/administrative responsibilities.

    Finally, I think that there are few who still believe that THE appropriate boundary coincides with the boundaries of a National Forest or an “administrative unit of the national forest system”.

  4. I have a confession to make; I was once a collaborator. The occasion was the Forest Options Group, circa 1997, which, with fellow Oregon State University foresters Randal O’Toole and Doug Crandall, I helped organize.

    We had nice meetings in pretty places and wrote an interesting report. I was there because Doug’s employer, the American Forest and Paper Association, was bankrolling much of the collaboration’s expenses, including attendance by AFPA outside counsel, Steve Quarles, who persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court that challenges to clearcut logging were not ripe at the forest plan stage, but only when an individual timber sale was proposed (Ohio Forestry Assn. v. Sierra Club). Since Quarles doesn’t come cheap, I figured AFPA must expect something to come from the exercise.

    And something did. The Forest Options Group discussion focused on novel ways to govern and finance national forest management. Those discussions became the foundation for key parts of the House-passed Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act (aka “county payments”). In particular, the House bill called for local community groups to control how Forest Service revenue earned from logging and other activities would be spent. [Tracking the flow of money in the House bill is a good exercise for the student].

    Unfortunately for public land revolutionaries, the House financing scheme died in the Senate and the Secure Rural Schools law ended up being only a gravy train for counties in a few western states. The Forest Options Group collaboration fell apart when the rubber hit the legislative road.

  5. I agree with Jim on the need for meetings that can be attended by people face to face. On the other hand, perhaps they could be supplemented by virtual opportunities for people who are interested but can’t make it (a virtual meeting?). Distant people, or those who don’t drive at night, or those who work at night, could be hooked up at “virtual” tables to have the same kinds of discussions as the folks in person. The key is the interest and commitment to work with others and keep at it. Being a technological person, I tend to see this as a technological problem.

    Dave- to me as a forest plan minimalist, the single decision a forest plan needs to make is to draw lines on maps to tell what you can do where. And you can discuss the forest niche and the future of where it fits into the landscape. So many of these decisions relate to the people who live in communities adjacent to the forest. Still I agree there should be some kind of participation opportunities for people who visit/use the forests and live at a distance.

    Any more than maps with lines runs the risk of leading to the anathema of endless documentation. And I think standards don’t belong in plans.. they should apply more broadly and be kept up with the latest thinking. But maybe that’s another post.

    • What Andy refers to was a very interesting process and document, having talked to some folks who were involved. They deserve a lot of credit for some interesting and provocative ideas. And I think he makes a fair point that the Secure Rural Schools law ended up in places not envisioned when it was first passed.

  6. One completely undeveloped idea, though related to Iverson’s comment, is to think of how possibly to match scales of participation to scales of ecosystem services being provided by a NF.

    So, in some cases, the scale of participation will be quite large as it pertains to a particular service (say carbon sequestration or whatever). But other services, like water supply, would be smaller in scale. Perhaps thinking in terms of ecosystem services will help us avoid some of the historical politics surrounding this issue of local versus national participation.

    If we focus on water supply services, for example, the participation shed would include communities at the top of the watershed (which will often be rural) and those larger communities dependent upon the service.

    Just an idea.

    An even more undeveloped idea is to somehow change secure schools and PILT formulas so communities adjacent to National Forests that supply such ecosystem services get paid based on those services provided…but that one obviously needs more thought. Martin

  7. Related to this question of the geographic scale of the participation, is the question about what level of the Forest Service should be the responsible official in planning decisions. Regarding Forest Planning, the 1982 rule set the Regional Forester as the decision-maker, with appeals going to the Washington Office and a secondary appeal review at the Department of Agriculture. Some amendments were decided by the Chief, and in the case of amendments for western powerline corridors, the decision was signed by the undersecretary. This all begs the question on whether decision-makers at these levels can really participate in community based collaborative efforts.

    In some ways, at least the 1982 rule was compatible with the way planning really worked. In the 2005/2008 rules, the responsible official was the Forest Supervisor, with objections going to the Regional Forester. In reality, however, we had tightly written directives, and all plans needed to clear the Washington Office and the Department. For instance, we modified a local plan at the last minute because it didn’t contain emerging national direction on climate change. Since these national considerations can trump locally based planning, local and regional staffs can be hesitant in making policy direction.

  8. Sharon’s idea that we might limit forest plan decisions (other than those strictly mandated by law, which we will continue to chat about in other posts) to “lines on maps” deserves more discussion.

    At lunch today (with an attorney and a regional forest planner) we chatted about the possibility of such lines as forst use zones, much like those a city or county might set up or modify in a general plan. The idea being that the lines themselves (and associated narrative) would simply give broad-brush notions of what might go on within the lines as proposals for, say, development or stricter preservation come before adaptive management councils and decision-makers. Note that not all such “proposals” would be more site-specific than the forest plan. But whether more site-specific or broader such proposals would be evaluated as per the “plan” to test both their own merit and the merit of the plan lines and intent.

    More discussion of this very limited set of forest plan “desires” might be a useful conversation to have.


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