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.