Planning Without the Mess?


One of my favorite political scientists (Elizabeth Theiss-Morse) co-authored a book a while ago entitled Congress as Public Enemy: Public Attitudes Toward American Political Institutions (1995).  The authors remind us, if we ever needed reminding, that the democratic process is slow and often characterized by compromise, uncertainty, disagreement and conflict.  But the authors find in their exhaustive survey that Americans tend to actually dislike such democratic processes, including debate and publicly hashing things out, seeing it not as informed debate but rather as haggling or bickering.

 They conclude that:

People do not wish to see uncertainty, conflicting opinions, long debate, competing interests, confusion, bargaining, and compromised, imperfect solutions.  They want government to do its job quietly and efficiently, sans conflict and sans fuss.  In short, we submit, they often seek a patently unrealistic form of democracy.” Americans, they find, want “stealth democracy”—democracy without the mess.  They want, for example, both procedural efficiency and procedural equity.  “Just as people want governmental services without the pain of taxes, they also want democratic procedures without the pain of witnessing what comes along with those procedures.”

 Americans, it seems, are quite demanding

I keep thinking of this work as I read letters submitted to the USFS regarding the new planning rule.  I’ve now read dozens of these things.  And one thing most seem to have in common is a desire for an expedited and more efficient planning process.  Of course, who wouldn’t want such a thing, it’s boilerplate. 

But then, in the next breath, most of these letters demand the USFS to analyze something in more rigorous fashion.  This runs the gamut from analyzing ecosystem services, climate change, watersheds, restoration areas and priorities, biodiversity, cumulative effects, motorized recreational access, tribal reserved rights, and multiple possible timber production levels. 

It seems that even those groups whom have complained most loudly in the past about the process predicament and various planning pathologies want the agency to study something of their interest in more thorough fashion in the future.  Take, for example, the letter written by the Blue Ribbon Coalition, whom “fear we are poised on the brink of creating a fatuously self-indulgent planning process even further removed from the ground.”  (btw, I’m stealing the great line “fatuously self-indulgent, just excellent). 

But then, without hesitation, the letter asks the agency to study various things in more detail, like properly analyzing lost recreational opportunities.  The group also wants the USFS to include in plans at least one EIS alternative that enhances the importance given to recreation in the agency’s multiple use sustained yield mandate.   

I’m guilty of this too.  So the question, perhaps, is whether we have a patently unrealistic understanding of democracy…and planning?  And if so, what gives?

Martin Nie

6 thoughts on “Planning Without the Mess?”

  1. What strikes me is that people want their interests honored and weighed heavily in decisions. But how this plays out, often, is wanting more analysis of things related to their interest, to the point where if every interest is honored that way, the process will collapse under its own weight and no one will get a satisfactory outcome (other than folks employed in analysis and attending meetings). Is there another way?

  2. I doubt that Congress intended by NFMA that the promulgation of forest plans be a democratic process. There’s certainly nothing in the law that suggests the Forest Service should operate as a representational democracy in its forest planning.

    Forest planning is an administrative, executive function. It is not legislative; it is not representational; it is not democratic. The legislative, executive, and judicial arenas each function under different rules and norms. Rather than make the executive branch mimic its legislative counterpart, we should focus on making the executive branch function better as an executive.

    It is a sign of the Forest Service’s failure as an executive agency, and, in particular, shortcomings of its leadership as executives, that the agency is trying to remake itself as a “collaborative democracy.” It won’t work.

    • I didn’t mean to imply such a thing, I should have clarified. I’m simply making a rather pointless observation really: that we seem to have some unrealistic expectations of our political institutions and processes–more gain, no pain. But I will say that NFMA’s planning process has become, for better or worse, the venue in which basic political allocation questions get addressed–questions that were mostly dodged by Congress over the years.

  3. On an acreage basis alone, I suggest that more land allocation decisions have been made outside of the NFMA process than as a part of it. Wilderness and national recreation area decisions are legislatively made. The roadless rule was not a NFMA-based process. All livestock grazing decisions are Taylor Grazing Act and permit-based decisions (that’s why livestock AUM production is identical in forest plan alternatives). Recent west-wide new utility corridor decisions were made outside of NFMA. The allocation of roads and trail among recreation users is made in ATM plans, with its own attendant planning process.

    This administration is trying to promise the world in its new NFMA planning process and will, I suspect, end up 1) disappointing everyone; and, 2) further paralyzing timber and vegetation management.

  4. I just keep going back to Ostrom. The mess is because we confused “scientific analysis” with informed decision making. Asking “the agency” to do more analysis while doing nothing to encourage informed discussions makes compromise and pragmatism impossible. If you could have a forum for the discussion regarding the role and use of fire, and if we could all work together to find answers in every given geography, would you need to be in court? Would you want to be in court?

    or,could we be working together to figure out how to sustain these incredible forests that give life to us…over time, with the thousands of changes of climates, and people, and intent, and thought and power? I think our current processes are not up to the complexity and the magnificence of these places and our people. We need BIG change.

  5. I agree with Andy on the allocation question. If roadless would get decided nationally, in my view that would be the biggest chunk of allocation. Wilderness advocates will continue to try to move areas from roadless to wilderness. Roadless does not address travel management so the travel management decisions work to answer that question. One has to wonder, as I did here in a previous post, so much effort (all the plans and planning rules) for so little allocation. Maybe my opinion is due to working on a roadless rule and the planning rule at the same time, plus have oil and gas leasing decisions and travel management going on. The forest plan can appear to be merely the lettuce on the overall planning sandwich, and maybe it would be more cost-effective to get the lettuce at minimum cost (as per Andy’s KISS) rather than it being organic arugula only fertilized by hand-harvested elk manure, which is what I fear we will end up with.

    I agree with Lynn on the analysis and the forum for the role and use of fire. Maybe we can start with laying out some of the general controversies and how they are different from region to region (or type to type) on this blog.


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