Three Pathways to Adaptive Governance

Adaptive governance—an adaptive management approach to public lands management—is well underway, and will replace planning, the Forest Service’s chosen management strategy for the 20th century. This may be seen as a bold assertion. But the ideas and actions embedded in adaptive governance have been emerging for quite some time as more and more people realize that 20th century notions cannot guide the Forest Service or any other government agency into the 21st century. Adaptive Governance framing is very different from scientific management/planning framing.

Gifford Pinchot’s “planned forests” guided Forest Service thought, policy, and action for the 20th century. (See, e.g.: here, here (pdf)). It was a model where humans sought to recreate and control Nature’s forests for utilitarian purposes. This model no longer serves. For the 21st century, we are better served with Aldo Leopold’s notion that humans humbly serve as plain members of a broader ecological community, and are not masters of the community. Still, humans must derive sustenance from the land and also re-create the human spirit via interrelationship with the land. To facilitate this transformation, a broad educational campaign in ecological literacy is needed. Part of that educational process can be effected via deliberative democracy in development of adaptive management strategies and actions, with its emphasis on learning not only to incrementally design and implement ever-better management actions, but also to design and implement ever-better management and science theory.

My assertion that adaptive governance is well underway stems from many conversations with planners, NEPA coordinators, and planning directors. It also stems from extensive reading in adaptive governance. [See, e.g. Adaptive Governance: Integrating Science, Policy, Decision Making (Brunner et al, 2005), Finding Common Ground: Governance and Natural Resources in the American West (Brunner et al, 2002), The Politics of Ecosystem Management (Cortner and Moote, 1999)]

At this time when we are discussing the recent Draft NFMA rule, I see three paths forward for the Forest Service: Leave the NFMA rule anchored in by-gone-era planning, while continuing to move toward adaptive governance in all other aspects of forest service thought/action. Develop a very simple NFMA rule that frees the Forest Service of much of the baggage of past NFMA rules, thereby allowing the agency to move forward into the adaptive governance era. Embrace adaptive governance in the NFMA rule.

If as expected the Forest Service chooses to embrace a slightly tweaked Final NFMA rule, which it now calls a “planning rule,” the major problem is that it will further erode trust—a much-discussed casualty of the highly controlled central planning methodology with its “jack in the box” public involvement strategies. [Yes, I’m aware that the Draft rule champions collaborative engagement, but we all know that the Forest Service has little intention to alter its current behavior of giving little more than lip-service to collaboration in forest planning, let alone in higher policy arenas. Besides, if as I’ve argued forest-level planning has little to offer re: adaptive governance, even extensive well-intentioned collaboration in that arena will yield little more than frustration and discontent.]

If the Forest Service chooses to develop a very simple NFMA rule, public interest groups may go along, recognizing that the US Congress is not likely to repeal, amend, or revise RPA/NFMA anytime soon, and that the Forest Service is already engaging stakeholders in adaptive governance discussions/policy actions. On the other hand public interest groups may not go along, if only beause the wicked problems surrounding “species viability” will not be quickly tamed. If the species viability questions can be addressed in (or around) a “simple rule,” public interest groups may move their attention to other arenas. There is a long-standing tradition in American government of leaving laws on the books long after enforcement of these laws makes sense. Think about how long city governments kept laws like “a hitching post will be provided every X feet along Main Street” on their books.

Finally, if the Forest Service chooses to embed adaptive governance in the NFMA rule, it can serve at once as a wake-up call to the Congress to revise RPA/NFMA and simultaneously relieve forest-level burdens now imposed by an anachronistic planning rule—currently the 1982 planning rule. It can also serve as a means to rebuild trust!

I’m betting on a simple tweak of the Draft rule, but hoping for one of the other two paths.

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