How to do Assessments Under the Proposed Forest Service Planning Rule – Part 3: Scenario Planning

Mendocino National Forest, Bear Creek Campground, photo by Tiffany Flanagan


What is the future of our National Forests?  How do we fulfill NFMA’s challenge to plan for sustained yield of products and services into the future?   

In the messy world of forest planning, there are demands for certainty and assurances about the future, so subsequent project work can be done.  Planners have responded with deterministic linear programming models, reasonably foreseeable development forecasts, ranges of historic variation, or simply promises.  If uncertainty remains, there is a promise to monitor, and to eventually adapt.  Sometimes these approaches have worked, often they haven’t.  

The challenge of the proposed planning rule is to assess present and potential future conditions in order to plan for them.  In previous posts, I offered suggestions to review assessment questions derived from the rule through an interactive process using analysis and deliberation.  If Forest Plans are to be strategic and guide projects from one decade to the next, they must be able to address an uncertain world.  However, the appearance of certainty comes at a price, both in the cost of the plan’s preparation, and its reliability.  One thing becomes clear: forest planning should not try to reduce uncertainty – instead, it should embrace uncertainty.

One approach to addressing uncertainty is to set up adaptive management.  You establish a hypothesis, then test it through monitoring and evaluation.  But adaptive management only works when the Forest Service is in control of the forces affecting the forest.  For uncertainty that can’t be controlled, a better approach is to develop a plan that is robust and flexible to respond to the unexpected problems that “walk into the District Ranger’s door”, or to address the uncertain events that the proposed planning rule calls “drivers, stressors, and disturbances” or “risks”.

Nimble, flexible planning requires some awareness of blind spots and assumptions about the future.  It requires a look at alternative futures.  In order to break out of people’s comfort zones, it’s important to offer stories with impact, that create a future shock.   These are the elements of scenario planning, or what is sometimes referred to as scenario thinking.  Scenario planning is a structured framework to identify actions that will be most effective across a range of potential futures to promote desired outcomes. Peterson, et. al. has described how scenario planning is useful in natural resource planning where there is high uncertainty and minimal control.  The Park Service is applying scenario planning for addressing climate change in park planning.

Applied to the Forest Plan assessment process, scenario planning would include the following steps:

  • In answering the assessment questions, find out what scientists know, think they know, and don’t know.
  • For the things that we don’t know, find out what are the most critical forces that affect the answers to the assessment questions.
  • Combine the most critical forces into different stories about how the future will play out.
  • Think about what should be in the forest plan to respond to the various scenarios.
  • Determine what important monitoring questions and indicators are important to see what scenarios may unfold.

Scenario planning focuses on multiple, reasonably plausible futures.  While these multiple futures can be thought of as analogous to multiple forecasts, true scenario planning seeks to describe multiple plausible futures.  Scenario planning does not seek to establish probabilities associated with those futures.  The emphasis on plausibility instead of probability is overlooked by some disciplines that have embraced the terminology of scenarios without understanding the origins of scenario planning.  Emphasis on probabilities reinforces a problematic search for a single best answer (see for instance, Mitroff and Lindstrom or Van der Heijden), a problem the founders of scenario planning sought to address (wikepedia link).

This difference between emphasizing plausibility and emphasizing probability creates a need to develop new Forest Service skills, because those trained in natural resource sciences are taught about probabilistic methods.  Some of the new skills needed require rethinking fundamental training, which is especially challenging.

The main goal of scenario thinking is to question basic assumptions about how the world works and to open people’s minds about possible futures that would otherwise be unimaginable.  Participants can break out of their standard worldview, exposing blind spots that would otherwise be overlooked in the generally accepted forecast.  It’s then easier to recognize a scenario in its earliest stages, should it actually be the one that unfolds.  The Forest Supervisor is also better able to understand the source of disagreement that often occurs when different people are envisioning different scenarios without realizing it.

Collaboration is central to scenario planning – engagement that includes but is not limited to that of technical experts and scientists.  This engagement is a scientifically valid method of bringing biases and assumptions to the surface and then using those to construct plausible alternative futures.  In contrast, traditional approaches to forest planning typically pit competing perspectives against each other in search for a single best forecast or scenario, occasionally looking for multiple single-point forecasts.  Chermack and Lynham explain that the search for a single best forecast makes traditional methods fundamentally adversarial, and therefore at odds with more collaborative, learning-oriented approaches to planning and decision-making.

Like most planning methods, there are some cautions with scenarios.  We’ve talked about Mintzberg’s classic book on this blog, and Mintzberg (p. 248) mentions the balancing act between developing enough scenarios and hitting the manager’s mental capacity.  He says that “hedging or remaining flexible has its own costs, primarily in the lack of commitment to a clear strategy.”  Plus, even when the planners are quite sure that one of their scenarios is on the right track, there remains the problem of convincing management to do something about it.   Still, despite Mintzberg’s and other commentors’ concerns, scenario planning is useful to begin a dialogue, to blend the “hard” analysis with a manger’s “soft” intuition, and engage the public.

Properly done, an assessment under the proposed planning rule should challenge the conventional wisdom and contribute to the learning of all participants.   That might be the greatest benefit of NFMA planning.


2 thoughts on “How to do Assessments Under the Proposed Forest Service Planning Rule – Part 3: Scenario Planning”

  1. I have but one quibble here, and it is my usual one: This stuff is good, but better applied (with the rigor your suggest) somewhere other than in the revision of a forest plan, e.g. broad-scale assessments/monitoring. For Forest Plan revision, keep it very, very simple.

    I have been advocating for scenario building as part of effective strategy setting for a very long time. I even allow for very simple scenario building as part of a forest plan revision under an adaptive governance approach:

    simple “scenario planning” … would embrace the idea of emergent unfolding future as opposed to managing toward a desired future. Note that this idea interfaces with the idea of “niches” above and does not preclude working toward betterment. It just moves [most of] the “betterment” debate into the policy arena and away form the land planning arena.

    My simple scenario building, is an effort to keep eyes open to emergent futures by “rehashing the past, and rehearsing the future.” Like you, I welcome collaboration in forest plan revision, to the extent such can happen given all the arenas for collaboration that will open up if the Forest Service embraces true adaptive governance. But I suspect that most of the sophisticated collaboration will happen in higher-scale endeavors, which will set both a stage for and definitive constraints on forest-level planning and management.

  2. John, thanks for this series of excellent posts.

    I like scenario planning because we admit we don’t know and can’t project the future. Nevertheless, I have to wonder if we are over-thinking the whole thing. Life on the public lands, as people currently care about it, includes motorized trails, oil and gas, WUI fuel treatments, grazing, wilderness bills, roadless rules, ski areas. Some things may change in the future but the basics, and the basic disagreements are already known.


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