“Collaboration at Arm’s Length” – Journal of Forestry

I know its the “holiday season,” but here’s some homework (hey, only 9 pages!) for us forest-planning freaks….

“Collaboration at Arm’s Length: Navigating Agency Engagement in Landscape-Scale Ecological Restoration Collaboratives,” by William Hale Butler, Journal of Forestry, November 2013.

The full text is here: http://wp.me/a3AxwY-4fU

Management and Policy Implications

This research suggests approaches for engaging in collaborative landscape-scale ecological restoration while balancing the tensions of agency authority and levels of engagement in collaboration. Through an analysis of the experiences of the first 10 CFLRP landscape projects, the paper argues that Forest Service staff and collaborators might be well served to engage in collaborative dialogue on substantive matters while maintaining an “arm’s length” posture procedurally. These cases suggest that when agency employees play too strong a role in collaborative decisionmaking processes, they risk being challenged on procedural grounds. These challenges focus attention on procedural concerns and can hamper dialogue on substantive issues. On the other hand, agency staff and collaborators avoided procedural concerns when they separated agency employees from collaborative decisionmaking. When accompanied by a joint commitment to engage in collaborative dialogue on the nature and content of those decisions, collaborators and agency staff have been able to work through substantive ecological restoration concerns together. This approach can ensure statutory compliance while deflecting challenges that the agency is co-opting the collaborative. Meanwhile, it allows agency personnel and stakeholders to engage in dialogue on substantive matters and bring a range of perspectives, ideas, values, expertise, and knowledge to bear on landscape-scale ecological restoration issues.


13 thoughts on ““Collaboration at Arm’s Length” – Journal of Forestry”

  1. Thank you for posting Mr. Wilent. That was a great read, which I think strikes to the heart of much of the CFLRP controversy. It seems that one of the problems of place based planning is that the learning (or bias) that occurs from the individual processes stays localized. Thus, generalized comments about collaborative efforts are often generated from a very narrow perspective. This research does a great job of removing the blinders. I really don’t think collaborative planning is going away. More research like this is the key to opening the doors of localized experiences so that participants can take a step outside and survey the larger context for ideas about how to effectively move forward. Again, thanks for posting.

  2. The agency needs to find ways to harmonize collaboration (with those who have the time and resources to participate in that way) AND the NEPA process (for those who cannot afford the tie and resources to participate in collaboration, but nonetheless remain interested in the management of their public lands). If collaboration replaces NEPA, some members of the public will be excluded, to the detriment of the public process and the quality of decision-making.

    • Great point. More over, collaboration isn’t a replacement for NEPA compliance, but can be a way, when appropriate, for complying with NEPA in a collaborative manner. A recent joint effort with National Forest Foundation, several other non-governmental organizations, and folks from the Forest Service produced a new tool is called “A Roadmap for Collaboration Before, During and After the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) Process.” It might meet some of the need you’re seeing.

      LINK: http://www.nationalforests.org/conserve/learning/collaboration-and-nepa#

    • 2nd .. at the risk of being a NEPA nerd…

      what I hear you saying is that if “alternatives are collaboratively developed”, then they will have so much political weight that no one else will have a chance to weigh in. I don’t see this as a NEPA question.. since people will follow NEPA regs and have public comments on the “Alternatives that are Collaboratively Developed.” It’s not that the public will be excluded, or any more than when Forest Supervisor Jane Deer does not do what I said I wanted in a comment. I still got to comment.

      Back in the old days, for forest plans, there was a timber and an environmental alternative (developed by those groups individually) and one in the middle somewhere developed by the FS with help from various outside groups and the Dept. To me, what this does is place the mysterious forces of internal and external political deal-making at work on an alternative that the public was involved with developing… not just a secret FS set of choices that led to the preferred alternative. A “member of the public” will have just as much opportunity to comment as in the old system, the preferred alternative will just be more openly developed..(based on my observations of some FS efforts, I think there will be tweaking by the FS on the recommended before it becomes preferred anyway).

      But I don’t think this is really about NEPA so much as the fear of dumb ideas being collaborated in the heat of collaboration and then having unnatural political weight. Some of my industry friends share that concern. Perhaps they think that public horsetrading might not work as well as private horsetrading at removing dumb ideas from the pile, which is really a credit to people’s belief in agency employees’ fairness and wisdom (we’ll see if anyone responds to my assertion;) )

  3. Really timely, thanks. I like the use of the term ‘FACA-aware collaboratives.’ I generally observed a lack of FACA-awareness in the Forest Service, and this article should be required reading for every planning team.

    As I see it a federal agency can control or manage a group, or it can obtain a group’s recommendation as part of a public process, but not both with the same group. (And if they hire someone to manage a group they are still controlling it.) If they choose to ‘participate’ in an outside group they need to be careful how they do it.

    I’d be interested if anyone sees a difference between collaborating on CFLRP projects and collaborating on land management plans.

    • Jon, I’ve been in several meetings with partners who say that they are left out of key parts of the NEPA process due to FACA phobia by the FS. I seem to remember that someone authored a piece on FACA requirements that was pretty good, but some people I was around were still phobic. I think it had a decision tree on it. I think it would be good to post here if anyone can find it.

      It seems to me that any collaborative group (or uncollaborative group) can propose an alternative (and have, often). There are many people with influence over the final product… and if many local groups support an alternative that is a good thing. As long as an alternative meets the P&N and is seen to be legal, then the responsible official takes into account pros and cons, and maybe with some phone calls to key people, makes the decision.

      Back to the Black Hills.. they have a real FACA committee and the Supe doesn’t always take their advice to the letter.

      Really it seems to me there are two things.. 1) how an alternative gets developed and 2) how much clout different groups and people bring to the table. In my experience, the RO (or his/her staff) hear from both the collaborative group and from the people who don’t agree with it and then makes a decision. So I guess I’m missing some of the concerns.

  4. “I’ve been in several meetings with partners who say that they are left out of key parts of the NEPA process due to FACA phobia by the FS.”

    “In my experience, the RO (or his/her staff) hear from both the collaborative group and from the people who don’t agree with it and then makes a decision. So I guess I’m missing some of the concerns.”

    I’m not sure I understand the first quote, but doesn’t the second one answer it?

    In my comment above I wasn’t thinking about NEPA. NEPA and FACA are two different sets of requirements. Doing NEPA right doesn’t necessarily cure a FACA flaw.

    • Thanks for the pointer, Ken. For those who want CEQ’s thumbnail version about when FACA applies to a collaboration, here it is:

      In general, FACA applies to collaborative efforts when all of the following criteria are met:

      1. A Federal agency establishes the group (that is, organizes or forms it) or utilizes an outside group by exerting “actual management or control” over the group;

      2. The group includes one or more individuals who are not full-time or permanent part-time federal employees or elected officials of state, tribal, or local government or their designated employees with authority to speak on their behalf; and

      3. The product of the collaboration is group or collective advice to the Federal agency. (Note that the advice is not required to be consensus advice for FACA to apply.)

      The national forest-related collaborative groups all satisfy the 2nd criterion, i.e., they include private citizens. Most appear to meet the 3rd criterion as they are discussing matters with the goal of giving to the Forest Service something more than each individual’s personal view.

      It is generally the 1st criterion where the Forest Service tries to claim the collaborative is not FACA-required. Sometimes this takes the form of laundering federal dollars through the National Forest Foundation or some other convenient NGO. But for those federal grant funds, many collaborative groups would not get off the ground.

      • But isn’t “funding” different from “actual management or control”? Suppose the FS supplies funding to a volunteer group to buy shovels for trail maintenance. Is the FS then in “control”?

        • Sharon asks: Suppose the FS supplies funding to a volunteer group to buy shovels for trail maintenance. Is the FS then in “control”?

          My answer: Yes. One cannot do trail maintenance on national forest land without the Forest Service’s permission. So the FS is not only buying the shovels, but also telling the group what trails to maintain and to what standards.

          To bring the analogy home, let’s say the FS gives $ to finance a collaborative discussion. The participants take the $ and decide to buy tickets to the NFL play-offs, meet in the bar afterwards, and swap stories about the great game. Can the FS control that decision? Heck yes! The FS would yank the $ and tell the group, “We gave you the money so that you could discuss motorized vs. quiet recreation in the XYZ roadless area. We expect those discussions will result in some agreements that will inform our on-going planning process.” That’s the kind of control that triggers FACA.

          • These analogies might not fit as well as this discussion needs. The play-off one (“Play-offs!”) seems to depend on a fact that’s more akin to fraud, a fact that could distract us from a discussion about FACA. And I’m not sure I understand how the FS is controlling a decision about other folks going to the ballpark when that trip has already happened. Also, “control” means something specific under the GSA FACA guidance, as explained there and in the FS’s “FACA EZ Button.”

            Going back to the analogy, specific to FACA, the issue wouldn’t be the financing; the problem, given the example, would be the expectation that the discussions would produce “some agreements” (implicitly ones the participants would expect the agency to be beholden, right?). That’s one of those “less than good practices” the suggested Best Practices are intended to avoid. It is entirely legitimate for a federal agency to fund, for example, someone to facilitate a collaborative process. If that process, however, were to have certain characteristics, it could be problematic regardless of the funding source (see the flowchart in the FACA “EZ Button” Best Practices).

  5. I’ve often wondered how an agency can NOT be exerting some control over the input to its decision, just by the fact of it being the decision-maker. What if it puts sideboards on the process by saying certain things would be outside the scope of the decision or would violate laws or regulations (in its opinion). What if it just imposes a deadline on the process? Is that enough control?

    Before Collaboration got a capital ‘C’ I thought the idea of expanding the pre-NEPA process made a lot of sense. Getting more input on the purpose and need and the proposed action could lead to a more relevant and meaningful decision-making process. I think this glorified scoping can be done without triggering FACA.

    If the first two FACA criteria are going to be met in most cases, the 3rd is where questions should be asked. Does an agency really need ‘collective’ advice? Doesn’t a large part of the benefit come just from getting advice earlier in the process? Another large part of the benefit may come from a discussion among stakeholders rather than between them and the Forest Service, but that doesn’t have to be packaged as ‘collective advice.’

    How about if everyone exchanges views in a structured manner, and the Forest Service makes its own determination of what it thinks are points of agreement? What if more than one alternative were to come out of this process for a proposed action? (Would a ‘minority report’ immunize the process against a FACA challenge because the result is not ‘collective?’)

    Back on the topic of who gets an advantage by being ‘in the room,’ I’ve thought that technology for virtual meetings should be able to help make participation more inclusive and equitable. Here’s a sort of an example, though it sounds like a one-time thing and it’s late in the Lake Tahoe planning process:



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