Virtual Campfire: Share Your Experience With Plan Revision Collaborative Groups

From time to time, The Smokey Wire community is called on to support journalists in their work. I think the best way we can do that is to add our voices of experience and tell our stories.  Even the simplest question has a variety of outcomes depending on where in the country we are (social, economic, biological and physical environment), who the people and groups involved are (academics would probably say “actors”), the kind of project or plan and so on.  This question is about collaborative groups.

Suppose a forest plan revision has a functioning collaborative group with broad representation that provides smart recommendations that are incorporated into the plan.

(1) Is there any evidence that it prevents future litigation around projects?

(2) Does it guarantee that forests will use the recommendations from collaborative groups to inform the best projects?

Since I don’t have any experience with forest plan revision collaborative groups, I’ll defer to other in the community.

(3) I’d also add a question: what has been your experience with collaborative groups post-revision giving feedback through time on projects?

Based on external observations, I would say that having a collaborative group doesn’t even prevent future litigation around the plan itself, let alone projects. What I have seen is that the litigators are often members of groups not involved in the collaborative process (I have even seen disagreements about national and local chapters of the same organization).  The law is a tool used to obtain certain objectives that a group has chosen to pursue.  This is true of those on both “sides” of the issue, although it seems the most common litigation is by Certain Legally Inclined Environmental Groups (CLIEGS).  I don’t know how groups decide to litigate, but there are certainly those in our community who do. Some judges may tip their hats to collaboration in their decisions and others not.

As to 2) I think that forests would use recommendations from collaborative groups to prioritize and design projects, if the FS put them in the forest plan, the plan being the guiding document. However, the FS operates under other constraints, such as budget line items (or whatever they’re called nowadays), or getting $ from partners, or “all lands” state/federal projects,  that may impact priorities.  Conceivably, if the forest plans have standards and guidelines, they will be followed.  I have heard from some partners that they are discouraged about the follow through, though, that what can be in the project planning documents may not show up on the ground.

Anyway, I’d like to hear from you and your own experiences, good and bad, and what about them made them good or bad, in your opinion. Think of this as a virtual campfire with a brewski or two. Collaborators, Forest Service employees, retirees, collaborators, litigators, academics and observers are welcome to weigh in.

7 thoughts on “Virtual Campfire: Share Your Experience With Plan Revision Collaborative Groups”

  1. Sharon, this is a great topic for conversation, but I’m not sure you’re asking the right questions. Instead of asking “are projects litigated?” shouldn’t we be asking “did we improve ecological sustainability and contribute to social sustainability?”

    Equating “absence of litigation” with success requires a logical leap that I’ve never seen justified by anyone who’s making it. Sure, some groups use the law instead of or in addition to collaboration, to protect the same values that bring them to the collaborative table in the first place. And some groups try to influence decisionmaking by pulling political levers. And some groups try to influence decisionmaking by bringing money to the table. And still others use the media. If collaboration is supposed to be a egalitarian sharing of values and accommodation of competing interests (a view which I think is naive), then why wouldn’t any of these be equally villainized? Why is litigation singled out? All projects, even collaborative projects, have to comply with the law.

    But I do want to discuss your next question: “will [forests] use the recommendations from collaborative groups to inform the best projects”?

    Collaboration, whether “successful” or not, shows the agency where the zone of consent is. Every stakeholder has (1) stuff they want, (2) stuff they can live with, (3) stuff they can hold their nose for provided that other needs are being met, and (4) stuff that they will always oppose no matter what. Think of these as concentric circles for each stakeholder, and the overlap of these circles creates the zone of consent.

    Let’s say the inner circle–the stakeholder’s core interests–is pretty small. The second circle is a little bigger. Then the circles expand significantly at the third level. A functional collaborative will usually be very good at providing efficient solutions to perceived conflict–i.e., how to meet competing interests simultaneously. If the Forest Service wants a collaboratively supported plan, then its job is to reflect those ideas in the plan. This enlarges the zone of consent beyond what would be possible without collaboration. Simple, right?

    In my experience, the most likely cause of post-collaborative trouble is a failure, during implementation, to actually meet the conditions that a stakeholder said needed to be met in order for them to hold their noses for things they don’t affirmatively support. If all stakeholders’ basic needs aren’t being met, then their circle contracts and the zone of consent shrinks commensurately. To put it perhaps more simply, if my needs are being met, then there’s a lot to lose by acting disruptively, whether that means pulling legal, political, media, or financial levers. If my needs are not being met, then there’s less to lose and more to gain.

    If the Forest Service walks away from the collaborative “deal” and begins focusing on one narrow output, it can lead to a vicious cycle and a shrinking zone of consent. This breakdown is caused by forest plans that allow for broad discretion. Sure, plans may *allow* the Forest Service to advance all stakeholder needs at the same time, from increasing timber to decommissioning roads, but recently revised plans don’t seem to require much of anything. With all that discretion, there’s a high burden on each project to make sure all the important balls are rolling forward. That requires considerable project-level collaboration and the Forest Service’s willingness to provide the analysis needed to support it.

    So, take a collaborative agreement that needs nurturing and feeding. Make it part of the plan, but don’t make any real commitments or set any real limits. Then add new timber volume targets but don’t give the agency the resources to meet them responsibly. And subtract the process requirements that stakeholders were expecting would continue to be a part of environmental analysis and decision-making. Process inputs: myopic focus on a single metric (volume) without the necessary public input and collaboration at the project level. Process outputs: a shrinking zone of consent and more project proposals that are farther away from the zone of consent. Conflict.

    The Forest Service hasn’t realized it yet, but they’re currently walking away from the collaborative investments that they have made and asked their stakeholders to make. If the trend is not reversed soon, the new century of forest planning is going to have as much gridlock as the last one.

    This is a multifaceted problem, and there are a lot of ways you could begin to solve it. More resources from Congress would be a good start. But there is only a single solution within the agency’s control, and that’s making sure forest plans contain specific, meaningful commitments to meet the conditions needed to maintain and enlarge the zone of consent.

    • Sam, thanks for your thoughtful (as always) comments. The question about litigation was that of the journalist, not mine. I think that there are two things to bring up:

      (1) Some kind of stakeholder group process is standard for many government processes nowadays. For example, our El Paso County Master Planning process has a stakeholder group. Involving people this way is thought to be generically better than not (Peter, perhaps you can weigh in). So it’s something that is state of the art, and not something that needs a cost-benefit analysis.

      (2) On the other hand, if the WO keeps giving $ to a forest to plan, for five or more years of a supposedly 15 year plan, and the lengthening is due to useful collaboration, others (who are waiting in line for the bucks, or managing the bucks), may wonder whether any endpoint is in sight.

      • Hi Sharon, yes, setting up a stakeholder advisory group is common to the point that you could easily say it’s state of the art for public planning efforts. It also is better than not by most measures, like you say, for reasons like broader representation of ideas and interests, transparency, and presumably improved decisions because the professional planners have more insights with which to work.

        I would add that a preferable process, generally speaking, will combine formal planning and analysis work by professionals with both formal and informal participation. Formal participation might include stakeholder groups and traditional public meetings, as well as communication through press releases and the like. Informal participation might include less structured collaborative meetings or informal sensing of key individuals and groups. The particular blend needs to vary to meet the local situation, so this isn’t prescriptive as much as just a rule of thumb.

        As an aside, I said presumably earlier regarding whether a better decision results because any planning effort is unique and individual, meaning scientific controls and the like aren’t possible and, therefore, we can’t really do a controlled with/without test to see if different decisions would happen and compare results. But that’s true for all planning efforts, not just collaborative ones. Still, this comes up, so I thought I’d mention it.

        Regarding the reporter’s second question about guaranteeing adoption of recommendations from a collaborative effort, that brings up issues of federalism and decision authority under the US Constitution, as you and many others here know well. I thought I’d mention it for the reporter so this issue isn’t lost. Its a great question. There are smart ways to finesse the issue, but the point is that care is needed to avoid creating a procedural violation and, therefore, legal vulnerability.

        I guess what I’m saying is that guaranteeing a collaborative group informs a process or decision is different than guaranteeing that the group preferences or recommendations are adopted. The reporters question seems to combine these two in a way that could be problematic. Also, more often, the issue at the end of the day is the degree to which the collaborative group informed the decision and whether there’s sufficient transparency in the process that folks can see whether and how that happened.

        • I’m glad you brought the decision authority point, Peter. It’s important and also difficult to explain and I hoped you could wade into the edge of FACA vs. collaborative and recommendations without being swept away by waves of technicalities.

  2. This is a great topic, like the previous person, Sam, said. I also think his comments are spot-on. I would add that, in some cases, a collaborative process can focus any legal action on substantive issues, which seems like progress, and also can build support from other organizations to submit Amicus briefs or take other steps. And, to build on Sam’s comments, a collaborative process can increase the willingness to live with the decision and to support implementation, thereby reducing costs to government while increasing the possibilities under the various alternatives.

    Regarding the idea of lawsuits as a measure, that seems to put success in the hands of external players, even opponents to a collaborative effort. It creates a perverse incentive to not engage, not participate, and, instead, just wait and file suit.

    Good measures of a collaborative effort, instead, should be within the control of the effort, as with any research effort that seeks to understand causality or any other type of effect. Holding an effort accountable for a result–lawsuits–that is controlled by decisions of others seems wrong.

    Part of the question might be how do we measure success and Return On Investment of time and effort for a collaborative process. My answer has been that we need an elegantly simple, yet sophisticated assessment approach embedded within the entire planning process. Early on, the planning team should identify desired outcomes, goals, and indicators of success. Those should reflect agency desires as well as those of participants, whether community members, interest groups, or governments, like Tribes, states, counties, or other federal agencies.

    The first set of outcomes should be about the process, including whether the process results in measurable evaluation and monitoring indicators. I’ve even had success setting basic outcome goals for each stage of a planning process and then evaluating individual meetings or series of meetings based on progress towards those goals. Marginal cost in terms of time, but the value was immeasurable in terms of group learning, team confidence, and smart adjustments.

    Out of the process, a good set of longer term measures should emerge. Not a laundry list or wish list, but a reasonable set that can show progress towards, as well as fulfillment of, those desired outcomes. That link between evaluation, collaboration, and management seems essential. Too often, however, an evaluation effort gets left aside or ignored out of fear that it could morph into something unwieldy and cost-prohibitive. Yet, any good design has to be feasible by definition, so those concerns would be addressed.

    I look forward to seeing what others have to offer.

  3. I agree with Sam that plans that allow more discretion at the project level are going to be more difficult to implement. While forest plans with mandatory standards resolved some issues by narrowing the decision space for projects, project collaborators in this new environment will have more opportunities to disagree about what a project should do, how relevant science applies, and what is legal. I would expect to see more litigation of projects, and the plans they are based on, as they start to show how vague language in revised forest plans is being interpreted (as well as separate litigation of forest plans for not providing certainty of compliance with legal requirements applicable at the plan level).

    • I think this will be more and more true as plans age. Immediately after a plan revision is complete, all the parties involved have a pretty good feel for what the “deal” is. But with frequent FS turnover, it’s only a matter of time before new folks are in charge who weren’t around for the deal-making. All they have is the plan itself.


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