This is a guest post from Tony Erba, in our series “What is “getting it right” in land management decisions, and how can stakeholders and the FS facilitate that?” I’ve asked a couple of people for guest posts, but anyone, anonymous or not, is welcome to submit one. I wonder whether others have similar experiences of the FS doing its best and things falling apart. Do you have insight into the causes? What could the FS or stakeholders have done differently? On a broader level, is the idea that the FS can somehow make peace among long-term mistrusting factions if they just “did it right” an unreasonable expectation? If it is, what should the FS do? I’d have a tendency to put my forest at the bottom of the revision list and start a “possibly building trust” effort with small projects. What would you do?
My one personal experience that addresses your questions was with the southern Utah plan revision effort. We had developed topical working groups around five particular topics: timber, grazing, dispersed recreation, roadless areas, and I cannot remember the fifth one. I was the planning team representative for the roadless group (each topical working group had a broad spectrum of perspectives, selected by our 3rd party facilitator and collaboration sponsor so each group was balanced). I felt the roadless group did an effective job of asking questions over five meetings (about a month apart) about the history of roadless areas, the current policy (2001 Roadless Rule), and the wilderness evaluation process described under the 1982 planning rule. Much confusion existed (as you can imagine) and I put in a lot of hours to bring information to the group so we all could have a common information base to work with.The conversations were robust and it appeared that the group was making progress to find a middle ground that all could live with (i.e., a “right” answer). But, at the end, when each member of the group was asked if they could support a “middle ground” approach on how the soon-to-be revised plan would treat roadless areas (as well as recommend any wilderness areas), I was stunned to hear each person fall back into their “camp” and advocate for their position as it was at the beginning of the group’s engagement. Five meetings of discovery ended with the FS holding the bag in making a decision on what to do rather than leveraging the group’s knowledge and learning that was gained through the group’s meetings.The other groups fared a bit better, but not much. I think we tried to overcome decades of mistrust (especially with the environmental history and conscience of Utah) with an open and transparent collaborative process, thinking that if we did it “right”, others would recognize that effort and contribute meaningfully to move beyond the conflict. Perhaps that was too idealistic on our part, but we were committed to expand the public conversation beyond what was required for an EIS’s public involvement requirements under NEPA. In doing so, we unearthed deeper levels of mistrust and skepticism, resulting in an outcome really no different than if we had done just the minimum. However, I do think we did move the needle a bit with bringing people together who normally do not seek each other and had them learn a little about the other person. In the end, our failure hopefully resulted in a success in another place in Utah at a later time, but since I moved to DC in 2004 for my EMC job, I did not witness whether this success actually occurred.