Tony Erba on The Challenges of “Getting it Right” in Land Management Decisions

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.



2 thoughts on “Tony Erba on The Challenges of “Getting it Right” in Land Management Decisions”

  1. I think Tony is too hard on himself in some important regards here. Southern Utah in the early 2000’s was a tough place to try such an innovative approach. Remember, this wasn’t long after some of the Utah Wilderness battles of the mid-1990’s and involved folks all too familiar with mistrust and distrust of federal management efforts (think Down-winders in the 1950’s and, a century before, some of the history between Mormons and federal forces involving the State of Deseret).

    I know because I was there with Tony and helped hatch the idea of what became the TWIGs–Topical Working Groups. In fact, I think I served as facilitator for the Timber TWIG, the best name of them all.

    Yes, as Tony says, folks seemed to fall back into camps at the end of the day, but they also knew more about timber management and vegetation management, as well as knowing more about how other folks looked at the issue. I still remember one exchange where the group began talking about timber management more as vegetation management and, by extension, inextricably linked to fire, water, and soil management, even recreation management. And I think Tony is right to hope that it led to success down the road because I think it did.

    Would we have done things differently, at least in some regards? Absolutely, with the clarity of hindsight. But we also took the time, in part because of Tony’s leadership on the matter and the support from the Forest Supervisors and others, to look for “lessons learned” from our experience. Some of those lessons became foundational in USFS efforts to better embrace collaborative efforts at the policy level and at the field level. Some became lessons for the local participants who found good ways to continue moving the needle on their own.

    My point here is that even with the shortcomings Tony mentions, some new community capacity was built and some new thinking was encouraged, whether in the USFS or in local communities. Maybe that isn’t enough, but it is something.

    Risk, like what was taken in southern Utah back in the day, won’t always produce a “right” answer, but it can still be worthwhile because the willingness to take a risk points at optimism, as opposed to hesitancy that points at fear. In that regard, maybe there is a rightness or, seen in another light, a goodness in managing by optimism instead of fear.


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