Christmas readings often involve seeking peace (e.g., lions lying down with lambs, and other non-biological ideas). We tend not to use that kind of language so much in resolving or managing environmental conflicts. Still, I can think of no one better to start off 2020 than with a thoughtful (as usual!) piece by Peter Williams on “getting it right.” Here it is:
Recently, The Smokey Wire has had several really interesting posts or comments that raise the question of what we mean by “getting it right” when it comes to Forest planning and other land management decisions including project plans. Tim Coleman and Russ Vaagen, among others, talked about the Colville National Forest. They provide a perfect example of how different people can see “right” differently. I had good experiences working with both of them about a decade ago on various local USFS planning efforts, so I appreciate their insights regarding the County Commissioners, local industry, USFS, and local residents [LINK].
Sharon challenged a few of us to think about this question of getting it right, with Tony Erba offering the first take a few weeks ago [LINK]. The question we were asked was about “getting it right” when it comes to land management decisions and what role can USFS and stakeholders play in that. I’m going to offer two main thoughts: (1) it’s worth taking a step back to consider the question and (2) what we mean by the “it” in “getting it right” is also worth careful consideration.
The question about “getting it right” seems to go to the idea of a “right” answer, as opposed to a “good” answer, and this affects our search pattern, meaning it affects what we look for. From a decision-making perspective, if we search for a right answer, we often think in terms of a single best answer being the ultimate right one. For this reason, my first thought is to take a step back, to reframe the question.
Let me offer an example, overstating it to make a point. Folks searching for a right answer may disagree about what is the right answer, but they all agree there is one and they can find it. Often, they even begin their search already knowing what they mean by a right answer, at least in some significant ways often based on their technical training or beliefs about how the world works. Their search pattern is defined by agreement that there is a right answer and, more powerfully, by their disagreements regarding whether and when they have found the answer itself. These disagreements tend to be or become counterproductive if not destructive because if you aren’t right, you must be wrong.
In contrast, consider what searching for a “good” answer can mean. Instead of looking for the single right answer, a search for a good answer looks for a broader set of plausible, viable answers. Also, consider that looking for a good answer as a group or as a community often allows room for constructive disagreement because it begins with developing some shared understanding of what different folks might mean by “good” with regards to addressing or resolving the local, immediate issue.
This constructive disagreement, handled well, can enlarge the edges of the envelope within which is that set of good answers. And, within that set, more folks can see more of their interests, which is a really different result that you get from the right-wrong frame.
So, my first point is that searching for a right answer and searching for a good answer are different in truly meaningful ways. If you want to explore this idea, read “The Unbounded Mind” by Mitroff and Linstone (1993). Yes, one could quibble about the words or argue that I’m just setting up a conceptual stalking horse, but I hope the point is still useful for discussion.
My second point is that whether a land management decision is right sometimes depends on whether you look at it in the near-term, as opposed to from a longer-term perspective, as well as whether you look at it from a technical perspective, a legal perspective, or a community perspective.
A different way of looking at the idea of “rightness”—somewhat similar to the idea of looking for a good answer—might be that a land management decision is right when it is appropriate given what is known about the issue, the resources available to address the issue, and the willingness to live with the decision.
There’s an interesting literature about “appropriateness-based decision making” as opposed to “traditional rational planning.” The former tends to focus on trying to understand the situation, including how the group or participants see themselves and what they see as an appropriate process. Traditional rational planning, in contrast, tends to define rightness in terms of consequences understood through technical lenses, like the ubiquitous “Effects Analyses” so familiar as part of a NEPA process. For a really readable look at this, check out March’s “A Primer on Decision Making” (1994).
As an aside, an effects analysis would still occur as part of a NEPA process framed by “appropriateness,” but it would look different because more attention to the situation, community, and process would happen up front, up-stream of what we might call the formal NEPA process. The main take-away I would offer here is that what most of us would call the traditional NEPA process is not the only way to comply with the NEPA Act and CEQ regulations, but that’s a whole different discussion, one that Jon Haber might have particularly useful insights to add.
Coming back to this question of “rightness” for a land management decision, I’m going to suggest that a particularly useful way to think about this is to focus on what happens the day AFTER the decision. Let’s assume we’re thinking about rightness as more like a set of good options (point #1) that are appropriate for the circumstances and participants (point #2). What’s right might come down to whether, once the decision is made, the participants share a general willingness to live with the decision and whether many will actually support implementation, perhaps helping make it happen or helping assess whether desired outcomes occur and undesired ones do not.
The reason I suggest this approach is it seems more likely to avoid the trap that Tony Erba alluded to, where, after a bunch of meetings that seem to be going in a worthy direction, folks retreat to their starting positions and the USFS—or whoever—is left holding the proverbial bag. That’s no good for anyone who cares about public lands or collaborative conservation.