Peter Williams on The Challenges of “Getting It Right” in Land Management Decisions

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.

12 thoughts on “Peter Williams on The Challenges of “Getting It Right” in Land Management Decisions”

  1. Going back to the “seeking peace” model, I wonder how the idea of one “right” answer ever got into our environmental conflict world- international conflict people seem to be more pragmatic- perhaps we could learn from them.

    Is the concept of a “right answer” a rhetorical device? Who decides what is “right”? Most of the decisions I’ve worked on have involved dozens of moving parts, none of which rose to the level of “rightness”, in my view. Perhaps “rightness” is a idea that got into our discourse via (certain) partisan ideologues and should be removed in the interest of civil discourse.

    • Great question, Sharon. The could be several reasons. One that stands out for me is the link to Traditional Rational Planning, exemplified by efforts like USFS reliance on FORPLAN back in the day and driven by now dated approaches to Economics and modeling. Those approaches are still somewhat common even if the disciplines have progressed to different ways of pursuing the practices.

      In case anyone is interested in looking at this more, the Mitroff and Linstone book, The Unbounded Mind, does a really nice job of laying out the different ways of thinking (referenced in my original post). Another really good one is by Deborah Stone, called “Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision-making.” Both books are relatively short and the writing really clear despite the big ideas.

  2. The only problem with this article is that the logging collaborators, who do not care about wildlife, get it consistently wrong, not right, no matter what the time frame is. We are loosing species right and left due to increasing road density and logging. Old growth is not being recruited. The USFS false narrative of calling roading and logging “restoration” is affirmed by these groups, in which members are all too willing to compromise for a group hug. The new Colville Forest Plan is an ecological disaster in the making. I hold the logging collaborators directly responsible. Rewilding and proforestation are the real answers to climate heating and both local and worldwide biodiversity loss. For more information about the CNF see @AltColvilleNF on Facebook. Thank you.

    • “The only problem with this article is that the logging collaborators, who do not care about wildlife, get it consistently wrong, not right, no matter what the time frame is.”

      I, personally, have had many direct interactions with multiple “ologists”, while logging was ongoing. We’ve dropped units, delayed logging and left additional snags. Your statement sounds like a conspiracy theory.

      ” We are loosing species right and left due to increasing road density and logging.”

      New roadbuilding is a non-issue in most National Forests. National Forest logging isn’t as destructive as it was 40 years ago.

      ” Old growth is not being recruited.”

      In the Sierra Nevada National Forests, old growth hasn’t been cut in the last quarter of a century. No clearcuts and no old growth harvesting.

      “The USFS false narrative of calling roading and logging “restoration” is affirmed by these groups, in which members are all too willing to compromise for a group hug.”

      “Logging” covers a lot of territory. The eco-groups have no problem with the logging in Sierra Nevada National Forests. Thinning projects are rarely litigated. And, oh, those three awful ‘C-Words’ of collaboration, consensus and compromise. Preservationists despise those words.

      (You can always see Paul on the USFS Facebook pages, frequently attacking the Forest Service, using similar ‘logic’ and tactics.)

    • Paul, that’s a pretty broad brush. Do you have any evidence to back up your claims?

      what are “rewilding” and “proforestation”? Which species are being lost on the Colville?

      • Proforestation… The idea of letting existing forests grow to their full ecological potential, without management (regardless of its current or future condition or potential destruction).

        Sounds more like ‘Whatever Happens’, to me.

        Sooo, should we let off-site pine plantations keep on growing to their “full ecological potential”? Should we let half-dead forests (like in the Giant Sequoia National Monument) burn at the highest of intensities?

        • Paul, this is a discussion forum where we make claims and back them up with our own experiences or other sources of info. You certainly don’t have to do that, but not doing it comes with a cost, in that people don’t take your opinions seriously.

  3. I question whether the “single right answer” is anyone’s realistic goal. Even in the FORPLAN days, maximum present net value was not the criterion for picking the preferred alternative (PNV was optimized within each alternative). There was always a range of what would have been “acceptable” alternatives (though smaller than that portrayed in an ES) (back then, that range was often defined by the allowable sale quantity). “Yes” (as in “getting to”) usually encompasses a range of outcomes. As a “rational planner” I’ve always viewed “getting it right” as being “somewhere” in that range.

    As for the question with my name on it, I guess I would have to know what the “traditional NEPA process” refers to. There are required contents of that process. However, that doesn’t preclude other ways of doing the process and other processes to use in addition to that process. One of my take-home to retirement points was that the Forest Service treated the NEPA process too much like a cookbook to be followed instead of process that could be designed to be relevant and helpful to a particular decision.
    Here is an example of how NEPA can be “tweaked.” In this example of BLM travel planning, the agency did not designate a preferred alternative (and I think I’ve been seeing that more frequently lately for planning). That would suggest to me that any of the four alternatives would be a “good” one, but I don’t think that is the intent. The public certainly doesn’t seem to think so. I’ve never thought this “tweak” (as well as the “wide ranging alternatives” and opposed to NEPA ‘s requirement of a “reasonable range”) was at all helpful in getting to a good decision. How could “appropriateness-based decision-making” work better in this example? (Note that this situation involves past, present and probably future litigation.)

    • The Traditional NEPA Process, as I’m using it, would be that Cookbook Approach you mention, the one you cautioned the USFS against in your retirement take-home.

      What I mean by it is that the NEPA process and thinking, when done traditionally, is quite linear (at least that’s what folks like to say) and more like just turning CEQ’s suggested outline of the required content into a step-wise process going sequentially from “purpose and need” to “issues” and eventually alternatives.

      Two key points here are that (1) even a traditional NEPA process tends to be less linear and more iterative that folks think or will admit, which means (2) the NEPA process is, by definition, more flexible than many realize, meaning it’s perfectly capable of accommodating the process design tweaks you mention, as well as others along the lines of that appropriateness based approach I’m getting at.

      As an aside, one example of that approach is what’s called “recognition-primed decision-making” and is related to the field in Decision studies of Naturalistic Decision-making. Folks in some of the Wildland Fire world may be familiar with those terms because their work has been studied to come up with the decision making process models. I’ve worked some on “reverse engineering” those models into strategic planning and decision-making processes. That’s a story for another day…

      I still need to digest the SLC Tribune story, so will get back on that example. Thx for flagging it.

  4. This “logger” spends most of his time doing projects that benefit wildlife. I believe that is true, although anyone has the right to disagree, which I am sympathetic to, since my observation generally is that “meddling” with the land and it’s wildlife, is often a mistake.


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