How Does a Decision-maker Know What’s “Right”? Guest Post by Jim Furnish

Thanks to Jim Furnish’s for his take on “what makes a land management decision right?” (Others are welcome to submit posts on this topic).

This poses THE trenchant question when working one’s way through a controversy. The very existence of controversy indicates opposition, unease, and concern about the status quo or new proposal. The science and art of finding the most elegant solution is the responsibility of decision-makers, but “right” decisions can prove elusive. Good leaders excel here; poor ones flounder. Difficulty increases because outcomes often remain unknown for some time, meaning that knowing what’s right at decision time may be impossible. I’ll share what worked for me, acknowledging that one has to tailor their decision-making methods to their own skills and character.
Before proceeding, let me address what I consider to be an oft-stated but errant myth: “good decisions leave all parties of a conflict equally upset.” In my experience, this became almost dogma as I heard many decision-makers explain their rationale for a course of action, thinking that the right decision necessarily lay in a brokered middle ground that left both sides angered and neither whole. I find this notion confounding. A right decision should incorporate as much common ground as possible, leaving both sides feeling they achieved important aims; “win-win”, to echo a trite saying.

Realistically, this is often not possible. Which leads to another common brokering concept: what can all sides “live with”? This suggests optimality. It has a positive feel, but this hints at settling for some least offensive solution. It also reflects a social construct, neglecting an all-important priority — does the decision do right by the land?
I consider the land ethic issue to be the essential element of right decisions for natural resource managers. This may not factor in decisions for a banker or insurance manager, but must be a priority if one is managing land. In my view, this was the essence of my national forest business. Here I give some deference (not much) to private land managers for whom economics and profits play a more prominent role, but for public lands I think a bias for environmental considerations exists, or should.

Why? Public lands must be managed to benefit the citizenry, and this basic stewardship responsibility underpins all decisions. Commercial transactions commonly involve forest products, ski areas, grazing, and concessions among others, and private entities naturally focus on their bottom line. I never considered it my responsibility to assure the financial health of a business contractor. But if my decision did not focus primarily on the environmental effects of commercial entities doing business on public land – in my role as steward – who would see to it? I think “citizen owners” of public land have every right to expect and demand this of public land managers.

How to apply this in trying to reach a right decision? Context matters. As an example, consider ATV use, a heated issue since ATVs burst on the recreation scene about the 1980s. Most agencies found themselves caught flat-footed as ATV users exploited a cheap, fast, and nimble ride to essentially replace 4WD vehicles. New trails laced forest and alpine, and solitude disappeared. How does one find the right balance between exclusion and permission? Do users have an inherent right to go virtually anywhere outside Wilderness areas?

I begin with the adage “just because you can doesn’t mean you should”. The FS took an important, long overdue step about 2005 by requiring that ATVs stay on designated routes, to be determined by comprehensive travel plans. A major issue was whether illegally created ATV trails could or should become a designated route. The FS left that door open to be determined locally. The battle was on. Enviros pushed for minimal routes and large scale exclusion zones. ATVers wanted almost every existing track to become a designated route. I slide toward the enviro end in seeking the right balance on that spectrum.

I try to simplify an arguably complex issue by asserting that ATV use is capable of significant soil and water damage, wildlife impacts, noise, and loss of solitude. ATV use is legitimate but needs restrictions as per Nixon’s Executive Order 11644. Accordingly, ATV use is permissible after negative effects are minimized and/or mitigated. Environmental issues as well as effects on other users must be accounted for. This means that ATV users should get the short(er) end of the stick. All things considered, this is not unfair and it’s “right” in my book.
I think historic context is crucial in working through other conflicts like logging and grazing. Timber industry had it their way for decades until the spotted owl solution in the Pacific Northwest came down heavily in favor of wildlife habitat and fish protections. The agencies doled out pain unequally; again, right in my view. Similarly, ranchers historically received preferential treatment and federal grazing has been supported at well below market value for decades. This context should tilt “right decisions” toward an environmental bias to help restore balance, especially when necessary to restore degraded environments.

Ultimately, I tried to weigh all factors in reaching a just outcome, but this didn’t mean I tried to make everything equal. Strive to help all sides to an issue achieve their aims, but it’s often necessary to take from one side to give to another in reaching a right decision.

18 thoughts on “How Does a Decision-maker Know What’s “Right”? Guest Post by Jim Furnish”

  1. “Enviros pushed for minimal routes and large scale exclusion zones. ATVers wanted almost every existing track to become a designated route.”

    My experience was not that ATVers wanted “almost every existing track”, but still I wonder how much of these positions are “what they push for” versus “what they would settle for.” Which perhaps goes back to cultures of natural resource conflict pushing for the extremes you stand a better chance of getting something you can live with. I wonder what Peter Williams would make of this?

  2. Thanks for posting this – it is an uncommon look at the thought process that goes into a decision. One bone of contention that I have is the use of the word “balance” – in the context of this post it makes some sense, but I also feel like it harks back to an era where there was thought to be some perfect “balance” in nature. I think what we are really talking about is “trade-offs”, not balance, and decision makers determine what those tradeoffs will be.

  3. I fail to see how Jim is advocating any kind of balance here. His article basically comes down to, “Radical enviros are right. Conservation should be prioritized over all other uses of public lands, and all federal lands should essentially be treated as Wilderness.”

    I see no recognition that other points of view, or other uses of federal lands that have been a crucial part of people’s way of life for decades, have any value. Just a bunch of value assumptions. Solitude and resource impacts matter more than motorized users’ ability to recreate on public lands, therefore ATVers lose. Spotted owls matter more than the thousands of people and companies that have made their livelihood cutting timber, so the timber industry loses. I presume he would have no problem with shutting down ski areas, campgrounds, hiking trails, or any other long existing use of public lands, as long as some other “conservation” value could be found the trumps all other interests.

    I also found his characterization of the Forest Service travel management process woefully misguided. At least in the ongoing Pike San Isabel NF travel management process, almost none of the disputed routes are illegal user created routes (even though the environmental groups claim they are). With the possible exception of a few newer short campsite spurs, those were all closed decades ago, as the Pike San Isabel has restricted motor vehicles to designated routes in one form or another since the 1970s or 80s.

    Almost all of the current disputed routes are mining roads and passes that have existed for over a century and have been traveled by motorized vehicles as long as they have existed. The conflict comes down mostly to whether motorized users will be able to keep historical access they have had forever, or whether environmental groups can create new vast areas of de facto wilderness by shutting motorized users out of entire landscapes that have had recognized motorized routes for decades.

    The single most highly contested group of routes in the PSI (Wildcat Canyon) are parts of an old stagecoach road from the 1800s which have been open to motor vehicles for a century, and only now conflict with the environmentalists desire to turn an area which under the Forest Plan is supposed to be managed for semi-primitive motorized recreation into a de facto wilderness. It seems Jim would say that in that conflict, motorized users automatically lose, because their access rights have no value, and the conservationist desires to force them out and create more solitude and wilderness is all that matters.

    Perhaps in the past or in different places travel management conflicts were more like Jim describes, though the only places I’ve heard of like that were areas that were formerly managed as open to cross country travel, in which case all user-created routes there were in fact legally created, and motorized users have a legitimate desire to keep them open. As far as I know though, that has not been the case in any recent travel management process in Colorado.

    • Patrick, I’ve worked in (central) Oregon, California and Colorado and I’ve found the Colorado situation to be different due to the mining and other history.

      Jim was among the highest level officials in the Forest Service.

      Clearly they can’t require high level officials to have experience in a number of regions, and clearly people don’t have enough time in their careers to be in all regions.

      Just as clearly when you say something like “grazing” or “timber” or “WUI” if you worked on the Osceola, the Superior, the Kaibab or the Tongass you may well have different mental images and experiences. (note: this is just as true for political appointees).

      For most regulations I’ve worked on, as well as training and so on, there are efforts to include representatives from each Region. Still, as I’m sure in your work, when there are people on a team, personalities can play a strong role in affecting the ultimate decision. As would be on the National Leadership Team (of the bosses, the Regional Foresters) of each Region.

      Which would leave us with the idea that the best answers are likely to be promulgated by those closest to the problem. The idea of the OHV rule, as I recall, is very FS culture-y. The national office says “you all need to do something, here are the parameters by which you figure it out” and the forests (in the PSICC case, influenced by litigation) respond.

      • Well, I grew up in Iowa, worked in OR, ME, MT, CO, SD, WY and had visited every FS Region all but 3 of the 125 NFs in the US when I retired. I am not expert in every conceivable ecosytem and regional society intricacies but I DO have a broad grasp and appreciation for unique circumstances driving decisions.

        • My point wasn’t that your experience wasn’t uniquely lacking. My point was that as human beings, we tend to see things based on our own unique set of experiences. Anyone who reads TSW would notice that say, you, Jon, Peter, Tony and I tend to have different points of view on many things. BUT PERHAPS… if we were faced with a specific decision in a specific sociobiologicohistoro context, on a particular piece of land, we might actually agree.

          For example, your case of the Oregon Dunes sounds like I would probably agree. But the higher you get up the policy food chain, the more abstract things are (e.g. we need to close 50% of roads) and the easier it is to disagree based on our own experiences and background.

          This reminds me of when I gave a talk at Gene Namkoong’s Festschrift at the University of British Columbia. I ended up on a panel with a medical ethicist. He said basically the same thing…he ran some kind of hospital ethics panel and while people came from very different perspectives (life and death, you can imagine) they tended to be in agreement about what to do in specific cases.

          It would be interesting to take a specific project and ask what decision each of us would make. As you know, though, people spend years understanding the ins and outs of projects and we would not get paid, so it seems unlikely we would do that. It would be interesting though…

  4. I agree with Mr McKay. This philosophical blather about land ethic is euphemism for putting humans beneath nature instead of as part of the ecosystem too. To me, Furnish’s arguments are highly out of touch with today’s smaller and centralized FS, and come across as more of the same – leadership driven by ego, and a misguided notion that natural resources can’t recover, adapt, and exist in harmony with people, on their own. The ATV example is stuck in the thinking of the 1990s. I hope the FS continues it’s laudable moves toward more sound administrative practices focused on customer service, and away from the default idea that humans threaten nature, and public should disdain private.

  5. I’m not venturing much further into the thicket of — I get on a “new” form of motorized vehicle and drive repeatedly through an “open to x-country travel” area creating a 2-track and this entitles me to a “crucial” way of life reliant on perpetual use as a “designated route”… this smacks of an entitlement attitude related to use of public lands with no regard for other non-motorized users and land damages. I think I’m fair. I created a just outcome for a fiercely contested plan of the Oregon Dunes NRA mid-1990s that assured a ATV riding privileges over most of the NRA, but carved out a no-ATV area precious to hikers and a dunes research area. We also instituted dB noise thresholds, a night curfew, and an alcohol ban — all measures that were hammered out among interest groups. Call me “woefully misguided” – OK I’ll wear it proudly.

    Yes resource lands can and do recover, but to slyly suggest that anything humans do to the land pursuing wants and needs is fine, and that abused lands need not be restored is also “woefully misguided.”

    • Perhaps that was the right outcome in that particular instance, and I’m sure there are some areas like you describe where a lot of the trails at issue are recent user-created trails created when the area was managed as open to cross country travel. In that case, simply switching to a designated trail system by itself will mean that motorized users will lose most of the access they had before. Then it’s natural that they would want to keep as many existing trails open as possible.

      As I said though, the travel management plans I have followed here in Colorado (or researched the history of for ones that happened before I became involved in this stuff) haven’t looked at all like that. Maybe that’s more common with ATVs, and I’m mainly focused on full-size roads since I’m a Jeeper not an ATVer.

      What I’ve seen has mostly been places where you have 100+ year old mining roads, stagecoach roads, former railroad grades turned into roads, etc., that have been driven by motor vehicles pretty much since they were invented. These roads access historic passes, mining sites, scenic lakes, and high alpine vistas that motorized users have enjoyed driving to for literally a century in many cases. (The vast majority of these should by all rights be county roads under RS-2477, but most counties in Colorado have never made any RS-2477 claims.)

      Then the 2005 travel management rule came out that said the Forest Service needs to dramatically decrease its road network, and travel management plans started coming out saying ok we’re going to close a minimum of 50% of these roads, regardless of the fact that they’ve all been there 100 years and historically have caused almost no environmental issues. So the Forest Service and environmental groups come up with all kinds of excuses to close these roads which are not causing any actual harm to the environment, mostly in a transparent effort to create new “roadless” areas that will then be considered prime candidates for Wilderness.

      Motorized users have faced this exact situation so often we’re sick of it. This isn’t about wanting to drive anywhere we want and abuse the land. It’s about wanting to maintain access to the historic road system we have enjoyed for a century that caused no problems until it was suddenly declared a massive environmental problem in 2005. Where there is actual abuse, the motorized groups I’m a part of are begging the Forest Service to let us mitigate resource damage, fence off illegal bypasses, etc., spending our own money to do it, and we’re told no, that road is going to be closed and we won’t even say why.

      We want to protect the land and use it responsibly, but it’s hard to do that when no matter how responsible we are, there is only one outcome, and that’s more and more of our historic trails being closed with every travel management decision with no end in sight.

      • RE:
        “Motorized users have faced this exact situation so often we’re sick of it. This isn’t about wanting to drive anywhere we want and abuse the land. It’s about wanting to maintain access to the historic road system we have enjoyed for a century that caused no problems until it was suddenly declared a massive environmental problem in 2005. Where there is actual abuse, the motorized groups I’m a part of are begging the Forest Service to let us mitigate resource damage, fence off illegal bypasses, etc., spending our own money to do it, and we’re told no, that road is going to be closed and we won’t even say why.

        We want to protect the land and use it responsibly, but it’s hard to do that when no matter how responsible we are, there is only one outcome, and that’s more and more of our historic trails being closed with every travel management decision with no end in sight.”

        Very well said. Allow me to add this; virtually every state and national OHV advocacy group supported the USFS “limited to designated roads, trails and areas” policy. Moreover, decades prior OHV people “taxed ourselves” via sticker programs administered by State agencies. These funds are then used by both State and Federal land managing agencies to manage, mitigate and even enforce.

    • Jim, as I said it sounds like I’d agree with the Oregon Dunes decision. I also like the pragmatic aspects of managing annoying recreationists (db thresholds, curfew, alcohol).

      It sounds like you find the “entitlement” attitude of some MV users annoying (with no regard for other users non-motorized users and landscape damage).

      I’ve noticed many people in every kind of group with annoying attitudes (disregarding other users, say ranchers, and their concerns). Or at least ones that annoy me.

  6. In case anyone is confusing the “willingness to live with it” idea that I’ve mentioned often with the “what can all sides live with” idea mentioned in Jim Furnish’s piece, these are profoundly different.

    The later is a negotiation frame anchored by positional bargaining. It is about working DOWN from initially stated positions until finding the lowest common denominator. Mr Furnish is wise to caution against this approach because, among many reasons, many if not most initially stated positions are well beyond what is acceptable to those taking the position. Folks plan to settle, they plan to lose, so they take a more extreme position and focus on fallbacks.

    The former, however, is often seen as a negotiation frame anchored by identifying and seeking to address underlying interests, as opposed to the more usual focus on positions, and sometimes called “interest-based negotiation”. I often describe it as working UP from underlying interests to find “good” ways to address as many as possible.

    The main difference, from what I’ve seen dealing with some pretty contentious issues over the years, is that the “willingness to live with” approach doesn’t seek to satisfy all of everyone’s interests. Instead, it seeks to understand as many interests as possible and then find ways for participants to see that the eventual decision is in at least some of those separate sets of interests.

    At the end of the day, taking this approach, participants may disagree with a decision in some regards, but, if most believe that the process was fair and equitable, that their interests were understood and, to some appropriate degree, addressed, they’ll be more willing to live with it and perhaps even help with implementation or monitoring, two areas of work always in need of help. The focus becomes truly on win-win, but in the sense of interests, definitely not in the sense of positions.

    That’s very different than a positional bargaining frame where few positions are fully satisfied, the process leads to what economists often call “satisficing”, and most folks leave feeling they lost something important to them because their position didn’t “win”. That’s a lose-lose result worth avoiding.

  7. I think the law tells us a lot about what is “right,” and I think Jim’s approach reflects the intent of the National Forest Management Act (as described here by Senator Humphrey at the time): “The soil and water, the grasses and the shrubs, the fish and the wildlife, and the beauty that is the forest must become integral parts of resources managers’ thinking and actions.” To the extent these things had been downplayed before, there was necessarily some “rebalancing” that needed to be done in favor of the land.

  8. Jon, I see the law as not being very helpful about what is “right”. For example, some people might see the O&C law as being “wrong.”

    And some might argue that there has been plenty of “rebalancing” since 1976 (almost 45 years). In my experience, there was plenty of timber rebalancing during the 80’s and 90’s. I’d argue that the Humphreyan thinking was reflected in policies before, as well as after the New Perspectives period in the early 90’s.

    • My comment was referring to administrative decisions being guided by laws. Sure we can have a debate about changing the law, but that is not usually in forest supervisor’s decision space.

      Yes, a lot of the intended timber rebalancing has already occurred. Recreation management issues were not front and center in NFMA, but I am saying the rebalancing concept applies equally there. It has just taken longer to become a priority.

      Regarding, “that road is going to be closed and we won’t even say why.” Failure to provide a rationale would probably violate the APA, so this shouldn’t be happening very often.

      • I agree failure to provide a rationale shouldn’t happen but it most certainly is happening. The preferred alternative published last fall in the DEIS for the Pike San Isabel travel plan proposed to close hundreds of miles of currently open system roads without giving route specific rationale for a single one.

        They provided tabular data listing all the route segments along with arbitrary scores from the previously completed Travel Analysis Process (which effectively had no opportunity for public comment), rating roads as high or low for different risk and benefit categories, and the DEIS included a generalized Minimum Road System rubric for using these scores such as saying high benefit low risk roads would be kept open and low benefit high risk roads would be closed.

        But there was no actual analysis of how that rubric applied to each route, and the scores were blatantly wrong in numerous cases (ie. roads that the Forest Service has acknowledged in a previous EIS as being nationally famous 4WD routes being listed as low recreational value, and roads nowhere near any streams being rated high watershed risk). And the DEIS said that the district rangers were free to deviate from the MRS rubric and override it with their recommendations, but those ranger recommendations were not made public, so in the end the public had no way to know why a given route was kept open or closed. Even when directly asked at the public meetings, the Forest Service employees were completely unable to provide answers as to why specific routes were proposed to be closed.

        Both pro-motorized and anti-motorized groups complained in their comments about the complete lack of route-specific analysis in the DEIS, which effectively deprived the public of any real opportunity to comment on the agency’s reasons for route-specific decisions. Without actual reasons for closures, we were forced to guess what they might be and write comments based on whatever reasons we could infer from the TAP scores. It was extremely frustrating.

        Perhaps the FEIS will contain route-specific rationale for closing specific routes, at the very least in the section with responses to comments, but at that point there will be no further ability to comment except through the objection or appeal process.

        Peter mentioned in his comment that both sides in a process like this will be more willing to live with the results if they have confidence that the process was fair and equitable. Judging by the comments of both sides in the PSI travel planning, neither side believes that. The arbitrary nature of the preferred alternative and complete lack of route-specific rationale for the decisions in it was one major reason for that.

  9. My comment was aimed at the decision record at the end of the process, so there would still be time for them to give you answers after a draft EIS. I don’t think there is a requirement to provide a rationale for a preferred alternative in a draft EIS; however, if you commented on specific roads, I think their response to comments w/the final EIS (required by NEPA) must address those specific roads. (And you’re right, if you don’t like their response, the next step is an objection.)


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