Science Friday: Does Collaboration Make a Difference? McIver and Becker

The Society of American Foresters 2020 Convention in October included a number of interesting presentations, and I’ll be posting about some of them. This one is a study by Chelsea McGiver and Dennis Becker at the University of Idaho Policy Analysis Group. I encourage those interested to view their entire Does Collaboration Make a Difference-SAF2020here.

As a person who has been following these kinds of studies since 2000-ish (I worked on Process Predicament from the NEPA side), it’s seldom that someone comes up with a really new idea or metric. As Fred Norbury, then Director of the EMC staff in DC, used to say, “how can we say it takes too long and costs too much if we don’t know how long it takes and how much it costs?’

McIver and Becker have come up with a metric for efficiency which is the ratio of acres treated per planning day. This seems to me to be an innovative and useful metric. Kudos to them for working through FACTS and PALS to get the acreage numbers.

Here are their findings:

*No significant difference was found in planning timelines between collaborative and traditional projects

*Collaborative projects were significantly larger in terms of acres treated than traditional projects

*Collaborative projects were associated with significant increases in planning efficiency

*Collaborative projects were associated with significant increases in the number of unique activities accomplished

*Mean number of unique objectives greater for collaborative projects across decision types


15 thoughts on “Science Friday: Does Collaboration Make a Difference? McIver and Becker”

  1. Thanks, Sharon, for highlighting our study. I look forward to a good discussion (as always) here.

    I do want to give credit where credit is due and say that I did not come up with the efficiency metric– we should thank Carol McKenzie in Region One for that. I merely stole it and operationalized it in our study.

  2. It seems to me that there are much more acres out there where people can collaborate and reach a consensus on. There still seems to be entrenched positions (on both sides) on more controversial projects, where consensus is impossible. I’m always in favor of getting acres done, as efficiently as possible. Sadly, there are some people out there who think “proper management” means a return to the 80’s practices.

    Congress seems to be a bigger problem, with their lack of understanding of what is needed from them. Gridlock politics.

  3. This is a highly valuable study — commendations to the authors.

    One question:

    *Collaborative projects were associated with significant increases in planning efficiency

    Is that based on internal USFS efficiency? What about the many hours put in by non-agency collaborators? If total time and resources are included, is efficiency still higher?

    • Steve,
      Yes, we refer to efficiency in this study from a performance management perspective. As you allude to, if the time and resources associated with non-federal members of collaboratives were included, then efficiency may not be greater.

      However, there are logical positive spillover effects that are more difficult to measure. For example, when agreement regarding treatments in mixed conifer forest types is reached in the context of one project, that agreement can be leveraged in future projects without having to re-hash the science and/or stakeholder interests all over again.

      • This observation of “leverage for the next project” reminds me that forest plan standards were supposed to do the same thing that is you would decide once and then not have to discuss it any more. But it didn’t work out that way always as they became starting points for future project negotiations.

        What I think is interesting about your observation, Chelsea, is that perhaps the collaborative agreements are more stable in a sense (not so much influenced by individual FS personalities and intra team dynamics) but also more flexible through time than forest plans- which can be on a 30 year cycle. Might be worth exploring.. interactions of forest planning decisions and the work of collaboratives.

  4. This is bias and prejudice at its best. No surprise, I suppose, when the metric acres cut and projects undertaken – all more logging – is the measure of success and efficiency, then it reveals collaboration to be what most people know it to be – a perversion of legal, structural and regulatory process.

    • I don’t think the projects are “all logging” it seems like they are a combo of different activities, hence “complexity.” How can collaboration be a “perversion” of the law when it is required in some cases by statutes (and regulatory processes)?

    • A trend in dry western US National Forests is to combine non-commercial tasks within timber projects, paid for with thinned sawlogs. Some of those Forests want to pay for it with ‘thinned’ old growth, instead. Sometimes, that choice is up to the person wielding the paintgun, too.

    • Dr. Horejsi,
      While our measure of accomplishments is not perfect in that it is not a comprehensive measure, it does capture activities other than timber harvesting such as fuels reduction, prescribed fire, treatment of invasive species, road decommissioning, and recreation improvements to name a few. It is also for the reason that you point out that we included a measure of complexity that captured the variety of programmatic objectives, rather than just diversity of activities. This was done to avoid giving high complexity marks to projects that accomplished 5 different types of timber harvesting. Our results indicated that collaborative projects were associated with a greater diversity of programmatic objectives as well as a greater diversity of activities.

  5. Since compliance with forest plan standards is legally required, I figured they would normally define the decision space for projects, which would reduce the range of alternatives and reduce the opportunity for disagreement, both promoting efficiency. In a case where there is collaborative agreement that a standard should not be applied, an amendment could be done, but I’m not sure that would contribute to efficiency.

    I’ll bring up my point about choosing project locations again here. Forest plans decide where projects may be planned, and project decisions decide what practices will be applied, but there is no required decision process open to the public for deciding when to manage those areas that may be managed (this could also be viewed as a prioritization decision, or “where now”). I’ve always thought letting the public in on this decision would make project planning more efficient. I believe some collaboratives have done this and I wonder whether this study produced any information to help address that question.

    It’s not clear how the decision to collaborate is made. If it is a decision made by the Forest Service, is it possible that they select projects that are larger and with more facets, so those kind of “efficient” outcomes are not necessarily the result of collaboration?

    • Jon,
      Your last point is a very astute one and something we weren’t really able to parse out from the data. It is certainly possible that collaborative groups and/or Forest Service planners do choose larger and more complex projects to collaborate on and that efficiency is related to the former characteristics more than the latter. This would be a very valuable follow up study.

      To your point about prioritization, in my experience as a member of the Lolo Restoration Committee in western Montana we have had the opportunity to engage with the Forest Service on out-year planning (5-year plans). At one point, the collaborative chose the type of project they wanted to work on (larch restoration) and the FS produce a GIS layer with opportunities on the Forest from which we chose where to plan a collaborative project. This project became what is now the on-going Marshall Woods project outside of Missoula.

      • Which I live next door to … That’s an interesting approach, Chelsea. I’ve always understood the Lolo to be kind of cutting-edge on working with the public, so I’d be interested in hearing from others about examples of collaborative prioritization out there.

      • Or possibly that once you have a collaborative group, they don’t want to do small “random acts of restoration”.. they want to see the big picture and then drill down. Plus the larger and more complex the project, the more opportunities for horse-trading..


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