Trust through a Smokey Wire Lens: III. What’s it All Mean? Guest Post by Peter Williams

We’ve talked about trust having psychological and sociological aspects. Now we want to turn from describing trust to working with it. Here are ideas that come to my mind. If you have others, those would be great to put forward as well. Like the first article in this series said, the
stakes are getting higher and trust, as a coin of the realm, is getting more valuable.

When I bring all this forward into a natural resource management situation, several things stand out. First, a traditional authoritative approach to managing public lands at best only asks for public trust; it does little to earn that trust. Authoritative decision-making too often seems to mean waiting for a crisis and then asking the public to trust a heroic response, as opposed to working together upstream across jurisdictions, across interests, across disciplines to avoid or reduce the crisis in the first place.

Second, managers who are passively receptive to ideas if someone brings those to them, like in traditional public hearing, also do little to earn trust because passive behavior, by definition, doesn’t show trust. This is not to suggest that a more traditional hearing format has no place. The point is, if you want to build trust, that format alone won’t work because of the reciprocal nature of trust. Showing trust helps build trust; being passively receptive to ideas shows no trust that good ideas are out there and that shows a lack of respect, a lack of confidence.

Third, just gathering information about what people think or believe, like with surveys, also won’t earn trust. Again, this is because it can only address reason and rationality, not emotion or behavior. Trying to convince someone to trust based only on data will never work, so how
you use those data and that information is what really matters.

Fourth, a negotiation model of management, where managers ask for positions and state those of the agency, is more likely to build distrust because no one gets everything they want and, thus, everyone loses something. A negotiation-compromise model of decisions encourages an adversarial, low-trust dynamic, something to avoid if building trust is a goal.

So, if you want to earn trust, to build trust, you might start with a more robust understanding of how your management style, approach, and decisions affect—and are affected by—trust. It won’t be a stand-down alone that builds trust in prescribed fire, for example. But what you do
with that stand-down can have a great effect, positive or negative. In other words, intentional use of a stand-down within a broader effort to build trust can make a real difference if that is the goal.

Similarly, it won’t be a traditional approach to interagency fire management that builds trust. Without building something better than we see now, the ability to work together across agencies, organizations, and communities faces a deficit even as the stakes get higher and consequences more real.  We’re heading into a dynamic, unpredictable, risk-filled future where trust, being future oriented, will become more valuable. Being intentional about building trust seems wise because the alternative, based on a less robust understanding, is likely to encourage more vicious cycles. Building trust depends most on having the understanding necessary for a virtuous cycle, one that builds on itself.

16 thoughts on “Trust through a Smokey Wire Lens: III. What’s it All Mean? Guest Post by Peter Williams”

  1. Two thoughts on this..

    It seems like it might be difficult if the FS as an agency has a goal of building trust, but political actors/loyalists can behave as if they are interested in dividing people and enemizing. For prescribed fire, the FS may have be given the latitude to build trust because so far the issue hasn’t been partisanized (although there are certainly hints of it in some of the discourse). Unless there is a clearly communicated and consistent “zone of non-interference” it seems to me that the FS is between a rock and a hard place.

    Second, I’ve been following the origins of Covid and folks there talk about trusting public health officials. What would it take? They say, openness, communication and accountability. 1. You should be able to FOIA info, not have to litigate to get records. 2. If things go wrong, formally review with unbiased people (or canceling biases). 3. Admit when you’re wrong and publicly state what you did wrong and how you are planning to fix the system so that it is more unlikely to happen. It seems like the FS is doing this right (public review) and NIH not so much. It seems to me even if Gain of Function research did not cause the Covid pandemic, now that the public is aware of it, people should be able to weigh in as to whether that kind of research should be continued.

    Sometimes it’s a choice between circling the wagons with your coworkers and protecting your own (colleagues, funding sources) and being open with the public about what might have gone wrong. If we think about human nature, the former is natural (think abuse of children by people in institutions) the latter.. apparently harder to do.

    • Yes, that tension is not to be underestimated between any given agency’s goal to build trust and the reality of today’s politics. There should be ways to navigate and finesse that situation, but the counter forces are powerful, like prevailing storm winds. Still, its an important point to consider before anyone takes aim at any particular agency, whether federal, state, or local. And it takes particular combination of will, skill, tact, and finesse for any agency employee no matter how senior.

      At one point a decade or more ago, there was an effort to establish a culture of openness within the federal government. The specific effort seems to be languishing these days, but there are pieces left. Here’s one:

      One of the principles, if I recall right, was to err on the side of openness, rather than passively waiting for a FOIA request, recognizing there’s a savings of government resources (as you know all too well, FOIA responses can be quite time-consuming) and an opportunity to build confidence, good-will, and trust. I always thought of it as a form of preemptive disclosure.

    • “For prescribed fire, the FS may have be given the latitude to build trust because so far the issue hasn’t been partisanized (although there are certainly hints of it in some of the discourse).”

      If you live in New Mexico, the lack of trust in the Forest Service’s prescribed fire program is bi-partisan and all but universal condemnation. I wonder whether FS leadership is so insulated from the real world (tele-working, etc.) that it has no idea how reviled its agency has become. Worse than New Orleanians’ opinion of the Corps of Engineers after the Hurricane Katrina fiasco destroyed their homes and neighborhoods.

      “We’re the government and we’re here to help,” has rarely sounded so tone-deaf than now in New Mexico.

      • New Mexico is indeed a very interesting state. It’s a D state with a diverse population and relatively poor. Governor Grisham asked for state relief from the O&G leasing pause.
        But she could hardly be accused of being in the “pockets of the oil companies.”
        The story can’t be that the fire was bad because “the bad R’s that live there and are too independent to control growth,” or whatever partisan story folks might want to generate. Or “Trump’s Forest Service screws up” or whatever.

        The role of experts is also interesting.. there’s a narrative that goes something like “the FS shouldn’t have a standdown because all of us experts know that PB is essential.” Which seems to skip the legitimate concerns of people who live with the risks. And my point, that if we can trust the safety of travel and nuclear power plants we will also be able to trust prescribed fire with adequate regulation. And we just have to work together in good faith to make that happen.

        • I’m with Andy on this one. There has been much distrust for the USFS in New Mexico around several issues for decades. The Cerro Grande Fire in 2000 ensured it would be a long time before trust could be restored when it came to prescribed fire. It seemed like the USFS was possibly finally gaining some trust in relation to prescribed burning in recent years, but that has now been dashed. It will take time and a lot of work to make progress with trusting the USFS in that state.

        • “And my point, that if we can trust the safety of travel and nuclear power plants we will also be able to trust prescribed fire with adequate regulation.”

          How many U.S. homes have been destroyed by all nuclear power plant accidents combined? Zero.

          How many New Mexico homes have been destroyed by the Forest Service’s prescribed Hermits Peak & Calf Canyon fires alone? Over 350.

          On the benefit side, nuclear power “is the largest source of clean power in the United States. It generates nearly 800 billion kilowatt hours of electricity each year and produces more than half of the nation’s emissions-free electricity.”

          What are the benefits of prescribed fire in the western states? Hmmm . . . dear readers, help me out here.

          There’s a reason that prescribed fire is commonplace and all but risk-free in the southeastern U.S. The driest month in Atlanta is wetter than the wettest month in Albuquerque. Not to mention the southeast’s year-round humidity compared to much of the west’s year-round aridity.

          No, we will never be able to “trust” prescribed fire (or any other source of fire ignitions) in the arid west, no matter the rules and regulations imposed. This isn’t rocket science, folks. It’s basic physics. Build your homes and communities accordingly.

          • Hi Andy: We are in total agreement regarding nuclear power. I have always thought that “climate change” activists that were completely opposed to fossil fuels would logically embrace nuclear. But nope. No idea why they are mostly opposed to nuclear power, too — it would seemingly directly address and resolve most of their concerns regarding CO2 “pollution.”

            So far as benefits of prescribed fire, I have had a long and very positive history with this process. So far as site preparation for tree planting, broadcast burning always gave us the best results. Fuel management, smoke control, and effective weeding are other benefits.

            I think the main problems have been inexperience and poor project design — and the government seems to have more difficulty in these regards than industrial landowners. Here is one example where prescribed fire would be a great step forward that I recently wrote about:

          • “How many U.S. homes have been destroyed by all nuclear power plant accidents combined? Zero.”

            Now I have to disagree. Let’s change how this is worded just a bit. How many US families have been destroyed by mining of uranium to fuel nuclear power plants?” Many. Cancer, miscarriages, and many other ailments have been attributed to providing the raw materials needed to fuel nuclear energy. Talk to the people living on the Navajo Reservation.

            That said, I believe the mining of uranium, the containment of tailings, and the handling of waste can be mitigated. Just don’t try to ignore the realities of the history of the environmental and human destruction of nuclear energy.

            • Navajo Reservation uranium did not fuel the production of nuclear energy. The Atomic Energy Commission was the exclusive buyer of Navajo uranium, which it used to build bombs. Coal mining for energy production has also killed a lot of miners — >80,000 in the U.S. since 1900, not including black lung disease.

              The costs of prescribed burning in the arid U.S. west are hitting the nation’s front pages. What’s missing from this reporting is the benefits side of the equation. Why? Perhaps because the benefits of arid landscape prescribed burning are nominal, if they exist at all.

          • From your link Andy, “Purchases of uranium by the AEC dropped in the late 1960s when the US government decided it had acquired enough. Commercial purchases rose, however, to roughly replace AEC purchases by 1971 and remained strong into the 1980s.”

            Uranium mining ended on the Navajo Reservation in 1986. I did about 10 minutes of digging and couldn’t find out where ore mined in uranium mines on the Navajo Reservation went in the 1970s and first half of the ’80s.

            The point here is trust cannot truly be established and maintained without telling the entire story. Half truths, as are often told by the government and special interest groups, such as FSEEE, are most effective with those who are already aligned with their agendas.

            I’m pessimistic that at the national level the forest service can build and maintain trust with a significant majority of engaged US citizens because it functions under the executive branch, which is inherently political. Key messages change according to who is in power and the ability to monitor messaging down to the individual national forest level has become easy with today’s technology. I’ve been spanked by the WO (Trump Administration) for veering from talking points in a small town publication. That is pretty scary. Add to that high profile human errors such as the Hermit’s Peak Fire and trust vaporizes.

            Andy, I think you and I probably disagree about the benefits of prescribed fire, but I would agree that there is not yet enough research to definitively say prescribed fire reduces wildfire size, intensity, and severity. I also agree that homeowners need to shoulder the responsibility of caring for their homes and adjoining land to reduce the chances of their homes being damaged or destroyed by wildfire.

            Even if enough data is gathered to show real benefits of prescribed fire, do the benefits outweigh the risks of destructive escaped burns? I think that is a trust that is hard to earn and maintain, as human brains are wired to focus on worst case scenarios.

            Trust can be a challenge to earn and it is definitely ephemeral, but I think local land managers should always work with openness, honesty, and humility regardless of the pressure applied from above and outside forces. It’s just the right thing to do.

            • Mike, the literature is mixed about uranium mining on the Navajo Reservation, e.g., “Production in the Navajo Nation steadily declined from 1956 to 1967, when it practically stopped with the end of the AEC monopoly on ore buying.”

              Uranium mining-related fatalities are primarily due to cancer associated with inhalation of toxic materials. The mining itself was pretty safe as these were quite shallow mines (many were on the surface), not deep with explosive gases as is common and lethal in coal country.

    • “If the United States had the same Covid death rate as Australia, about 900,000 lives would have been saved… Dozens of interviews, along with survey data and scientific studies from around the world, point to a lifesaving trait that Australians displayed from the top of government to the hospital floor, and that Americans have shown they lack: trust, in science and institutions, but especially in one another.” (Maybe that’s why Rupert Murdoch thought he’d be more successful in the U. S? Or is he a cause?)

  2. Building trust is a topic too large to cover with a few comments, but I’ll share some of what I did knowing it may not be reproducible on many forests. I made a life-style decision that I would prefer to stay in an area and grow deep roots rather than move a lot in order to rise in the organization. In my personal life I helped coach track at a local school, was head ref for a multi-town youth soccer league, and volunteered for a regional nonprofit, thus many people knew me outside of work. At work, I gave many presentations at schools and to local service groups. I also led public field trips and gave interpretative talks at forest service and national park campgrounds. I also had a biweekly column in two local papers that covered many land management topics as well personal stories about hiking and photography. The purpose of the personal stories was help people relate to me, a forest service employee, as a regular person rather than just government hack.

    This long term approach reached all ages. I can’t over stress how important that is. Additionally, the forest supervisor and I were on the same page philosophically while I was the public affairs specialist. We didn’t try to hide anything, were honest, and told our own bad news. When we were shut down from telling the truth by higher levels, I would go out into the communities and spread the information by word of mouth. Additionally, we put way more documents up on the forest’s website than was legally required rather than wait for FOIAs. I believe in a democratic republic it is important to be transparent and tell the truth so that the taxpayers can tell us what they think we are doing right and what we are doing wrong.

    All of this worked to develop trust in the local communities. When it came to fire management, which includes prescribed fire and fire for resource benefit, we built a baseline of understanding about fire’s role in shaping the local natural environment and fire prevention/safety through in-person youth and adult education, as well as through my column, news releases and radio interviews. Since I have retired, the forest has also added presentations to the public via Zoom.

    Prescribed fires that get away and become national news (e.g., Hermit’s Peak Fire) makes it difficult to keep trust when it comes to using fire to manage the forest. Local forest personnel need to be able to talk openly to their communities about these fires when they happen (no matter where they happen), without any speculation of course. But this type of discussion is generally shutdown by higher levels of the organization. See above for the strategy to still do it.

    Also tied to building trust concerning prescribed fires is to take the media out to cover prescribed burns and take local government officials and the public out to areas following burns.

    In summary, it takes a lot of work over an extended period of time to develop trust that can survive setback hiccups. It has to be a priority.

  3. Do other parties who do prescribed burning (TNC, tribes, private owners) take a different approach to communication or have better results?


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