Isn’t 30 Years Enough Forest Planning?

I smiled when I saw the title of this blog. Another century of forest planning? Another century of gridlock?

I think that Dick Behan said it first, and perhaps best in 1981:

… Idealized, perfect planning that is mandated in law [and Regulation], and constrained only by an agency’s budget, will exhaust that budget. … There will come a time when the Forest Service can do nothing but plan …

RPA/NFMA cannot be made to work. Its flaw is fundamental: it is a law, and it needs to be repealed. We failed, in our collective problem solving, by placing too much faith in planning and placing far too much faith in statute. It is time to punt.

As I suggested in 2007, maybe we ought to use the NFMA rulemaking process to begin the journey of changing to a new approach to planning wherein we use scenario planning (wikipedia link) simply to “rehash the past, and rehearse the future”. And to begin a journey to learn how to practice adaptive management (wikipedia link) as an agency. Note that management is not directly linked to planning. Note that there is no “desired future.” Instead, scenarios simply help guide strategic thinking as part of adaptive management, in part by keeping forest managers’ minds open to an emergent future.

Here is a link to my Adaptive Forest Management blog for more.

Forest Options Report- Meet Here in a Week!

Andy Stahl, in a comment below on Forest  Planning #2, mentioned the Forest Options Report that he had worked on with others.  A cursory glance suggested to me that it would be good if some of us took the time to read it and came up with what ideas from there we think are still valid today, and why.  They may not strictly have to do with forest planning, but that’s OK in my view. So let’s meet back here in this space next Wednesday or thereabouts-I’ll post what I think and we can talk about it. See you then!


Forest Planning #2- The Participation-Shed

Jim Burchfield
January 18, 2009

If genuine, deliberative collaborative processes become an inviolate principle in the development and implementation of a new generation of National Forest plans, then the geographic scale of planning becomes one of the most important early decisions in the establishment of planning rules. I will argue that a vital, but not singular variable in determining a planning area boundary is the capacity of resident populations to participate in ongoing deliberations, “a participation-shed,” if you will. Even though participation has many styles and flavors, the type upon which meaningful collaboration has depended for some time is the form in which people see, hear, touch, and even smell each other – face-to-face deliberation. There is no more meaningful or creative decision environment, in terms of empathy, compromise, and learning, than the physical confrontation with your adversaries and friends. Technology gives us the ability to supplement these direct interactions, of course, and it will continue to provide enormous advantages in exchanging information and ideas, but the virtual world will always fall short of the goal to make progress. Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.

So how do we design a set of geographic areas that create opportunities for people to get together and confront our very real resource management problems? I would suggest considering a few additional variables that encourage action and the ongoing measurement of consequences. First, watersheds have a logical as well as historical significance in the management of western lands. The availability of clean, fresh water will only accelerate under warming climatic conditions. Second, local government boundaries, such as state and county lines, remain stubbornly stable and administratively unavoidable. We can’t make a specious claims that these “artificial” boundaries don’t count. They do. Finally, we have the administrative boundaries of the National Forests and their dependent Ranger Districts. A planning area requires a leader to convene and guide public discussions. This is often best fulfilled by a trained, responsible federal official, a person who pays attention to the actions emerging from planning and the monitoring and evaluation that follows to adapt to new conditions. The perfect unit for planning on a National Forest would be a place like the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, where the 4th code hydrologic unit happens to coincide nicely with the Ravalli County and National Forest boundary. These cases are rare, so for everywhere else, there will be fudge factors.

What we cannot fudge, however, is the potential for citizens to engage regularly, honestly, and with feeling. Someone has to be able to get in their car after work and attend a well-organized, focused meeting that lasts no longer than two hours, isn’t a lot more frequent than once per month, and gets something done on the ground within a year. This is not too much to ask, and in fact, has been done on many occasions in the past. Yet participation in Forest Service meetings often does not go well, either because of poor meeting design, lack of independent, quality facilitation, a myopia on assessment, and a never-ending ambivalence on the purpose of planning (again, all together now: getting something done to change the future!). Having planning units defined on geographic areas that would encompass recognized, community-centered places would get all of us very far down the path. Just think of all the Ranger Districts that already meet the criteria of being a relatively short driving distance (less than an hour) from the land to be affected. The genius of the National Forest System has always been its administrative decentralization. Let’s use it.

This does not imply that the geographic area is the only unit of analysis in preparing planning documents. Larger scale patterns on regional areas inform more localized decisions and offer critical explanations for potential consequences of actions. Other stochastic, broad-scale disturbances might require rather rapid changes in planning assumptions used on the geographic scale. But then, planning isn’t perfect, which is why it’s an ongoing, learning activity. Allowing people to be able to regularly participate in the decision-making regarding actions, and then to help evaluate whether the future has been changed toward a desirable trajectory allows Forest Service professional to be responsive to the highest quality knowledge and commitment of the most directly affected stakeholders. It will make planning into the political activity that is deserves to be. It will build confidence and capacity among the population. It might even foster a nation of conservationists.

Note: Sharon posted this entry and this was the only photo she could find within the time available. She would appreciate any real “forest planning” photos to use here.

The Dangers of Collaboration: Going Deeper in Understanding the Issue

The recent discussion on another thread on this blog re concerns about local collaboration reminded me of this op-ed by Erica Rosenberg on the Dangers of Collaboration in the Christian Science Monitor op-ed a while back. I remember because I wrote a letter to the editor that got published (good) but frankly, writing within the number of word limits for letters to the editor does not add much to dialogue, IMHO.

“After years of being tarred as obstructionist ideologues, some environmental groups now have a seat at the negotiating table. Enjoying their newfound popularity, these self-appointed decisionmakers become heavily invested in reaching an accord, regardless of the science, the law, or the long-term effect on the land.”

It sounds like the author is saying 1) if local environmentalists negotiate with others in local collaborative groups they can be “wrong” (which raises the question in my mind “if national groups negotiate nationally with the Executive Branch, can they be “wrong” also?”), 2) the local groups would know less or care less about the “science”, 3) local people know less or care less about the long-term effect on the land. Caring less about the land seems difficult to understand; isn’t NIMBY a real phenomenon we’ve all experienced? This seems to be a paradox; thus, perhaps, we need to dig deeper.

I would also observe that the unpleasant consequences of the uncertainty related to protracted court decision-making tend to fall entirely on the local people, so that they have a stronger interest in making a decision and moving on. These costs are not borne by national groups, who simply tend to move on to other things, and then show up in the next act of the glacially-paced courtroom drama.

In my experience, local environmental groups usually know more and care more about a particular piece of land and what is being done. Let’s go to Dan Kemmis on this as he is infinitely more articulate than I, in this article Science’s Role in Natural Resource Decisions in the journal “Issues of Science and Technology.”

To add to what Kemmis says, in my experience, local knowledge is valuable in resolving natural resource disputes- because you are arguing about facts, not broad philosophies. I once spoke on a panel (a Festschrift for Gene Namkoong at UBC) with a medical ethicist. He said that while people had strongly held philosophies about what to do with patients and what was right or wrong, when it came to specific cases in the hospital, there was much more agreement. When I taught Environmental Ethics, my text was by Joseph DesJardins Environmental Ethics: an introduction to environmental philosophy.

In the epilogue, (in the third edition) DesJardins talks about his real world experience in dealing with a community environmental problem.
P. 269

No one got what they wanted and neither side “won.” Yet, as one member pointed out, the real winner was democratic citizenship. People came together, argued, debated and eventually found common ground. The compromise “worked” in the sense that most everyone concluded that they could live with it. In a democracy- indeed, in any situation in which diverse perspectives conflict- it is unrealistic, unreasonable and perhaps unfair to expect or desire one side completely to triumph over others. This is, in many ways, the “pragmatic” solution.

DesJardins goes on to discuss the arguments of supporters and critics of “environmental pragmatism.”

So, we could ask, is this ultimately a deep philosophical divide between pragmatists and others?

Is there a feeling that locals (westerners, in the case above, or rural people or ?), can’t quite be trusted to arrive at the “right” conclusions?

When people negotiate to end wars, or for trade agreements, we never talk about there being a “right answer” and a “wrong answer.” We would just like to have the disputes settled and move on. Why are natural resource conflicts on the public lands different, or are they?

Lots of places to go with this one, but I think it is fundamental to our forest planning world and worth exploring.

Comments on Freemuth’s piece in HCN

Some of these comments sounded worthy of discussion. I was intrigued by the concept that somehow collaboration avoids NEPA and other legal requirements. I guess I was having trouble imagining collaborating at any level on anything  that ultimately results in decisions that violate legal requirements- because the legal nexus is the decision.  Can someone help me understand this concern further?

Monitoring- Solving the Puzzle

Alex Dunn raises another question that is definitely a piece of the planning rule discussion. What about monitoring?  People do a lot of monitoring; at the same time, there is never enough money for monitoring. Once I spent some time attempting to frame the “monitoring problem,” and even remember doing some interviews, but  could not even achieve consensus on the  framing of the problem. That’s when you know you have a serious problem.

Here are a couple of pieces to the puzzle:

A. Who decides what at what scale? Conundrum.

1. Logically each forest would develop an integrated monitoring plan from broadscale to project level.  Yet a variety of handbooks have different required monitoring, so it seems like it’s a patchwork. One unit told me once “we don’t know what we’re going to monitor because it depends on what the new wildlife biologist is interested in.” So it seems to be a constantly shifting patchwork.

2. But some very important things don’t make sense to be monitored separately by forests,  and have regionwide or species-wide plans for monitoring. Like a species, why would monitoring plans vary by forest?

3. Monitoring should be done across all lands, so how does that fit? Should the FS work with other agencies, the States, landscape scale collaboratives?

4. Watershed monitoring makes sense down a drainage/river. This scale would then be larger than the landscape scale collaboratives.

It’s almost like we should distinguish some basic things to monitor, say air and water quality, and basically do them the same nationwide and across all lands, and then the other important things to monitor each deserve consideration of what scale is appropriate.  Yet, we expect “forest plan monitoring” to be some kind of anchor. Why? What’s that about?

B. Another piece to the puzzle is that there are units that have monitoring programs that seem fairly successful; that annually stakeholders go out and review the results; and the stakeholders and the unit talk about potential causes of the results, and future research questions and potential changes in management practices.

These two pieces don’t really fit. Difficulty, challenges, and yet perceived success.

I’m sure there are more pieces to the monitoring puzzle; perhaps by carefully examining all the pieces we could attempt to solve the puzzle.   If we could decide, and explain how we would be accountable, it might be a convincing approach to appropriators, which would then possibly get around the funding problem.

Strategic Planning- The Literature- Mintzberg

Here is a book review of a book that was important in the development of my own thinking on the utility of strategic planning, by Henry Mintzberg, entitled The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning. Recommended to all in this discussion. Some of Jim Burchfield’s observations reminded me of this book.

Book overview
In this definitive and revealing history, Henry Mintzberg, the iconoclastic former president of the Strategic Management Society, unmasks the press that has mesmerized so many organizations since 1965: strategic planning. One of our most brilliant and original management thinkers, Mintzberg concludes that the term is an oxymoron — that strategy cannot be planned because planning is about analysis and strategy is about synthesis. That is why, he asserts, the process has failed so often and so dramatically. Mintzberg traces the origins and history of strategic planning through its prominence and subsequent fall. He argues that we must reconceive the process by which strategies are created — by emphasizing informal learning and personal vision — and the roles that can be played by planners. Mintzberg proposes new and unusual definitions of planning and strategy, and examines in novel and insightful ways the various models of strategic planning and the evidence of why they failed. Reviewing the so-called “pitfalls” of planning, he shows how the process itself can destroy commitment, narrow a company’s vision, discourage change, and breed an atmosphere of politics. In a harsh critique of many sacred cows, he describes three basic fallacies of the process — that discontinuities can be predicted, that strategists can be detached from the operations of the organization, and that the process of strategy-making itself can be formalized. Mintzberg devotes a substantial section to the new role for planning, plans, and planners, not inside the strategy-making process, but in support of it, providing some of its inputs and sometimes programming its outputs as well as encouraging strategic thinking in general. This book is required reading for anyone in an organization who is influenced by the planning or the strategy-making processes.

Also there are some interesting  user reviews at the link.

Analysis Paralysis-Gridlock Redux- Who’s Responsible?

“Forest planning has been hijacked by a generation of planners who turned what should have been a narrowly-focused effort to constrain an out-of-control Forest Service logging program and turned it into a wasteful, endless, bureaucratic exercise with little merit. “ Andy Stahl (my bolding)

My memory was the that FS had identified overanalysis as a more general problem and had looked internally and externally to describe the sources and some solutions. NOTE: that this was more focused around project planning than forest planning, but one might hypothesize that some of the causes and cures would be the same.

I do remember some thinking going along the lines of : if people don’t want projects or plans to happen, and they appeal and litigate on procedural grounds (NEPA and NFMA processes), then the FS needs to develop “bullet proof ” documents.  This is a dynamic  which inexorably leads to over-analysis.

Some empirical evidence might be looking at other agencies and seeing how much they over-analyze (given that the right level of analysis is in the eye of the beholder) and attempting to correlate that with amount of litigation. I did have some experience with some APHIS NEPA that would suggest that since at the time they faced  little litigation, they did not over-analyze.

I was looking for the original FS report on gridlock, and ran across a couple of interesting things in my internet search.

One is a discussion between Neal Sampson and Andy Stahl about gridlock in 1995.

I also found the original report on Process Predicament from 2002. From the Executive Summary on page 5 :

Unfortunately, the Forest Service operates within a statutory, regulatory, and administrative framework that has kept the agency from effectively addressing rapid declines in forest health. This same framework impedes nearly every other aspect of multiple-use management as well. Three problem areas stand out:

1. Excessive analysis—confusion, delays, costs, and risk management associated with the required consultations and studies;

2. Ineffective public involvement—procedural requirements that create disincentives to collaboration in national forest management; and

3. Management inefficiencies—poor planning and decision-making, a deteriorating skills base, and inflexible funding rules, problems that are compounded by the sheer volume of the required paperwork and the associated proliferation of opportunities to misinterpret or misapply required procedures.
            These factors frequently place line officers in a costly procedural quagmire, where a single project can take years to move forward and where planning costs alone can exceed $1 million. Even noncontroversial projects often proceed at a snail’s pace


Finally I found a news report in which both Chris Wood and Mark Rey panned the above report. Now, usually Chris Wood and Mark Rey tend not to be on the same side, at least on things that are politically charged,  so the fact that they neither thought much of the Process Predicament report is somewhat intriguing.

It sounds like we (the combination of externals and internals) never really worked through this issue, and it remains unresolved.   Re-investigating the causes and cures for this phenomenon, or at least how it applies to forest planning,  may be important to design plans with appropriate levels of analysis and planning rules to require an appropriate level.

The Purpose of Planning

Contributed by Jim Burchfield, Interim Dean, College of Forestry and Conservation, University of Montana

Beyond rulemaking, environmental analyses, and the myriad of necessary procedural steps, land management planning on National Forests will be well-served to adhere to fundamental principles.  Planning strives to meet two interlocking objectives: (1) To create a more desirable future; and (2) To link knowledge to action.  Both of these objectives require ongoing effort, such that planning does not become a once-per-decade tedium of covering all contingencies via numbing documentation, but a continuing learning experiment.  Especially in an environment as complicated and dynamic as any given National Forest, the creation and re-creation of a coherent, “actionable” vision for a desirable future implies repeated political exercises of clarifying and allocating human values.  Unfortunately, the Forest Service is not quite ready for an immersion into these messy, real-world negotiations because, ironically, it’s afraid to make mistakes.  I say, bring on the arguments and dissatisfaction.  Confrontation breeds learning.  Plans will not be perfect.  Good.  If we learn from our mistakes we make the next iteration better.  We make progress.  What is necessary is comfort in imperfection.

The creation of learning-oriented planning argues for two unnerving transformations in the current planning process.  First, the roles of agency experts must change, and second, investments in analysis must be reversed from the front to the back end of the planning processes.  A more meaningful role for the mangers and scientists who guide the planning process is to promote landscape-level trials of different management possibilities – some “let burn” here, some intensive logging there – not much concerned with a particular site’s “suitability” but more focused on the responses of these lands to experimental actions (some obvious, already established criteria for suitability allocations, such as unstable soils, already exist and may continue).  Concurrently, these agency sponsors engage in new, interactive, political forums with the gamut of interested parties to negotiate where and at what intensity these experiments take place.  Design will be important and prior assessments of resource conditions relevant, but they will not overwhelm the overarching demands to act and learn.  The proposals emerging from deliberative arguments among multiple interests will commonly generate creative ideas for action, and importantly, a set of normative indicators of benefit that can be subsequently measured.  Each action is a risk, but a worthy one.  The good news, of course, is that nature is highly resilient, recovering from all types of human shenanigans.  We simply negotiate a new set of outcomes, and try our best.

Simultaneously, the attention of planning must be turned on its head from the tiresome tradition of pre-planning “assessment” to the dynamic practice of post-treatment evaluation.  The biggest change to realize this reversal is the funding of a systematized process to measure consequences, that is, a serious commitment to monitoring and evaluation (two distinct and often wrongly conflated processes).  The absence of evaluation is the commonly recognized Achilles heel of planning success, which is why adaptive management has been so rightly criticized.  Behaviors can’t be adjusted or “adapted” when there’s been no confident measurement of change.  The roles of different actors in planning become further clarified, as the science capacity of the agency comes into play far more significantly in the aftermath of planning (while it is now misplaced in the early phases), and the normative interests of the public ascend in importance in planning’s developmental stages.  Scientists will be crucial in clarifying robust measures of change and completing analyses of consequences, even though it will be the participants of planning exercises, including non-professionals, who help conduct these measurements, learning as they go whether the results of actions indeed create the conditions expected.

What bothers many professionals is that this form of planning – deliberative, action-oriented, and uncertain – means things go wrong.  But utopia remains an illusion as the land and its inhabitants change too fast for idealized models to keep up.  The measurements made in monitoring could show something entirely different than the anticipated results.  Fine.   After all, management actions aren’t the only forces at play, especially with latent, large-scale perturbations (think climate change or big wildfires) overwhelming modest interventions.  What will have changed, however, is that whatever the outcome, we know we have only ourselves to blame, and this democratization of blame takes the sting from negative consequences that have been previously viewed as career-ending mistakes.   We are not just wounded but wiser. 

This commitment to knowledge from planning means that we have participants in planning who aren’t vested in being correct.  We need humble, curious planners, who are capable of setting up public learning systems.  That planning is so imprecise, ongoing, and political annoys scientists to no end, which is why they are such lousy planners.  They are trained to be cautious and correct.  It’s not that we don’t need scientists – we need them desperately.  They simply need to be empowered to be evaluators instead of creators.  Perhaps school teachers would be better planners.  They understand conflict.  They are trained to discover what their constituents want.  They can encourage people to do work.  They are skilled at demonstrating the tools for measurement. The next day’s class starts the process again.  We might even get something done.

NFMA, the Timber Wars Filter and the 21st Century

I agree with Jack Ward Thomas when he talked about “walking around the field of battle bayoneting the wounded” in, I think,  this still relevant testimony from 2000. There are also some other relevant observations from this testimony for this planning rule discussion.

21st century planning is obviously tied to NFMA, but a challenge is to divorce ourselves from the timber -o-centric nature of the statute and the “timber wars filter” that affects the way we see and frame issues . Sometimes I wonder if those of us who remember that time have some kind of filter that we can’t see beyond- and I am speaking of both those outside and inside the agency.

My wake-up call to see my own filter was moving to the Rocky Mountain Region where day to day questions include skiing, oil and gas, travel management, grazing, fuels treatments- and the supply of wood far exceeds the demand. We have little-talked about (nationally) issues of urban forests everywhere dumping, shooting ranges, crime; we also have encroachment, trespass, the need to keep our water rights and deal with water developers, we have the important but often overlooked national grasslands with prairie dogs and energy development issues.

It is only by spending time outside the larger forest policy discussion that I came to see how the old timber filter can get in the way of seeing the future clearly, including the future of the timber industry.

One idea would be to take the Southern Cal forest plans (which are relatively timber free), and see what issues they have and how they were framed, both by the forests and the plantiffs in the lawsuit.

Another idea would be to take a group of 20-35 year olds, a combination of externals and internals  – some of our most creative  thinkers and soome  experienced with current procedures, and ask them to design a  planning rule alternative. After all, they will probably be implementing, appealing and litigating the plans while we are sitting on porches sipping iced beverages and playing with grandkids.

Finally, I think that if there were a broadly supported, surgical amendment to NFMA to get rid of requirement that were clearly outdated (or relieve low-timber production forests from dealing with them) it is within the realm of possibility to pursue it.