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Mike Petersen: How a Collaborative Group Interacts with the Forest Service Impacts Effectiveness

August 12, 2011

Mike Peterson is the Executive Director of The Lands Council and member of the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition, the Kootenai Forest Stakeholder Coalition, and the Panhandle Collaborative. Mike recently wrote about his experiences regarding how collaborative groups are able to reach agreement and work most effectively with the Forest Service. 

Mike Petersen

How a collaborative group interacts with the Forest Service can help define both the level work that a collaboration will accomplish, as well as its longevity.  My experience with collaborative efforts on three National Forests (the Colville, Kootenai and Idaho Panhandle National Forests) has given me valuable insights of what works and what doesn’t.

Most forest collaborations seem to start at the project level, often a fuel reduction project.  The goals are usually to build trust with diverse interests, find common ground on how a project is designed, and build a working relationship with the Forest Service.  The way it has worked on the Colville National Forest is that our group (the Northeast Washington Forestry Coalition) developed silvicultural and management guidelines independently of the Forest Service.   These guidelines are then used to indicate the LEVEL of SUPPORT that the coalition would give to a project.  We developed these guidelines independent of the Forest Service, and it empowered our coalition when we found common ground on issues such as thinning, regeneration, road density, etc.

On the other two Forests, the Forest Service has usually been in the room, and this has slowed the ability of the collaborative groups to find common ground and we are still struggling to develop guidelines. At some point it is valuable to have the Forest Service look at collaboratively developed guidelines and give their thoughts, this invariably plays out at the project level, and on the ground.   But, I believe groups need to be careful about creating or developing guidelines WITH the Forest Service.  First, I have noticed a tendency to defer to the agency when they are in the room, which can lead to the collaborative group simply rubber stamping projects with little meaningful input.  I also believe developing guidelines with the agency could violate the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), and create severe pushback from those not in the collaborative group – who might legitimately feel that some “deal” was being made with a particular segment of the public.

What if the Forest Service doesn’t follow our guidelines? When components of a project fall outside the guidelines,  we meet with the agency and try to resolve/accept those components so that we can still give a high level of support.  The high level of support commits the members of the coalition to supporting the project, even in court – so it has had the effect of giving more certainty that decisions will go forward.  The result is that out of two dozen projects on the Colville National Forest, all but one have received a high level of support (the other was a medium level).  For The Lands Council the guidelines have also been an effective way to communicate to other conservation groups what a project will look like and that has increased their buy-in.  Our guidelines are “draft” in the sense that new science, input from the Forest Service, etc. can always modify them a bit. This leaves the decision making in the Forest Service hands, as it should.

~Mike Petersen

To learn more about the levels of support that the Northeastern Washington Forestry Coalition has defined, click here.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 15, 2011 9:58 am

    Great post Mike! The Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition used the guidelines NEWFC developed as a jump off point for our recent evaluation of the Chumstick Hazardous Fuel Reduction EA. They worked well for us though we applied them at the end of the process (during the comment period) as opposed to the beginning. During the comment period, it was helpful to have a pre-defined metric to measure and convey partner support. Thanks for sharing a great tool!

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