Collaboration is coming to a forest near you

meetingBy Idaho BHA Member, Derek Farr.


Whether you’re hunting elk north of Albuquerque or hunting moose north of Anchorage, “collaboration” is the new catchword in federal land management. There’s a good chance your favorite public lands will be administered through a collaborative process in the near future. Here’s what I learned during a collaborative at the Nez-Perce/Clearwater National Forest (NCNF) in central Idaho. It was one of the first forests to adopt the process.  


What is collaboration?



According to the Forest Service, collaboration is: “A structured manner in which a collection of people with diverse interest share knowledge, ideas and resources while working together in an inclusive and cooperative manner toward a common purpose.”


In other words, it’s a series of meetings where people with widely different interests (e.g. motorized and non-motorized) get together to make recommendations on changes to public land planning and projects.


What is its purpose?

Collaborations are supposed to provide a frontloaded opportunity for public comment prior to a decision document being drafted. That is different from the traditional system where federal agencies would provide a decision document, then ask for public comment, which too often led to a raft of litigation. Collaboration is supposed to eliminate much of that litigation with stakeholders hammering out their differences before ink hits paper. 

What does it do?

In theory, collaboratives will reduce deadlock, which will enable federal agencies to proceed with timber, road building, mining, drilling and development projects. It’s also designed to involve the public in a more transparent process. According to proponents of collaboration, the pre-collaborative decision process is too opaque, which leads to public disenfranchisement and resentment toward the Forest Service and the federal government. Collaboratives, it is surmised, will bring disenfranchised stakeholders into the process, building trust among members of the public.

Who is involved?

Thus far, there are two types of collaboratives. The first is an “open” collaborative, which allows anybody from the public to participate and make recommendations. These tend to be shorter lived collaboratives that are convened for a specific task (e.g. making recommendations on 10-year forest plans). The next is a “closed” collaborative, which selects participants through a vetting process. Those participants are selected to reflect the area’s stakeholders (e.g. motorized/non-motorized recreation, conservation, industry, local government, etc.). The term “closed” is a misnomer. All collaborative meetings are open to the public and all recommendations are public record. These collaboratives tend to be long lived as they assist with project planning on a perpetual basis.  

How does it work?

The collaborative I attended on the NCNF was an open collaborative. Most meetings followed a pattern: A resource specialist presented his/her section of the forest plan (e.g. vegetation, wildlife, hydrology, fisheries, soil, recreation, recommended wilderness) then the main collaborative, consisting of 50 people, broke up into smaller groups. In these smaller groups, we reviewed every sentence of that section of the forest plan and made recommendations regardless of our technical knowledge or understanding of the particular resource. We had 10, day-long meetings in the span of 20 months.  

The Clearwater Basin Collaborative (CBC) is a closed collaborative for the NCNF that makes recommendations on specific projects, recreational opportunities and land and water protection while making assessments of forest-wide landscapes and rural economic development. It also tracks monitoring programs in areas affected by timber projects. Backcountry Hunters and Anglers (BHA) is a participant of the CBC, which has met roughly every month since 2008. CBC subgroups meet most months and provide input to the larger group.

Problems with closed collaboratives

I find these groups to be effective and result oriented. They will not be a cure-all that makes everybody happy. I’m skeptical that it’s even possible to make everybody happy. But these collaboratives provide public input with a degree of understanding and expertise that make recommendations coherent and actionable. If I have a major concern of these collaboratives, it’s that politicians won’t give them enough time to prove their worth.

Problems with open collaboratives

The open collaborative invites a wide range of people. Some have knowledge of the complex resources within a management area, while others are nearly oblivious. Some participants have a solid background and/or understanding of the science that underlies resource issues, while others dismiss science, opting for myth or anecdotal evidence as guiding doctrine. In an open collaborative, all recommendations are welcome. That’s not to say resource specialists will listen to somebody who believes elk calving numbers are increased by OHV use or that red alder is an invasive species in Idaho. However, it does provide a worrisome set of circumstances. If those participants with fanciful beliefs dominate the conversation, which they too often do, is the collaborative simply a waste of time for resource professionals and the public? And what happens when those people’s fanciful input is ignored by the scientists who write the forest plan? Won’t that encourage them to be more disenfranchised? Even more worrisome is the prospect that a forest supervisor, who makes the final decision regarding projects or forest plans, would alter a decision to avoid causing more disenfranchisement. In that scenario, public land would be managed through rewards for participation and not the best available science.  

Can the Forest Service build trust?

In my collaborative group, a common recommendation to the Forest Service was, “Do everything you can to increase elk numbers.” One effective tool biologists use to boost elk numbers is to enact seasonal closures on some motorized trails near birthing areas for cow elk. This, however, was a nonstarter. The motorized group strongly opposed any seasonal closures – yet they were the same people asking for more elk. I believe it’s impossible for the Forest Service to build trust when it placed in a lose-lose situation by the same users.

Collaboratives as management tools vs. trust-building exercises

Public participation in the planning, execution and monitoring of forest plans and projects is essential to our public lands. However, I become skeptical when the primary purpose of collaboratives is to sow the seeds of trust between westerners and the federal government. Mistrusting and maligning the federal government is, and always will be, a pastime of some westerners. It’s a bit naïve to believe collaborative meetings are going to change those deep-seated beliefs.       

Why should we use collaboration?

Do members of the public have substantive recommendations that help scientific professionals manage our public lands? I think so. And I’d like to see collaborations formatted to maximize the public’s input. But I do not believe collaboratives should be premised as a way to tame the local savages or to reconcile with their versions of reality. I believe we should manage our public lands for present and future generations, using the best available science and the wisest input possible. Let’s use evidence-based management as a tool to manage the land we all own. Stakeholders may not agree on everything, but they should at least agree on that.  

What can you do?

If there is an open collaborative in your area, join it. Encourage others in BHA to join. If there’s a closed collaborative, either submit your resume or attend meetings as an observer. BHA should have a presence at each meeting of every collaborative. What’s more, contact BHA to connect with people with collaborative experience. Most of all, take it seriously. Collaboration will be part of public land management for the foreseeable future. And if you’re not there, your voice can’t be heard.        

About Derek Farr