A New Era in Collaborative Forest Restoration: Working Towards Long-Term, Large-Scale, and High-Capacity Collaboration

The original version of this post appeared on the EDR Blog on January 28, 2019. We are reposting it with permission with a few minor changes.

Dr. Courtney Schultz of Colorado State University and I have been researching and engaging with professionals involved in the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP) for almost a decade now. This program offers an extraordinary opportunity to explore questions of collaborative governance in public lands management involving multiple cases over a long time period. CFLRP requires collaboration throughout planning, implementation, and monitoring of national forest restoration projects, joining agency staff and interested stakeholders in what we’ve characterized as a sort of decade-long restoration marriage. Dr. Schultz and I recently completed a just released edited volume, A New Era for Collaborative Forest Management[, exploring various aspects of collaboration through an examination of the 23 cases involved in CFLRP.

This book identifies lessons learned for planning, policy, and management through a new and innovative approach to collaborative public lands management by offering the social science and policy researcher perspective. We examine questions about the dynamics of trust, accountability and capacity in collaboration; how scientific information is used in making decisions and integrated into adaptive management processes; and the implications and dynamics of engaging in collaboration through implementation. By bringing the authors of chapters together with high level practitioners for a two-day symposium at the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy, we were able to identify practice and policy implications of the work. This approach aligns with the College’s emphasis on creating policy relevant research as exemplified by the inclusion of practice and policy implications sections in each of the chapters in the book.

A key goal of the research is to dig into the nuances and challenges of engaging in collaborative environmental management at large scales and over long periods of time. One of the underlying tensions we explored in our book is that the CFLRP mandates collaboration in a lands management context where the authority and responsibility of the US Forest Service are rather clearly laid out in the law, but not easily shared. This led to some accountability problems and disgruntled stakeholders, especially early on when the agency spent implementation dollars on short timelines often without sufficient input from collaborative groups. On some projects, these challenges continued over the 10-year timeframe, and stakeholders felt that communication did not occur at the levels they expected. But, over time, the processes on each landscape evolved and, in a number of places, led to some rather extraordinary accomplishments on large scale project planning, creative and effective restoration implementation, and inclusive multi-party monitoring of socio-economic and ecological outcomes.

Part of what fostered restoration achievements was deeply tied to the relationships between collaborative partners and the Forest Service. It is no surprise that relationships can either facilitate or stall progress in collaboration and while we explore these different relationships throughout the book, concepts of trust and accountability feature prominently. Trust is a multifaceted concept and involves not only interpersonal trust, but also trust in systems, organizations, and procedures. Trusting relationships were over and over again the grease on the wheels of restoration agreements and actions. Diverse types of trust can help collaborative processes weather changes over time, and the concepts in this book shed light that can help agency personnel and stakeholders manage through times of transition, limited capacity, and personnel turnover. The idea of accountability is often associated with punishment and compliance, but in the case of collaboration, relational accountability fostered through social interaction and informal connections motivates many actors to perform their tasks in support of the collective. These findings are contextual and dependent upon the characteristics and interactions of actors involved. And yet, our book reveals that there are ways to help strengthen relationships, such as repeated interactions in various types of settings; focusing on common tasks and building shared experiences; and designing collaborative groups to legitimize the diversity of voices within them.

A collaborative group on a field trip in Oregon (Photo: William Butler)

Our research also contributed to understanding the dynamics that arise when undertaking collaboration through the implementation phase. Herein lies another key tension—once the plan lays out the vision, how can we work together to implement the plan when responsibility falls on the shoulders of a single public agency? Many of the CFLRP groups figured out ways to navigate that tension and contribute to these projects on various levels, often indirectly, but in substantive ways. In many cases, CFLRP groups broadened the time and space within which adaptive management could occur. In a few cases, CFLRP groups ended up out in the field together, working on joint projects for restoration such as prescribed fire or stream restoration projects. However, the research reveals that limited agency capacity, individual leaders or partners, staff turnover, and challenges on the industry capacity side of the equation are all factors that could stymie project progress.

There are many lessons derived from this body of work, a few of which I’ve shared here. However, there is much more to be learned from research on large scale, long term, collaborative efforts. In a time when uncertainties are growing, divisiveness is the order of the day, and climate change is impacting ecological integrity throughout the world, the need for adaptive visions for resilience, collectively determined trajectories, and effective ways of working together over the long term could not be more important. Through the study of these long term landscape scale collaborative groups participating in CFLRP, we offer applicable lessons that can help shape a future in collaborative environmental management that is based on adaptive management, resilience, ecological integrity, learning, and collective action. In doing so, we share a message of inspiration, hope, and technique that demonstrates how we can work together effectively to respond to complex problems in productive ways even when we come to the table with differing views about how to get there.  

The book is available in eBook and hardcover formats currently with an author discount. Enter the code FLR40 at checkout. Offer cannot be used in conjunction with any other offer or discount and only applies to
books purchased directly via our website. To order the book, click here.

Dr. William Butler is an Associate Professor and MSP Program Director at the Department of Urban & Regional Planning at Florida State University. His teaching and research interests focus on collaborative environmental planning and management. He co-authored the forthcoming book A New Era of Collaborative Forest Management with Dr. Courtney Schultz of Colorado State University.

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