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Making Collaboration Work
Lessons from Innovation in Natural Resource Management
By Julia M. Wondolleck, Steven L. Yaffee
ISLAND PRESSCopyright © 2000 Julia M. Wondolleck and Steven L. Yaffee
All rights reserved.
Building Bridges, to a Sustainable Future
A new style of environmental problem solving and management is under development in the United States. Government agencies, communities, and private groups are building bridges between one another that enable them to deal with common problems, work through conflicts, and develop forward-thinking strategies for regional protection and development. From management partnerships and interagency cooperation to educational outreach and collaborative problem solving, this new style of management is developing organically in many places in response to shared problems and the simple need to move forward. In other places, agency initiatives have helped to create opportunities for meaningful involvement that were not possible in the past.
Consider the case of the Kiowa National Grasslands of New Mexico, where a collaboration between the USDA Forest Service, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), and local ranchers has greatly improved the quality of the area's rangeland. In 1991, Forest Service District Ranger Alton Bryant and Mike Delano of NRCS broke with convention and decided to cooperate in assisting ranchers who worked both private land and public land under permit. Under the jointly administered program, rather than having different management schemes for public and private lands and a mix of advice from Forest Service and NRCS staff, a rancher sits down with representatives of both agencies to develop a long-range plan for the affected area. According to Delano, by managing all of a rancher's land as a "single operating unit," the needs of wildlife, cattle, and environmental restoration can be addressed.
One of the first ranchers to try out this idea on her parcel was local rancher and civic leader Ellen Grove. In her words, she is "sold on it." On her approximately fifteen hundred acres of private and permitted land from the Kiowa Grasslands, Grove fenced in sixteen individual paddocks and installed a new water storage and transport system to service each of those paddocks, all at a substantial cost to herself. She rotates her cattle through the series of paddocks as the vegetation begins to show stress and does not return them to a paddock until the vegetation in it has completely recovered. Other improvements include live snow-fence plantings, wildlife habitat, and wetlands creation. Although initially hesitant to break with ranching techniques that her family had always used, Grove was pleasantly surprised by improvements in the land and cattle.
Improvements in environmental quality were staggering. After three years, Grove had more diverse vegetation. Some native grasses thought to have been locally extinct have reappeared on previously degraded parcels, and cottonwoods and willow seedlings are sprouting in the riparian area. Wildlife habitat has improved so that over fifty species of birds were recently recorded where previously there were only a handful. According to District Ranger Bryant, the "crowning jewel" of Grove's efforts has been the dramatic improvement in the riparian area. An old creek bed that had been dry since the 1950s has once again been running with water and providing wildlife habitat, a powerful symbol of environmental restoration.
Not surprisingly, with the environmental improvements came health improvements for the cattle. Both conception and birth rates have improved in most cases, with weaning weights higher as well. In addition to improved quality of health, ranchers have actually increased the carrying capacity of their parcels. For example, when Ellen Grove began the program, she was running 47 cattle. At the end of the third year, she was running 115 cattle and hopes to consistently support 80 head with continued environmental improvement.
There are literally hundreds of such success stories throughout the United States. Some efforts, such as the Applegate Partnership in Oregon, the Chicago Wilderness project in Illinois, and the Malpai Borderlands in New Mexico, have received considerable public attention, while others are striving quietly to make a difference. Such efforts in some places are called public-private partnerships or alternative dispute resolution approaches. Elsewhere they are described under the labels of ecosystem management, collaborative stewardship, community-based environmental protection, civic environmentalism, and sustainable development. Whatever terms are used to describe them, they are generally place-based, cooperative, multiparty, and grounded in high-quality information. Of necessity, they involve building relationships between individuals and groups who have been isolated or alienated from each other. And by all accounts, they are the pioneers in a new style of natural resource management in this country.
Collaborative resource management has its roots in age-old notions of neighborhood and community, but it is not a purely interest-driven approach that can allow natural resources or certain interests to be exploited. It recognizes the need to ground decision making and management in good science but understands that technical factors are only one of many important considerations in making wise public choices. The new style of management helps to build a sense of shared ownership and responsibility for natural resources by moderating a top-down style of government agencies that has tended to disempower landowners and local interest groups. But it also recognizes that government as a partner can provide unique resources, incentives, and opportunities important to collective efforts.
On the one hand, such an approach to the management of communities and resources is revolutionary and responds directly to the problems inherent in industrial era management that has emphasized narrow objectives, top-down control, tight boundaries, and extensive rules and formal structures to institutionalize public policies. On the other hand, a style of management that emphasizes people getting together to cooperatively solve shared problems seems almost like common sense. Yet most observers of the protracted conflicts over natural resource management in recent years agree that common sense is not so common.
The virtues of collaboration, cooperation, creativity, and communication are extolled daily on children's television, yet the more dominant image of adult behavior conveyed through the media is one of conflict and competition at all levels—personal, political, and societal. Indeed, many of the big ideas of our times—evolution, free-market capitalism, and pluralism—derive their vitality from competition. We preach cooperation yet practice competition. Both have their place in resource management, and both draw from wellsprings of human behavior. But we need to learn how to manage the tension between them in ways that sustain and restore the quality of the natural environment and enhance the quality of people's lives.
Why Is Innovation Occurring?
Collaborative efforts are proliferating for many reasons. Some efforts are a direct response to problems caused by past public policies and management practices. Others reflect the current organizational and social context of management. Still others spring from new ideas and energies. Together they have provided an impetus for the growth of collaborative initiatives.
The Costs of Impasse
Some efforts have developed in response to the problems evident in resource management in recent decades. One of the laudable goals of the past three decades of resource policy has been to expand the participation of various groups in the development and implementation of management strategies. Through review processes established by laws like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the National Forest Management Act (NFMA), opportunities to challenge agency decisions granted through citizen suit provisions, and agency outreach programs, a greater diversity of interests has become involved in decision making. These opportunities occurred at a time when the public's interest in natural resources was diversifying, and the values held in land and water expanded considerably Changes in political culture in the United States reinforced this diversification process, as interest groups that were focused on narrow issues replaced political parties as the dominant mechanism for political involvement, and the power to determine outcomes spread across those groups.
The result of this valuable process of diversification has been a remarkable fragmentation of interests, as many legitimate interests battled each other to a standstill. Traditional "boundary-spanning" forces (such as political parties, government decision-making processes, and religious and civic organizations) have been ineffective at bridging the number and kinds of interests at play today in natural resource management. As land has been developed and water appropriated, increasing resource scarcity has made it difficult for decision makers to craft win-win solutions, that is, decisions that give something to everyone. Decisions that are viewed as win-lose (in which any gains one group gets imply losses to another) promote virulent conflict as groups compete for a fixed set of possibilities.
Multiple fragmented interests, balanced political power, and the decline of integrative forces have produced impasses at the policy and ground levels. As a result, conflict persists as issues move through many different avenues for intervening in decision making. Issues like management of the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest bounce from administrative to legislative to judicial arenas and involve decision making by numerous local, state, and federal agencies. Decisions made rarely hold, and decision making looks like a game of hot potato.
Natural resource management has been in a state of impasse at many levels over the past decade. Battles over owls in the Northwest, woodpeckers in the Southeast, and gnatcatchers in Southern California and fights over forest and range management plans and rural development strategies throughout the country have raged unabated through numerous communities, courtrooms, and media. To some, the only cost associated with these battles is delay, and delay can be a benefit to one side or the other.
But there are also very real costs associated with these impasses. Huge amounts of energy and human resources—whole careers of agency and interest group staff members—have been spent on one issue or another without a clear sense of resolution. The hostility levels in communities have risen, undermining the fabric of civility that allows individuals to live with one another. Uncertainty increases as decisions are overturned, which makes it difficult for individuals and firms to plan their future. People do kick their dogs and beat their spouses when faced with persistent stressful situations. Over time, life in impasse deadens one's sense of possibilities and capacity for creative problem solving. People burn out.
Some innovative collaborative partnerships and conflict management approaches have sprung up to overcome this state of paralysis. In essence, collaborative processes become ad hoc boundary-spanning mechanisms that foster an integration of disparate interests, values, and bodies of information while promoting trust and building relationships. In the Applegate watershed, years of adversarial conflict had produced impasse. According to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) range manager John Lloyd, "We got to the point where we just had to sit down and start talking."
Pervasive Mistrust and a Declining Sense of Responsibility
One cost of the current mode of decision making has been a declining sense of trust in government and in each other, and a reduced sense of responsibility for common property resources. These declines are not limited to the natural resources realm; rather, they are an outgrowth of broader public attitudes. For example, the public's faith in government has been dropping steadily for several decades. Public alienation is near an all-time high. More than six in ten American adults feel a sense of powerlessness and disenchantment with the institutions that influence much of their lives. Indeed, less than half of the public expresses a significant level of confidence in many U.S. institutions, including the Supreme Court, banks, public schools, television, organized labor, and big business.
A decline in participation in civic affairs has paralleled these trends. This decline can be seen at an aggregate level through indicators such as the number of Americans who vote. It can also be seen in communities that traditionally have run on the engine of citizen involvement. For example, an essay written by Harvard University professor Robert Putnam entitled "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital" uses the decline of neighborhood bowling leagues as a metaphor for the atrophy of citizen participation in local civic groups. In Putnam's view, "The quality of public life and the performance of social institutions ... are powerfully influenced by norms and networks of civic engagement." Involvement in civic life builds understanding, relationships, and trust that enable disputes and disagreements to be dealt with. It can build shared values, a perception of common problems, and a sense of individual responsibility for shared resources and can moderate extreme behavior. However, according to Putnam, "There is striking evidence ... that the vibrancy of American civil society has notably declined over the past several decades."
There are many reasons for the decline in involvement in civic affairs by citizens. Changed social dynamics at home and in the workplace, altered preferences on how to spend leisure time, development of housing and urban forms that promote isolation and minimize neighbor-to-neighbor interaction, and the rise of telecommunications systems that diminish the need for community-level information sharing and relationships—all have had an effect. Ironically, the solutions to past problems have reinforced a trend toward disengagement. Since the end of World War II, we have seen a process of institutional empowerment as big business, big government, and organized interest groups evolved to move society forward.
As institutions took on more, individuals took on less and became disempowered and isolated from the collective choices that affected them but that others made. In the 1940s and 1950s, individuals looked to big business to take care of them. In the 1960s and 1970s big government was thought to be the answer, and organized interest groups were viewed as an easy and effective mechanism for "being involved." In the 1980s and 1990s, when those institutions failed to achieve their perceived promise, the public blamed them for its collective problems.
Analysts from all sides of the political spectrum highlight the need to foster civic involvement and a heightened sense of individual responsibility. In his first column of 1995, columnist David Broder noted, "Unless more Americans start working with each other on shared civic enterprises and learning to trust each other, the formal government of this nation will probably lurch from one credibility crisis to the next." In his first column of 1996, Broder noted that little had changed and that "the restoration of social trust, civic institutions and civil debate [were] the sine qua non of a healthy society." In describing the creation of the Upper Klamath Basin Working Group, a multiparty citizen-led effort focusing on ecological restoration and economic stability issues in southern Oregon, former Senator Mark Hatfield (R-OR) stated, "This new approach relies on what has become a Republican theme of restoring decision-making power into the hands of people at the local level. Not surprisingly, if people are given a mission and some parameters within which it can be accomplished, they will find a way to make things work. Especially if they are given the opportunity to develop the structure of the solutions and the power to prioritize them."
Collaboration in resource management can help provide fertile ground for the development of a heightened sense of citizen involvement and responsibility, and it can help rebuild a sense of trust in government institutions and each other. Indeed, involvement in the kind of public-private arrangements that are underway can yield benefits well beyond those seen in the traditional voluntary and civic associations perceived by Alexis de Tocqueville as the source of America's social cohesion in the 1830s. America is a much more diverse place than it was two hundred years ago. Since we value that diversity, we have to foster mechanisms that deal creatively with the differences inherent in a diverse society. Many communities are turning to collaborative processes to increase the opportunities for citizen involvement and provide forums in which diverse values can be discussed. Over time, they can help to rebuild the trust and civility needed to move forward. As environmentalist and Applegate Partnership participant Jack Shipley notes, "It was desperation and gridlock that brought us together, but it is trust and respect that keep us going."
Excerpted from Making Collaboration Work by Julia M. Wondolleck, Steven L. Yaffee. Copyright © 2000 Julia M. Wondolleck and Steven L. Yaffee. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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