Distinctive Promises

My first post calls out two professional experiences where I have come face-to-face with the promise of resilient landscapes.  The post is unusually lengthy (two pages), because it establishes the foundation of this blog; I hope you make it to the end and respond to the concluding question!

Working with landscapes provides many straightforward promises:  ecology transgresses boundaries and jurisdictions, so the scale of work better matches the scale of the problems; the ability to leverage resources and expertise increases; and you can readily bring the whole system into dialogue and action, which is necessary for durable change.  During my first three years as a public policy mediator, my landscape work did not go further than these already substantial benefits.

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Examining Dinkey maps at the start of a field visit

Beginning in late 2010, my five years with the Dinkey Creek Forest Landscape Restoration Project, on Sierra National Forest (USDA Forest Service), introduced me to what still stands out for me as a distinctive and exceptional promise of landscapes.  The project stemmed from a protracted conflict over the protection of California spotted owl and Pacific fisher (a small carnivorous mammal); disputants had traversed a see-saw of litigative victories and eventually a Congressional hearing that convinced them to try something different.  In 2010, a small group of key stakeholders (deal-makers and deal-breakers, as one might say) successfully secured one of the first ten federal Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration grants, which provide $10 million of funding over 10 years.

Over the course of planning four restoration projects, I found the ability to sequence potential impacts to wildlife across space and time to constitute the signal distinction between our landscape work and that of past efforts.  Here is why:

  • In prior projects on the Sierra, the desire to reduce the fuel loading (flammable material) in the forest would conflict directly with the desire to maintain dense, closed-canopy vegetative habitat for owl and fisher.
  • Typical projects covered 2,000 to 3,000 acres (800-1200 hectares).
  • However, with owl and fisher protection zones dotting the landscape, with each covering 600 and 700 acres, respectively, and limiting when in the year treatments could happen, the occurrence of one of these animals within a project could quickly create an impasse.
  • (As a general rule of thumb, mechanical vegetation treatments can reach about one-third of a typical project acreage, given restrictions on treating steep slopes and riparian areas, and the occurrence of granitic rock formations in the Sierra Nevada.)

By contrast, with 150,000 acres, the Forest Service and Dinkey stakeholders could step back and look at the array of protection zones across the the landscape.  Together they could now (A) deliberate how the risk of disrupting sensitive habitat in one location in one year fit within a larger context, and (B) envision treating different parts of the landscape over the 10-year period in a way that did not destabilize the owl sub-population, yet successfully reduced the risk of fire.  In practice, building consensus still proved exceptionally difficult due to geographically-specific peculiarities and the range of other resources involved, but the promise of landscape had reconfigured the realm of the possible.

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Spring running in the Tahoe Basin

Fast-forward to the spring of 2017.  As part of the Lake Tahoe West Restoration Partnership, I worked with a handful of agency representatives to write an amendment to the existing Multi-Jurisdictional Fuels Strategy that covers the 17 fire districts and related land management agencies of the Lake Tahoe Basin.  The amendment explained the necessity of restoring the general forest to maintain the security of communities and the surrounding Wildland-Urban Interface (WUI) zone (the traditional focus of the Strategy, where intensive fuels treatments occur).  The resulting language enunciated what I consider an exceptionally clear summary of the some of the promises of landscape.  Atop page 4, it reads:

Building on the 2014 Strategy, working collaboratively at the landscape scale to reduce fuels and restore forests will allow fire districts and land management agencies to achieve the following goals:

  1. Reduce the risk posed to communities by large and damaging wildfires in the general forest.
  2. Simultaneously restore the range of social and ecological values inherent in the general forest, including resilience to fire disturbances.
  3. Regularly anticipate and plan for multiple years into the future, including beyond the time when initial entry into today’s priority WUI fuels treatments are implemented.
  4. Better integrate the planning and implementation of work across the WUI and the general forest, and thus allocate staff and resources more efficiently.
  5. Obtain greater certainty about future workloads, and thus consistently maintain the appropriate level of staff capacity necessary to complete and maintain fuel and restoration treatments.
  6. Provide greater certainty to contractors about future workloads, and thus build the supply chains and infrastructure necessary to achieve economies of scale.
  7. Increase community understanding and acceptance of how both the WUI and the general forest contribute to fire safety in fire-resilient landscapes.
  8. Strengthen the relationships between communities, departments, and agencies necessary to respond to crises and adapt to basin-wide changes with minimal disruption.

For those who read in the fields of resilience, the themes of social-ecological entwinement, disturbances, and adaptability probably jump out.  (Click here to view the entire amendment, which includes much more context.)

I’ll end this first post with the most recent promise that came across my radar, as part of the Lake Tahoe West work.  It involved one of the resource managers for California State Parks, when reflecting on our landscape resilience assessment (a future blog topic).  He mentioned that the process had started to happily help him see clearly the relative importance of the forest treatments that his agency conducted, when set alongside those of the other land managers.  (In Lake Tahoe West, State Parks has a unique mission that emphasizes maintaining biodiversity.)  He had started to view his agency’s resources, priorities, and exploration of autonomous change in the new light of the landscape, rather than sufficiently meaningful within themselves.

So, I hope to have provoked your attention and stirred your mind.  I now ask you, When you think about working at the landscape-scale, what promise does this hold for you?  Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

5 thoughts on “Distinctive Promises

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  1. Thanks for the great initiative, Dorian. In responding to your question, the first thing that comes to my mind is governance. For more than 30 years I’ve worked on participatory or co-management approaches. The thing that bedevils such approaches is atomization of the landscape. Community-based conservation on its own is too granular and risks fragmenting management. The landscape approach is the appropriate scale in which to locate participatory approaches. In recent years I’ve had the honor of evaluating several large-scale landscape conservation programs in Africa and Asia. I have noticed that there is a real absence of effective conceptual tools for landscape-level governance. There are many good reasons for this. One is convening authority. Another is overlapping and conflicting jurisdictions. Another is the disconnect between the land-use planners (typically ecologists), social scientists, and the resource users. Conservation biology has not yet learned the lessons of Sykes-Picot (if the reader has to look this up, QED!). In short, there’s a lot of work to be done. Up camels!

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    1. Thanks for sparking the comments John! And for the feedback on what’s of interest. The Tahoe Fire and Fuels Team amendment that I mentioned in the first post is a good example of the innovative governance structures that I agree are needed to “manage” (steward) the landscape. In their case, they formed after the 2007 Angora Fire (which I’ll likely blog about in my second post, as it starkly frames landscape stakes), and include 17 federal, state, and local leading agencies that “recognize and support the mutual benefits of working collaboratively to reduce fuels in order to restore resilient forest landscapes and create fire adapted communities throughout the Lake Tahoe Basin. We reaffirm the wide-ranging benefits of community protection work already completed, while recognizing the needed commitment to landscape-scale planning as the next strategic step forward.” I also am excited for another upcoming post about the agency and stakeholder charter we recently signed (in April) for the Lake Tahoe West Restoration Partnership — stay tuned, I look forward to more conversation, and thanks again!

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  2. I worked in the wildlife sector in southern and eastern Africa for most of my life where the values of a landscape perspective on governance to match the ecological scale of land use by wildlife was evident at the outset (early 1970’s). A couple of observations:
    1. Creating the organisations and institutions necessary for landscape scale governance was a practical matter of trial and error.
    2. The larger the landscape, the larger the stakeholder community and the greater the diversity of beliefs and values that came to the decision making table, making effective governance a slow process.
    3. Legislative and policy support from central government was key to success.
    4. Rent seeking officials and power seeking elites can destroy a well established and functional system in a few years.
    5. There is a lot of relevant theory and empirical evidence in the literature on adaptive co-management, adaptive governance and social-ecological systems.
    6. Effective governance requires that stakeholder representatives are competent in systems thinking, planning, conflict negotiation, scenario development and leadership. This is a tall order for many who are busy professionals and may have had little exposure to or opportunity to develop these skills.
    7. A common vision among stakeholders and their scientific advisors, provides a strong motive for overcoming the “disconnects”.

    Having worked in both top-down and stakeholder driven governance systems at landscape scale, I am convinced that the stakeholder driven approach will provided better outcomes in the long term, despite the high opportunity costs of all the meetings and learning about things outside one’s area of experience.

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    1. Thank you for the observations, Mike! On point 1, in today’s post I hope I have shown that designing effective collaborative governance involves more than trial and error. If one is versant in the component governance concepts as well as diverse designs and their tradeoffs, and can coherently explain these to a group and help it deliberate its choices, one can creatively, pragmatically tailor an agreement to its unique circumstances. Regarding point 6, part of a good facilitator’s role is to help a group members develop this kind of thinking and the associated skills. It takes time, but is by no means impossible; the aims of helping people build their capacity to solve their own problems, to manage and lead themselves, and to apply collaborative approaches outside of my meetings, guide my practice.

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  3. Great article Dorian!

    One thing that kept running cross my mind as I read your blog is how much the integrated natural resource management process you describe here is needed in the Brazilian Amazon. Today’s unprecedented assault on protected areas and the land rights of indigenous and traditional peoples is a reflection of the complete disregard for the promise of this sort of participatory process, with tragic consequences that I explore in my recent article: http://americasquarterly.org/content/amazon-protection-brazil

    Having the ability and the will to carry out effective multi stakeholder environmental policy is so important. Thanks for your insights!

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