Learned the Hard Way: Landscape Process Design

My previous employer, the Center for Collaborative Policy, required its practitioners to possess five cardinal qualities and skills, known as “the five P’s”:  presence, political acumen, policy development, project management, and process design.  This last P is a rich topic, though in this post I’ll focus narrowly on its application to two landscape restoration initiatives.  My aim is to contrast a common approach with, having learned the hard way, a slower, harder, though ultimately more defensible and durable approach.  While not radically different from other processes, I would argue that designing a landscape process does present distinctive needs and possibilities.

In my inaugural post on Distinctive Promises, I mentioned my five years as the mediator-facilitator for the Dinkey Creek Forest Landscape Restoration Project on Sierra National Forest in California.  The initiative had a launch typical of public policy processes where “the train has already left the station” and people have to jump on wherever they can.  Prior to retaining me, a small group of key stakeholders had rapidly written a landscape restoration strategy, pitched this to the US Forest Service headquarters in Washington, D.C., and, with support from Senator Dianne Feinstein, secured one of the first ten federal Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration grants.  The grant proposal-strategy became a key reference point for subsequent work (even though it consisted of a loose assemblage of standard practices rather than a synthetic, innovative approach to getting to scale, but that will be the topic of another story-post).

In our first official meeting, which now included another dozen stakeholders not previously involved, the process nearly broke down before it began.  Running with the momentum from the award, the Forest came into the meeting proposing two restoration projects.  Stakeholders, including representatives from national organizations as well as one who helped to write the CFLR legislation itself, criticized the Forest for leaving them out of the initial selection and designation of project boundaries.  They pointed out that consultation and involvement are not the same as collaboration (see the International Association of Public Participation’s Spectrum for a common point of reference), where peers work hard to construct options together, objectively evaluate them, iteratively explore details further and build consensus, and select a preferred option that meets everybody’s core interests.  We ended up having to amend the nascent charter to include a special decision-rule for these first two projects, but my point here is that we stumbled from a preexisting strategy into an uneasy selection of projects.

Our assessment units on the Dinkey Landscape

Fast forward two years, with the Soaproot and Eastfork projects now nearly through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review and moving toward implementation.  With our next opportunity to embark on a new project, we followed the common Forest Service practice of choosing our next location based on which area on the landscape had gone the longest without treatment.  The default assumption was that if an area hadn’t received treatment in a while (for 10, 15, perhaps 20 years), it must be in poor condition.  (Speaking in an admittedly generalizing fashion, I’ll note that there’s a legacy mentality within the Forest Service around the need to constantly “manage something,” rooted in the determinism that silviculture shares with engineering.)

Fast forward again one more year, with our third project, Bald Mountain (Mussorgsky anyone?), now entering NEPA review, and another juncture at hand.  This time, however, stakeholders revolted when the default assumption resurfaced.  They explicitly questioned the belief that duration since treatment equates with field conditions, complaining with exasperation that, “You are asking us to go somewhere next and we don’t even know why,” and refused to continue with business as usual.  As often the case, the process had fallen victim to the belief that stakeholders had a shared understanding of “the problem,” in this case not simply for a given project (which we’d unpacked well enough), but for the landscape as a whole.  The revolt marked the start of a new endeavor to assess the landscape through identifying values; demarcating assessment units; developing indicators, ranges of desired conditions therefore, and corresponding analyses of departure; and ranking units based on a composite index of the departure of each unit’s various indicators.  Six months later, with the landscape assessment in hand, we deliberated the top three choices and, without much fanfare, reached a consensus recommendation on where to go next (when I left the process about a year later, we had completed a fourth project, and were preparing to go to the second highest priority identified in the 2013 assessment).

Phasing Diagram image.pngHaving learned the hard way, I brought this experience to the design of my current work with the Lake Tahoe West Restoration Partnership, where we had the luxury of a softer start.  Following the completion of an extensive stakeholder assessment, I drafted and obtained approval for a process design that starts with a landscape resilience assessment, moves to a landscape restoration strategy, and then finally to restoration project planning, per the Phasing Diagram linked here.  (Following these three phases of intensive stakeholder engagement comes environmental documentation, permitting, implementation, monitoring and performance measurement, and improvement (or collaborative adaptive management, the subject of another post), including – crucially – an update of the assessment likely five years after the start of project implementation).  Rather than the jumbled steps forward and steps backward in the Dinkey process – strategy, projects, assessment, and back to projects – I wanted to help the group avoid jumping into action simply because of a political and managerial excitement to “get something done.”  With a ten-year project life in mind, the data-driven, quantitative assessment that we’re currently completing will provide the basis for the landscape restoration strategy (Phase 2), including measurable restoration objectives, and eventually subsequent restoration projects nested therein (Phase 3 on beyond).

This process design itself is intended to create efficiencies that help increase the scale and pace of restoring resilience on Lake Tahoe’s west shore – part of the promises identified in my inaugural post.  Typical NEPA projects have to start from scratch in identifying existing and desired conditions, the purpose and need for action, and proposed actions.  By contrast, while some further site-level specifications will undoubtedly be needed, our assessment will provide a durable explication of existing and desired conditions as well as the purpose and need for action, while the strategy will vet a series of management approaches and identify a preferred approach to landscape resilience restoration, from which subsequent proposed actions tier.  Rather than developing basic information for each new project, the assessment and strategy will provide an informational framework for multiple restoration projects to drawn upon without reinventing time-consuming wheels.

In subsequent posts I will describe for your scrutiny the steps in the Lake Tahoe West landscape resilience assessment.  For the moment I will close, as is my wont, with a question and invitation for your response:  Reflecting on one of your own current initiatives, Why have you designed your resilience process the way you have? 

Dinkey Wilderness Peak
Three Sisters (10612′) in the Dinkey Lakes Wilderness, High Sierra



Unless otherwise noted, the information presented herein does not represent IUCN’s or the Commission’s position on the matters presented.



2 thoughts on “Learned the Hard Way: Landscape Process Design

Add yours

  1. I think that trial possibly with many errors is the way these things evolve. Switching from a command and control approach to a stakeholder driven approach is a paradigm shift that requires much learning and adjustment on the part of all involved. Many will be reluctant to change if not outright opposed to the idea.

    I am interested to see your resilience assessment tool. NEPA and similar environmental impact assessment tools are based on mechanistic thinking and the assumption that we can predict how people and nature will respond to a management intervention. The mechanistic approach can be intensely data demanding and costly. Holling’s ecological resilience model provides a radically different perspective that is focused on those qualities of an ecosystem that enable them to survive in the face of disturbance. Frameworks for assessing the ecological (now social-ecological) resilience of an ecosystem based on Holling’s panarchy are reasonable well developed but as yet not widely used. Reports that I hear from those who have tried it (mostly in water catchment management in Australia) say that it works well, provides a useful model of change for which monitoring that does not cost the earth in resources, and which yields useful results for adaptive management and decision making.

    Switching from management based on mechanistic science to management based on complexity science is another paradigm shift that will take time to evolve.


    1. Hi Mike! I’ll be sure to blog about the landscape resilience assessment when we complete it, likely September possibly October. It is structured around the social-ecological values inherent in the landscape and their resilience to a range of disturbances. I am intrigued by your comment and optimistic that our resilience-based approach, compared with say, one focused on ecosystem “health,” can also reduce monitoring costs by honing the link between what we monitor and our desired landscape outcomes.


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