Collaborative Governance of Landscapes

Governance constitutes a perennial favorite topic in the discussions I follow.  Volumes abound, and everybody can speak from their own experience of being governed.  But how do you actually shape governance?  What does specifically collaborative governance mean?  And why is collaborative governance requisite for effective work at the landscape scale?  In this post, I first quickly enumerate the signatories to the Agency and Stakeholder Charter for the Lake Tahoe West Restoration Partnership (LTW), provide a corresponding map, and then answer the preceding questions in light of this example of a collaborative governance agreement.

As a point of reference, the LTW charter includes the following signatories:

  • Five “organizing agencies” that share responsibility for organizing, staffing, funding, and overseeing the initiative through all its phases, including implementation. These include three land-owning and land management agencies (the US Forest Service, the California Tahoe Conservancy, and California State Parks), as well as the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (a joint California-Nevada regulatory agency), and the Tahoe Fire & Fuels Team, which includes the fire protection districts that ensure the protection of life and property on private lands.  (My current organization, the National Forest Foundation, is a non-profit organization that provides project management and facilitation.)
  • A sixth agency, the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, that has authority over water quality regulation establishment and compliance, and serves as a “participating agency.” Additional participating agencies include the Tahoe and Eldorado National Forests, and US Forest Service Pacific Southwest Research Station.
  • Two additional large-scale private landowners sit on the Stakeholder Community Committee – Homewood Ski Resort and Squaw Valley / Alpine Meadows Ski Holdings – as well as the Tahoe Cedars Property Owners Association.
  • Numerous additional public agencies, including the US Environmental Protection Agency, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Universities of California at Berkeley and at Davis, Placer County Air Pollution Control District, Tahoe Resource Conservation District, Tahoe Transportation District, and Tahoe City Public Utility District (a water manager, among other things), also participate.

This map shows the range of land ownership encompassed by the LTW landscape boundary.

Lake Tahoe West - Map Only - Final 06-15-17
The LTW Landscape Boundary showing land ownership

With this geography in mind, let’s switch back to governance agreements.  A facilitator has three tools to manage a meeting that is part of an ongoing collaborative process:  ground rules for meeting conduct (see p. 3 in attached agenda for examples), the meeting agenda (to determine the scope of the day’s work), and the group’s charter.  The charter defines how the group will work together, including representation, structure, roles and responsibilities, decision-making including good faith interest-based negotiation, information sources, and operational protocols (e.g., joint fact-finding, documentation of meetings and agreements).  Charters may legally bind participants, though most commonly in my work they constitute good faith agreements (if the process involves negotiating a new distribution of legal authority, then it would typically require developing a memorandum of understanding, joint powers agreement, or legislation).  If conflict emerges over how the group is operating and making decisions, the charter provides the foundational reference point for determining how to move forward.

The substance of such collaborative governance agreement includes stock components that stem from best practices (and hard lessons), such as press and media protocols that can help protect the sanctity of sensitive conversations.  The substance also should rely heavily, I would argue, on the results of a stakeholder assessment (variously called a conflict assessment, situation assessment, etc), which examines key participants, issues and interests, and conditions for collaboration; I will discuss stakeholder assessments in a future post.  Combined with the practitioner’s experience with similar endeavors and the required outcomes of the initiative (e.g., we must decide upon a restoration project), a stakeholder assessment provides foundational information for designing the nuances of a governance agreement – who exactly should be involved, how, for what purposes, and so forth.  In the processes I have managed, we start developing the charter on Day One of stakeholder meetings; typically this then takes a few months (assuming one meeting per month) to finalize.  The completion of a charter can itself constitute a significant accomplishment, particularly if there is a history of conflict and impasse; facilitators rightly encourage a group to celebrate this first agreement.

Most of the initiatives I have managed involve representative processes, with stakeholders representing the interests of a particular constituency, and coming from public agency, tribal government, business, non-profit, research institute and university, foundation, or other organizational backgrounds.  In the case of Lake Tahoe West, our stakeholder roster  quickly shows you the representative’s name, their affiliation, and the interest(s) they represent; the agency roster serves as a companion document.  (While “the public”, in quotes to indicate that it is anything but monolithic, may certainly attend the stakeholder meetings, my processes also deliberately include dedicated public participation events that directly engage the people who live, work, and play in a landscape, as enunciated in a communication plan.)  I will flag that the topic of representation immediately involves power dynamics and professional ethics around inclusivity – purposely ensuring that divergent, conflicting interests have a seat at the table and a voice in the conversation; a future post will focus on resilience, power, and political ecology.

LTW Structure v7
LTW Governance Structure, see pp. 3+ in the Charter

Collaborative governance agreements differ from other governance agreements insofar as they involve signatories who do not have authority over one another choosing to work together toward a shared goal (itself typically iteratively refined and negotiated).  Rather than a hierarchical structure with a single authority hoarding its control over territory, resources, and people, and subordinating others within the defines of its particular jurisdiction, collaborative governance foregrounds horizontal, peer-to-peer relationships, with participants recognizing they each have some measure of autonomy and authority that in itself is necessary but insufficient for achieving the desired collective outcome.  The importance of a shared desideratum is critical – great agreements can exist where agencies and stakeholders agree to coordinate (e.g., keep each other updated on their efforts, share information) or cooperate (e.g., try and support each other’s goals to the extent these fit within their existing work), however, collaborative governance involves committing staff, equipment, funding, and political capital to a common end.

Why does this distinction matter?  Working at the landscape scale hinges on collaborative governance whenever more than one agency or stakeholder owns, uses, and/or has regulatory, planning, or management authority over the land (or sea).  To emphasize the essential participation of each jurisdiction, collaborative forest management groups in California and elsewhere often refer to an “all lands” approach, as illustrated in the earlier LTW map.  Without a corresponding agreement to stitch the fractured landscape together, one largely or entirely foregoes its promises (my first post), and faces risks such as one parcel negatively impacting its neighbors (e.g., a fire burning onto adjacent lands).  While unsurprising, this design principle underwrites the collaborative governance of landscapes in practice.

In this light, my concluding question and invitation for reflection and contribution is, How have you bound together multiple public agencies, landowners, and stakeholders in your process?

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