Finding a Niche for Collaboration in the Management of Our National Forests

By: Tova Beth Cochrane


                        Collaborative conservation is a political organization model that offers a method for stakeholders of any public issue to engage in effective, long-standing democratic decision-making.  Collaborative conservation embodies local participation, emphasizes sustainable natural and human communities, includes disempowered voices, and its constituency is based on voluntary consent and compliance rather than enforcement by legal coercion (Snow, 2001, 1).  Collaboration is a coalition of the unalike, and the group seeks innovation, not just mere compromise, in the form of power and learning circles (3-4).  In the realm of national forest issues, a collaborative conservation group would include representatives of all the stakeholders of a particular national forest, and with the Forest Service, the group would, in varying degrees, work together to make decisions surrounding national forest management.  Collaboration calls for responsible, democratic, and sustainable forest management. 

To determine whether or not collaborative conservation groups have a place in the politics of national forest management, and if they do, how they can be designed to not hinder the dispute resolution process but help it, I explored two very different approaches to collaborative conservation: the Quincy Library Group (QLG) in Quincy, CA and the Umatilla Forest Watch (UFW) in Walla Walla, WA.  After many years of contemptuous divisions between timber and environmental interests in Quincy, the QLG initiated a collaborative process and brought innovative change to the Lassen, Tahoe and Plumas National Forests and improved relations to the community through a Community Stability Proposal and federal legislation mandating national forest management practices.  Similarly, the UFW is made up of community members, but converse to the QLG’s relationship with the USFS, the UFW has established working relationships with the Pomeroy and Walla Walla Districts of the Umatilla National Forest.  Although the two groups use differing tactics, their common message says the Forest Service cannot go about business as usual without being held accountable for their decisions and even actuating the demands of the local public. 

The criteria for successful collaboration includes an open and favorable socio-political climate, mutual respect for each other and trust in the process shared among members, a cross-section of stakeholders as participants, joint fact-finding, a skilled collaboration facilitator, clear goals, and sufficient funds and resources.  Constant monitoring of the process and adaptation is also required.  Each context will call for unique characteristics in the collaborative group, and it is the group’s responsibility to develop those characteristics (Winer and Ray 1996, Mattessich and Monsey 1992).

While much criticism surrounding collaborative conservation claims that the USFS is abdicating responsibility through such processes, I argue that this is not true.  The USFS simply takes a different role in facilitating subjective decision-making with the people, thus increasing democratic participation in national forest management, and still representing the agency’s interests as well (Wondolleck 1999).  Many fear that locals don’t care about their nearby forests and, when involved in the decision-making process, would become greedy and corrupt.  I counterargue that locals will protect the environment that provides community resources when empowered by the opportunity to collaborate.  National environmental groups fear their voice will be removed if decisions are relocated from Washington, D.C. to local sites.  While collaborative conservation need not be a cure-all that completely displaces national environmental groups, it is important that collaboration exist to counterbalance the adversarial approach of federal litigation.  

Since forest decisions are currently made (usually without collaboration) by the USFS, appealed and often left unresolved for years, collaboration may serve to bring immediate improvement to national forest management.  Collaboration entails democratic decisions that address forest problems immediately.  In conclusion, collaboration in national forest management may revive our responsibility to each other and our environment, offering a practical form of environmental justice.



Works Cited

Mattessich, Paul and Barbara Monsey. Collaboration: What Makes It Work—A review of Research Literature on Factors Influencing Successful Collaboration.  St. Paul: Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, 1992.


Snow, Donald.  “Coming Home-- An Introduction to Collaborative Conservation.” Across the Great Divide. Ed. Phil Brick, Donald Snow, and Sarah Van de Wetering. Washington D.C.: Island Press, 2001.


Winer, Michael and Karen Ray. Collaboration Handbook. St. Paul: Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, 1996.


Wondolleck, Julia and Clare Ryan. “What Hat Do I Wear Now? An examination of  Agency Roles in Collaborative Processes.” Negotiation Journal 15, no.-- (1999): 117-33.