March 8, 2009

A New Social Contract for Forestry

Here is an article that I didn't write but it offers an approach to solving the communications problem that currently stymies the deployment of forest management programs. I have written several articles about the sad state of affairs of the environmental litigation process in this blog. If you wish to participate in a dialog on this subject or contact the author, David Atkins, then visit this Timber Buy/Sell article.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are those of an individual and do not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of his employer.

A New Social Contract for Forestry –
Climate Change, Energy Independence a Path to a Sustainable World

Forestry has been in the cross hairs of environmentalists for 40+ years in the United States. This “Forty Year Civil War” has revolved primarily around federal forest lands. In spite of this, I think forestry has a very bright future, provided we complete a new social contract.

This “civil war” originated in the 1960s when the controversies around clearcutting and terracing on the Monongahela and Bitterroot National Forests exploded onto the national political scene. The old social contract that came out of the Progressive Era of Teddy Roosevelt has been rejected. At that time, the “experts” were given the authority to implement land management decisions on behalf of society. This model of top down decision-making crossed a broad spectrum of society, from health care to education.

The environmental protection laws passed in the early to mid-1970s, such as the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Management Act, attempted to define a more responsive decision-making process by inviting the public to give input before the experts made their decisions. However, the laws still held the experts solely responsible for making Solomon-like judgments on behalf of society at large.

Unfortunately, what we now have is a system for fighting decisions, through appeals and litigation, but not for resolving the disputes by finding common ground resulting in an acceptable decision to implement. The system is a ‘winner takes all’ approach wherein courts are asked to decide who is “right” and who is “wrong.”

The reality is a whole array of approaches to managing forests exist, not just a binary choice of right vs. wrong. For any particular living, dynamic forest ecosystem, there are an ever-evolving set of choices to be made between a multitude of resource considerations and societal values.

It is clear from the current litigation-stalled processes that citizens are not content to simply share their opinions. Rather, they want to BE the decision-making body, in consultation with the experts. This requires a new social contract for both the decision-making and disputes-resolution processes regarding public land management decisions in the U.S.

Over the past fifteen years a new boot-strapped social contract of “collaborative decisions” has grown in various parts of the country at the grass roots, community level. The inability to implement actions on the ground motivated people in a few places to re-examine the old battle lines. They achieved agreements by focusing on common ground. This new system is based on sustainable management; the requirement to blend environmental, economic and social needs and desires, now and in the long-term.

This new approach is hampered by the existing decision-making and litigious disputes-resolution process. Small minorities can over-ride the work of the community collaborative effort; the process can be dragged out for years and then end up in court for additional years. This is a powerful disincentive for open collaborative behavior.

I am bullish on Forestry’s future for two reasons: 1) the repeated examples of successful collaboration demonstrate this process can work; 2) there to two national/international issues, Energy Independence and Climate Change, that will greatly benefit from proactive, collaborative forestry practices. In a carbon constrained world and as a country that is a net importer of oil and gas, environmentalists and forest managers have a huge opportunity for discovering common ground. Forests as natural solar collectors with wooden batteries and their ability to capture and store carbon are an important contributor to a new sustainable world. Wood can conserve energy by substituting it for energy intensive materials like steel, concrete and aluminum. Wood can provide thermal energy, electricity and liquid fuels that can be carbon neutral. The solid wood can sequester C for decades to centuries. The need for collective, collaborative, adaptive management timely decision-making and disputes resolving processes has never been more critical or urgent.

This new social contract needs to be based on the following principles:
• power between the parties needs to be fair and equitable involving appointed and elected representatives of all interested parties;
• dispute-resolution needs to be timely and relatively low cost involving mediation rather than litigation;
• it needs to re-enforce collaborative behaviors and discourage confrontational behaviors by disincentivizing litigation;
• Sustainability - balancing social, environmental and economic desires, needs to be foundational

Such a contract assures all the participants that their perspective is legitimate; it eliminates the binary choice of right vs. wrong, it is timely and protects people’s right to challenge decisions.

I suggest we need legislation that captures the tremendous lessons learned from the boot-strapped grassroots processes that have grown out of many locations around the country, codify them in a system that provides access equity, timeliness, and representation in the decisions, and apply this system throughout the nation. We need to move past the old divisions and rancor, and recognize that the need to address climate change and energy independence requires a new social contract that provides structure for a new time.

For an expanded discussion, click here.

David C. Atkins
Forester and Forest Ecologist
Missoula, Montana
February 22, 2009

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