Forest Service Seeking New Ways To Get Public Input On Projects

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Faced with lawsuits at every turn, the U.S. Forest Service is examining new ways of including public input and one local county supervisor has joined the dozen-member team leading the effort.

Gila County District 1 Supervisor Tommie Martin recently returned from a series of trips including several days in Washington, D.C. and a two-day workshop in Knoxville, Tenn., defining a process months in the making.

The idea is to include stakeholders in discussions leading up to Forest Service decisions instead of allowing comments only after a decision is made.

“Every time the Forest Service turns around, they’re sued,” said Martin. “The lawsuits, nearly every time, are ‘you didn’t look at our data,’” she added. “We’ve got to have a better way.”

And in turn, Martin has gained valuable, top-level agency contacts that could help Gila County’s efforts to re-insert sustainable industry into the forest.

“It’s not about Tommie Martin. It’s about positioning Gila County in the national eye,” she said.

The so-called collaboration cadre includes various Forest Service officials, two community members including Martin, and two academic researchers. Martin is not serving on the committee as a county supervisor, although the other community member is a county administrator from Colorado.

Originally, the so-called cadre began by visiting various Forest Service regions, helping them revise their forest plans.

But, “those plan revisions are going nowhere because they can’t get out of court,” said Martin. Now, the cadre is focusing on revamping the Forest Service’s entire culture, said Martin, ensuring the agency collects public input before making decisions.

This time, the project was an ecological restoration in the southern Appalachia. The group fine-tuned the collaborative process into an action plan with five key steps including scanning the situation, identifying values and opportunities, setting clear expectations and monitoring progress.

Leading up to a workshop last month in Atlanta, the group held workshops and other discussions, talking with interested groups, figuring out problems and identifying solutions.

“What they’re trying to do is put together a process,” said Martin, so that the agency can gather public input from stakeholders leading up to a decision, instead of afterward.

Typically warring factions like Forest Service officials and members of the environmental groups that often end up suing them sit down in the same room and talk — before calling their attorneys.

“People love to do this,” Martin said.

“It feels so good to sit down with somebody you have been fighting with for years.”

Substantial research preceded this on-the-ground effort.

In 2005, Sam Burns, a research director at Fort Lewis College in Colorado, and Tony Cheng, an associate professor in the Department of Forest, Rangeland and Watershed Stewardship at Colorado State University, released a 132-page paper discussing how the Forest Service can better collaborate. For instance, the report discussed how to ensure topics were adequately discussed at meetings, so people had enough time to understand and comment.

After the paper’s release, the Forest Service had the data. But, it didn’t know how to use it, said Martin.

Since the report’s release, the cadre has worked with various regions to figure out the best method of implementing its ideas. With the most recent Appalachian effort, Martin said the cadre has become more proactive.

“The Forest Service does need new culture,” said Martin. A bevy of top-level officials have built careers on pushing industry out of the forests, she added, but incoming officials are more open to allowing industry in the forests.

“We don’t have the money to cut and whack and burn that product,” she said. “We have to let industry in.”

Martin said she’s not sure what will come next with the cadre’s efforts, but she agrees with the direction it’s headed.

“It’s watching all these dots get connected,” said Martin. “We really do have to learn how to get along.”

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