August 27, 2007

Bottom Line for Successful Collaboration

Remarks by Mitch Friedman, Director, Conservation Northwest
to the American Forest Resource Council
at their Annual Conference, April 18, 2006

Visit Grist for Mitch's full article on this important issue

Ladies and Gentleman,

As flattered as I am by Will’s kind words, I want the record to note that I attended today under assertions that this event was just some folks gathering for a round of golf. I’ve taken note of the nearest exits and am wearing running shoes.

Actually, it was with pleasure that I accepted the invitation to sit up here with Will and Russ, both of whom I think very highly of, to see if I could get a rise out of you all.

Let's acknowledge up front that there are a lot of battle scars in the room today. I have no intention of living down my past, even if you would allow me. I was among the very first tree-sitters and organized the first spotted owl protests. My organization has long been among the list of usual suspects on appeals and litigation. The fact is that most of us feel that there are things that warrant the waging of war. For folks like me, old growth, roadless areas, and a future for wildlife like lynx and, yes, owls, make the list. But with age we realize that war is not its own reward, and we look for better ways to achieve our objectives.

I know your bottom line: In providing needed wood products and jobs, your companies have to be profitable in a financial climate rocked by regulation, globalization, and other factors.

On my side, the bottom line is preserving the systems and fabric of life across our region and planet in a climate clouded by greenhouse gases, the vast appetite of surging human populations, and other factors. I believe that our federal landscape should provide a sufficient network of reserves to sustain even the most demanding wildlife species and outside of those reserves should be a model of forest practices that are sustainable for stands, soils and stream life as well as for local rural communities. I further want to see solutions to the increasingly transient ownership and instability on our region's private timber lands, both large and small.
Our respective objectives can conflict but are not necessarily exclusive of one another. One way to look at this is that if you are among the companies that no longer have an economic stake in logging old growth or wildlands, or you would tend to agree that the time is past when that type of logging is socially acceptable, then collaboration is a way to expedite trends for which you are already positioned. Furthermore, when we resolve our differences collaboratively and to mutual benefit, it improves life for the people that share our communities. They too hunger for solutions that can sustain both economic prosperity and natural heritage.

Fortunately new mill technologies, new market opportunities and advances in silviculture give us more decision space within which to find common ground. That and five bucks will get you a latte grande.

In my limited experience, I've found that successful collaboration requires more than common ground. We must also accomplish that biggest of human challenges: Getting along.

Getting along doesn’t have to mean male bonding, arranged marriages between Bellingham and Forks, or even buying a Subaru and going vegan. It does mean exhibiting the leadership to engage and sustain relationships despite water bars in the road.

Challenges that I have observed through Conservation Northwest's experience, primarily on the Gifford Pinchot, Olympic and Colville National Forests, involve building trust, yielding turf, reaching agreement on field prescriptions, enshrining new protocols into boilerplate contracts, and more. Collaboration fills the timber pipeline more like a hand-operated water pump in a traditional campsite than like breaching the dams on the Lower Snake. It requires patience.

Leadership must be exhibited on all sides: timber, agency, and conservation. There are other "sides" too, such as contractors, tribes and community representatives. But the three key legs of this stool are Forest Service district and forest leadership, people like me, and people like you. Each will find pressure from both inside his organization and from among her peers to abandon collaboration and return to the trenches. We all know people who are most comfortable being something familiar rather than doing something unfamiliar.

My friend David Syre, of Trillium Corporation, and I have been catching flack just for working together to revitalize the waterfront of downtown Bellingham. Imagine how temperatures rise when old adversaries work together to cut down trees! But if you know your objectives, have the courage to explore new ways to achieve them, and have the patience to overcome obstacles, then you have a moral and business obligation to try collaboration irrespective of what your middle managers or neighbors might say.

If you have fortitude, your collaboration can withstand the wedges driven - often by public employees - in an effort to perpetuate Balkanized positions and preserve power where it doesn't belong.

The return on investment in collaboration can be very satisfying. The Gifford Pinchot National Forest's timber pipeline is no longer blocked up in litigation. The Survey and Manage injunction had slight effect on that Forest and nothing else is even under current appeal. On the GP, conservationists are now partners in seeking funding to plan and implement the new generation of timber and stewardship projects. We are also active partners in exploring efficient ways to fulfill the purposes of the National Environmental Policy Act, which already contains enough flexibility to fully inform decisions on potentially damaging federal projects while not wrapping benign or beneficial projects in red tape.

On the GP, it took a while to prime that hand pump, but now the pipeline is starting to fill up from thinning sales that are ecologically beneficial and socially acceptable. I want to recognize and give thanks to AFRC's own Bob Dick for his hard work and thoughtful leadership in the Pinchot Partnership and elsewhere. I've enjoyed an amicable relationship with Bob for twenty years, only partially because I know he hangs out with a tough crowd of Harley riders. It's no accident that Bob's efforts are yielding fruit, or more specifically, lots of little stumps.
Conservationists want to sustain this flow from the tens of thousands of acres of plantation stands on which habitat can be improved by thinning over the next few decades.
Our experience on the Colville is even more gratifying, if only because of the greater resource and political challenges of that landscape. I'm confident that the eventual outcomes from our efforts there will jointly increase timber predictability, wilderness protection, habitat restoration, community safety, and even political harmony.

Advancing a positive and common vision has its amusing moments. Picture Russ and me sitting in the office of Representative Cathy McMorris, with me lobbying for increased logging of small diameter trees and Russ pitching Wilderness protection. In fact, I sense an opportunity here to make the front page of the Oregonian if you'll all join me in reciting the word "wilderness" three times.

Russ already pointed out some of the steps that have led to the progress we have experienced. A few additional lessons from the Colville include:

1. Walk before you run. Don’t be too ambitious in early steps.
2. Prioritize the work to real and agreed-upon urgent needs, such as community safety, rather than those upon which positions are most likely to differ.
3. I reiterate Russ’ advice to focus on interests, not positions. This conceptual tool was provided by an outside consultant. On both the Colville and GP we found that outside consultants and facilitators were pivotal at key points.
4. Relationships are everything, and they are built by listening and by solving problems together.
5. Technical tools, maps, and jargon do not advance relationships. They are peripheral, not central, to good collaboration.
6. Trust is built by the time-tested means of people honoring their word.
7. Sustainability is found in the common interests of business and conservation, not in the competition for who will be the last one standing.

It seems likely that collaboration will work better in some places than others. Perhaps the easiest experiences will be where mill capacity least exceeds available volume. Yet there are enough positive examples across the West, from Oregon's Fremont to New Mexico's Gila National Forest, to prove powerful potential. Why not shoot for the moon in testing this model? With leadership and effort, perhaps we can avoid the next Biscuit-like showdown in southwestern Oregon.

The past is behind us. Comparing scars is way more fun than comparing wounds. So in this world of problems, let's see how many we can solve through collaboration.
Thanks for your attention.

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