When Collaborative Processes are Exhausted by Delays: A Case Study
By Brian Cottam
Thousand Lake Mountain looms high above Wayne County in south-central Utah . At over 11,000 feet, the flat-topped mountain, covered by dense spruce/fir and mixed conifer/aspen forests, provides commanding views of Capitol Reef National Park to the east and Boulder Mountain and the string of rural communities running through the county to the south. The forests of Thousand Lake Mountain have also been a stable and consistent provider of logs for the many small sawmills that historically dotted the valley below, since Mormon pioneers settled the remote country in the mid-1800s.
In the late 1990s, in the midst of diminishing wood supply and resulting family sawmill closures throughout Wayne County, Fishlake National Forest Supervisor Rob Mrowka recognized an opportunity to turn the tide. The Thousand Lake Community Forestry Initiative began as a community-wide effort to both stem the looming threat of spruce beetle infestation-whose devastating effects are apparent throughout southern Utah forests-and provide wood products to the remaining small sawmills immediately adjacent to the high plateau. The Environmental Assessment, itself, explains that, "A secondary objective is to provide forest products to resource dependent industries in an economically feasible manner; especially to sustain local community based forest enterprises."
Participants in the multi-year, in-depth collaborative planning included the Southern Utah Forest Products Association (SUFPA), other regional wood products interests, multiple environmental groups from along the Wasatch Front, as well as local entities such as Utah State University Extension, Panoramaland RC&D, Farm Bureau, and many others. This diverse group undertook a collaborative forest planning process as yet unseen in southern Utah .
The EA for the project was released in May, 2001, over three years since the Initiative began cooperative planning. Many questioned the efficacy of spending so much time and effort on a project that addressed a mere 220 acres; and this would be implemented in multiple phases, as agreed upon by Initiative participants, in order to monitor and assess forestry operations and potential impacts. Indeed, there were questions as to whether the project could actually be implemented as designed due to the numerous operational restrictions the group agreed to, all in a good-faith effort to end the management stalemate plaguing the Fishlake NF. Throughout the planning, the core participants--Supervisor Mrowka and members of SUFPA--were undeterred by the criticisms. They shared a realization that this was a small stepping-stone of trust building by all involved, which would ultimately lead to a new paradigm of long-term stewardship by local residents as well as a reliable wood supply for the remaining mills.
After years of often grueling sharing, learning, concessions and all the other elements of collaboration, inevitable turnover began to occur with key participants. Supervisor Mrowka, possibly because of his penchant for community engagement and often unorthodox, though trailblazing, collaborative methods in the Intermountain Region, was reassigned and eventually left the agency. This change was profound as there had been constant grumbling within the Supervisor's and Loa District offices about the time and resources being spent on this new cooperative planning process. It was apparent that the language of "collaboration" was not yet spoken within the Intermountain Region. The initiative's non-agency facilitators also changed at this time, creating a gap in the continuity of the planning. While this change was not profound, it did highlight the need for effective and knowledgeable facilitation for this and future collaborative efforts.
Unfortunately, the tumult did not stop there. SUFPA's staff also experienced transition at this time, leaving the local timber interests-those for which the project was initially conceived and had been designed for all along-without effective representation and adequate participation in the time-consuming planning process. Consequently, the agency and project was suddenly left without its principal partner for implementation. Finally, as the unraveling continued, the representative from the most involved environmental interest left for another position in the northwest. Undoubtedly, this left an immense void in the collaborative process. The value of this representation was magnified when other conservation interests interpreted this absence as theirs to fill; unfortunately, with far less interest in cooperation, collaboration, and community development.
The Thousand Lake Community Forestry Initiative was appealed by one of these organizations, the Utah Environmental Congress (UEC), in August 2001, immediately following the Decision Notice to proceed with the project. Appeal issues include roadless and management indicator species. As was the case with the Monroe Mountain Ecosystem Restoration Project (see MMERP sidebar), the District Court found in favor of the Forest Service, though it took until March 2003 for the hearing to occur. This decision, however, was immediately appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and the project is still awaiting a hearing date.
Even with multiple years of cooperative planning, with active participation by environmental organizations-on a pilot project whose initial treatment unit in the preferred alternative is a scant 36 acres of demonstration to showcase the stringent operational design features-the project is now nearly three-years beyond the initial appeal. The Thousand Lake Community Forestry Initiative is seemingly a mere afterthought for the couple of remaining Wayne County sawmills, though Fishlake National Forest staff are even now in the process of marking sale boundaries as there has not been a judicial stay of the project. There is no pressure on the appeals court to hear the case as the majority of original participants have moved on and for the Forest there is little expressed enthusiasm for reinvigorating and pursuing the initiative. If a decision in favor of the Forest Service is eventually delivered the question remains if support can again be garnered for renewed collaboration and actual implementation of the project.