Getting it “right” with landscape conservation

Peter Williams, Principal and Founder, PBW Consulting

Collaborative landscape conservation is one of those topics that many agree is important even while disagreeing about the what’s, how’s, and why’s.  This is perhaps especially so when looking back at a conservation effort, when we ask whether we got it right.  But it’s also true when looking forward, when planning to make a decision that we want to be right.

This raises the question of what we mean by “getting it right” when it comes to collaborative landscape conservation and other land management decisions.

In thinking about this, two main thoughts occurred: (1) it’s worth taking a step back to consider the question of what we mean by “getting it right” and (2) it’s also worth careful consideration about what we mean by the “it” in “getting it right”.  This column takes a look at both.

The question about “getting it right” seems to go to the idea of a “right” answer, as opposed to a “good” answer, and this affects our search pattern, meaning it affects what we look for.  From a decision-making perspective, if we search for a right answer, we often think in terms of a single best answer being the ultimate right one.  For this reason, my first thought is to take a step back, to reframe the question.

Let me offer an example, overstating it to make a point. Folks searching for a right answer may disagree about what is the right answer, but they all agree there is one and they can find it.  So, they set off following some familiar search pattern, looking for the right answer they know is out there.  Often, they even begin their search already knowing what they mean by a right answer, at least in some significant ways often based on their technical training or beliefs about how the world works.

In this case, their search patterns are defined by agreement that there is a right answer and, more powerfully, by disagreement regarding whether and when they have found the answer itself. These disagreements tend to be counterproductive if not destructive because if you aren’t right, you must be wrong and, if you’re wrong, your interests must not be adequately addressed.

This is important because if you think an answer inadequately addresses your interests, you also tend to think the answer itself is wrong.  That is the counterproductive if not destructive result because it’s hard to continue engaging in a collaborative landscape conservation effort if you believe the “answer” wrongs your interests, that your interests are been treated as implicitly wrong.

In contrast, consider what searching for a “good” answer can mean. Instead of looking for the single right answer, a search for a good answer looks for a broader set of plausible, viable answers. Also, consider that looking for a good answer as a group or as a community often allows room for constructive disagreement because it begins with developing some shared understanding of what different folks might mean by “good” with regards to addressing or resolving the local, immediate issue.

This constructive disagreement, handled well, can enlarge the edges of the envelope within which is that set of good answers. And, within that set, more folks can see more of their interests, which is a really different result that you get from the right-wrong frame.

So, my first point is that searching for a right answer and searching for a good answer are different in truly meaningful ways. If you want to explore this idea, read “The Unbounded Mind” by Mitroff and Linstone (1993). Yes, one could quibble about the words or argue that I’m just setting up a conceptual stalking horse, but I hope the point is still useful for discussion.

My second point is that whether a land management decision is right sometimes depends on whether you look at it in the near-term, as opposed to from a longer-term perspective, as well as whether you look at it from a technical perspective, a legal perspective, or a community perspective.

A different way of looking at the idea of “rightness”—somewhat similar to the idea of looking for a good answer—might be that a land management decision is right when it is appropriategiven what is known about the issue, the resources available to address the issue, and the willingness to live with the decision.

There’s an interesting literature about “appropriateness-based decision making” as opposed to “traditional rational planning.” The former tends to focus on trying to understand the situation, including how the group or participants see themselves and what they see as an appropriate process.

Traditional rational planning, in contrast, tends to define rightness in terms of consequences understood through technical lenses, like the ubiquitous “Effects Analyses” so familiar as part of a NEPA (1969 National Environmental Policy Act) process. For a really readable look at this, check out March’s “A Primer on Decision Making” (1994).

As an aside, because not all landscape conservation efforts require NEPA analysis, a NEPA effects analysis would still occur as part of a NEPA process framed by “appropriateness,” but it would look different because more attention to the situation, community, and process would happen up front, up-stream of what we might call the formal NEPA process. The main take-away I would offer here is that what most of us would call the traditional NEPA process is not the only way to comply with the NEPA Act and associated federal regulations, but that’s a whole different discussion.

Coming back to this question of “rightness” for landscape conservation, I’m going to suggest that a particularly useful way to think about this is to focus on what happens the day AFTER a decision. Getting collaborative landscape conservation right, in this sense, might be defined by whether there’s greater capacity to get the work done.

Here’s what I mean: Let’s assume we’re thinking about rightness as more like a set of good options (point #1) that are appropriate for the circumstances and participants (point #2). What’s right might come down to whether, once the decision is made, the participants share a general willingness to live with the decision and whether many will actually support implementation, perhaps helping make it happen or helping assess whether desired outcomes occur and undesired ones do not.  Just think about the additional capacity to do the work of landscape conservation, to address those local issues at an appropriate scale, to attract resources to match the enthusiasm.

The reason I suggest this approach is it seems more likely to avoid the all-to-familiar trap where, after a bunch of meetings that seem to be going in a worthy direction and after the best available information is considered, folks retreat to their starting positions and the land management agency—or whoever—is left holding the proverbial bag. That’s no good for anyone who cares about landscape conservation, public lands, or collaborative conservation, and it certainly isn’t right by any measure.

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Getting it “right” with landscape conservation