Public Participation in Federal Land Management: Is Innovation Still Possible?

Monday, January 8, 2018

Federal public lands account for 47% of the American West, and more than 90% of all federal land is found in the 11 westernmost states and Alaska. Between them, the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management administer about 34% of the western landscape, including almost 85% of Nevada; more than 50% of Idaho, Oregon, and Utah; and more than 40% of the land in four other western states. The appropriate use, management, and ownership of these lands have been the subject of heated debate since they were first established, and the debate has anything but waned since President Trump took office. 

Western states have been at the forefront of debates about federal land management (BLM).Last March, the President and Congress eliminated the Bureau of Land Management’s “Planning 2.0” rule, which called for greater public participation, collaborative problem solving, and landscape-scale approaches to resource management. In August, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced a major overhaul of plans to conserve the greater sage-grouse, plans that had been the product of an unprecedented collaborative process among federal and state governments. Perhaps these were byproducts of President Trump’s agenda for increased energy and natural resource development on federal lands, or maybe the motiviation was to limit public input into resource decisions. Either way, these and similar Trump Administration actions suggest it is time to rethink our approach to public participation and intergovernmental coordination in federal land management.

Fortunately, writes Matthew McKinney in Whither Public Participation in Federal Land Management?, “there are a number of innovative and effective efforts in shared problem solving emerging organically across the landscape.” In most cases, these “homegrown forums” are intended “to supplement, not replace, formal decisionmaking systems” and “allow the formal decisionmaking processes to work better.” According to McKinney, supplemental civic enagement can inform the formal decision process, reduce the amount and intensity of conflict, and help generate durable solutions that can be implemented on the ground. The challenge, he explains, is how to move away from our current, conventional participation approach toward one that puts a premium on collaboration and shared problem solving.

McKinney offers two general strategies for meeting this challenge. The first is fostering innovations within the existing legal and institutional system: newer approaches such as the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program and the U.S. Forest Service’s 2012 Planning Rule “represent a promising trend in public land management.” The second is to experiment with alternatives to the established decisionmaking system. Such experiments “recognize the value of sharing responsibility to solve public land problems, not by shifting who owns federal lands, but by working together across political, jurisdictional, and other boundaries.”

In the end, says McKinney, “Democracy is a work in progress, and any and all innovations and experiments to improve the process of public participation and shared problem solving in federal land management should be welcome. A diversity of approaches, bottom-up and top-down, is most likely to foster a healthy, high-functioning ‘ecology of governance.’”

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