April 11, 2011
Twenty Years of Forest Blogging
It was 1989 and the "timber wars" were raging. Having failed to gain voice on any important issues in the Forest Service via traditional channels, a few of us joined with Jeff Debonis to form a non-profit called the Association of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (AFSEEE, later FSEEE). We adopted a three-part mission: to speak up as concerned citizens, to organize, and to protect whistleblowers. Not long thereafter, I began to blog as a Forest Service employee on government time. Not a blog, really, but an email list, that I later named Eco-Watch. I simply passed along forest policy-relevant materials to a rather large email list. By 1992 I began to compile a feedback list of comments and "comments on comments," that I passed along via my mailing list. The list caused quite a stir in the Forest Service Intermountain Region leadership team, and maybe "higher up."
Eco-Watch and I somehow managed to be a topic of conversation at many a Regional Leadership Team meeting. Interestingly, the "leadership team" was pretty much split, with a lot of the members supporting my attempt to open up communication via email. Deputy Regional Forester Bob Joslin once told me, paraphrasing: "If [the Regional Forester] mentions your stuff once more time, the next message is going to come from my inbox. … I don't agree with all you write, but do believe that we [the Forest Service] need to discuss these things."
I remember numerous tense meetings with my boss, the Regional Planning Director, about feathers that were being ruffled, not only by my emails, but also by my being on the board of that nonprofit organization FSEEE. It got worse once I became president of FSEEE's board. I once told our Planning Director that if the Regional Forester had a problem with my being a part of FSEEE, I would gladly have lunch with him to discuss it—but that I did not talk about my FSEEE role at work since it was an exercise in free speech as a citizen, not as a public employee. As FSEEE board members and Forest Service employees we knew we were walking a fine line with the FSEEE stuff. Another time I was asked to talk to our Director of Information Systems about the email list. So I did, and he told me that the Forest Service email system had been set up for multi-way communications (after a proposal for top-down communications had been batted about, then batted down by either the Department of Ag or the Forest Service). He also told me he was not going to be a "DG cop" [the DG was then the Forest Service's computing platform]. He also wanted to know more about FSEEE. He was curious about our daring venture.
By 1992, I began to send out follow-up comments and "comments on comments" to my email lists. Eco-Watch was born. The rough and rocky road that connected me to both the Forest Service and FSEEE was paved, in part by my Listserv. And finally near the end of the FSEEE-friendly Clinton Administration, I got approval to take Eco-Watch to the next phase, making it into a Forest Service-blessed Policy Dialogues Forum, via Hypernews. With Mark Garland's help we put all my email listings on the internet, along with emergent policy dialogue threads. The tracks of this era still reside on the Forest Service servers, here, with numerous broken hyperlinks. Sadly, all the policy dialogue threads are lost, although I did manage to salvage most of them and have them on my own Forest Policy site as Eco-Watch [retaining much of the character of the old site, but linking to "discussion threads" of the past, rather than to ongoing discussion forums]. During this same era we tried to get Mark Garland's Forest Service in the News to be a partnership between FSEEE and the Forest Service, even a three-way partnership adding in a timber industry group. That discussion was a non-starter. Mark continues to this day with his Forest Service in the News, hosted by FSEEE.
Eco-Watch Policy Dialogues Forum ran from 1999 until its demise in the Spring of 2005—right in the middle of the Bush/Cheney Administration War Games /Homeland Security—when the chant was "If you are not with us. You are against us."
Why did the Forest Service drop its love affair with Hypernews? I don't know, but suspect it had to do more with Homeland Security paranoia, than with FS internal politics. But maybe it was simple paranoia over Internet viruses, etc. All I know is that one day the forums were dead, and so too with all other forums that were being hosted on Forest Service Hypernews software. My inquiries into the matter led me to an odd dead end—something like, "It was just too hard to maintain the software." I still believe that similar software powers many internet forums today, and maybe even Wiki sites. But I let it go. After all, we were at war in the wake of the Sept. 2001 World Trade Center bombings.
Forest Policy - Forest Practice
Early in 2005 I threw together a real blog, Forest Policy–Forest Practice, subtitled 'A communities of practice weblog.' My goal was to emulate what others had done by then, in other fields far from natural resources—to engage practitioners in policy/practice dialogues. I reached out to a few old friends and let it fly, this time on my own dime and on servers that couldn't be shut down by FS bureaucrats, whether by design or by neglect.
We started out OK, but never got it up to steam—just couldn't muster the participation needed to make it a strong platform for "voice." Maybe it was me, being my usual flaky self, not getting anything "real" going. But I think not. I think that it was just too new, and some of the "academic" friends I courted were too busy with traditional meetings, publications, trade associations, etc. to be bothered with blogs. Oddly, there are still very few, maybe only one, active discussion blog on forest policy.
A few of us did kept the discussion alive for several years, but it just wasn't the "in your face" immediate gratification that the email list or the Hypernews forums had been. I tried a few other things, like a blog tied to Adaptive Forest Management, a theme I continue talking about today. On another blog I chronicled the rise and fall of what I like to call "Planning cast up as Environmental Management Systems" or "EMS cast up as Planning." Among other things I unveiled in my Forest Environmental Systems blog was a clever little powerpoint about why bureaucrats don't want to "mess with anything". Policy wonk Ron Brunner told me that it was the best example ever of why bureaucracies can't change. The EMS/Planning love affair was short-lived, and the blog only ran for about a year.
A New Century of Forest Planning
Today a few of us are blogging forestry and forest policy, under the guise of "forest planning" here. It will prove interesting to see if/when the Forest Service joins other agencies that allow/encourage many blogs and wikis, by individuals or groups. But it doesn't seem likely just now.
I continue to cross-walk to my earlier blogs, but realize that they are pretty much just a place where I store stuff. I also continue to blog matters at the confluence of complex systems, wicked problems, politics, finance, economics, and ecology at Ecology and Economics: a cross-disciplinary conversation and Economic Dreams-Economic Nightmares. Mostly I just dabble at the edges, and continue to hope that more folks will jump in to re-frame politics, science, and public administration in the US and around the world.