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March 21, 2005

Visioning Planning Nirvana
Sharon Friedman

One of the challenging things about land management planning in the Forest Service is that it lies at the boundary between different areas of expertise. As a federal agency, the FS wants to be able to plan and carry out management activities to accomplish its mission. The planning and analysis process as a whole (from GPRA to project) should be transparent, provide opportunities for public participation and collaboration, use the best and most current science and technology, follow all applicable statutes and regulations and be done in a way that iseffective in its use of both the agency’s funds (just enough analysis and just enough collaboration) and the time and costs to the public, partners, other agencies, contractors, and permittees. Successes and failures and new knowledge should form an adaptive loop to improve plans and plan implementation.

I propose this as a first cut at a definition of planning nirvana.

Defining and moving toward planning nirvana is what we might call "contested terrain," in the sense that planning practitioners, the public, the science communities, the legal communities and the academic planning communities and the public all have valuable knowledge and experience, but no one group alone can lay claim to knowing what is best. In this kind of situation, the designers can best open the subject for deliberation within and among the various communities.

I am encouraged that this forum may lead to that kind of deliberation.. and perhaps move toward "planning nirvana." What do others think about the characteristics of good planning so we would know if if we see it? Do you have examples of particularly good experiences (not necessarily "forest" planning)? What did you like best about them?

Posted by Sharon Friedman on March 21, 2005 at 01:48 PM | Permalink


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Posted by: Dave Iverson

Planning: Nirvana or Hell?

I share Sharon’s hope that by vetting public issues, policy, planning, management, etc. we have a chance to improve all.

But I’m skeptical about planning. Since the 1979 NFMA Regulation the Forest Service has been bound by a comprehensive, rational planning straightjacket. It was assumed back then that a cookie-cutter approach to regulation could be used to develop plans to “redesign” Nature’s forests into efficient tree farms, recreational theme parks, and more. The NFMA regulation proved to be the disaster that some critics warned about—endless, often mindless analysis, and paper shuffling. It was, in my mind, a planners’ Hell. On the other hand, the straitjacket regulation served in part to thwart the tree-farm vision.

Times have changed in the almost 30 years since the National Forest Management Act of 1976 was hurriedly passed to amend the Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act of 1974. (http://www.fs.fed.us/emc/nfma/index1.html ) We now seem better able to grasp Hubert Humphrey’s NFMA vision:

“The days have ended when the forest may be viewed only as trees and trees viewed only as timber. The soil and water, the grasses and the shrubs, the fish and the wildlife and the beauty that is the forest must become integral parts of resource managers’ thinking and actions.”

We have a new NFMA planning rule that many in the agency hope will bring us closer to developing a shared vision for the forests more in line with Hubert Humphrey’s. But there remain significant challenges.

I believe that planning can be used very effectively to do two things. Planning can help us rehash the past, and rehearse the future. This ‘sense-making’ can help all to better understand both the complexities and the political wickedness of interrelated, adaptive social and environmental systems.

I believe that planning ought to be scenario planning, which rehearses the future but stops short of locking-in to one vision. That can be done in our current frame by developing “vision” as fuzzed-up non-operational goals like “healthy forests,” “functioning, intact, ecosystems,” and so on. Many inside and outside the agency will criticize us for so doing. But as long as we remain steadfast that we are using “vision” to rehearse the future, after using other aspects of adaptive management to rehash the past we are on the right track.

All needs to be done in a fishbowl, since public policy development and administration is very much a public thing. The “strategy” and “design criteria” portions of current framing are a bit more problematic, but we can deal with those aspects later. And there remains the challenge of legal compliance with various federal statutes, including but not limited to the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, as we cast up “vision,” “strategy,” “design criteria,” and more.

One definition of Nirvana is, “ Emancipation from ignorance and the extinction of all.” Some critics are already leveling criticism at the FS that the new NFMA rule accomplishes the latter, while at best doing nothing about the former. We’ll have to see how it plays out, how WE play it out….

Dave Iverson | Mar 22, 2005 9:17:14 AM

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