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Forest Service Chief: Collaborative Management Yields Trust, Better Results

Western Governors' Association Forest and Rangeland Management workshop.
Western Governors' Association Forest and Rangeland Management workshop.

This week, representatives from environmental groups, the timber industry, and people with an interest in public lands came together in Missoula to talk, and maybe even start to trust each other.

"Because that’s what comes out of this concept of collaboration."

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell
Credit (PD)
U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell

That’s U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, a strong supporter of collaboration when it comes to managing public lands.

"Being able to bring diverse interests together in a way that people can work together, find compromise to move forward, the end result is trust."

Tidwell spoke Tuesday at a policy forum put on by the Western Governors' Association, of which Montana Governor Steve Bullock, a Democrat, is the current chair.

Bullock said the kind of collaboration that’s now becoming common between ranchers, loggers, anglers, hunters, and conservationists was previously impossible.

"A decade ago, we probably would have asked for law enforcement to be there just to keep the peace."

He said that now, getting everyone in the room brings up more shared interests then disagreements.

"I’m excited for us to begin to roll up our sleeves and really get to work on this."

Bullock went on to talk about the goals for this specific workshop that he convened: figure out what forest management programs are working and not working; how to improve communication between state agencies and land managers; and to investigate which collaboratives are working and why.

The running joke on Tuesday morning was that national forest and rangeland issues are historically harder to solve than international conflict.

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tidwell says that’s changing, but people have to be willing to come to the table first.

"When you leave out a portion of the community, then you’re not hearing from them. At the same time, people have to be willing to participate in collaboration. It’s not easy, it’s hard. But you’ve got to be willing to come to the table, and you have to be willing to listen."

"Not everybody can come to the table in Missoula to participate in a two-day meeting," says Arlene Montgomery with the Friends of the Wild Swan in Bigfork.

She’s been fighting for sustainable ecosystems since the 1980s. Montgomery says she’s not necessarily opposed to collaborative projects, but participating in them can be expensive and time consuming for grassroots activists.

"We have to be mindful that we have laws that allow for public participation. And I see these collaborative groups as basically a way to skirt around our environmental laws and actually exclude interested public from the process," Montgomery says.

Tickets for the Western Governors' Association’s workshop were $100 a piece. Not to mention travel and lodging costs for people outside of Missoula.

Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell:

"But we got to remember that these are the public's lands. It’s essential that they get to be part of it. They want to have a level of engagement that goes way beyond just submitting public comments, sending in a letter. They want to be at the table, and we want them there. My experience with collaboration: yes, it takes a little bit longer on the front end, but it produces better results. We make better decisions and we are able to reflect what the public wants. And it is proving to be very successful."

The Western Governors' Association Missoula workshop wraps up today, with roundtable discussions of case studies from across the Western states.

The next meeting will be held in Idaho in October.

Find out more about the workshop’s agenda and speakers, or watch the live stream of the meetings.

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