Can conventional planning work?

by Stephen McCool

IT WASN’T TOO LONG ago that I was sitting on the banks of the Rio Negro − a major tributary of the Amazon River in Brazil − reflecting on changes that are coming to that region. And like the Amazon Basin, change is coming to the California desert. A transformation is before us, and we are confronted with the question of how that change will be managed. The forces causing that change − climate, human migration, re­source demands, shifts in public values for example − are large and seemingly unstoppable. Several questions arose in my mind as I sat on that bluff: Would the character of the region be safeguarded? Would the spectacular wildlife be pre­served? Would the natural ebb and flow of both the river and its people continue or be transformed to an unrecognizable future? How would these changes be guided in a way that protects the char­acter of the basin? This transformation, I thought, would occur not in one full swish, if you will, but in a series of small, incremental changes, each of which was unrecognizable, maybe unnoticeable, but together result in transformation.

These questions confront all of us as we think about the desert as well, even though one is arid and the other is hu­mid, even though one has enormous riv­ers and the other has mainly ephemeral ones, even though one has often scarce vegetation and the other has dark dense forests that hide unique wildlife. When I grew up in southern California, I was at­tracted to the desert and the Joshua Tree area because of its remoteness and lack of development. A recent visit to what is now a national park yielded positive memories but also raised anxieties about the visitation levels and developments that have occurred. These concerns apply nearly everywhere as we attempt to protect at least 17% of the terrestrial surface of the earth − an internationally accepted goal that is a spin-off of the international Convention of Biological Diversity.

The pandemic has put its indelible mark on American culture and has emphasized the importance of parks in keeping people healthy. A lot of good people got sick and died, most probably some were the environmental advocates and agency caretakers of our most spe­cial places. In this emergency, the idea that national parks, national forests, and other public lands serve as indispens­able places for Americans to escape to in time of crisis is reinforced.

We are now faced with how those places will be cared for, not just because of the mark COVID put on our culture, but because these places are special to us, their natural and cultural heritage intertwined with American society yet faced with the uncertainty and change that characterize their future. That future is not only a function of their present, but also how we plan for the future.

To manage those places we as a soci­ety adopted a particular form of plan­ning, which experts call rational-compre­hensive planning. This form of planning has relied on a step-by-step process that begins with collecting all relevant techni­cal data, then progresses through specif­ic steps: identifying objectives, selecting a preferred alternative, and implement­ing the preference. It places a premium on collecting all possible technical data and making rational choices. All Ameri­can natural resource management uses this model because it comes out of a phi­losophy called “reductionism” that arose in the late 19th century. The philosophy reduces complicated problems to simple ones, through the scientific method, and use of experts to do the work. It is taught in natural resource schools of America. It sounds good, except that it works only when our resource management problems are technical. However, most are conflicts in values. For example, one group would like an area to be managed for wildlife, another for recreation, still another for woodland products. These alternatives result from our differing value systems (nothing bad about that). Resolving these challenges requires more than technical analysis; it requires public judgement, debate, and consen­sus. It requires we acknowledge the role of humans in natural resources, and the flow of benefits to people in addition to biodiversity.

This approach to planning has led us through an illusionary path of success, leading us to simplistic solutions and eventually to many of our current problems. For example, over a long time in the 20th century, we thought that wildfire in western forests was bad, and thus the solution was to extinguish all fires as soon as possible. We thought that predator species on wildlands (like the grey wolf, grizzly bears, and mountain lion) were bad and thus had to be exter­minated. We thought that people visiting park lands would automatically lead to unacceptable biological impacts and thus applied a visitor carrying capacity to limit the damage.

Unfortunately, each of the complex problems mentioned above resulted not only in simplistic answers but also plan­ning processes that placed a premium on the technical expertise held by planners, not on the values and world views em­braced by the public. Technical expertise tended to value efficiency over equity. These processes may lead to even thorn­ier problems that are often as much about what we value (and ultimately the vision we have for public lands) as they are about how we look forward and avoid future challenges. American journalist H.L. Mencken, wrote “To every complex problem, there is a simple and neat solution − and it is wrong.” Simple solutions applied in the past may even be the cause of today’s problems.

Eventually, not only did these simplistic solutions result in failure, but they have also led to revolt among some scientists, managers, and advocates. This revolt is as much about how we plan as much as it is about the solutions. They argue that we need to think deeper about how ecosystems function, the relationships among the parts of eco­systems, and the role of people in those systems. Extinguishing all fires by 10AM the day after they are detected ignores the important role of fire in western wildland ecosystems. Killing predators overlooks their part in controlling prey populations and thus how ecosystems function. Establishing visitor carrying capacities disregards the complexity of visitor experiences and the importance of nature to human health. I am not saying that each of these actions should never be used, just that we must “dive deeper” before we deploy them.

As a society, we like to see problems fixed, and right away. Our temptation is to run out and apply a fix. But problems in natural resources management are often really rather deep. Like an iceberg, the problems we see are a symptom of other challenges which lie deep down. And so we need to fight this temptation of a quick fix. Conventional planning may provide the quick fix, but rarely does it enhance trust, build ownership in that “solution,” or deal with the roots of a problem. We need to dive deeper into our planning processes and reflect on what is the fundamental cause of our problems in decision making.

For example, the opening of Joshua Tree National Park after the initial COVID-19 closing resulted in a large amount of littering and other vandalism. These acts could be simple vandalism, or a function of something deeper. What we call vandalism, may be expressions of frustration at the National Park Service for closures or regulations, or vandals may be less experienced visitors who don’t know how to act in natural environments, or they could be reacting to limits on their visitation. Law enforce­ment may have some immediate impact but may do little to stem the long-term behavior of these visitors. Similarly, education may be sufficient if visitors are simply ignorant, but diving deeper through interaction with the public and the vandals themselves may find more effective and equitable ways of reducing impacts.

Joshua Tree NP staff Lindsay Stone (left) and Yanina Aldao Galvan (right), are sealing a human-caused wound to a Joshua tree with bug-repelling sealant. They then place a cage around the area to prevent larger animals or weather from further damaging the tree. Photo by Emily Hassell/NPS

Thus, we need to think differently about why we are doing what we want to do and how we do it. Too often we begin a planning process by proposing what we want to do first, and never really consider why we want to do it. An example may be rapid growth in prey species in a protected area. In the past, we focused on what we want to do − reduce predators (makes sense doesn’t it?) − but if we ask why, we will begin to explore the social ecological system and then see all the leverage points in that system. We would ask what is the func­tion of that system, how does it operate, what are the delays among parts? By asking these kinds of questions we begin to understand what the system’s place is in both larger and smaller systems. We begin to understand the leverage points in it, and what happens when we manip­ulate one component of it.

Those questions lead to thinking about a vision for a system. A vision is an aspirational statement of some desired condition at a point in the future. An example could be the Ducks Unlimited vision: “wetlands sufficient to fill the skies with waterfowl today, tomorrow, and forever.” We can visualize that state­ment; we almost want to run outside to see those waterfowl flying. But it is also aspirational. And it does not say how that vision will be achieved.

We move toward that vision by action identified in those plans. And that vision for public lands is shared. It is shared among planners, scientists, managers, and advocates. For an orga­nization there is nothing more powerful than a shared vision. But a shared vision takes a long time and hard work to develop. A vision creates something that does not exist until we write it down. It will take debate, argument, and even wordsmithing. It will take a commitment to something other than our linear, process-oriented planning that we do conventionally.

A vision needs to be shared to be useful and it needs to be built cooperatively un­der a “big tent.” I say a big tent because we will need a lot of different people engaged and contributing: planners, yes, but scientists, managers, advocates, and people not usually part of a planning process but constituents anyhow, such as minority and eth­nic groups. When we meet these challenges or take them on, we can address important underlying questions. And doing so, gets us to deal with the dilemma of use or preser­vation (but more realistically, how much use and how much preservation).

Such issues can only be addressed and resolved through engaging the public. En­gaging the public throughout a public planning process is needed, not just at the issue identification and evaluation of alternative stages. NEPA sets these stages as minimum, but too often they are viewed as the only place for public engagement. This public engagement comes in different forms and throughout the planning process.

In spite of their obvious difference in ecology, geomorphology, and culture, the Amazon and California desert have similarities: after all they are in transition and decisions about their future will need to be made. The public lands of both regions have enormous value to us. Much of this value is in their use as a haven from the stresses and strains of urban life. Joshua Tree National Park estimated that two million visits occurred in the park in 2020, despite being closed during April, much of May, and not having many international visits. The COVID surprise contains an important lesson for us: management needs to be adaptable and nimble.

The values held in the desert belong to all of us, including those who will come at some time in the future. Parks are not separate from nearby communities, but part of a system of humans and nature. They play an important part in our mental and physical health, while also protecting the biodiversity within them. Planning processes that we use in the 21st century need to recognize this and be more holistic, more inclusive, and more equitable than in the past. The result should be a plan that is more adaptable, respectful of different cultural values, and integrated into daily lives of communities and visitors.

Steve McCool writes from Missoula, Montana, where he is Professor Emeritus at the Uni­versity of Montana. He believes that societies flourish when they interact with and bond to their natural and cultural heritage. His science − working to increase the capacity of national parks and protected areas to address the challenges of managing visitors − and his writing, also dealing with this topic, are frequently cited in the technical literature and contribute to this bonding.