Additional Observations from the Conference

Engaging with Experiential Use

More than 165 million people visited Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service lands in 2012, according to statistics compiled by the agencies. These recreational and educational visits are increasingly being called the “experiential use” of the public lands, and this use’s profile is rising under BLM and USFS multiple-use mandates because of its growing economic benefits.

Outdoor recreation spending in Western states totaled $225.6 billion in 2011, according to an analysis by the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), which includes travel expenditures, as well as purchases of outdoor gear and vehicles used in to enjoy the great Western outdoors. That experiential spending translated into 2.3 million jobs in the region in the same year, by OIA’s count, as well as $15.4 billion in federal tax receipts and $15.4 billion more in state and local tax receipts.

With experiential use established as an economically important “productive use” of the public lands alongside grazing and oil, gas, mineral, and timber extraction, the discussion typically turns to its environmental impact. Where does experiential use fall in the “preservation versus use” debate? Should we think of it as a consumptive use of the public lands, or a non-consumptive use?

The trick here, as in any debate over “use” of the public lands, is to avoid casting experiential use in extreme terms or unhelpful binaries. Adam Cramer, general counsel for Outdoor Alliance, reminded the Nation Possessed roundtable that discussions cast in those terms can verge on the cartoonish. “We’re talking in terms of one good guy and one bad guy, like this is a two-dimensional fight. If you just look at preservation you lose a lot of nuance in between,” he said.

Experiential use of the public lands, like any use, has a spectrum of environmental impacts. Experiential use’s marks on the land are usually lighter than those of traditional “productive” uses – hiking trails and natural gas road networks are not equals in environmental perturbation – but the impacts of experiential use do not always align perfectly with preservation ideals either. Off-highway vehicles’ erosive capabilities are not to be underestimated, for example.

A more constructive conversation about the standing of experiential use might rather be about which uses are most appropriate in which places. Bob Abbey, former BLM director, pointed out that “multiple use doesn’t mean every use on every acre.” Neither does the BLM multiple-use mandate provide exclusive access and control to any single entity, giving land managers the flexibility to consider all potential public lands uses across a wide swath of public lands and site the most appropriate uses in the most appropriate places – a “zoning” strategy of sorts.

As decision makers consider promoting the experiential use of the public lands, they should also recognize several associated benefits that are often overlooked. Experiential use of the public lands has real power to boost public health, to connect the next generation of youth to the great outdoors, and to increase public lands equity and access for underrepresented urban and minority communities.

Compromise in Zion

Bob Bennett spent his nearly two decades in the US Senate negotiating many a land swap between public and private interests in his home state of Utah. Bennett, a Republican from Salt Lake City who served in the Senate from 1993 to 2011, said he learned a few things about the necessary precursors for compromise while mediating between quarreling stakeholders – namely, that “when time isn’t on anybody’s side, you start to have the basis for a deal.”

While crafting a land use compromise in southern Utah’s scenic and rapidly-developing Washington County, Bennett sought to carve out a zone of agreement between environmentalists aiming to protect wilderness-quality lands and endangered wildlife, municipalities looking for room to grow, state land boards targeting revenue for schools, federal public lands agencies wishing they could simplify patchwork land holdings, and off-highway vehicle enthusiasts wanting to recreate, among others.

Compromise didn’t appear to be in the cards until all parties involved realized that they had everything to lose in a stalemate. According to Bennett, Washington County wanted certainty about acreage for development around cities such as St. George, while environmentalists wanted certainty about wilderness designations, which they saw as increasingly imperative because of heavy uses of some of the county’s most treasured bluffs, mesas and river corridors. “Certainty mattered to both sides, and time wasn’t on the sides of either of them. It was ripe for negotiation,” said Bennett.

The multi-year effort to forge a compromise resulted in the landmark Washington County Growth and Conservation Act of 2009, which President Obama signed into law as part of an omnibus public lands bill at the beginning of his first term. The land use legislation established a new National Conservation Area, added land to Zion National Park, and designated 165.5 miles of Wild and Scenic River, while also requiring the Bureau of Land Management to draft an Off-Highway Vehicle trail plan and conveying land to the county’s school district, municipalities’ public projects, and the Shivwits Band of Paiute Indians.

The agreement marked a high point in what had otherwise been decades of bitter fighting over how best to balance the protection of public lands and endangered species with responsible development. Said Bennett: “There is value in certainty. There is value in resolution.“

Scalar Smarts and Jurisdictional Jujitsu

Environmental and natural resource challenges do not heed the jurisdictional boundaries we impose upon them, nor do they mind matters of political or analytical scale. These incongruences often require adaptive management on two counts: in their efforts to adaptively manage a public lands problem, decision makers must also aim to adaptively manage themselves.

According to Lynn Scarlett, a former deputy secretary of the Interior in the George W. Bush Administration, a particularly troublesome regulatory mismatch occurs when the scopes of data collection and stakeholder collaboration fail to align. “Increasingly, the challenges we face are challenges that unfold across jurisdictions and agencies. One needs a vantage point at that large scale, but a conundrum arises when the scale of the necessary information base is much broader than the scale at which stakeholders can successfully collaborate,” said Scarlett.

To manage a major river basin, for example, decision makers may find that critical data should be collected at the watershed level, while key stakeholders might convene most productively within sub-watersheds. Those decision makers might also discover that neither scale aligns with existing federal or state agency boundaries.

When faced with multi-scalar, cross-jurisdictional management puzzles, decision makers should “aspire to an interconnected platform,” said Scarlett. She encourages public lands managers to adapt their own efforts to fit the case at hand, and its particular mix of scale and scope. Decision makers should undertake governance efforts at the scale most appropriate for collaboration, while pursuing assessments at whatever scale is optimal scientifically, she said.

Transboundary, multi-scalar resource challenges are not going away. Having a grip on relevant boundaries and scales, and knowing how to bridge and interweave them, will be key to making progress on profound and perplexing problems.

Rallying Around Resilience

Resilience is the capacity of a system – social or ecological – to absorb change while retaining its basic structure and function. Resilience is about being able to bounce back from the unexpected, and perhaps because “the unexpected” tests us all in our lives, the concept seems to have broad appeal among otherwise divergent public lands interests.

“Who could be against resilience?” asked former Utah Senator Bob Bennett of his 13 co-panelists on the Nation Possessed roundtable. As it turned out, nobody. When the Student Congress proposed that public lands agencies adopt a land ethic grounded in the concept of resilience, our assortment of public lands interests formed a quick – and positive – consensus around the idea. Their pro-resilience accord was one of the speediest and surest of the conference, suggesting that resilience ideals might serve as useful common ground amongst conflicting public lands users and uses.

Resilience’s popularity might be partly attributed to its relationship with another important public lands concept: “sustainability.” The two terms are often found in each other’s company, though they carry different meanings and invoke different responses.

Sustainability is typically used to describe management policies that aim to achieve balance between resource supply and demand. Sustainability implies that there is a way to optimize our use of the environment so that it can be sustained, in a steady state, far into the future for the generations yet to come. As such, sustainability is all about efficiency, and it is often used in a normative sense – as a “fighting word” wielded by parties who see their use of the public lands as “more sustainable” than another use.

Resilience, on the other hand, is often used descriptively, to delineate the ideal state of dynamic, nonlinear systems with the social and ecological capacity to adjust and rebound. “We don’t have an optimization problem in a steady-state environment, we have a resilience problem in a shifting environment,” say Brian Walker and David Salt, authors of Resilience Thinking (2006).

Managing for resilience means accepting that the environment is often shaped by extreme events, not “average” change, and that it is impossible to manage bits and pieces of complex, ever-changing ecosystems for efficiency. Resilience ideals require us to embrace change and work with it, and force us to recognize inherent limits to prediction and foresight.

Resilience ideals are predicated upon a dose of humility that helps to loosen up hardened notions of which public lands uses are “better” or “worse” than others. The concept requires us to assess these uses anew, with a novel mental framework that asks how we can best bolster ecosystems’ natural ability to persist and adapt. Resilience also encourages the nurturing of social capital as a central goal – a goal that, as the Nation Possessed roundtable would suggest, has strong prospects amidst daunting complexity.