Leadership Corner

Public engagement: A field perspective

November 30th, 2018 at 1:30PM

Portrait of Joe Koloski.
Joe Koloski, District Ranger,
Mark Twain National Forest,
Ava/Cassville/Willow Springs Ranger District

I’m pleased to introduce this Leadership Corner article from Joe Koloski, district ranger on the Mark Twain National Forest. Our dedication to service is evident in it, and it’s clear to me that our Code and Commitments are coming through in our work with the communities we serve, resulting in greater trust, relationships and ultimately better forest management. When you read it, you’ll recognize a few of our core values—service, interdependence and conservation. You’ll also see that the author and his colleagues committed to respecting everyone, invested in relationships and learned from mistakes. I hope you enjoy this article as much as I did, and I hope you think about your work and how to incorporate our core values for the greater good.

—Chris French, Acting Deputy Chief, National Forest System

An important aspect of the national priority “being good neighbors and providing excellent customer service” is public engagement that leads to an awareness of our own values and beliefs and those of our neighbors.

When I reflect on my own journey, the 2014 Butler Hollow Project on the Mark Twain National Forest had a lasting impact on the way I think about public engagement.

I was a new district ranger on the Mark Twain National Forest in Missouri and was tasked with moving the Butler Hollow Project forward. This landscape-scale ecosystem restoration project had been in the planning stages for some time and had consistently stalled.

I learned that planning was about 90 percent complete and there was known stakeholder support from a number of partner organizations. I also discovered that there had been little to no public engagement, which was a result of past performance and traditionally low public interest.

We proceeded in releasing chapters 1 and 2 of the Environment Assessment (Purpose and Need and Proposed Action) as a combined 30-day comment and scoping package. At that point, our lack of robust public engagement came to a head with a local group full of passionate members coming forward to oppose the project and express their unhappiness. This resulted in a lengthy period of high media and congressional interest, unflattering social media commentary about the Forest Service and our partners, and contentious and uncomfortable public meetings.

At the core of the controversy was a lack of trust in the Forest Service. Community members didn’t know us or understand our capacity and commitment. This also brought forward the reality of conflicting belief systems, such as sustainable management vs. no management. Recognizing the futility of trying to change people’s minds, we came to the conclusion that what was needed was a change in our approach.

Our new approach was active listening in order to gain understanding about the beliefs of community members and how that shaped their concerns. We found that this approach put us in a position to make reasonable efforts to address those concerns. For example, we incorporated major changes to the project design. We reduced the project footprint from 17,000 acres to around 5,000 acres, focusing on the area with the highest need and potential for restoration. Reducing the scope of project activities reduced implementation time, allowing us to readily demonstrate our expertise, capacity and commitment. We also uncovered opportunities to work across boundaries with an adjacent state park and other state owned lands.

As of today, the decision notice is signed and the project is underway. We sold the first timber sale in the project area, completed a prescribed burn and have another planned for this year. We still have work to do in rebuilding and restoring trust with the community; however, we are moving in the right direction and taking steps to improve relationships.

If I were to sum up the change in strategy in a few words, I would say engage with the public early and often. By engaging community members early in the planning process, we can design projects that not only meet our needs, but meet the needs of community members as well. This new approach builds trust and credibility while allowing us to accomplish essential restoration objectives.

As a leader, I strive to apply what I learned through that experience when I approach project planning and public engagement. In order to be a good neighbor and provide good customer service, we must take the time to understand the values of community members, as well as recognize our own values as an agency. This is the starting point to building strong relationships necessary for our success.