Problem Solving for Sustainable Solutions
By Gloria Flora

The Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative (NRCC) welcomes Gloria Flora, a 23-year veteran of the U.S. Forest Service, as a research associate. She heads Sustainable Obtainable Solutions (S.O.S.), a new non-profit organization dedicated to the sustainability of public lands and the communities that depend on them. Having held field-going, natural resource specialist jobs as well as leadership positions, Gloria has witnessed decades of change throughout the Intermountain West, particularly in the Northern Rocky Mountains.The sweeping changes that have affected forest management, community stability, and human relationships have given her a unique perspective.

Problem solving is the crux of NRCC's and its research associates' work. One of the dilemmas of solving natural resource conflicts is developing answers that do not create additional environmental or social problems over time. A second difficulty is creating direct, quick, robust processes -- solution searches -- which include both affected people and interrelated issues. To be truly workable, answers must develop feasible actions for sustainable improvement.

All natural resource decisions have three inherent dimensions, three bottom lines, as it were -- environmental, economic, and social. To ignore or discount any one of them produces solutions that can neither withstand scrutiny nor engage the majority of supporters over the long term. And considering only one bottomline in decision making creates havoc in the others. Many of the problems we struggle with today are the results of unintended consequences from past 'solutions' that only addressed one aspect of the equation.

For example, mines, which are usually thought to be an economic boon to an area, may end up costing hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up if they are not properly operated and reclaimed. In certain instances, such as those where groundwater becomes polluted, the damage to people and environments is beyond calculation. All three bottom lines must always be considered.

One of the challenges of managing public lands is the complex context in which decisions need to be made. Seldom is there a clear choice that satisfies all interests. Problems that have taken years, even decades, to develop cannot be solved in significantly less time than it took for them to evolve.

To think and act sustainably requires systems thinking -- the art and science of understanding interactions among variables that are causally, environmentally, geographically, socially, and politically related. In problem solving, both the end result and the means of achieving it must target the interconnected causes and conditions. Sustainable solutions are not possible without understanding the cause and effect of proposed answers on all related structures and processes.

Seeing the Forest and the Trees
Recent drought and wildfires have quickened interest in forested lands, particularly those close to people and private property. Wildfires have increased in size and intensity through the last decade culminating in the last two years of devastating blazes and smoke-filled summers in most western states. Forest fires cause a barrage of wild accusations of blame. The real causes began with a well-intentioned fire suppression policy ninety years ago, followed by timber management practices that encouraged the cutting of fire-resistant old trees along with economic disincentives to thin and use smaller ('pre-commercial') trees. Even prescribed fire can be a politically unacceptable management tool because of the smoke and inherent risk of the fire getting out of control.

To further complicate the scenario, public land agencies are saddled with a great deal of distrust and value-driven divisiveness between community members, agencies, and organizations. One group's solution may be another's worst nightmare.

Optimism is returning to this debate, however, because the essential elements of effective problem solving are finally present. It's no longer only industry vs. environmentalists vying for the favor of public land agencies. Diverse, collaborative, problem-solving groups abound, boasting some resounding successes in natural resource management as well as relationships. Systems thinking is being applied. We're asking valuable questions, like, 'How can the by-products of restoration be kept in the community to provide value-added goods and services?', 'How can we best involve all the affected people?', 'What are the long-term implications of our choices?', 'Will our great-grandchildren be able to enjoy these same benefits from our national forests?'.

The Energy Policy's Poor Example
What happens when problem solving relies only on politics, economics, and power? We are watching that lesson unfold in the congressional debate over development of oil and gas on public lands. The House of Representatives recently passed an energy bill based on a national energy policy that was crafted without public debate or diverse opinions.

It includes provisions to eliminate local decision-making, expedite development, discount environmental sensitivity, and change past decisions that exclude energy development. Socially and environmentally significant lands, like the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and the Rocky Mountain Front, are placed in the initial crosshairs of development.

Regardless of position or philosophy, no one can claim that this process is actually solving problems. To be successful and sustainable, people with wide-ranging perspectives, legitimate interests, and experience need to look together at the three bottom lines of social, environmental, and economic costs and benefits. The debate must also expand to include all interrelated factors and people over a long time frame. In the case of a national energy policy, that requires looking at the international and long-term implications of our choices. The key points of this issue are, first, that it has failed to become a true public debate on a national scale and, second, that systems thinking is not being applied to it.

S.O.S.: Here to Help
Sustainable Obtainable Solutions (S.O.S.) is an emerging non-profit dedicated to the sustainability of public lands and the communities that depend on them. S.O.S. helps people engaged in problem solving to become more effective in finding sustainable solutions to the complex problems confronting public lands and the plant, animal, and human communities that depend on them.

One of S.O.S.'s projects is working with key politicians, organizations, citizens and industries to promote collaborative forest restoration, find ways to create jobs, enhance local economies, and rehabilitate deteriorated and high-fire-risk landscapes. Restoring natural landscapes can put skilled woods workers and their equipment to good and profitable use removing unnaturally dense brush and understory vegetation, the unintended consequence of aggressive fire suppression. Brush, saplings and the residue from logging (biomass)] can be converted to energy, and small-diameter trees can be used for value-added, specialty wood products. Roads no longer needed for access can be stabilized to stop erosion and restore habitat integrity.

S.O.S. in engaged in an array of public land issues regarding energy. One effort is to help people understand the consequences of continued reliance on nonrenewable energy sources. We caution communities about decision-making processes that would effectively exclude public debate and local decision-making and the consequences of such processes for special landscapes like the Rocky Mountain Front. Teaming up with individuals in Canada is helping us compare the actual effects of natural gas development there to similar landscapes here. Another energy project goes beyond public lands; a team of dedicated Montanans is collaborating with specialists in different fields and citizens with different backgrounds to define an energy vision for the state that will significantly reduce carbon emissions over the next two decades.

An exciting think-tank is forming through the efforts of S.O.S, Great Old Broads for Wilderness and Women's Voices for the Earth. We intend to bring together diverse organizations and scholars from across the nation to explore avenues for deeper engagement and consideration of human concerns -- the social component of the three bottom lines -- in public land policy.

The ultimate lesson is that public lands represent a national treasure chest that must be managed sustainably for the good of the land and the people who depend on it, not just for those who are alive today, but the next generations as well.