Natural Resource Management:

Opportunities Exist to Enhance Federal Participation in Collaborative Efforts to Reduce Conflicts and Improve Natural Resource Conditions

GAO-08-262: Published: Feb 12, 2008. Publicly Released: Mar 13, 2008.

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Conflict over the use of our nation's natural resources, along with increased ecological problems, has led land managers to seek cooperative means to resolve natural resource conflicts and problems. Collaborative resource management is one such approach that communities began using in the 1980s and 1990s. A 2004 Executive Order on Cooperative Conservation encourages such efforts. GAO was asked to determine (1) experts' views on collaborative resource management, (2) how selected collaborative efforts have addressed conflicts and improved resources, and (3) challenges that agencies face as they participate in such efforts and how the Cooperative Conservation initiative has addressed them. GAO reviewed experts' journal articles, studied seven collaborative groups, and interviewed group members and federal and other public officials.

Experts generally view collaborative resource management that involves public and private stakeholders in natural resource decisions as an effective approach for managing natural resources. Several benefits can result from using collaborative resource management, including reduced conflict and litigation and improved natural resource conditions, according to the experts. A number of collaborative practices, such as seeking inclusive representation, establishing leadership, and identifying a common goal among the participants have been central to successful collaborative management efforts. The success of these groups is often judged by whether they increase participation and cooperation or improve natural resource conditions. Many experts also note that there are limitations to the approach, such as the time and resources it takes to bring people together to work on a problem and reach a decision. Most of the seven collaborative resource management efforts GAO studied in several states across the country were successful in achieving participation and cooperation among their members and improving natural resource conditions. In six of the cases, those involved were able to reduce or avoid the kinds of conflicts that can arise when dealing with contentious natural resource problems. All the efforts, particularly those that effectively reduced or avoided conflict, used at least several of the collaborative practices described by the experts. For example, one effort obtained broad community representation and successfully identified a common goal of using fire, after decades of suppression, to restore the health of a large grasslands area surrounding the community. Also, members of almost all the efforts studied said they have been able to achieve many of their goals for sustaining or improving the condition of specific natural resources. However, for most of these efforts no data were collected on a broad scale to show the effect of their work on overall resource conditions across a large area or landscape. Federal land and resource management agencies--the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service, and the Department of Agriculture's Forest Service--face key challenges to participating in collaborative resource management efforts, according to the experts, federal officials, and participants in the efforts GAO studied. For example, the agencies face challenges in determining whether to participate in a collaborative effort, measuring participation and monitoring results, and sharing agency and group experiences. As a part of the interagency Cooperative Conservation initiative led by the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the federal government has made progress in addressing these challenges. Yet, additional opportunities exist to develop and disseminate tools, examples, and guidance that further address the challenges, as well as to better structure and direct the initiative to achieve the vision of Cooperative Conservation, which involves a number of actions by multiple agencies over the long term. Failure to pursue such opportunities and to create a long-term plan to achieve the vision may limit the effectiveness of the federal government's initiative and collaborative efforts.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Two governmentwide efforts undertaken by the Executive Branch will ensure more consistency between Interior's and USDA's policies regarding employees' participation in nonprofit groups that are collaborative groups, according to officials from the Department of the Interior and USDA. The efforts include an Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) memorandum providing guidance to department and agency heads to remove barriers to employees participating in outside organizations, and a proposed rule from the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) that would permit government employees to participate fully in nonprofit organizations in an official capacity. Both Interior and USDA have developed departmental guidance to implement the OSTP memo and officials said that they plan to use the permission created in the OGE rule, once it is final, to allow their employees to participate in nonprofit groups as a member of the board.

    Recommendation: Furthermore, to ensure that federal agencies can work well with collaborative groups, the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture should take action to develop a joint policy to ensure consistent implementation of ethics rules governing federal employee participation on nonprofit boards that represent collaborative groups.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: CEQ and the other departments involved in cooperative conservation signed an MOU in January 2009 to create a framework for collaborative resource management. We consider this action to fulfill the intent of our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To enhance the federal government's support of and participation in collaborative resource management efforts, the Chairman of CEQ, working with the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, should direct the interagency task force to identify goals, actions, responsible work groups and agencies, and time frames for carrying out the actions needed to implement the Cooperative Conservation initiative, including collaborative resource management, and document these through a written plan, memorandum of understanding, or other appropriate means.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Council on Environmental Quality

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Under the current administration, CEQ's efforts to support collaborative resource management have shifted from the Cooperative Conservation Initiative to the America's Great Outdoors Initiative. CEQ provided written comments to show that through this initiative and others, it has taken actions consistent with some of our recommendations. None of the actions related to this recommendation in particular, so we are closing it as not implemented.

    Recommendation: To enhance the federal government's support of and participation in collaborative resource management efforts, the Chairman of CEQ, working with the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, should direct the interagency task force to identify and evaluate, with input from the Office of Management and Budget, legal and policy changes concerning federal financial assistance that would enhance collaborative efforts.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Council on Environmental Quality

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Under the current administration, CEQ's efforts to support collaborative resource management have shifted from the Cooperative Conservation Initiative to the America's Great Outdoors Initiative. Through this initiative, CEQ collaborated with the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency in 2010 to sponsor 51 public listening sessions across the country about conservation, including ways in which the federal government could be a more effective conservation partner. To follow up on these conversations, CEQ organized a White House Conference on Conservation in March 2012, which highlighted community-driven collaborative efforts across the country and discussed how to build upon their success. The conference brought together a wide range of stakeholders including ranchers, recreationists, local governments, land conservationists, and land managers to share their experiences and discuss their concerns on a variety of conservation, recreation, and natural resource topics. We consider these actions to fulfill the intent of our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To enhance the federal government's support of and participation in collaborative resource management efforts, the Chairman of CEQ, working with the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, should direct the interagency task force to hold periodic national or regional meetings and conferences to bring groups together to share collaborative experiences, identify further challenges, and learn from the lessons of other collaborative groups.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Council on Environmental Quality

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Under the current administration, CEQ's efforts to support collaborative resource management have shifted from the Cooperative Conservation Initiative to the America's Great Outdoors Initiative. CEQ provided written comments to show that through this initiative and others, it has taken actions consistent with some of our recommendations. None of the actions related to this recommendation in particular, so we are closing it as not implemented.

    Recommendation: To enhance the federal government's support of and participation in collaborative resource management efforts, the Chairman of CEQ, working with the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, should direct the interagency task force to identify examples of groups that have conducted natural resource monitoring, including at the landscape level, and develop and disseminate guidance or protocols for others to use in setting up such monitoring efforts.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Council on Environmental Quality

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: CEQ has undertaken efforts to disseminate information and tools for participation in collaborative efforts at both the agency head and federal land manager levels. First, CEQ and OMB expect to finalize a joint memorandum in September 2012 that will encourage agencies to focus on up-front collaboration. According to CEQ, this memorandum will supplement a 2005 memorandum that included tools for agencies to assess the value and appropriateness for an agency to collaborate and determine whether to engage in collaborative efforts. The memorandum will be disseminated among the heads of all federal agencies. Second, under the current administration, CEQ's efforts to support collaborative resource management have shifted from the Cooperative Conservation Initiative to the America's Great Outdoors Initiative. As a part of this initiative, CEQ organized the March 2012 White House Conference on Conservation that provided a forum for discussion and dissemination of information on how to create and sustain successful collaborative efforts. Participants of this conference included federal land managers. Through these efforts, CEQ has disseminated information to help federal agencies determine their involvement in collaborative efforts and has fulfilled the intent of this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To enhance the federal government's support of and participation in collaborative resource management efforts, the Chairman of CEQ, working with the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, should direct the interagency task force to disseminate, more widely, tools for the agencies to use in assessing and determining if, when, and how to participate in a particular collaborative effort and how to sustain their participation over time.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President: Council on Environmental Quality

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Two governmentwide efforts undertaken by the Executive Branch will ensure greater consistency between Interior's and USDA's policies regarding their employees' participation in nonprofit organizations that are collaborative groups, according to officials from the Department of the Interior and USDA. The efforts include an Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) memorandum providing guidance to department and agency heads to remove barriers to employees participating in outside organizations, and a proposed rule from the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) that would permit government employees to participate fully in nonprofit organizations in an official capacity. Both Interior and USDA have developed departmental guidance to implement the OSTP memo and officials said that they plan to use the permission created in the OGE rule, once it is final, to allow their employees to participate in nonprofit boards.

    Recommendation: Furthermore, to ensure that federal agencies can work well with collaborative groups, the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture should take action to develop a joint policy to ensure consistent implementation of ethics rules governing federal employee participation on nonprofit boards that represent collaborative groups.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

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