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GAO Report on Cooperative Conservation Review [“Opportunities Exist to Enhance Federal Participation in Collaborative Efforts to Reduce Conflicts and Improve Natural Resource Conditions”]

Why GAO did the Study

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. The 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.

GAO is recommending that CEQ and the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture take several actions to develop a long-term plan, guidance, and tools that could enhance their management and support of collaborative efforts.  

What GAO Found

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.

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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. [Table 1, from the full GAO report, arrays benefits and limitations.]

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.

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Table 1: Benefits and Limitations of Collaborative Processes



Category: Benefits

Reduction in Conflict and Litigation

Conflict is reduced and better managed, which may prevent parties resorting to litigation.

Better Natural Resource Results

More creative solutions are identified and better decisions are made because a broad array of knowledge, including local information, is incorporated into decisions. Solutions are easier to implement because there is typically less opposition, sometimes leading to a cost savings.

Shared Ownership and Authority

Ownership and responsibility for a problem are shared and state and federal agencies become partners with local agencies and groups. Such joint stewardship can make federal and state programs more locally relevant and can increases fairness in the process.

Increased Trust

Increased trust among participants, between organizations, and between decision makers.

Improved Communication

Communication is improved and becomes more open and honest.

Increased Understanding

Participants learn about and gain an understanding and appreciation of the natural resource problem and of other participants’ perspectives, including local knowledge.

Increased Community Capacity

Increased community capacity involves increased public engagement and
awareness, social networks, and community ability to engage in dialogue.

Category: Limitations

Process Difficult/Time-Consuming

The process can be inefficient, slow, and require large amounts of resources.

Process Does Not Always Work

There are circumstances in which collaboration or reaching consensus is not possible for reasons such as irreconcilable differences, particular groups derailing the process, or a resistance to change.

Category: Critiques

Process Is Not Equitable

Power is not equally balanced among participants, placing some at a
disadvantage and making the process undemocratic. Not all groups who have a legitimate interest may be able to participate, which may mean that their concerns are not addressed. For example, national environmental groups cannot participate in all local efforts.

Results in One, or More, Groups Being Co-opted

The collaborative group is taken over or assimilated by a more powerful or
established interest.

May Produce Least Common Denominator

The focus on consensus as an end result can lead to a solution that is a
compromise that may not necessarily reflect the best science or the view of any group.

Reduced Accountability


Lessened accountability to the public or individual constituencies occurs
through aspects of the process such as devolving federal authority to
collaborative groups and removing discussion from the public eye.

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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.  [Here ends Highlights (http://www.gao.gov/highlights/d08262high.pdf) of GAO-08-262 (http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d08262.pdf), a report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests, Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, U.S. Senate.  The remainder of this article summarizes areas of the report that the Editor saw as particularly transferable to EPA’s collaboration work.]

The GAO report noted that key challenges [Table 2] that the agencies face fall within the following major areas:

Improving employees’ collaborative skills. Often, federal employees are technical experts and may not have the skills and experience to collaborate. Collaborative skills include the ability to conduct meetings, involve relevant stakeholders, resolve disputes, and share technical information to make it accessible to groups.

Determining whether to participate in a particular collaborative effort. Opportunities to collaborate continually emerge as community members initiate efforts. However, without understanding the external factors that may affect success, federal land and resource management agencies may become involved and invest resources in a collaborative effort that has little chance of succeeding.

Table 2 - Key Challenges



Improving Federal Employees’ Collaborative Skills

Skill and experience interacting and communicating with the public and conflict
resolution skills.

Determining Whether to Participate in a Collaborative Effort

Evaluating particular factors that will affect whether a collaborative effort is likely to succeed in particular circumstances. Such factors include the capacity for the community to engage in such efforts, which may depend on the community having leaders, social networks, and local infrastructure and institutions that facilitate civic involvement; and external conditional factors  such as an issue that has a history of litigation and viewpoints rooted in the community that participants bring with them into a collaborative effort such as stereotypes or a history of distrust among community members.

Sustaining Participation

Achieving and sustaining the consistent participation of all relevant stakeholders and people with collaborative, leadership, and technical skills and being able to build trust and equal footing among the participants. Also includes a lack of sufficient time, money, or people to fully support a collaborative effort.

Measuring and Monitoring for Accountability

Achieving and demonstrating accountability through measuring participation and monitoring natural resources given the long time horizons of natural resource results.

Working within Federal Laws and Agency Policies

Agency support of collaboration through culture, funding, laws, and policies, and relationships with other agencies and organizations.

                                                 Source: GAO analysis

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Sustaining federal employees’ participation over time. Agency employees can contribute scientific and technical expertise, such as habitat identification and mapping skills, to help plan and focus the group’s work. Limited participation by federal agencies may constrain the amount of work that can be planned and therefore accomplished by both the agency and the group.

Measuring participation and monitoring results to ensure accountability. Participation in and natural resource results of collaborative efforts are difficult to measure and collaborative efforts often lack a systematic approach for monitoring the results.  A lack of measuring or monitoring data may make it difficult for agencies and their partners to demonstrate and be accountable for their results and justify their continued participation.

Sharing agency and group experiences with collaboration. Collaborative groups are scattered throughout the United States and do not have many opportunities to meet and share experiences. Although Web sites and guidebooks exist to share information, without venues to bring collaborative groups together, it is more difficult for group members to learn and benefit directly from each other’s experience.

Working within the framework of federal statutes and agency policies to support collaboration. Some federal laws and agency policies appear to be inconsistent with collaboration.  Without evaluating the laws and policies involved, the federal agencies cannot determine the changes needed to better balance collaboration with good government practices.  [See EPA's Legal Framework Supports Collaboration]

While group structure and process may differ, GAO found that many experts identified collaborative practices that groups share and that can contribute to effective collaboration. The experts primarily identified the following practices through studying various existing collaborative resource management efforts:

Seek inclusive representation. All stakeholders—individuals and organizations whose interests are affected by the process or its outcome—should be included in the process by participating or being represented.

Develop a collaborative process. Though processes vary, good ones fit the needs and circumstances of their situation. And obtain commitment from the participants that an agreement will be implemented.

Pursue flexibility, openness, and respect. Flexibility, transparency, and respect should be built into the collaborative process.

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Find leadership. Collaborative groups need to find credible leaders capable of articulating a strong vision, and build skills so that these leaders can effectively represent the interests of their organizations.

Identify or develop a common goal. By establishing a goal based on what the group shares in common—a sense of place or community, mutual goals, or mutual fears—rather than on where there is disagreement among missions or philosophies, a collaborative group can shape its own vision and define its own purpose.

Develop a process for obtaining information. It is important to develop a common factual base, which can be accomplished by all participants jointly gathering and developing a common understanding of relevant data. This process allows the stakeholders to [review and weigh before they agree to] accept the facts themselves, rather than having the facts disseminated to them through experts.

Leverage available resources. Since collaboration can take time and resources to accomplish such activities as building trust among the participants, setting up the ground rules for the process, attending meetings, conducting project work, and monitoring and evaluating the results of work performed, it is important for groups to ensure that they identify and leverage sufficient funding to get the group started and to accomplish the objectives.

Provide incentives. Economic incentives can help collaborative efforts achieve their goals.

Monitor results for accountability. To be effective, the participants in groups need to be accountable to their constituencies and to their process, and funding organizations expect accountability for the time, effort, money, or patience they invest. Therefore, designing protocols to monitor and evaluate progress toward a collaborative group’s goals, from both an environmental and a social perspective, is important. 

Recommendations for Executive Action
To enhance the federal government’s support of and participation in collaborative resource management efforts, we recommend that the Chairman of CEQ, working with the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior, direct the interagency task force to take the following actions:

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. Identify and evaluate, with input from OMB, legal and policy changes concerning federal financial assistance that would enhance collaborative efforts.

5. 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.

Furthermore, to ensure that federal agencies can work well with collaborative groups, GAO recommends that the Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture 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.

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