Cattle and Timber

Cattle and Timber: Natural Resource Management as an Adaptive Process

Don Schwerin

Thirty-five or so people gathered in Colville Sunday to talk about wolves and cattle, and fire and trees. Conversation was lively; spirits were good.

The spoilers are that the forests need thinning and fire, and that wolves eat ungulates and cattle are ungulates. On these points there was conscious raising and story telling along with science.

Two more general themes emerged. We need better data. The cattle  industry cannot expect good policy without good numbers. The industry should demand good numbers – and contribute to good numbers. The agencies, for their part, need to move on from acting as insurance adjusters and strive to describe and classify what they see on the ground.

The second theme is change. We cannot freeze the way things were in the 1950’s and pretend to manage intelligently in 2018. Wolves are here, climate is changing, and we have too many trees. We need to figure it out.

One proposal regarding wolf management brought surprising nods: Rapid response. Kill the offenders within 14 days. Leaving merit aside, such a prescription requires a different Fish and Wildlife than what we have today, maybe even county-based wildlife management. Local agency people should bring local knowledge to bear on local issues. This seemingly reasonable conclusion brings to the table an uncomfortable squeeze for rural Democrats.

Democrats bring progress by disrupting local elites. We centralize policy and administration to advance economic opportunity and civil justice. Decentralization – local control – historically has meant racial injustice and economic inequality. Whoever is in power locally, wins. Ideas like “equal protection” drive how we Democrats fashion policy.

Rural Democrats especially understand local conditions. This is the squeeze. We know that Yakima is not Omak, Omak is not Colville, and Colville is not Walla Walla. And goodness, none are like Forks. These local terroir’s are who we are, but when it comes to social policy – policy about people and their rights – we rural Democrats especially demand that people be treated equally whether they live in Aberdeen or Zillah.

So, what about how we manage natural resources? Should local variations count? Should agencies discriminate depending on what is on the ground? Managing low-intensity controlled burn, for example, is different in Forks with 121 inches of rain than in Omak with 12. Most of us think that good resource policy is founded on good science, and that means accommodating empirical detail. Good policy is what works to achieve our goal.

This is a good starting point to begin re-engineering the difference between policy and administration. Textbook is that administration is policy. The textbook, though, ties our hands when we want to design administrative structures that are responsive to legitimate local variations and yet responsible to collective decisions. Textbooks also are silent about alternatives to top-down bureaucracies. Our challenge is how to make resource administration less bureaucratic, smarter, and more effective.

We can start with scope. We need to be judicious in what we choose to make common policy. Do we say that biodiversity for the state is a priority, or do we specify that wolves be protected in all counties, whatever the cost?

Outcome margins: How tolerant can we be about variations of outcome? And how impatient are we? We need to start now to address forest health but it is not gong to be achieved quickly. Let’s be careful about the urgency with which we require particular results. Let’s temper expectations. Let’s try again if what we first try is not working.

Administrative Intensity: How insistent are we about precisely how we do the job? We should push our agencies to hire competent professionals, give them objectives and resources, and let these professionals decide how to proceed. We need to avoid the temptation of managing in detail. Our forest consultant often prefaced his responses by “it depends.”

We need to be careful. When we regulate natural resources we distribute burdens and rewards to users of these resource. Local administrative flexibility cannot devolve into local control or we again fall into trap of reinforcing local elites. We need to know when we ink lines, and when we chalk them.

We need more confidence building on both sides. Being good hosts, we did not challenge some assertions that stretched a bit. And, being good guests, they held back from reminding us of what some of our Puget Sound compatriots say.

Some Democrats at Cattle and Timber may think as good hosts we were too well-mannered. They may be impatient about hearing practiced, self-serving, lines. Maybe so, but this was not your Thanksgiving dinner with your beyond-the-pale uncle. From a distance, the conversation was notable for its civility. Like Thanksgiving dinner, though, we need to sit at that same table again.

It is no accident that I have underlined process – how we make policy – more than prescribing policy – what we should do. Natural resource policy more resembles science than belief, and science is a process. Rural Democrats see natural resources as dynamic systems, not static belief systems. This moves us to embrace adaptive policy and administration.

Cattle and Timber reminds us that we need to listen to what fellow citizens say about how state government affects their lives. Local reports are data, and with all data, we need to evaluate. We need to listen and learn, not necessarily endorse – or contest.

Loose ends:

Local cattlemen are not accepting state compensation for confirmed predations. They argue that accepting compensation equates to accepting predation. This understates the economic cost of our wolf policy. It does not promote sound decision making.

Several disparaging comments were made about set-backs from streams, either for logging buffers or cattle in streams. Set-backs are a bedrock in protecting the quality of stream flows. We need to revisit this conversation.

Small government versus good government. There was a glimmer of daylight that we do need government because “we do have a few bad apples…” Almost an invitation to get serious.