OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Public engagement critical to resolving conflicts

04/29/2003

PORTLAND - The contentious debates and endless litigation over natural resource issues and endangered species may never be resolved until far more attention is paid to the underlying problems of social acceptability, experts said today at a professional conference in Portland.

The general public feels cut off from the decision-making process and has become increasingly cynical and distrustful of government, corporate and even scientific institutions in recent decades, said researchers from Oregon State University and the U.S. Forest Service in their presentation at this conference, titled "Innovations in Species Conservation."

Bombarding people with more "facts" and technical jargon in a paternalistic, one-way mode of communication will do little to restore trust, the scientists said, or gain the type of broad societal support that will be critical to the long-term success of enlightened land management or species protection.

"A policy lacking broad public understanding and support cannot be sustained, irrespective of its scientific rigor or economic benefits," said Bruce Shindler, an OSU associate professor of forest resources, in a report he co-authored with George Stankey, a researcher with OSU and the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station in Corvallis.

It's simply not enough for land management policies to be scientifically credible or economically sound, the researchers said, if the public does not feel that they have been genuinely involved in the process, trust the people who are making final decisions, become more informed about the risks and uncertainties, and intuitively feel from their own life experiences that a certain approach makes sense.

The creation of land or species management policies that have failed the "social acceptability" test accounts for the steady march of litigants into the courtroom and near paralysis of some management plans, the scientists said.

The huge controversies over land and species management have evolved since the 1960s amid a steady shift toward more "environmentalist" attitudes in the U.S. and Canada, Stankey said.

"National opinion polls over the past decade consistently reveal that resource management and conservation issues continue to be accorded public attention and support, even when tradeoffs with economic prosperity are involved," Stankey said in the report. "The environmental concerns held by the current generation of Americans likely will dominate the political agenda for another 25-30 years."

Another reality, the scientists said, is the increasing complexity of many land and species management issues. Researchers just now are beginning to understand the intricate function of complicated plant and animal ecosystems, and many management actions must still be undertaken in an atmosphere of risk and uncertainty. As a result, many managers and agencies have turned increasingly towards scientific and technical experts to guide their decisions.

But the public is not always impressed by teams of experts, the researchers say.

"With regard to rare and at-risk species, expert input seems essential to . . . make informed choices," Stankey said. "But low levels of trust and confidence in technical judgments means such information faces skepticism."

In many of the confrontations of recent years, the researchers said, management agencies thought that public dissent could be reduced or eliminated by helping people "understand the facts." Communicators and administrators made the assumption that the people's dissent was unfounded, inaccurate or misguided, and could be corrected by a healthy dose of scientific information.

That approach virtually never worked, Shindler said.

"Good quality information is necessary to building and supporting sound decisions, but it is not sufficient," Shindler said. "Confusing the provision of more facts, more detail and more information with building public understanding and support is a mistake."

What will work, studies show, is a clear rationale for management actions, a genuine engagement of the public before decisions are made, information sources that are trusted, and discussion of the possible outcomes of a given approach along with other alternatives and the uncertainties involved. People have to perceive that processes are open and fair, and that decisions were not already made before the conversation began.

And public agencies have to get past their aversion to risk and uncertainty, the scientists said. Modern management of complex ecosystems will, by definition, have to be done with elements of risk involved, and little will be gained by avoiding the tough choices or trying to pretend, in public, that outcomes are more certain than they really are. That approach only feeds future distrust.

Building land and species management plans that are socially acceptable will not be easy, the scientists said. It will take new and more open attitudes on the part of managers; a large commitment of time, money, and thought; a gradual building of trust; and a much better understanding of how people form their attitudes and beliefs, and what approaches the public will respond to.

"Lacking such efforts, the likelihood of reaching agreement on strategies and policies for the management of rare and at-risk species seems low," the scientists said in their report. "This will leave the future to continued domination of the policy process by guerilla-style political and economic interests, the only guarantee of which will be continued gridlock and a loss of species and values to society."