Seventh American Forest Congress

Many Voices -- A Common Vision

Reports from participants in the Seventh American Forest Congress

Reprinted from the Journal of Forestry (vol. 94, no. 5, p. 14-17) published by the Society of American Foresters, 5400 Grosvenor Lane, Bethesda, MD 20814-2198. Not for further reproduction.

The Seventh American Forest Congress: Shared Vision on a Grand Scale

by William H. Banzhaf

On a hot summer evening in Milford, Pennsylvania, a small group of people (including a representative of the Society of American Foresters) met at Grey Towers, the ancestral home of Gifford Pinchot, to discuss a situation they found disturbing. These individuals strongly believed that the environment in which the management direction of America's forests was being determined was so fraught with controversy, passion, and combative dialogue that it was becoming impossible for any group to shape the future of our forests in a productive and lasting fashion.

It was the opinion of those who met at Grey Towers that summer evening that such debates about forest management often failed to generate consensus and did nothing to ensure either the economic health of the community at large or the biological health of the forest. It was agreed that an effort was needed to bring people with disparate views together to develop a shared vision on which we could base the future management of America's forests.

Previous periods of conflict and perceived crisis in America's forests had engendered an "American Forest Congress." The first was in 1882 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Five others were conducted in 1905, 1946, 1953, 1963, and finally, 1975. In almost all cases, the Congresses had been made up of the individuals in the forestry community who "made decisions." However, in today's environment, the homogeneous nature of the six previous American Forest Congresses clearly would not be effective in addressing conflicts involving a wide variety of stakeholder values and scientific information.

If anything has been learned over the last 25 years in the field of problemsolving and conflict resolution, it is that a collaborative model-based on the participation of all those who have expertise about an issue or will be affected by it-is necessary for long-term progress. The participation of a broad base of individuals seemed to make sense; such a process obviously required a group of individuals far more diverse than those meeting in Milford.

After more than a year of planning with an ad hoc board of directors of some 15 people, a formal roundtable of 47 individuals representing most stakeholder groups in American forestry was conducted at the Arbor Day Foundation in Nebraska City, Nebraska. The participants in that meeting called for the convening of a Seventh American Forest Congress that would provide:

Something Entirely Different

The Nebraska Roundtable sent a clear message: Bring together 1,000 to 3,000 people, develop a common understanding, and move forward with civility and commitment. Simple! Right! And next week we'll get the US Congress and the administration to agree on campaign reform! Few meetings of this size produce anything but information exchange. The standard format--which includes keynote speakers, panels of experts, and questions from the floor--was not going to work in the development of a common vision.

Fortunately, someone asked the right question: Has anything like this been done before? Soon thereafter began our exciting ride into the evolving field of organizational development. Within that field, we discovered organizational development consultants Christine and Roland Sullivan, who had extensive experience in large-group conflict resolution in the private sector. Under their direction, large corporations had brought together up to 3,000 employees to do strategic planning and develop a corporate mission. Why, then, couldn't we translate this process to the Seventh American Forest Congress?

Under the direction of a broadly diverse 50-person board, chaired by Rex McCullough of Weyerhaeuser Company and John Gordon of Yale University, an operational plan was developed and implemented. William Bentley (executive director of the newly formed Office of the Seventh American Forest Congress), Christine and Roland Sullivan, and a cadre of talented volunteers began implementation. Their task was to design, arrange, and conduct a meeting of 1,500 citizens, organized in 150 separate tables, to be held in Washington, DC, February 20-24, 1996.

Think Locally

One of the concepts emphasized during the Nebraska Roundtable was the need to view the Seventh American Forest Congress as one point on a journey of discovery. Our efforts would have to be continued beyond the meeting in Washington, DC. Likewise, there would need to be a clear path leading through the untraveled territory to the Congress itself. Specifically, the Nebraska participants urged that we hold regional or local roundtables to help people begin to think about a common vision, principles for achieving it, and steps to follow beyond that process. Nebraska participants felt that synthesizing these regional and local roundtables would provide a basis for starting the larger discussion in Washington in February 1996.

In July 1995, in a three-day workshop at the Society of American Foresters' headquarters, approximately 40 individuals from all over the country were trained as facilitators and leaders for the local roundtables. Concurrently, the Office of the Congress developed and published a guide for participation to ensure consistency in the 50 regional roundtables that were eventually conducted.

In addition to the structured roundtables, there were other collaborative meetings, and individual suggestions were collected through telephone, mail, and e-mail-together these amounted to more than 7,000 comments and ideas on which the Congress was to begin discussion.

Paul Ellefson and a group of individuals representing major interest groups synthesized the preconference roundtable activities in an informal document. Ellefson reports that "an estimated total of more than 4,000 people participated in pre-Congress activities-2,600 in roundtables; 800 in collaborative meetings; and close to 600 individual citizens." The document, which was given to all participants, enabled everyone to come to the Congress with a set of draft visions and principles-a skeletal framework on which to start the process.

The Magic Begins

On arrival, each participant received background and general information and facts on America's forests. Participants then joined the large group table process. This process was developed by Christine and Roland Sullivan and adapted for the American Forest Congress by a team of Congress board of directors, chaired by SAF past-president John Moser.

Individuals gathered at assigned tables in groups of 10. Each table had been designed to maximize philosophical diversity. All 150 tables were given the initial vision elements for further refinement and development. To aid these 1,500 participants in their table discussions, 150 flip charts were brought on to the ballroom floor (in a mere 90 seconds) by a support team of 50 organizational development specialists and trained volunteers.

At the heart of the Congress were activities in which participants discussed the visions, expressed their preferences, reworked the visions, and submitted their revised versions to the volunteer support team for synthesis. Within a matter of hours, this information was reintroduced to the tables for further refinement. This approach was also applied to individual table discussions of specific principles and future steps.

To add substance to the table discussions, more than 40 concurrent dialogues provided a format for specialists to exchange thoughts and comments on some of the issues at hand.

Out of all of this emotional and intellectual energy, an amazing group strength developed, despite a continuing melodrama with the media and the occasional outburst of anger. Through the hard work and commitment of the participants--and a little magic--a common vision was born. The final vision statement and accompanying principles were recently published by the Office of the Seventh American Forest Congress. (For a complete listing of the vision and principles, see the April issue of The Forestry Source.)

How Did 1,500 People Pull This Off?

The four days that I spent working as a facilitator and volunteer at the Congress were some of the most energizing and invigorating of my entire life. I would like to share some of my impressions on how each of the 1,500 people in attendance helped to make this meeting successful.

To begin with, the large group process had been tested more than 50 times prior to its use in Washington, DC. The volunteer and professional cadre responsible for implementing the process at the American Forest Congress went through three dry runs. During the Congress, this team met each day at 6:30 AM to develop contingency plans should elements of the process fail (which, at times, they did).

As an example, the "principles exercise" designed for one day of the Congress needed to be greatly modified to meet the needs of the participants, as they wished to continue discussing divergent viewpoints. At this watershed time in the Congress process, the organizers, the board, and design team let go and turned the Congress over to the participants, allowing them the time needed for expanded discussion. This meant that the design team and group facilitators were only two or three minutes ahead of Congress participants in their understanding of what had to be done.

In this regard, one of the personal high points for me occurred when a very angry and suspicious member of the environmental community approached several of us who were frantically trying to design the next group exercise, which was to be initiated in the next five minutes. He accused us of manipulating the Congress. In our frustration, we asked if he wouldn't mind sitting with us and suggesting ways we could adjust the process to make sure the next exercise would work. In, I think, amazement he sat with us and shared our angst as we roared toward our deadline--which we made by the skin of our teeth. He may not have been very impressed with our skills, but he certainly found out we had nothing to hide.

The individual participants were committed to success, patient with the changing or fluid process, and absolutely loyal to their commitment to stay the course of discussion and treat each other with civility. Everyone was honest and candid in the expression of views, beliefs, and values. Although trust was an important element in keeping people at the Congress, it was the willingness to risk that got them there in the first place. And acceptance of that risk paid off.

The power of the Congress was perhaps best reflected in the last 10 minutes. After four days of intense and emotional discussion and work, participants were asked to prepare their personal commitment for the future. An almost deafening silence fell over the room as nearly 1,500 women and men put their thoughts to paper.

Closing Thoughts

The overarching goal of the Seventh American Forest Congress was to bring people together-and keep them together--so that productive dialogue could be maintained throughout the Congress and continue at the local level and at future regional and national conferences. Based on this goal, a decision was made not to press participants to delete or modify vision and principle statements held dear by any one individual.

Clearly, more progress could have been made in the refinement of principles if our only concern was the value of the majority (75%-80%). However, the decision to put a halt to further work on principles was a good one. It allowed us to keep options open for future discussion, which would not be possible if 20 to 25 percent of the participants had the feeling that they had been shut out of the process in order to "make additional progress."

So where do we go from here? The road ahead, although not so smooth, is paved with a common vision and a much better understanding of who we are as individuals. We can see that we, as individuals, cannot be accurately defined in terms of the organizations or interest groups for which we work. This may help us approach our duties in formulating American forest policies and management directions with a more mutually respectful and understanding attitude.

William H. Banzhaf served on the Board of Directors of the Seventh American Forest Congress. He is executive vice-president of the Society of American Foresters.

A Vision for Our Future Forests

The Forest Congress participants received seven elements of a vision from the pre-Congress meetings and submissions. These were recrafted, and new elements added. After two tallies on levels of agreement, the draft elements were recrafted into the following 13 elements.

In the tally of these vision elements, Forest Congress participants were instructed to "indicate your level of affirmation using the green, yellow, or red indication" defined as:

Green: Agreement, include as a vision element.
Yellow: Mixed feelings, but willing to accept as a vision element.
Red: Disagreement, do not include as a vision element.

In the future our forests . . .

1. ...will be held in a variety of public, private, tribal, land grant, and trust ownerships by owners whose rights, objectives, and expectations are respected and who understand and accept their responsibilities as stewards.

1.Level of

2. ...will be enhanced by policies that encourage both public and private investment in long-term sustainable forest management.

2.Level of

3. ...will sustainably provide a range of goods, services, experiences, and values that contribute to community wellbeing, economic opportunity, social and personal satisfaction, spiritual and cultural fulfillment, and recreational enjoyment.

3.Level of

4. ...will be maintained and enhanced across the landscape, expanding through reforestation and restoration where ecologically, economically, and culturally appropriate, in order to meet the needs of an expanding human population.

4.Level of

5. ...will be shaped by natural forces and by human actions that reflect the wisdom and values of an informed and engaged public, community and social concerns, sound scientific principles, local and indigenous knowledge, and the need to maintain options.

5.Level of

6. ...will be managed consistent with strategies and policies that foster forest integrity and maintain a broad range of ecological, economic, and social values and benefits.

6.Level of

7. ...will be sustainable, support biological diversity, maintain ecological and evolutionary processes, and be highly productive.

7.Level of

8. ...will contribute to strong and vital rural and urban communities that benefit from, protect, and enhance the forests in their vicinity.

8.Level of

9. ...will be managed with consideration for the global implications of land stewardship.

9.Level of

10. ...will maintain their essential role in protecting watersheds and aquatic systems.

10.Level of

11. ...will be acknowledged as vital by citizens who are knowledgeable and involved in stewardship and who appreciate the contribution of forests to the economic and environmental quality of life.

11.Level of

12. ...will be managed on the basis of a stewardship ethic with respect, reverence, and humility.

12.Level of

13. ...will provide a sustainable level of products and benefits that satisfy society's needs because contributions from more efficient utilization, recycling, and other efforts reduce consumption.

13.Level of

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