Seventh American Forest Congress

Many Voices -- A Common Vision

Reports from participants in the Seventh American Forest Congress

The following was originally published in the Maryland Coverts Project Newsletter, March 1996, and was subsequently also published in Tree Farmer magazine, November/December 1996.

Many Voices Create a Common Vision

by Sandra West

(copywrite 1996)

February 20, 1996, I went to the Seventh American Forest Congress, Washington, D.C., as an optimistic empty vessel. All my limited experiences with other forest stakeholders were positive and I expected a constructive outcome. The forester who prepared my management plan did not have an agenda of his own that he tried to impose on me. My Coverts Project education was broad-based encompassing various aspects of forest stewardship and wildlife habitat enhancement. The other woodland owners I met were responsible concerned forest stewards.

Most Congress participants arrived brimming with apprehension, anxiety, or even antipathy. Having previously participated in conflicts over which forest roles "ought" to be dominant or "ought" to be appropriate, they brought their baggage with them. After the first morning session, I believe most participants were able to check their baggage outside the Congress door.

The first American Forestry Congress, held in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1882, was organized by a few local politicians and a journalist. It was attended by the only professionally-trained forester in the USA, a few timber owners, and many interested community leaders. The seed of responsible national forest stewardship was planted.

The Sixth American Forest Congress, held in Washington, D.C. in 1975, was called to mark the 100th anniversary of the American Forestry Association. For the first time, discussions included environmental requirements and energy relationships in addition to the traditional forestry topics of protection, management, research, and education.

The Seventh American Forest Congress (SAFC), whose theme was "Many Voices, A Common Vision," was convened to give the diverse forest stakeholders an opportunity to come together in goodwill to explore common ground and to develop a forest vision for the future that all could support.

Congress organizers developed a collaborative process that allowed all the diverse forest stakeholders to express their points of view. Each of the 1,500 SAFC participants was assigned to a Congress Table with eight or nine other persons. Tablemates were asked to introduce themselves to each other including their reasons for involvement in the Congress, to make a formal courtesy commitment to each other, and to rotate table facilitators and table recorders.

Congress organizers were hard at work for over a year. Draft vision elements and principles for achieving the vision collected at fifty grass roots round tables held all across the country were submitted to the SAFC participants for discussion and refinement.

The first phase of the Congress was to develop a vision, a view of a desired state of being. Visions are conceptual, general, and qualitative. They are not quantitative. Seven vision elements (that arose from the national round tables) were submitted for discussion. Tables were given an opportunity to refine the submitted elements and to suggest additional elements.

Suggestions from about 140 tables were synthesized and six elements were added. Participants were asked to express their acceptance of each of the thirteen elements by a choice of green, yellow, or red. Green indicated agreement that the element is part of the vision. Yellow indicated mixed feelings with a willingness to accept the element. Red indicated rejection of the element. Eight of the thirteen elements received over ninety percent (both green and yellow) acceptance ratings. All but one received at least sixty percent acceptance.

Intermingled in the above process were two sets of concurrent dialogue sessions offered to broaden perspectives on forty forest-related issues. Tablemates were asked to attend different dialogue sessions and report back to their tables about their discussions.

The second phase was to develop principles to support our common vision. Principles are guidelines that structure our approach to achieving our vision. They include rules of conduct based on values and morals. Nineteen principles (again from the national round tables) were submitted for discussion. Tables were given an opportunity to refine the submitted principles and to suggest additional principles. Agreeing on principles was a more laborious task.

Tablemates were asked to attend different break-out sessions on the nineteen draft principles or the "missing principle" and report back to their tables. Suggestions resulting from break-out sessions and table discussions were synthesized and 42 additional principles were generated. Tables were asked to refine the 61 proposed principles and to prepare supporting statements for each principle. Supporting statements provide the evidence and/or reasoning that gives importance to or the rationale for a principle statement. The task was greater than the time available.

Again, green, yellow, and red expressions of acceptance were requested. Consensus was found on forty-four percent of the 61 proposed principles which received more greens than yellows and reds combined. However, a third of the 61 generated a greater number of reds than greens. And, a quarter of the 61 had a disapproval rate in excess of 51 percent. Time ran out before a resolution could be accomplished.

The third phase was to develop "next steps," discrete, specific courses of action to bring us closer to achieving our vision. Participants were asked to relocate for an hour and a half to Home Tables (where the new tablemates were from their home states) to discuss recommendations for national and back-home actions needed to achieve our vision based upon our guiding principles.

Later, when we reassembled at our Congress Tables we were asked to discuss individual commitments to achieve our vision and to share them with the entire Congress.

Congress Table number 98 included three persons with strong forest industry ties, three persons with strong (rural or urban) environmental concerns, one state forester, one international forester, and one non-industrial private wee woodland owner me.

I was impressed by the goodwill, knowledge, and commitment of this diverse group. Each of us worked hard. We had good discussions that focused on the broad center of the bell curve where we could find common ground rather than waste our three and a half days clashing over areas where we could not agree.

My conversations with participants from other tables indicated that most of the tables had this same constructive experience, however some tables were not so lucky. A few members of both tails of our bell-shaped curve vociferously tried to impose their positions on all.

When the Seventh American Forest Congress adjourned my vessel brimmed with new information, and most Congress participants were optimistic that our inclusive vision is achievable. While agreement on how this vision will be attained was not resolved, all the participants departed motivated to try in their own way.

Sandra West owns an 18-acre Certified Tree Farm on the top of Catoctin Mountain in Frederick County, Maryland. She bought the land in 1990 and moved into her newly built neo-Victorian home there in January 1991.

In December 1991 her local Project Forester completed a forest resource conservation plan for her property.

West attended the 1992, 1993, 1995, and 1996 Mid-Atlantic Forest Stewardship Seminars sponsored by Maryland Cooperative Extension Service in Frederick, Maryland.

In September 1993 Sandra West participated in Coverts Project training directed by Jonathan Kays of Maryland Cooperative Extension Service. For her reciprocity project she made an enthusiastic effort to spread the word about the Coverts Project in her neighborhood and throughout Frederick County.

Sandra West, a Certified Public Accountant, attended timber tax and forest estate planning workshops sponsored by Virginia Polytechnic Institute and Pennsylvania State University.

The Maryland Coverts (pronounced kuv erts) Project, which is sponsored by The Ruffed Grouse Society and administered by Maryland Cooperative Extension Service, is a scholarship program designed to teach woodland owners that good forest management can improve wildlife habitat at the same time it enhances timber production, investment growth, recreational opportunities, or woodland aesthetics. (Ten other, primarily Northeastern, states have Coverts programs sponsored by The Ruffed Grouse Society.)

West Weald, West's wee woodland, was designated a Certified Tree Farm in December 1996.

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