Many Voices - - A Common Vision

Executive Summary

The Seventh American Forest Congress was a citizens' gathering in Washington DC between February 20 and 24, 1996. It grew out of an idea discussed among forest policy leaders from 1993 to 1995 under the auspices of the Yale Forest Forum. Following the Nebraska Roundtable in January 1995, it was guided by a diverse Board of Directors and a group of Senior Sponsors.

The Forest Congress was based on a roundtable process that seated 8­10 people at each table. The participants were assigned seats to achieve a mix of geographical diversity, interests, and experience. For three and one-half days, the table groups remained together and discussed a variety of forest-related issues. Of the 1,519 people who registered as participants, volunteers, support team members, and observers, 1,100 or more participants were engaged in table discussions throughout the process.

The key questions posed were: "What is our common vision?" and "What principles do we agree on to guide us toward our vision?" The focus throughout the pre-Congress period and the Forest Congress was on levels of agreement‹what common ground do we have with regard to America's forests? The participants developed a vision and set of principles, and then canvassed themselves to tally their levels of agreement. They also met with other participants from their state or region to discuss actions, or next steps, to initiate locally when they returned from the Forest Congress.

The breadth and diversity of participants at the Seventh American Forest Congress far exceeds those of the six previous Congresses. It is believed to be the most diverse national gathering focused on forests in the country's history. Anyone who wanted to attend could, and financial assistance was provided to assure attendance by many groups. The participants are not presented as "representative" of the entire spectrum of Americans concerned with forests. However, the group that attended the Congress was the result of a concerted effort to bring all voices to the table.

The process leading to the Seventh American Forest Congress also was unlike any of the six previous gatherings. Between June 1995 and February 1996, 51 local roundtables and 43 collaborative meetings were held. Each local roundtable brought together a diverse mix of interests that were concerned with local and national forest policy issues. Nearly all the roundtables produced a common vision and a set of principles to achieve that vision.

In Washington, the tables of 8­10 people were the core of the Forest Congress process. All activities began at the tables and the results of other sessions and activities were reported back to the tables. By the end of the second day, changes in the timing and sequence of the process flowed from feedback provided by the tables. The robustness of the process was a consequence of the strength of the people participating at the tables.

Rather than using "yes/no" votes or processes to move towards agreement, tallies were taken at the tables using colors as symbols. The definitions of the colors are discussed later in this report, but the general definitions that were used in the local roundtables and at the start of the Forest Congress were:

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.

This report is focused on the levels of agreement (green tallies) recorded during the Forest Congress. The post-Congress activities will build on the agreements, interpret the disagreements, and move toward resolving differences where possible.

Based on the work of the pre-Congress roundtables, seven draft elements of a vision were presented to the Forest Congress. The tables in Washington expanded those seven elements to 13. An initial tally demonstrated strong support for most of the original draft elements and many possible additions. Redrafting sessions on Wednesday and Thursday nights produced the final 13 elements.

One vision element received 90 percent agreement (and only 3 percent disagreement); five elements were agreed to by 84 percent or more of the participants (with a maximum of 5 percent disagreement); and an additional three elements had 74 to 79 percent agreement; another three had 67 to 69 percent agreement; one had 54 percent agreement; and only one was below 50 percent (34 percent agreement). Given the diversity of the group and the contentious nature of many forest policy issues, the levels of agreement on the vision elements are truly remarkable.

Nineteen draft principles based on the pre-Congress meetings were given to the tables on Thursday morning. These were recrafted into 21 principles by working groups drawn from the tables. In the tally, 15 of these received 50 percent or more agreement.

Thirty-nine additional draft principles emerged during a "missing principles" session conducted Thursday afternoon. Fourteen of these draft principles received 50 percent or greater agreement.

Of the 29 principles with 50 percent or more agreement, 14 received 67 percent or more agreement in tallies by the individuals at the tables. Two approach 90 percent or more agreement. These levels of agreement are clearly impressive given the history of disagreement in attempting to solve forest policy problems.

The Forest Congress process called for planning next steps at the national and local levels. Less time than had been planned was ultimately devoted to next steps because time and energy were reallocated to complete the vision and principles as the tables desired. However, there is clear evidence the Forest Congress provided the momentum for local roundtables and other grassroots groups to carry out work at the local level. The standing committees and collaborating organizations will do the same at the national level.

In summary, the Forest Congress demonstrated that Americans agree on many elements of a future vision for their forests. They agree on several principles that will guide them toward this common vision. The shift toward stronger levels of agreement after redrafting the vision elements suggests that levels of agreement on principles will increase over time with recrafting at the national and local levels.

During a press conference in Washington, one board member was asked how the Forest Congress would reach a consensus on the principles. She replied, "The Forest Congress is a rolling process, moving as far as the people at the tables will take it." The data over the next few pages indicate how far the tables progressed.

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