Emerging Issues:


Presented at the National Leadership Conference

Madison, Wisconsin

October 27, 1999


Maitland Sharpe: Director, Policy Analysis


The Chief has challenged the Forest Service to “look out in front of the headlights” – to see into the future and identify the emerging issues and changing expectations to which the agency will have to respond over the years to come.  The Forest Service has often found itself caught in a reactive posture, responding ad hoc to the crisis of the moment  and reacting to issues and choices that have been defined by others.   The goal is to break out of the reactive mode – to learn to anticipate change and deal with emerging issues in advance, before challenge matures into crisis and before our decision space has shrunk to the least of several evils.  The immediate objective is to devise mechanisms that will enable the Forest Service to look out in front of the headlights, to see the approaching landscape, and to adjust our course to take the curves in the road ahead smoothly and at speed.


The problem is pervasive.  Lack of foresight has hampered our response to issues including the spotted owl and old-growth forests, financial accountability, forest roads, water quality and TMDLs, off-road vehicles, changing recreational styles, and endangered aquatic species.  On these issues and others, the agency has found it difficult to see emerging problems or act to address them in time to avert a crisis.  We have been slow to see and respond to major changes in the shape of our publics and in the public’s expectations of our agency. Tradition, professional training, and Congressional direction have proven to be uncertain guides to the future in a rapidly changing society. 


What does the future look like?  What’s out there in the dark, beyond the headlights’ beam?

I’d like to share 10 large-scale trends that I believe are redefining our society – and redefining the operating environment of the Forest Service:

(1)   Demographic Change:  The dry science of demography offers a uniquely powerful window on the future.  It gives us a long view, decades into the future.  And it affords an unusually high degree of confidence in what we see. What is out there?

Increasing diversity in the American population: By 2050, racial and ethnic minorities will comprise about half of Americans; 86 % of immigration is now non-European.  Over the next 50 years, 90% of the population growth will come from racial and ethnic minorities.  For the Forest Service this means new cultural expectations about natural resources and public lands, different habits of recreation and resource use, more Americans without a strong tie to their public lands or to the Forest Service, and a public that looks very different than the agency does today.  Changing the face of the Forest Service to reflect the faces of our society will be a critical, on-going challenge.


America is aging.  In 1900, only 4% of the U.S. population was over 65; in 1984, the proportion was 11%; by 2020, 21% are projected to be over 65.  The graying of America will bring changes in recreation styles; wholesale retirement of baby-boomers; and new pressures on the National Forests as people move out of the crowded North and East to seek the good life in the South and West.


We will become even more urban. Following the 2000 census, political representation will shift even further towards urban and suburban counties and away from rural areas.  The recent counter-trend of migration to towns and rural counties will not prevail.  And many of those moving to the country are taking their urban attitudes, expectations, and incomes with them; they are resident in rural America, but not culturally of rural America nor economically dependent on it. 


Population will continue to shift from the North and East to the South and West – to where the National Forests are concentrated.  In a real sense, the cities are coming to the Forests.  We will see a growing number of “urban” forests.  And we will look to those Forests to see what the future looks like for the system as a whole.


Family size and structure has changed dramatically.  There are fewer traditional families of two parents and two or three kids.  There are far more single-parent families (by 1990, only 26% were married with children) and far more households of one-or two people (50% in 1990).


Implications for the Forest Service are profound: among them – staffing and recruitment to keep pace with a diversifying society; a need for outreach to minority populations; adapting our recreation sites and facilities to meet the needs and recreation styles of more diverse users; and preparing for growing issues at the urban interface, as Americans in general and retirees in particular move ever closer to the Forest boundaries.

These demographic realities mean that America is changing and we must change with it.  If we are smart, we will anticipate these changes and position ourselves to catch the wave and ride it.  If we are not, we will find ourselves overtaken by events, will waste our energies on resisting and reacting, and will risk being submerged in the tides of change.


(2) The Information Revolution:  Computers and the Internet have wrought a revolution that reaches into all corners of society.  But for the Forest Service, I think the particular point is that access to information has been democratized and that the trend will continue.  Each of us, and each special interest, now has the ability to access data in vast quantities, to render that data into information, and to give that information the spin that suits our needs.  The Forest Service no longer has a near-monopoly on facts about the Forests; large data bases and GIS capabilities are almost universally available; any serious player can produce his own analysis or her own maps.  As a result, the distance separating the experts from the public has narrowed dramatically.  The information revolution has also fed the current mania for measurement.  And it has lead to growing demands for detailed data on Forest Service activities and spending.  We should expect more of the same.


(3)  Distrust of large, central institutions has been apparent for some years. It can be seen in the public’s attitudes towards Congress, federal agencies, and many large commercial institutions, including insurance companies and health-maintenance organizations.  Polling data from 1999 shows that 63% of Americans feel disconnected from the federal government, while just 29% trust the federal government to do the right thing.  In focus groups, people spoke, revealingly, of “the” government, not “our” government.  At the same time, respondents saw increased citizen engagement with government to be much the most promising way to fix what they saw as wrong with government.  A parallel trend – a growing distrust of expert knowledge -- is seen as people question medical treatment, legal advice, and even scientific findings.  There is, I believe, a growing skepticism of revealed wisdom and professional knowledge in all its forms. 


These trends pose special challenges for the Forest Service. This agency is deeply rooted in the Progressive tradition and the “gospel of efficiency.”  They define our culture.  The Forest Service was founded on a belief that science and professional expertise could solve problems and provide the greatest good for the greatest number over the long run.  For most of our history, those features have been strengths; they accurately reflected the nation’s cultural climate and belief system. But the argument-from-expertise and professional decision-making may no longer be adapted to the emerging cultural climate.  We may have to find a new way.


(4)Individuals and communities are demanding involvement in decisions that affect their futures.  Both the information revolution and growing distrust of central authorities and expert knowledge have fed demands for collaborative planning and decision-making.  Increasingly, people expect to be heard, to have a seat at the table, and a role in decisions. The home truth -- that you can plan with people, but not for them -- is becoming harder to avoid.  In the current climate of public attitudes, collaborative stewardship may be the only choice that works.


(5)  Our society will continue to be highly litigious.  The rush to the courtroom that has marked forest management over the past decade or two is far from over.  Appeals and lawsuits offer a singularly powerful means for individuals and communities (of place or interest) to exercise the expectation they will be heard and to question the voices of authority, professional knowledge, and science.  Successful collaborative stewardship efforts may slow the flow of litigation, but we should expect to continue to be questioned, second-guessed, appealed, sued, and, on occasion, reversed.


(6)  Material wealth and disposable income will continue to increase, posing new challenges for National Forest management.  Industry will produce and market more stuff -- including stuff for accessing and enjoying the outdoors.  People will buy it.  And having bought it, they will expect to use it on their National Forests.  The flow of new recreational devices – ATVs, ORVs, personal watercraft, mountain bikes, and mountain skates – will continue.  And we will be challenged to cope with their impacts.


(7)  American society will continue to see a decreasing reliance on – and identification with – primary production.  The shift to a service and information economy will continue.  The growing gulf between the traditional commodity users of the Forests and the rest of the nation will widen further, and may feed feelings of resentment on the part of rural, commodity-dependent communities that feel abandoned by the larger society and economy.


(8) We will see greater global integration – manifesting itself in several ways that hold implications for the Forest Service.  Markets for material goods, including timber, will become increasingly global markets.  Markets for eco-tourism and forest recreation will do the same.  There will be growing pressures to meet global standards for management and environmental quality, on the model of the Montreal agreements.  Global demands on forests worldwide will increase as total population soars form 6 billion to 10 or 11 billion.


(9)  The demand for environmental quality will continue.  The trend of the past 30 years has turned out not to be a passing phenomenon.  Current societal demands for open space, clean water, clean air, free-flowing streams, fish and wildlife, endangered species, recreational access to unspoiled places, and a sustainable environmental legacy will remain a dominant feature of the political and policy landscape well into the next century.


(10)  Regrettably, the established pattern of chronic under-investment in public lands and natural resource management seems likely to continue.  Despite greater wealth of individuals, we can anticipate increased competition for limited federal dollars, over the next 30 years or more.  The reason for this apparent contradiction lies in our aging population.  As the baby-boomers retire, over the next 30 years or so, the ratio of workers to pensioners will shift, stretching the ability of the government to meet social needs, and intensifying the competition for federal dollars.  


Other trends could be listed.  But I think this list serves to illustrate the magnitude – and something of the nature – of the challenges we will face as our society changes in the years ahead.  The challenge from the Chief is to see where trends like these are driving us and develop efficient mechanisms for foresight, issue identification, and strategic response -- so we can better anticipate and manage emerging issues.  If we do so, less time and energy will be consumed by defense; more time and talent can go into providing leadership in resource management.


Doing nothing is not an option.  The question is how. This is not rocket science; there is no need to invent the tools for foresight. Our job is simply to determine the state of the practice, select mechanisms that are known to work, and adapt them to the special circumstances of our agency.  What is important is that it be done – and done promptly.


What might an emerging issues process look like?

n  First, it would involve identifying candidate issues;

The single, best way to identify oncoming issues is to tap into what Forest Service employees already know.  Change happens first on the ground, so front-line employees are likely to see issues emerging before they are apparent to senior leadership.  It will be critical to establish an upward flow of information and insight – and to recognize and reward those who provide it.  There are a variety of mechanisms available: polling selected employees, web sites, focus groups, local or regional level strategic planning processes, etc.  All are likely to prove useful; the trick will be to find which tools work best, and most efficiently within the Forest Service.


An emerging issues process must also monitor external sources of information about our environment and our issues, including: interest groups, Congress, the academic community, media coverage, legal proceedings, and scientific publications.


n Second, it would involve evaluating and analyzing the issues identified – scoping and framing the issues, considering potential impacts, fleshing out the background and implications of the issue, and analyzing the risks.


n Third, the issues would be screened and prioritized to identify which merit immediate action and at which level of the agency, which should be watched, and which can be set aside.


n Fourth, teams would be assigned responsibility for framing the issues, and developing options, strategies, and action plans;


n Fifth, leadership at the appropriate level would select a strategy and act on it;


This is a key point – perhaps the key point.  The rest of the effort comes to nothing unless leadership selects a strategy, commits resources, and follows through. In many organizations, this proves to be the weak link in the chain.


nFinally, implementation must be monitored and evaluated to make sure the strategy is succeeding and to take corrective action if it is not.


At the end of the day, our goal should be to build habits of foresight into the cultural fabric of the Forest Service – at all levels..   Anticipating and addressing emerging issues is not something that can be left to the Washington Office or to a particular unit or program.  To be successful, it must be pervasive.    It has its place, simultaneously, at local, regional, and national levels and over the short, medium, and long run.  Foresight – grappling with emerging issues – is part of the job at every level and in every unit.  It should be part of our normal way of doing business.


The Policy Analysis shop cannot do the job of foresight for the Forest Service as a whole.  Foresight is scalar – it is needed at all scales, spatial and temporal, simultaneously.  But we think we can help, even though we can’t do the whole job.

n We can help by working to identify emerging issues at the national level and frame them for action by the agency’s leadership;

n  We can help by looking for the most effective tools and techniques for seeing into the future, building scenarios, and evaluating the implications of trends;

n We can help by working closely with the Supervisors of the urban National Forests, recognizing that they are the headlights on the Forest Service vehicle, and help to capture and share their experience at the leading edge of an urbanizing society;

n We can help by acting as a focal point for sharing what people throughout the agency have learned about foresight – what works and what doesn’t – and helping each other get better at it.


The hallmark of leadership – as opposed to management – is the ability to focus on the future – to deal with the things that are important, not merely urgent.  All of us are fighting our in-box, fighting our meeting schedules, fighting against the being consumed by the brush fires – the crisis de jour.  We all struggle to give the future the attention it deserves.  It’s an uphill fight.  Our hope is that we can make that job easier – that we can help define ways to identify and address emerging issues that are robust, efficient, and will work in the real world of overloaded managers and understaffed programs.


Change is the only constant.  We need to learn to better anticipate change, prepare for it, and manage it.