Nancy Upham imagines a group of Sierra Club hikers meeting with folks from the California Cattleman's Association to discuss the issue of grazing in the National Forest. Maybe there are fights, maybe not, but everything gets discussed out in the open.
"Then we watch," Upham, a Public Affairs Officer for Inyo National Forest, said. From there, the Forest Service knows how to build their policies.
This is the collaborative model behind the U.S. Forest Service's "Preferred Alternative" (PA) for the future of land management planning within the country's forest system. The plan will dictate how individual forests manage things like hiking, hunting, road construction and mining.
The whole idea is to air the dirty laundry before litigation happens, in order to cut time and costs by as much as four years and four million dollars, as compared to the 1982 procedures, according to the USFS.
"Given that most plans are immediately litigated, and that the courts move at a glacial speed, the hope is that by front-loading the conversations, many of the contentious issues can be worked out in advance," said Char Miller, Director of the Environmental Analysis Program at Pomona College.
However, he remained slightly skeptical. "That's the hope. The reality? We'll have to watch this play out in the coming months - because if the concept of PA is itself litigated - and I bet it will be - then all bets may be off."
The Inyo, Sequoia and Sierra - only a few hours away from Los Angeles - are three of eight national forests selected to implement the new planning rule. The others include the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest in Idaho, the Chugach National Forest in Alaska, the Cibola National Forest in New Mexico, El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico.
These forests were selected based on the strong need for plan revision, the benefit of the model to the area and pre-existing collaborative networks.
Upham said Inyo's most pressing need was updating an outdated policy. "The Inyo National Forest right now is operating off the of the forest plan in 1988. That's a long time ago!" she laughed. Most Southern California forests work off of a much more recent plans.
Aside from the collaborative aspect of management, the PA incorporates modern science. "It has a focus on science that the [earlier] plan did not," Upham said.
According to USFS website, this includes the ability to respond to climate change.
The planning rule was submitted to the Federal Register last week, and will likely be finalized in March. "Early adopter forest could plunge into this as early as April," she said.
Since they are so close to each other some issues will be dealt with at a bio-regional level, and other issues, such as recreation, will be dealt with by each forest, Upham explained.
"There are 14 million acres of national forest at risk of fire in California, so this new approach to forest planning is vital," said Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California). "I am encouraged that a new planning rule will build on existing efforts like the one in the Sierra National Forest that bring together scientists, timber harvesters and environmental groups to reduce hazardous fuels. We need more of that type of cooperation to reduce fire risks and prevent harm to people and property."
So what exactly is everyone haggling over that these "collaborative" dialogues are so needed?
No surprises: Protection versus job creation. For special interest groups, it's about controlling the battle.
"National environmental organizations are wary of ceding too much authority to local entities, fearing that corporate cutters will be able to launch heavier logging operations with less oversight," Miller, of Pomona College said.
It is also an issue of state versus federal control. Environmental organizations feel that more local control means a gradual shift of power to the state level. This worry dates all the way back to Gifford Pinchot, President Theodore Roosevelt's advisor in conservation matters, who became head of the U.S. Division of Forestry in 1898, and has been perennially debated since.
For conservatives, that shift to state control is a good thing. "The Right does not think [the Preferred Alternative] goes far enough, demanding that the states simply take over these lands - appropriate them," said Miller.
Only a few weeks ago, Colorado Representative Jerry Sonnenberg announced support of a bill that would take the control of a majority of Colorado's Public Lands away from the government.
However, when coming back to the local level, it's difficult to find any objection to people having their voice's heard.
"Local folks, who have been hammering one another for thirty years or more, see this a chance to renegotiate the terms of the longstanding tension between environmental protections and job creation - and are generally pleased that the Forest Service (long a target of their collective, if differing, enmities) has opened up the process as much as it has," Miller theorized.
"It's kind of exciting," Upham agreed enthusiastically. "The only obstacle people have is time. If you truly want to participate in something like this, you have to read documents, get yourself up to speed. We all lead very busy lives."
If you are up to the challenge, a new federal advisory committee will provide another opportunity to collaborate in National Forest System land management planning. Interested members of the public are encouraged to seek nomination. The call for nominations was published in the Federal Register on January 5, 2012 and will close on February 21, 2012.