The following is the established format for referencing this article:Swette, B., L. Huntsinger, and E. F. Lambin. 2023. Collaboration in a polarized context: lessons from public forest governance in the American West. Ecology and Society 28(1):29.
Collaborative governance has proliferated as a strategy to engage stakeholders in the complexity of environmental problems. However, collaboration has limitations, and increasing political polarization in many places could impact the ability to bring diverse stakeholders together. This research is a case study of collaboration in a public forest planning context facing social and political polarization in the American West. An alternate group formed, which reduced effectiveness of the collaboration and ultimately derailed the policy process. Using participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and document review, we identify trade-offs and discuss lessons that inform the design and implementation of collaborative governance regimes. We highlight the vulnerability of local collaboration to political shifts at other scales of government but also show how key collaboration dynamics related to facilitation, structure, representation, and shared learning interact with a polarized context to impact the trajectory of collaborative governance regimes.
The complexity of environmental problems requires effective and innovative governance arrangements that meaningfully engage stakeholders (Ostrom 2010). Over the past 30 years, collaborative approaches proliferated as a promising tool to engage multiple parties and to overcome conflict (Benson et al. 2013, Bodin 2017). A substantial body of work shows that collaboration done well can be more democratic, efficient, and effective than centralized or top-down approaches (Emerson and Nabatchi 2015). Collaboration also offers an opportunity for deliberative democracy and social learning that can have positive societal outcomes beyond a specific policy process (Pahl-Wostl 2006, Brummel et al. 2010, Emerson et al. 2012).
However, collaboration is time intensive, can lead to lower quality strategies, and may be just as vulnerable to gridlock as top-down approaches (Layzer 2008, Bodin 2017; Wilkinson 2007, unpublished thesis). In many places, political culture is increasingly characterized by extreme framing and polarization that intensify conflict, making the need for collaboration more pressing but the ability to work across differences more difficult (Emerson et al. 2017, Crothers and O’Donohue 2019). One measure of polarization, i.e., affective polarization (or the extent to which individuals dislike members of another political party) is skyrocketing in the United States (Pew Research Center 2016, Boxell et al. 2020). This political infiltration into social spaces could impede efforts to bring diverse groups together and make it more difficult for collaboration to overcome the very divisions it was designed to address (Iyengar et al. 2019).
Early scholarship on collaborative governance focused on identifying the aspects that make the process successful (Wondolleck and Yaffee 2000). Prior research is limited by a focus on successful cases and reliance on measures of perceived performance that are vulnerable to problems with recall (Koontz and Thomas 2006). The need continues for evaluation of whether and in what cases collaborative governance is the most effective way of solving pressing environmental problems (Bodin 2017). Increased attention to the role of contextual variables and how processes evolve over time in the face of increasing political polarization can provide a more nuanced understanding of collaborative governance (Cockburn et al. 2020, Ulibarri et al. 2020, Schoon et al. 2021).
Some argue that the interwoven challenges of wildfire, drought, invasive species, climate, and land use change in the American West can only be addressed through collaboration because of the patchwork of governing jurisdictions and the track record of litigation stalemates (Charnley et al. 2014). This research is a case study of an independently convened collaboration designed to inform public forest planning in a context characterized by political polarization in the American West. We used participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and document review to trace how collaborative dynamics interacted with a system context over time to produce outcomes. Our research question is: how does a polarized context affect specific elements of the collaborative governance regime (CGR) framework, and vice versa, over time? Our objective is to inform theory about how context impacts collaborative environmental governance, to identify which collaboration dynamics are most important under polarized and changing system contexts, and to distill key lessons for future collaboration efforts.
We synthesize relevant literature on collaborative governance, the state of public land collaboration in the American West, and the understanding of polarization in the United States as a contextual factor.
Collaborative governance in context
Collaborative governance is defined as public policy processes “that engage people across the boundaries of public agencies, levels of government, and/or the public, private, and civic spheres to work together on a public purpose that could not otherwise be accomplished” (Emerson et al. 2012:2). Collaboration in policy settings supports all manner of positive outcomes, but is dependent on a complex interplay of factors, including collaboration dynamics and context (Ostrom 2009, Emerson and Nabatchi 2015, Ulibarri 2015, Bodin 2017). There may be an upper limit to problem complexity or conflict history that collaboration can address. In some cases, collaboration can escalate conflict or consume, rather than build social capital (Walker and Hurley 2004, Ansell and Gash 2008).
A framework for analyzing collaborative governance regimes (CGR) highlights three interwoven dynamics of collaboration (principled engagement, shared motivation, and capacity for joint action) that are of key importance (Emerson and Nabatchi 2015). Principled engagement captures how participants interact through an open process of discovery about issues and others’ beliefs, building shared meaning, jointly deliberating, and ultimately making decisions. Factors that are integral to principled engagement are balanced representation, sincere face-to-face dialogue, and interim decision making (Ansell and Gash 2008, Emerson and Nabatchi 2015, Ulibarri 2015). Shared motivation represents interpersonal dynamics, such as whether participants trust one another, feel that the process is legitimate, and are mutually committed. Finally, capacity for joint action includes the institutional and procedural arrangements of the group, including leadership, resources, and knowledge.
Social learning, defined as “a change in understanding that goes beyond the individual to become situated within wider social units or communities of practice through social interactions,” is an aspect of principled engagement but is also a primary outcome of interest (Reed et al. 2010). Although social learning is often observed, it is not automatic and depends on collaborative dynamics (Emerson et al. 2017). Studies demonstrate the importance of diversity in supporting social learning and collective intelligence, defined as the ability of a group to perform more effectively than any individual alone (Schusler et al. 2003, Mann and Helbing 2017). Diversity in beliefs is positively related to relational learning, whereas diversity in participant affiliation is negatively related to relational learning (Siddiki et al. 2017). Distinguishing between the groups included in a collaborative process (descriptive diversity) and those that meaningfully contribute to the process (substantive diversity) can paint a different picture of balanced representation in a collaboration (Koski et al. 2016). Together, these findings call for more attention to how diversity is conceptualized and assessed in collaborative governance research.
The CGR framework also highlights that collaboration takes place in a “multi-layered system context” (Emerson and Nabatchi 2015). Resource conditions, policy frameworks, socioeconomic and cultural characteristics, network characteristics, political dynamics and power relations, and the history of conflict are all contextual elements that influence collaborative governance regimes. Despite that recognition, most research continues to treat context merely as a driver or “a background variable rather than a key explanatory variable” (Cockburn et al. 2020:6). Politics and power dynamics emerging from the system context are often the elephant in the room, despite arguments that all collaboration is inherently political (Amy 1987, Walker and Hurley 2004, Purdy and Jones 2012, Cockburn et al. 2020). Collaboration in practice can become dominated by private interests, exclude important voices, and bias results toward goals of facilitators or participants with more resources (Leach 2006, Sousa and Klyza 2007, Purdy and Jones 2012, Emerson and Nabatchi 2015).
Few (2001:112) theorized the concept of containment to describe collaboration as the “strategic management of public involvement in planning” to minimize disruption to preconceived goals, rather than a true invitation for deliberation. Counter-containment or network capture in which particular social groups try to redirect or capture the collaborative process to serve their own interest, can also occur (Few 2001, Bixler et al. 2016). If counter-containment is not possible, stakeholders might resort to derailment, an intentional effort to undermine, delegitimate, or stop the collaborative process to prevent undesirable outcomes (Walker and Hurley 2004). Although skillful collaboration, by definition, would seem to preclude such tactics, these options always lie in wait for stakeholders, depending on how a CGR unfolds. Ulibarri et al. (2020:631) showed that most CGR follow “curvy paths of development with instances of reorientation, recreation and/or decline.” Navigating changing health and usefulness of collaborations and knowing when and how to productively adapt CGR over time to dynamic contexts, including efforts at containment, counter-containment, or derailment, remains an important research question.
Public land collaboration in the American West
The American West includes the 13 states west of the 100th meridian in the United States that share characteristics of aridity, topographic complexity, and a high proportion of federal land ownership (Jones et al. 2019, U.S. Census Bureau, date unknown). The U.S. federal government controls 592 million acres of land in the American West, primarily under jurisdiction of the United States Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Conflict related to public lands is “as old as the nation itself” (Graf 1990). The conflict is due not only to a history of competing statutes and special interest groups fighting for priority of use but also to the material connections of these lands to rural prosperity and cultural identity (Charnley et al. 2008). As public land agencies’ management shifted several times from sustained yield and multiple use toward ecosystem-based management, the result was a reduction in timber harvested and grass foraged by livestock (Charnley et al. 2008, Swette and Lambin 2021). Since the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) passed in the 1970s, interested parties, especially environmental groups, found that the best lever to influence agency decision making was through the courts (USEPA 1970). This history created deep mistrust and anger toward agencies, as well as a “litigation problems” and “analysis paralysis” in which managing agencies felt unable to move forward with effective management (Kosek 2006, Donoghue and Sturtevant 2008, Nie and Metcalf 2015:10 and 11, respectively).
As a response to these issues, organized collaboration between federal land managers and stakeholders increased. Such efforts are expected to improve trust between the agency and the public, reduce costs, and avoid lengthy lawsuits (Davis et al. 2017, 2018). Collaboration takes many forms, including agency-led public participation, formal advisory committees, and incentivized community-led collaboration, such as the collaborative forest landscape restoration program (CFLRP; Butler and Shultz 2019). Despite some successes, USFS-led collaboration is criticized as agency containment to rubber stamp plans that have already been made (Hibbard and Madsen 2003). Most national forests now have independent collaborative groups with their own missions and structures focused on wildfire risk and/or forest restoration (Davis et al. 2020). These groups fill gaps in agency capacity, but their ability to overcome conflict and build a deliberative policy process remains unproven (Walpole et al. 2017, Abrams 2019). Research generally indicates high participant satisfaction but comparatively low perceptions of performance (Davis et al. 2017). The ongoing investment in collaborative processes for public land management in the west depends on its efficacy in a dynamic political context.
Polarization as context
Old divides, from the water wars to the sagebrush rebellions, continue to animate current public land conflicts. However, the recent wave of political polarization in the United States and other democracies is arguably of a new type and intensity (Crothers and O’Donohue 2019). Partisan identification now predicts a host of social policy preferences better than any other demographic factor (Dimock and Caroll 2014). Geographic sorting has dramatically increased, creating more homogenous social networks, which reinforce information echo-chambers and amplify partisan messages and misinformation received from social and popular media (Pew Research Center 2016, Lazer et al. 2018). Intergroup contact promotes deliberation and compromise but increasing affective polarization can create a potential backfire effect, such that people become more polarized after exposure to opposing viewpoints on social media (Bail et al. 2018). This type of political sectarianism characterized by an alliance of partisan identity over policy positions and strong contempt for opposing partisans has the potential to impact collaborative governance (Finkel et al. 2020).
Amid conditions of polarization, partisan identity becomes a dominant cultural identity, such that engagement in politics or policy processes does not have the cognitive flexibility and agency valued in democratic participation (Ruckelhaus 2022). Identity is a complex concept with distinct definitions and theorizations across disciplines (Weiner and Tatum 2020). We define identity as the mixture of cognitive, relational, and symbolic attachments that together create an operable self-conception that can be mutually recognized to inform social groups (Ruckelhaus 2022). Identity is not one-dimensional or static and can be context-dependent (Weiner and Tatum 2020). In the current era of polarization, other dimensions (e.g., ethnic, socioeconomic class) of cultural identities are mutable to align with partisan identity (Egan 2020).
Although conflicts related to public land in the American West do not always fall on party lines and can be characterized by unlikely alliances, public land issues are often embroiled in national politics (McKinney 2018, Hillis et al. 2020). Understanding collaboration related to public lands must consider the current trends in political polarization as part of how a dynamic system context can impact collaboration, and vice versa. Attempting collaboration amid such intractable conflict has been called naïve or destructive, but it is not always clear when such contextual factors dis-recommend or, in fact, require collaborative effort (Cockburn et al. 2020).
Case study: the Central Idaho Public Lands Collaborative
This research is a single case study of the Central Idaho Public Lands Collaborative (CIPLC; hereafter the Collaborative), a multi-stakeholder group whose goal is to inform the forest-plan revision led by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) on the Salmon-Challis National Forest (SCNF). A forest plan sets the overall management direction and guidance for all activities in a national forest, similar to a city or county comprehensive plan (USFS 2016). The updated 2012 planning rule enhanced the role of public participation in the process, requiring “collaborative processes where feasible and appropriate” (USDA Planning Rule 2012).
The SCNF is in the Idaho portion of the High Divide, a stretch of the Northern Rockies between the greater Yellowstone ecosystem and the crown of the continent within traditional Shoshone-Bannock and Nez Perce territory (Fig. 1). The federal government controls over 90% of the land, which is valued for its large stretches of intact ecosystems that act as a climate refuge and support landscape connectivity. Extractive industries, such as mining, are subject to boom-and-bust cycles, and both the ranching and timber industries are generally on the decline (USFS-SCNF 2018, Swette and Lambin 2021). Past land designations for conservation (most recently three new wilderness areas in 2015) inspired local resistance and conflict. The region is deeply Republican, but some Democratic pockets around Sun Valley, which has long attracted wealthy amenity migrants, are growing (Martin 2019). The Idaho Tea Party anti-government ideology rose to prominence in the state after the 2016 elections. Polarization along these political divides greatly affects views about appropriate forest management in the region.
A group of citizens responded to a successful collaboration track-record, related to the CFLRP, by asking a local community-based organization, Salmon Valley Stewardship (SVS), to convene a multistakeholder dialogue about forest plan revision. After scoping meetings with broad participation, a smaller group of interested citizens decided to form the Collaborative, a formal group independent of the USFS. Their mission is to “develop recommendations for the management of public lands that reflect the needs and desires of the general public and provide these recommendations” to the SCNF during the revision of the forest plan (CIPLC frequently asked questions https://cipubliclandsplanning.ning.com/documents/ciplc-faq). The USFS retains all decision-making authority and there is no formal devolution of power to the Collaborative. The Collaborative is unique because it is fully independent from the USFS. Most national forests, which initiated planning under the 2012 planning rule, hired an outside facilitator to design and lead collaborative public participation (McKinney 2015).
After the Collaboration was underway, a separate group of citizens with leadership ties to the Idaho Tea Party created the Lemhi-Custer Grassroots Advisory (hereafter Grassroots Advisory) to also work on forest planning. A precipitating incident that led to the Grassroots Advisory’s formation was a USFS public meeting in which a group of citizens repeatedly interrupted USFS staff. To calm the crowd, one USFS staff said: “We don’t have to act like angry villagers.” This comment became a primary point of objection, by the Grassroots Advisory, to criticize how the USFS related to the local community. “Angry villager” bumper stickers could be spotted around town. The formation of the Grassroots Advisory both reflected and altered the political context of the Collaborative.
Following a typology based on formative type (Emerson and Nabatchi 2015), the Collaborative is an independently convened CGR. The case shares characteristics of a self-initiated (or bottom-up) CGR given its inception by a group of voluntary stakeholders, but we classify it as independently convened because of the central role of an independent facilitator in designing the process and providing a platform for communication between members. We classify our case study as an extreme case of collaboration in a highly polarized system context. The formation of an alternate group engaging in a policy process alongside a formal collaborative group is atypical of most studied collaborative governance processes. The dramatic nature of the case “involved more actors and mechanisms” (Flyvberg 2006:229) than an average case, such that it is useful to support theory development about both how collaborative processes unfold in dynamic system contexts and which factors affect that process (Ansell and Gash 2008). The case offers lessons specific to contexts characterized by high levels of partisanship and polarization.
Data sources and analysis
We used a single case study design to enable an in-depth understanding of collaborative dynamics and attention to rich contextual information. We selected the case at its inception, which offered an opportunity to study the process from start to finish and avoided selection bias toward successful cases or a “halo effect” when participants positively skewed recollections based on recent experience (Koontz and Thomas 2006).
The study used participant observation, semi-structured interviews, and document review for data collection (IRB #41763). The lead author observed over 75 hours of collaborative meetings, gatherings, and field trips between fall 2017 and spring 2020. They reviewed official meeting notes, group-wide email communications, and written outputs produced by the group. They also conducted 19 semi-structured interviews (in person and on video conference) with Collaborative members, Grassroots Advisory participants, and USFS staff. Interviews lasted between one and two hours and were administered between August 2018 and September 2021. Interview subjects were selected to represent the main groups involved, specifically agriculture (2 interviewees), environment (7), agency (3), recreation (2), and local citizens (5). An open invitation for interviewees was also sent to the Collaborative email list.
We developed a semi-structured interview protocol based on initial observations and literature review (Appendix 1). The interviews focused on research questions informed by the CGR framework but followed emerging themes. Interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim. Transcripts were analyzed in NVivo 12 with an initial set of codes based on the CGR framework (QSR 2020). Codes were added as necessary in an open-coding process (Strauss and Corbin 1997). We used process tracing to analyze data and identify the causal mechanisms that connected factors of the context and collaborative process to outcomes. The CGR framework provided the hypothesized topics “meriting analytic attention” for process tracing (Collier 2011:824). The long period of observation and interview data at multiple time steps allowed us to connect the sequence of variables in a causal chain. We did not attribute identifying information to most quotes to maintain anonymity for interview respondents given the small size of the Collaborative. All quotes are from people that participated in or interacted with the Collaborative, the Grassroots Advisory members, and the USFS staff.
From collaboration to derailment
The Collaborative formalized a mission and vision, a statement of good intent, and a structure in the first few months of its official formation (Fig. 2). The group sought consensus agreement among participants and identified 24 voting members whose vote counted in the consensus process to ensure a balanced representation of 6 “segments” of society (Appendix 2). The “segments” bundled user groups and affiliations with similar interests in the national forest, such as agriculture with mining, and general conservation with sportsman conservation. The broader membership worked primarily in working groups to create comments and proposals that corresponded to the USFS planning process (Fig. 2). The Collaborative tried to engage with the Grassroots Advisory immediately after their formation by inviting members to participate in their process. The most vocal leaders of the Grassroots Advisory did not want to collaborate, but others participated in both groups. A few members that initially participated in the Collaborative gravitated toward the Grassroots Advisory over time.
By 2019, leaders of the Grassroots Advisory used political connections within the Trump Administration to bring oversight of the local planning process from the regional and national USFS offices. Their complaints focused on a lack of community involvement by the Collaborative and underrepresentation from natural resources industries. The members of the Grassroots Advisory were galvanized by the election of far-right Republican candidates to the Idaho State House of Representatives and Donald Trump as President. One Collaborative member reflected, “I learned there’s a lot of justified anger. However, the way the [Grassroots Advisory] were going about it was because they were in power.” An expanded analysis of the Grassroots Advisory is provided in Appendix 3.
The USFS held meetings with both the Grassroots Advisory and Collaborative groups to dialogue about concerns. These meetings included participants from higher levels of the USFS, one of whom wrote in an email to colleagues (obtained by a Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] request by the Grassroots Advisory):
I fear this process will implode due to the poor relationship with this Grassroots Advisory. I believe if improvements are not made quickly this movement may get much louder and end up in DC possibly the White House. This situation could be the poster child for exclusion of local input to the FS process.
The SCNF forest supervisor responded by pausing the planning process to review whether to move forward with a full plan revision and, if so, whether to maintain two separate plans for the Salmon and Challis regions. Amid this uncertainty, the Collaborative decided to reorient their focus on the parallel process of Wild and Scenic rivers, which resulted in a successful consensus proposal (Fig. 2; Appendix 3, A3.2). Because the USFS continued to stall, the Collaborative reoriented again to focus on a recreation project with the goal of achieving a concrete success. The project ultimately failed to get consensual approval when a small number of citizens with strong environmental interests blocked the proposal.
These reorientations did not overcome the significant decline in health of the group amid the Grassroots Advisory’s contestations (Fig. 2). In the early and middle stages of development, the Collaborative invested in designing and implementing a process characterized by the three collaboration dynamics of principled engagement, shared motivation, and capacity for joint action (Appendix 4, Table A4.1). Most in the Collaborative believed the group was internally successful at meeting these conditions in the early stages of the process and that these dynamics supported outputs and outcomes that met many of the goals of collaboration, i.e., building trust among participants, strengthening relationships and networks, solving conflict, cognitive and relational learning, and producing high-quality outputs (Appendix 4, Table A4.2). However, there was disagreement among members about the extent to which certain conditions were met over time. Although the Collaborative did not officially disband, activities stalled. The USFS then decided to indefinitely halt the planning process, an effective derailment by the Grassroots Advisory. Members particularly expressed dissatisfaction with how the Collaborative responded to external contextual factors related to the Grassroots Advisory and the eventual derailment of the broader USFS process (Appendix 4, Table A4.1).
The derailment could be viewed as external to the Collaborative and indeed some participants felt that the outcome was out of their control because of the decisions made by the USFS. But the Grassroots Advisory arose because of a shifting political context and through interactions with the Collaborative and the USFS (Fig. 3; Appendix 3). One Collaborative member acknowledged that “the success of the Collaborative is what brought forward the Grassroots Advisory.” Although some Grassroots Advisory members, particularly the leadership, never intended to collaborate and were never part of the Collaborative, others gravitated toward the Grassroots Advisory in response to their experiences with the Collaborative. The USFS staff shared that the forest supervisor stalled the process because they believed the current approach to public participation was not achieving a broadly supportable plan. We present results that show how collaborative dynamics interacted with a polarized context over time to influence the eventual derailment of the planning process. We focus on two factors of capacity for joint action (facilitation and collaborative structure) and two factors of principled engagement (balanced representation and social learning) that proved to be critical in the outcomes of the case.
Facilitation: local or objective?
Most members of the Collaborative agreed that SVS was a good choice for the facilitating organization because it is a local organization with a track record for convening collaborations related to public lands and has the administrative capacity to secure funding and organize the process. Salmon Valley Stewardship initially resisted playing a convening role because staff understood both the political nature and long-time horizon of forest planning. At the pressure of a few regional environmental nongovernmental organizations (ENGOs) and funders, they agreed. Interviewees generally reflected that the facilitation “was excellent. The facilitators overcame a lot of hurdles and adapted on the fly. I don't think that could have gone any better.” The lead facilitator within the organization was new to the area and did not have a background in public lands or conservation, which was believed to make them an unbiased facilitator. They also pursued a certificate in conflict resolution to build facilitation skills. Effective facilitation enabled positive collaboration dynamics within the group and many of the desirable outcomes observed (Appendix 4, Table A4.1).
In a context of political polarization, the local organization could not maintain a broader reputation as objective and impartial. Despite best efforts at maintaining neutrality, many viewed SVS as an ENGO with a mission because of previous relationships with ENGOs and the USFS. One Collaborative member shared,
A large sector of our community feels that SVS leans a little bit left. Some town people were a bit hesitant at believing SVS’s full mission was just to facilitate collaboratively and could come out with the best approach.
The Grassroots Advisory publicly criticized the fact that the prior executive director of SVS became the USFS collaboration specialist on the planning team. Salmon Valley Stewardship also received funding to work with the USFS on a separate campaign, which was misrepresented by the Grassroots Advisory as the USFS funding, and thus giving preferential treatment to the Collaborative. Although not the opinion of most members, one reported,
The Collaborative was a puppet for the Forest Plan Revision Team...There was an extreme favoritism. If you’re running a meeting, you can push and allow who to speak. You can try to control it and you can influence who talks and who doesn’t. And you can shut people down if you don’t particularly want to hear their story.
Although the working relationship between the USFS and SVS internally supported the capacity of the Collaborative, the close connection between the group and the agency undermined the external validity as an unbiased group.
Salmon Valley Stewardship not only acted as the facilitator but also provided de facto leadership and a strong convening role. Salmon Valley Stewardship made multiple efforts to delegate responsibility, but no formal devolution of leadership occurred. Some interviewees were unclear about how decisions were made, such as how working group topics were chosen or how the voting membership structure was decided. Given the polarized context, the concentration of power in SVS led to uneasiness suggesting that the facilitator made too many decisions unilaterally. The burden of external communication of group dynamics and decisions also fell to SVS, which exacerbated the impression that they were leading the group, rather than purely facilitating. One Collaborative member reflected,
It’s almost a loss/loss situation...with an organization from outside the area, people may think, “They don’t know anything about our local forest. Why are they here?” But an organization within that area, there’s typically going to be a biased feeling one way or the other.
Salmon Valley Stewardship served as a skilled facilitator for a previous collaboration, but prior ability to bring together diverse groups did not translate to the more contentious land planning process.
Collaborative structure: formal or inclusive?
Facilitators responded to expert advice and input from members on how to structure participation in the Collaborative to support healthy collaboration dynamics. The result was a highly formal process that limited participation from members. A voting member structure that was intended to create balanced representation instead alienated members that were otherwise not well represented (Appendix 2). One perspective from a Collaborative participant included,
There was a lot of concern with the voting structure and that left a sour taste in mouths directly from the start and they felt that they weren’t having a voice.Another shared,
When I was told I would not be allowed to vote, but there was nobody representing my interest, that was as chink in the armor as far as representing a full collaborative.
The Collaborative tried to improve communication about membership, but as one member said,
That term voting, non-voting, that blew up...We changed it. I can’t remember what we changed it to, but it was too late.
Similarly, strict requirements about how to become a member of the group gave an impression of exclusivity, even if all meetings were open to observers. In contrast, most members believed the working groups, which were open to anyone interested in the topic, to be the most productive parts of the structure. These smaller informal groups enabled deliberation, interim decision making, and trust building (Appendix 4, 4.1).
The early institutionalization of the Collaborative made it difficult to adapt when context changed. Internal notes from the USFS stakeholder meetings, obtained by a FOIA request, from the Grassroots Advisory read,
having a “recognized” collaborative may be the main problem.
One member reflected after activities stalled,
None of us could see the forest for the trees. Just to say, this is not the political environment we can work in and we need to focus on recreation or fire prevention or something and just put a pause on it well before they did...
Eventual efforts to reorient were superficial and never fundamentally addressed the structure or purpose of the group.
Balanced representation: community of place or mutual interest?
Balanced representation became a key issue that influenced collaborative outcomes over time in a polarized setting. Salmon Valley Stewardship led a concerted outreach effort to create an inclusive forum and recruit a broad range of stakeholders by defining segments of society to ensure balanced representation of those groups (Appendix 2). Most Collaborative members believed that the group maintained a rich diversity of experiences and beliefs, even though “everyone always wants more ranchers.” They also acknowledged that the diversity in affiliations of members declined over time and that ENGO staff were the most active and persistent. United States Forest Service shared that the benefit of the Collaborative diminished as active participation became increasingly dominated by environmental groups. The legacy effect of the group’s inception by ENGOs shaped future participation, in some cases pushing members toward participation in the Grassroots Advisory.
Forest planning is a relatively obscure and byzantine policy process for most ordinary citizens. In contrast, it is a high priority to interest groups because of the ability to impact long-term outcomes on the national forests. Environmental nongovernmental organizations were actively looking for a mechanism to participate and believed the context required collaboration to be effective. Formalized, procedure-heavy collaboration, sometimes called big “C” collaboration, has become so ubiquitous among conservation groups in Idaho that one interviewee referred to it as “The Idaho Model” (Davis 2019). Funders are also interested in supporting collaborative projects. The following two quotes from ENGO staff demonstrate their motivations:
It became clear that this was an opportunity to build stronger partnerships with conservation groups working in this area. We met with other conservation organizations and ended up trying to advocate to convene this collaborative.
There’s enough energy out there that links us to conspiracy theories that we realize if it’s endorsed by the Collaborative, it’s a lot stronger than if it’s coming from our group alone.
Largely because of the imbalance of interest from ENGOs, the Collaborative created a structure with an equal number of voting members from each segment (Appendix 1, Fig. A1.2). The early concentration of ENGO staff and their existing networks created an imbalance of participation and power in the group from the outset. Members acknowledged that voting member positions were filled by usual suspects that had a past track record of collaborating with ENGOs and the USFS. One Collaborative member reflected,
Some of the ranchers that participated ... some people felt they were conservationist.
Environmental non-government organizations staff are professionals and experts in the policy processes related to public land. Although these groups were not the only experts participating in the Collaborative, their large presence alienated some potential members.
One of the big fights is a lot of the locals felt very pressured or left out because there were so many nationally recognized powerhouse NGOs involved. And I think they felt really threatened about that.
I watched it happen where a couple of times a rancher shows up, and there’s another rancher that they know and that feels comfy. Then the next time they show up, and it’s like they’re squeezed between three ENGOs. I don’t think we ever saw them again.
The Grassroots Advisory publicly characterized the Collaborative as a group of paid employees of ENGOs, which obscured the structure of the group and impeded the ability for the Collaborative to appear inclusive to new members. As part of a derailment strategy, the Grassroots Advisory accused the Collaborative of being a containment tool by the USFS, as well as a method of counter-containment to create an environmental takeover of the forest plan. Over time, the influence of the Collaborative on the USFS process waned because of the growing concentration of ENGOs. The Grassroots Advisory was able to exploit this weakness to gain greater power to stall the USFS process, and thus the benefits to individuals participating in the Collaborative decreased further. This created a vicious cycle in which those who had the least to benefit decreased their engagement, and ENGO representatives became even more dominant.
The Forest Service was starting to stall, and there was a lot of burnout and people feeling that the plan wasn't going to be going anywhere. Getting people to commit to meetings was getting harder and harder.
Our data suggest that shifting benefits of participation, rather than time itself, led to reduced participation and burnout, and drove the vicious cycle that precipitously reduced collaboration health beginning in 2019 (Fig. 2). Participants of all types were willing to invest an extraordinary number of hours in collaboration, but because the USFS stalled the planning process, the willingness to invest time without clear results declined.
Most members believed that the Collaborative needed to represent the broader Salmon-Challis community to be effective and have power in the USFS process.
There was a really strong effort at the kickoff to try and make the Collaborative the full voice of the people who were interested in forest plan revision.
These have to be community driven processes. Yes, conservation is what our organization likes but we know it has to be community driven, that collaboration brings durable outcomes.
Despite efforts to cultivate and maintain representation from the broader community, the “segments” based on user groups or affiliations did not capture how key stakeholders identified and led to contestations over whether the Collaborative represented either the groups it claimed to or the broader community. In this setting, the group could not overcome the Collaborative’s initiation legacy effect by a group of ENGOs to maintain broad participation in the group. The Collaborative was ultimately better characterized as a group of mutual interest, rather than representative of the broader community of place, which impacted its efficacy and legitimacy.
Social learning: avoiding or overcoming conflict?
The dynamics of the Collaborative, i.e., efforts at creating balanced representation, face-to-face dialogue, and interim decision making, initially promoted internal social learning evidenced by the group’s outputs (Appendix 4, Tables A4.1, A4.2). Many interviewees reported examples of relational and cognitive learning through the Collaborative, but social learning was uneven among participants (Appendix 4, Table A4.2). Three interrelated factors limited social learning in the polarized setting: the diversity of participants over time, the specificity of tasks on which the group worked, and whether there was constructive conflict.
Participants frequently expressed concern that diversity supported their learning. Most felt that the Collaborative maintained a rich diversity of beliefs, despite the waning diversity of affiliation. Although learning was still possible without representation from all groups, some members felt that the limited representation of the Grassroots Advisory impacted learning.
We were slowly getting to a point where we were really learning from each other. But once the Grassroots Advisory split away, I think that opportunity was gone.
Although learning occurred, some interviewees felt that the most meaningful learning, that which would have bridged the divides paralyzing the policy process, was not achieved because of a failure to engage the members of the Grassroots Advisory.
There was a level of excitement, there was some commitment when we got started...And yet in some ways, I don’t know that we’re very much further than where we were because of this disconnect between different social groups.
The Collaborative focused their efforts on predetermined components of the USFS plan, which enabled concrete discussion and group deliberation (Appendix 3). The specificity of the tasks, such as providing comments on a USFS draft assessment, allowed for trust building that set the stage for ongoing social learning. Members reported a high level of intimacy and familiarity with each other because of the frequent and intense interactions when working on such products. However, the focus on the USFS planning process was relatively obscure for many participants, which limited broader engagement and diverted attention from areas of constructive conflict. Some members felt that the Collaborative was “not open to discussing the real issues, or doesn't necessarily want to engage in those very difficult discussions.” Members reported that the group shied away from certain issues, such as wildfire, due in part to the polarized atmosphere. Collaborative members generally valued input from members participating in both groups, but the Collaborative struggled to effectively address members’ key issues where conflict tended to be highest. Attempts to work on high conflict issues felt like superficial engagement rather than addressing the conflict. One member said,
There seemed to be a certain amount of, “Oh, we can’t have conflict.” ... But my experience is that conflict isn’t really conflict. It’s people using different definitions for the same word...So to be afraid of conflict is, I think, a waste of time.
The avoidance of high-conflict issues allowed for interim social learning but limited the capacity of the Collaborative to overcome broader divisions in the community. This dynamic pushed some people away from the Collaborative and toward the Grassroots Advisory because they felt that their issue was not being adequately addressed. After the Collaborative stalled activities, one member reflected on his new desire to address conflict directly,
When the Forest gets started again, I’m going to try to get in front of the Lemhi-Custer Grassroots committee and try to take some of the fear away.
Research must move beyond a mere recognition of the importance of contextual factors to directly address how collaborative governance regimes engage with and are impacted by dynamic contexts (Davis 2019, Cockburn et al. 2020). This case shows that increased political polarization is likely to make contestations to collaborative governance more common and produce factions that will try to contain or counter-contain for their own interest or derail the process entirely (Walker and Hurley 2004). Higher levels of government can create conditions that give power either to collaborative approaches or to specific interest groups. A CGR can build power in a local process by bringing together diverse voices, but the balance of power may shift because of changes at other levels of government. Certain groups may be less likely to collaborate if their power is growing (Ansell and Gash 2008). The ultimate derailment of the USFS process in this case highlights the vulnerability of local collaborative approaches to political shifts at other scales of government that change the balance of power (Fig. 3).
Although some CGRs will fail because of political context irrespective of procedural issues, we highlight that collaboration dynamics are context sensitive and influence the motivation and ability for groups to pursue containment, counter-containment, and derailment strategies. “Politics are not separate from collaboration, but an integral part of it” (Walker and Hurley 2004:737). Each group or individual always has the choice of whether participation in a collaborative effort is the best action to support their interests. The choice to collaborate depends on whether the CGR can address a concern and maintain credibility in the larger policy process. The CGR at the center of this case experienced a slow decline in health not just because of contextual factors but because of how its dynamics interacted with a changing context over time (Ulibarri et al. 2020; Fig. 2). Our results build on collaborative theory represented in the CGR framework (Emerson and Nabatchi 2015) by showing how polarized contexts affect effective facilitation and structure, balanced representation, and social learning. As an extreme case, the polarized context put pressure on elements of the CGR in ways that prove useful for theory development and revealed trade-offs for collaborative design that might not be apparent or critical in nonpolarized contexts. Based on these trade-offs, we discuss four lessons learned for the design of CGRs and their evolution given dynamic political contexts.
(1) Initiation type and initiating leadership create path dependence and inability to expand leadership is a signal to recreate the CGR
This case supports findings: (1) the way a CGR is initiated impacts subsequent dynamics and (2) performance with self-initiated CGRs performs best over time (Ulibarri et al. 2020). The key role of ENGOs in directing the facilitating organization to initiate the Collaborative resulted in an externally initiated CGR, with long-term consequences for participation and performance. Initiating leadership often relies on their existing network to select and invite additional participants (Koski et al. 2016). Prior studies indicate the importance of unbiased facilitation for conflict management (Emerson and Nabatchi 2015). Our results suggest that, in polarized contexts, some parties are likely to perceive bias in leadership and facilitation, which is exacerbated in an externally initiated CGR. Narrow initiating leadership can unintentionally exclude key groups, which undermines legitimacy and reduces engagement over time, even when efforts are made to ensure objectivity and impartiality.
A key indicator of legitimacy that supports long-term CGR health is expansion of leadership (Ulibarri et al. 2020). In this case, the facilitators tried and failed repeatedly to facilitate others to take on leadership of the Collaborative. This inability to expand and share group power, especially beyond ENGOs, was an early warning sign that the CGR was declining in health and required more substantial efforts at recreation. The Collaborative openly discussed that their group’s relevance decreased over time, but they struggled to know when and how to adjust course. The case suggests that externally initiated CGRs are more likely to begin with narrower leadership because of the role of a central actor and thus may struggle to ultimately expand leadership. Davis et al. (2018:226) described that it can be difficult to know when a CGR must represent a broader community of place versus a “coalition of the willing.” Our findings suggest that polarized contexts might require that CGRs evolve to represent the broader community of place to be effective.
Externally initiated CGRs are becoming more common as ENGOs and funders push for collaborative solutions. Early collaborative successes were largely bottom-up, motivated by sincere frustration on all sides over gridlock. More recently, environmental groups are adopting collaboration as a matter of course to build political power regardless of context. This fact does not mean that these groups do not participate in good faith or do not genuinely believe that a collaborative resolution is stronger. However, a one-sided push for collaborative solutions may backfire in polarized contexts. Self-initiated CGRs may be better able to weather a turbulent context because they grow out of a stronger desire to collaborate from the key parties. Such contexts may therefore require self-initiated CGRs, which are better at resolving conflicts than those that are externally initiated (Ulibarri et al. 2020). In practice, limiting the role of the facilitator at the outset may also help overcome challenges related to narrow initiating leadership.
(2) Early formalization and an overly structured collaborative can exacerbate conflict and affect the ability to adapt to a dynamic political context
Although a minimum level of formality is required for collaborative governance to work, the degree of formalization varies significantly (Emerson and Nabatchi 2015). Past research shows that higher degrees of complex issues or actors benefit from more formal governance arrangements (Ostrom 2009). Formalization can also provide stability and can help secure resources for long-term collaboration (Cheng and Sturtevant 2012). This research identifies an important trade-off that informs theory about the appropriate degree and timing of formalization depending on context. Highly formal CGR arrangements can have unintended consequences of limiting participation and increasing division. Refraining from formalizing the group at the outset and relying on loosely formulated working groups and informal field trips could have avoided the impression that the facilitator or others were trying to closely manage the membership and power dynamics of the group. Informal arrangements, such as less-structured working groups, can be an important venue to iteratively develop a process characterized by principled engagement (Innes et al. 2007, Emerson and Nabatchi 2015). This case supports recent theory that overly formal designs that are the focus of big “C” Collaboration cannot consider changes in system contexts, leaving facilitators stuck with rigid representation schemas that inhibit adaptation (Davis 2019). Even when leadership tries to reorient the group, the initial structure has a legacy effect that is difficult to overcome.
(3) Understanding identity is important to define substantive diversity and achieve balanced representation
Defining clear boundaries of who participates in a CGR and maintaining balanced representation of those groups are key elements to successful collaborations (Ansell and Gash 2008). In polarized settings, representation is likely to be contested, and a lack of substantive diversity will impact CGR health over time. This result supports a prior finding that participants with low trust in public organizations are likely to scrutinize representation to evaluate CGR legitimacy (Lee and Esteve 2022). The CGR approached the problem of representation by recruiting different public land stakeholder groups and trying to maintain a balance of affiliations (Appendix 2). Members believed that the Collaborative held a diversity of beliefs and policy positions. However, given the role of partisan identity in the polarized system context, neither a diversity of affiliations nor beliefs adequately engaged or represented the key stakeholders driving division.
The findings build on previous research that highlights the importance of substantive diversity in collaboration to achieve balanced representation (Koski et al. 2016). Our results show that evaluations of substantive diversity must examine whether the intended groups feel adequately represented by specific categories or individuals. Defining diversity with the wrong categories can just as easily compromise substantive diversity as a lack of meaningful participation by the groups in the room. Achieving balanced representation thus requires attention to how stakeholders identify and which aspects of their identity drive their behavior in the CGR. Static or one-dimensional conceptualizations of identity groups, such as user-group affiliations, may not be instructive for defining diversity in collaborative settings (Weiner and Tatum 2020). Partisan identities can also be in danger of oversimplification, as Republican or Democratic affiliation would not capture the types of partisan identities that shaped participation. Instead, partisan identities tied to anxieties of inclusion in a changing social-environmental context were most important. For collaborative governance to promote civil discourse and inclusive communication, CGRs must pay attention to how identities are shaped by partisan influence. Understanding which identities are significant in the governance process can inform strategies for conceptualizing diversity and structuring representation. Neglecting to conceptualize participation in collaboration as political will undermine the process.
(4) Absence of key types of diversity and conflict avoidance limit cognitive social learning
Although social learning occurred in the Collaborative, most members agreed that important types of cognitive learning were compromised by the absence of specific groups and by conflict avoidance. Siddiki et al. (2017) first noted that varying operationalizations of diversity could impede understanding of how diversity impacts social learning. In this case, participants provided ample evidence of both cognitive and relational learning that was supported by a diversity of affiliations and beliefs. However, cognitive learning was undermined by a lack of representation of the key groups driving the division. The results suggest that cognitive learning may be more sensitive to how diversity is defined than relational learning and may be context dependent. This insight does not directly refute theory from Siddiki et al. (2017) about the relationship between diversity and collaboration but adds nuance that should be further investigated.
This research also shows that conflict avoidance is not an effective long-term strategy, especially during highly contested and changing political times. Collaborative theory suggests the importance of constructive conflict for social learning (Emerson and Nabatchi 2015). But CGR leaders might shy away from what feels like intractable conflicts to avoid major disruptions from a few vocal members that appear to have extreme views. For example, facilitators were wary that catering to certain groups would disrupt group learning. The CGR stopped working for certain interests as a result of shying away from conflict, and the Grassroots Advisory’s alternate strategy became more appealing. Conflict avoidance may be more tempting in contexts characterized by polarization but drawing the boundaries of a collaboration in which there is conflict will undermine learning and the ultimate effectiveness of outputs. Given the importance of engaging conflict, facilitators need to be trained not only in conflict resolution skills but in conflict management systems that support productive engagement of conflict over time (Siddiki et al. 2017).
This research is not without limitations. Although process tracing allowed us to identify how collaborative dynamics interacted with context to impact outcomes, we cannot say with certainty that the planning process would not have been derailed irrespective of collaborative dynamics. Moreover, although we observed the Collaborative through a key phase, the ultimate outcome of the process is still open-ended, and the Collaborative will most likely recreate itself in a new form when the USFS process restarts. Our results are also most relevant to high-level and complex policy processes that are particularly vulnerable to politics compared to project-level collaboratives.
Conflict related to public lands and their management is likely to intensify as climate and demographic changes put more pressure on the services and values that these lands provide. Despite the widespread institutionalization of collaboration in public land governance, its role in solving environmental conflict is far from settled. Some agency managers are looking to return to top-down decision making to overcome gridlock driven by recent polarization. Our context-sensitive understanding of a CGR revealed trade-offs and lessons that can help collaboratives navigate such changing political landscapes (Newig et al. 2018).
The CGR was internally successful during its early and middle periods of development but was unable to overcome a context of political polarization that ultimately derailed the policy process. A recent focus on formal CGRs, which employ best practices, can overshadow the need for groups to respond to specific contexts. Skilled facilitators and leaders are aware of the need for adaptive comanagement, but as collaboration has become more routine, the temptation to formalize collaborative groups is high. Increasing political polarization may instigate a shift toward self-initiated collaboration or little “c” collaboration characterized by informal shared problem solving (Davis 2019). Containment, counter-containment, and derailment of collaborative governance processes are always options for stakeholders but can be prevented if overly formal and one-size-fits-all approaches are avoided. This case highlights the need for additional understanding of how contextual variables influence the decision of when and how to reorient, recreate, or disband a CGR (Newig et al. 2018, Ulibarri et al. 2020). Our research suggests that failure to successfully expand leadership or exclusion of key stakeholders may be one indication that a full recreation of the collaboration is needed.
Increasing political polarization also requires increased attention to the role of identity in influencing principled engagement in collaboration. Additional research can move beyond concepts of diversity bound to affiliation or policy beliefs to investigate how environmental identities arising from recent forms of political polarization impact collaborative environmental governance. Future research can help describe the types of identities relevant to collaborative environmental governance in different contexts. Recent advances to increase focus on actors, their motives, and their social networks in CGRs could be a useful approach to better understand the role of identity in driving collaborative outcomes in polarized contexts (Bodin 2017, Carboni et al. 2017).
Understanding the limits of collaboration, including when and how the current era of political and societal polarization makes derailment of such efforts likely, is essential to inform the next turn in environmental governance. Our context-specific lessons can help stakeholders make decisions about when and how to collaborate. Making planning processes just and inclusive, while meeting urgent environmental challenges, requires investing in the capacity of governing bodies to meaningfully engage with stakeholders in a way that is not necessarily tied to formal collaborative processes.
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We thank the Collaborative for opening their group to observers and welcoming our presence at meetings and gatherings. We are especially grateful to the interviewees who generously gave their time and shared their experiences. The Stanford Land Change Lab and reviewers provided helpful comments that improved the manuscript. B. Swette was supported by a Goldman Graduate Fellowship from the Stanford Institute for the Environment and the William C. and Jeanne M. Landreth Fellowship from the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER) at Stanford University. Field work was supported by Stanford University (E-IPER, EDGE, and McGee/Levorson).
The data that support the findings of this study are available on request from the corresponding author, B. S. None of the data are publicly available because they contain information that could compromise the privacy of research participants. Ethical approval for this research study was granted by the Institutional Review Board at Stanford University (#41763).
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