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Improving environmental decision-making processes

Despite collaboration’s widespread use in environmental decision-making, there had been little evidence that it actually improves the resources being managed.  Recent research indicates there is a positive impact. 

Nicola Ulibarri
<p>Stanford School of Earth, Energy &amp; Environmental Sciences</p>
April 3, 2015
Hands holding a rope
<p>Credit: Shutterstock</p>

Many attempts to ameliorate environmental problems backfire. Technical and political interventions often don’t anticipate side-effects, and solutions to environmental problems are often politically divisive. However, there may be different ways to structure environmental decision-making processes to yield more effective solutions.

One promising and popular approach has been for federal and state agencies to share decision-making responsibility with businesses, tribes, non-governmental organizations, and the public. Conceptually, collaboration seems beneficial because it involves the people affected by decisions—and whose voices have historically been absent from many policy conversations—and thus builds on democratic ideals. Collaboration is also thought to improve the effectiveness of decisions, because expanding the scope of participants also expands the range of information brought to bear on a problem.

But despite collaboration’s widespread use in environmental decision-making, there is little evidence that it actually improves the resources being managed.

In a recent study published in Policy Studies Journal, I explored the value of collaborative decision-making for managing the environment. Using the case of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission's (FERC) process for licensing hydropower dams in the US, I tested whether the extent to which utilities engaged other stakeholders in developing license applications affected inclusion of environmentally targeted operating conditions in the licenses. I found that more collaborative processes resulted in more environmentally favorable and implementable licenses, suggesting that collaboration does influence the environmental performance of decisions.

More specifically, collaboration allowed stakeholders to develop operating requirements that balanced the many interests that compete for the fixed amount of water in a river. An emphasis on negotiating around needs and interests allowed participants to be open to other parties’ opinions, which meant that every decision tried to incorporate every stakeholder’s interest. This process of iterative, face-to-face brainstorming eventually led to solutions that emphasized hydropower during peak electrical demands, water quality when fish were spawning, as well as recreational access, flood control, and numerous other resources.

In contrast, licenses resulting from low collaboration cases missed key environmental concerns. Without collaboration, a fundamental divide between the electrical utility (who wanted to keep operating the facility as they always had) and resource agencies (who were concerned about environmental impacts) was never bridged. Drawing on identical scientific information, the utility interpreted resource studies to indicate that there was no evidence that the project had any negative environmental effects, while the agencies concluded that the project was affecting sediment and water temperature. Acting as a judge, FERC approved the utility’s requests because they had met all statutory obligations. Thus, even though participants raised concerns about environmental impacts in written and oral comments throughout the process, only the utility’s interests were reflected in the final license.

This work’s primary policy implication is that collaboration is useful for managing the environment. In complex systems with many competing interests, designing decision-making processes that emphasize shared decision-making between stakeholders can result in stronger, more environmentally friendly, and more implementable decisions. In addition, traditional consultation models—where one party makes most of the decision and then seeks input from the public or other agencies—do not appear to yield the same environmental benefits as a fully collaborative process. Collaboration does require more time and resources to meet regularly, build trust, and iterate toward management solutions than consultation, but if a decision-making process aims for environmental sustainability, that trade-off may be worthwhile. Thus, when designing a collaborative process for the purpose of environmental management, decision-makers should prioritize ensuring that the full stakeholder group engages in joint dialogue and negotiation throughout the process.

Nicola Ulibarri is a PhD Candidate in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford University.