U.S. Forest Service Sustainable Recreation Planning through Community Engagement
The mountains surrounding Tucson, Arizona hold a bounty of scenic desert recreation opportunities, from waterfalls to archaeological sites and geological rock formations. A fifteen minute drive through northeast Tucson leads to Redington Pass, connecting the Santa Catalina and Rincon mountain ranges in the Coronado National Forest – managed by the US Forest Service (USFS). Redington Road, a 14-mile strip of unpaved road maintained by Pima County, winds across the Pass connecting the Tucson and San Pedro valleys. The scenic and challenging desert backcountry of Redington Pass attracts a diverse range of users, including recreationalists, ranchers, and researchers.
When I started my research, the Forest Service was finalizing revisions to their comprehensive Forest Plan to meet the needs of public land access for the 21st century. Presently, only one ecological management area exists for the entire district. The Plan revision proposes a collaborative area management plan specific for Redington Pass, in coordination with the Friends of Redington Pass (FRP), a non-profit organization representing social and environmental interests on the Pass. This partnership is illustrative of modern network development forged across sectors to tackle complex shared issues.
However, challenges in process design and representative engagement are paramount when working in similar partnerships. The FRP’s board aims to address these challenges through an iterative scoping of user interests and the encouragement of new volunteer involvement. The work of a landscape planner can serve such a partnership effectively by gathering environmental and social data, performing analysis, and developing a process design to inform the ultimate plan. The following research was conducted during my volunteer work as landscape planner in partnership with the FRP and USFS with the end goal of creating a planning process design and drafting a collaborative area management plan for Redington Pass.
Planning Process Design
This landscape planning process workflow combined three interdisciplinary models from the fields of collaborative governance, geodesign, and landscape architecture. The process is organized in three research stages, nested within the contextual factors which affect each process uniquely, and the next steps after the plan is submitted.
The first research stage, Site and Stakeholder Analysis, determines the physical and social scope of problem definition – what is the size of the study area and who are the users involved? A series of geodesign models analyzed existing conditions and processes across over 72 square miles of land on the Pass. A public meeting in April 2014 was attended by over 100 people who identified how they used the Pass, where they liked to visit, and where problem areas existed. This first round of data collection and analysis led the FRP Board and me to conclude that the design problem needed to focus on the land around the existing forest road system and the types of recreational uses occurring in this area (specifically motorized, non-motorized, and place-based users).
The second research stage, Concept Development, dug deeper into the study area and composition of backcountry recreation interests by reaching consensus on common issues and values. Through an online survey and in-person meetings and interviews with clubs, individuals, and organizations, I coded data into common issue and value themes. These results were then discussed in a second public meeting in November 2014 attended by over 100 people, who provided feedback about the four issues and seven value concepts. Volunteers were encouraged to apply to one of four issue working groups formed to tackle each problem identified – access, recreational target shooting, highly used areas, and user conflict. They were also encouraged to collaborate on recommendations for the management plan during spring 2015. Each group then nominated two members to represent the group’s progress in an overarching integration group, who met monthly to ensure cohesion and avoid redundancy in the recommendation process across the issues.
The third and final research stage, Design Recommendations, is in process at this time. The working groups have each met four times, organized site visits together, and will continue to meet through fall 2015 to reach consensus on management recommendations and draft the plan. The groups will share their recommendations at a third public meeting and further public feedback will drive final recommendations submitted to the Forest Service in winter 2015. The social capital developed in this process will continue with support from the FRP in monitoring how the recommendations are implemented and the effectiveness of future changes through the plan. The process is intended to be adaptive and long-term, with changes possible as users evaluate the impacts of the recommendations over time.
Lessons Learned in Collaborative Landscape Planning
In working with a diverse range of interests, I was struck by the willingness among participants to engage in such a collaborative and lengthy process. Meeting participants listened to each other and volunteered their free time after work and on weekends to share opinions and knowledge. Across sectors and uses, individuals voiced their understanding of the need for this approach. Equally, I was struck by the complexity and challenge of engaging in a collaborative process. The organizers were faced with the challenge of providing the right activities and information for participants to effectively contribute their individual insight. The public agency representatives, as resources, faced a large crowd of people who are generally skeptical of some policies and motivated by their concerns. The participants in these meetings openly shared their personal opinions and concerns, often times speaking in front of a large group, with no guarantee (given the compromise necessary for reaching consensus) that their interests or concerns would be satisfactorily addressed.
Collaboration demands a great deal from everyone involved. As a landscape architect and community facilitator, this is important to remember for future planning projects. The frustrations and setbacks which occur in every design process are magnified by the number of people taking part in a common effort, however, the benefits are substantially magnified. A collaboration of cross-sector interests can share a civil and informed discussion and create a wealth of effective alternative solutions to apply to a common problem.
By Rachel Glass, MLA, University of Arizona 2015 with research in partnership with the Friends of Redington Pass and Coronado National Forest Santa Catalina Ranger District