The Public Land Transfer, Funding for Public Lands and DEI Emerge as Priorities

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How can SHIFT add the most value to existing efforts to protect our public lands? Analysis helped identify three priorities to explore at our spring retreat May 19-20.

In order to inform SHIFT’s work for 2016, we retained Robyn Paulekas, Mediator and Program Manager with Meridian Institute, to conduct interviews with 15 key thought-leaders on conservation and outdoor recreation who participated in the 2015 SHIFT Festival. Those interviewed include senior-level individuals from the public land management, outdoor recreation, youth engagement and conservation communities.

The interviews focused primarily on providing feedback and input on what substantive topics SHIFT might focus on that would add value to the outdoor recreation/conservation partnership. Those interviewed were asked to reflect on what issues were timely and would benefit from being discussed by a multi-stakeholder group in October. The public land transfer, funding for public lands and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) emerged as the top priorities.

From May 19-20, SHIFT will convene a retreat of ca. 20 experts and thought leaders on these three topics. The retreat will help determine SHIFT’s programming for 2016. Objectives for the retreat include:

  • Refine a collective understanding of the three topics.
  • Define how SHIFT can add value to and advance the development of a movement in their support.
  • Discuss broader strategies for aligning for action on a core set of challenges.

A full report on the proceedings of the retreat will be published upon its conclusion.

The content of the following summary of Paulekas’ interviews is not attributed to specific interviewees. Though many of the themes below were shared by multiple interviewees, this summary should not be considered as presenting a consensus view.

Substance | What should SHIFT discuss?

In 2015, SHIFT focused on the intersection of outdoor recreation and conservation with the aim of inspiring partnerships. The 2015 event had three sub-themes: conservation leadership, outdoor access, and responsible recreation. The event launched the Principles for Advancing Outdoor Recreation and Conservation (the Principles) and an associated social media campaign around The SHIFT Pledge.

Incorporating the Principles for Advancing Outdoor Recreation and Conservation

One suggestion that was tested with interviewees was for SHIFT to organize around one or more of the Principles. The first Principle, with its focus on public lands, was seen as a potential bridge-building topic:

Outdoor recreation and conservation require that a diversity of lands and waters be publicly owned, available for public access, and well-stewarded.

There was a high level of support for focusing on this Principle. Those interviewed felt that the public land issue was timely and a good topic to unite the recreation & conservation communities—both of whom are already active on this subject. Several people pointed out that one of the basic principles of coalition building is to identify common challenges that are more effectively addressed collaboratively, which this focus sufficiently does. With the National Park Service celebrating the National Parks Centennial this year, public lands are already in the spot light. SHIFT can build on that momentum.

That said, almost half of the people interviewed expressed some trepidation about the Principles. Concerns were mostly minor, with the most common being that they place too strong an emphasis on the tensions between recreation and conservation. Focusing on protecting public lands and on a set of issues where there are natural alliances and a need for improved coordination among groups is an effective way to address that concern.

There were a few other notes of caution with focusing SHIFT on one or more of the Principles. Specifically:

  • There are opportunity costs insofar as some of the principles might not be addressed for years. A few interviewees felt that Principle 3, responsible recreation, and 4, education and planning, need to be ongoing topics of conversation.
  • The first Principle works well for this year, but some of the Principles do not lend themselves to a full two-day event focused on a single principle (e.g., Principle 2, that conservation and recreation need each other; or Principle 5 regarding the best available science). Furthermore, there are a number of issues—such as funding—that cut across topics and that can be woven in to multiple Principles.

Sub-topics | What timely issues should SHIFT dive into in 2016?

Several specific sub-topics were identified that reflect the most significant threats to public lands and that would benefit from alignment between conservation and recreation:

Public land transfer: With several bills being proposed in western states that attempts to transfer public land management from federal agencies to state control, the conservation and recreation communities see the proposed public land transfer as a significant and urgent threat facing public lands. This is likely to be a politically energizing topic in the lead up to the November elections. A few important notes about this topic:

  • Both the conservation and recreation communities have been very active on this topic, sometimes in coordination and sometimes not. For SHIFT to effectively engage on this topic it will be critical that it figure out how to catalyze ongoing efforts and build bridges between the groups already working on this. It will be important to clarify what need SHIFT is addressing and avoid adding an additional venue for the same conversations.
  • If organized as an effective, small-group workshop, SHIFT could bring together the various groups active on this topic to compare notes and identify opportunities to align efforts. A few specific suggestions were to align messaging, strengthen messaging and information around the economic (recreation and tourism) impacts of proposed land transfers, and discuss how to engage other public land constituencies, such as the health communities, tourism, hunting and fishing.
  • Some felt that it is a DC policy issue most effectively addressed through election pressure, lobbying, and other policy-influencing actions. Aligning messaging could add some value, but most effective change will happen in DC.
  • There was a caution about making sure the conversation doesn’t become advocacy or cross into lobbying. SHIFT should focus on bringing good speakers, additional credible information, and avoid discussing specific elected officials. SHIFT should also recognize that some participants—particularly public officials—are not in a position to publically comment or present on politically sensitive topics or proposed legislation.
  • SHIFT could add value by bringing in a discussion on the potential economic impacts of the proposed public land transfers. This is a good strategy for moving this beyond an “environmental” issue and building bipartisan support. This might be a topic well suited for a presentation or panel. One participant recommended researching a recent study by Headwaters Economics on the Value of Protected Lands that frames the topic.

Funding for Public Lands: The suggestion to include funding primarily focused on long-term, reliable funding for public land management agencies. Those interviewed reflecting that the funding topic is directly related to the public land transfer, since agencies have had their budgets cut, which limits their capacity to effectively manage public lands. This is an issue that has been around for a long time and continues to get worse, with agency budgets going to fighting wildfires and a growing backlog of deferred maintenance for nearly every federal agency. One participant noted, “This is an issue that currently lacks a unified voice.” Some agencies have specific Foundations or “Friends” groups, such as the National Parks Conservation Association, that have been very effective. However, most do not.

Nearly everyone interviewed mentioned the increasing role for and value of volunteer stewardship and other forms of partnership. Many outdoor recreation motivated groups coordinate volunteer days. Youth corps are on the rise and also engage the next generation in public land stewardship. Sally Jewel and REI recently announced a million dollar investment in the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps to support Stewardship Projects.

Some specific recommendations for ways SHIFT can add value to this conversation include:

  • Use SHIFT to develop cohesive messaging on this topic, perhaps by bringing in an expert at advocacy strategy.
  • Elevate the discussion of stewardship. SHIFT can highlight some of the volunteer stewardship success stories. It is also a good platform for discussing how this potentially powerful tool can be further leveraged. There are questions about what is needed so that agencies can most effectively leverage volunteer stewardship and youth corps—what investments are needed to make stewardship activities more effective? Some geographies have been more successful than others at leveraging the outdoor recreation community for this type of stewardship—what can be learned from these successes?
  • Discuss other creative options and share success stories for supporting public lands, assuming budgets stay where they are. One example that was shared is a trail condition mapping app that can help agencies prioritize trail maintenance, engage volunteers, and raise funds.
  • Information on the economic return on investment would also be interesting and useful. (The Outdoor Industry Association is doing some work on this.) Share information on how investments in public lands contribute to local economies through the recreation and tourism economy.
  • Several people suggested that SHIFT continue to be provocative on the issue of user fees. One idea is to hold a panel that dives into the topic with representatives from the hunting and fishing or motorized communities (explaining how their fee works), industry (explaining their concerns).
  • The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) continues to face future funding uncertainty. The LWCF was originally established in 1965 and has provided funding for recreation and protection ever since. Depending on what happens in the House of Representatives, it could be helpful to get an update on the status and next steps towards a permanent reauthorization.

Next generation and cultural relevance of the outdoors: Building on the Next Generation theme from 2015, those interviewed expressed a continued need for dialogue to make sure public lands are relevant to new and diverse groups, including the next generation. There are several components of this topic that were raised during interviews:

  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI): There is a strong appetite to move beyond “diversity is important” rhetoric and dive into tough issues (e.g., how are we reproducing exclusion?). There was also a strong recognition that the “establishment” needs to listen to diverse groups about how they recreate and support their goals.
  • Creating a culture of stewardship and support for public lands: The public lands are losing a chorus of “champions” that in the past supported them. There is a challenge in translating recreation public land users into empowered stewards. There is also a need to bring other sectors with vested interest in public lands into this conversation—for example, the health community is beginning to take seriously the mental and physical health benefits of time outside. On the other side, there are loud, outspoken opponents of public lands who are gaining momentum (e.g., the militants who took over the Malheur Wildlife Refuge), that needs to be met with a broad base of people who value public lands.

Specific suggestions for how to approach these topics:

  • In the words of one interviewee, SHIFT could be an opportunity for “hard core self-reflection” on what is working and not working on DEI efforts in the outdoor recreation/conservation space. Several people recommended bringing in a facilitator with expertise in DEI to facilitate a workshop style session on DEI. The facilitator could give a presentation that introduced a framework for how to think about DEI within organizations (individual vs institutional, internal vs external), followed by small groups developing individual work plans for next steps in meaningful change on this topic. This could include an opportunity for organizations that have been working on DEI to share what is working or not working, and organizations that are just considering it to plan their initial actions.
  • Another idea was for some sort of commitment by organizations to a DEI path. However, when this idea was tested with others, a few specific concerns were raised. One participant emphasized that if there is a pledge or commitment similar to the Principles or SHIFT Pledge it needs to originate from the diverse groups (not the predominantly white SHIFT participants). This might be appropriate in the future, but not for this year’s SHIFT. Another interviewee raised the concern that an effective organizational commitment to DEI would require engagement of senior leadership.
  • There were a number of suggestions for specific challenges related to DEI that were brought up by one or more interviewee, such as:
    • Strategize about how to institutionalize some of the current initiatives that are associated with this administration, such as Every Kid in the Park. Every Kid in the Park was a successful program and the organizations at SHIFT might help identify mechanisms for its long term sustainability through partnerships.
    • Identify opportunities for engagement beyond individual programs targeted at specific groups or ages; or map the gaps in these current programs or initiatives so underrepresented communities of color can find longer-term ways to access the outdoors
    • Transportation

Finally, interviewees recognized that a conversation about DEI is only marginally effective without diverse participation at SHIFT.

 



 
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