Nip an Emerging Issue in the Bud

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Issue Management

In eastern West Virginia, along the border of Virginia, lies the Monongahela National Forest. The forest, deep in the Allegheny Mountains, was designated a National Forest to protect the slopes from erosion after being severely cut over in the late 1800s by "high graders" cutting fine hardwood trees to supply the area's furniture manufacturing industry with needed raw materials. The forest grew up with "cull growth" trees - trees that protected the soils and provided wildlife habitat, but were considered "junk trees" by the furniture manufacturers.

As quality trees became more difficult to find, the furniture manufacturing industry petitioned the United States Forest Service for relief. A plan was drawn up to apply silvicultural prescriptions to an area of the forest to encourage the growth of high-value hardwoods. The decision arena was defined using the legal, fiscal, resource capability, and level of technology factors. The social and political attitudes factor was defined by discussions with industry representatives, governor's staff, and congressional aids. The decision to proceed was made.

The Forest Service exerted influence on the various publics through resource allocation (a specific area of the forest was going to be treated), policy affecting the resources (a forestry management practice called "clear cutting" was going to be employed in the treatment of the forest), and performance. (The "clear cutting" issue had exploded with the Forest Service a few years earlier in the Bitteroot Valley of Montana due to people's complaints that went unattended by the Forest Service and the timber company.)

As the plans were announced, a small local chapter of a national fishing and hunting organization became concerned and began asking how the clear cutting practice would affect the wild turkey hunting opportunities. An Emerging Issue was born. The members of the club were informed that the agency knew what it was doing, and that the project would benefit everyone. Besides, the governor supported the plan.

Feeling that their concerns and questions had been "glossed" over and basically ignored, the club began looking for help. They found the help they were looking for in the form of several national conservation organizations which were looking for an issue to attack the Forest Service's timber management practices. The local club began making demands on the agency. More information was sought by the groups involved. Additional alternatives to clear cutting were being demanded. The media began to pick up the issue and give attention to it. Once again the agency responded from the point of view that it knew what it was doing. After all, the agency employed numerous people with professional degrees in forestry, wildlife biology, soils, hydrology, and forest economics. The agency asked the people involved in the controversy to "trust us."

The momentum of the issue was now in full swing. A coalition of groups and organizations opposed to the plan organized. The coalition chose to stop dealing with the agency and take the issue to litigation. The issue had now become disruptive! It was now out of the realm of the agency to determine the outcome. The coalition won a decision in the Federal District Court that shut down the project. Because the decision dealt with a National Forest regarding timber harvesting practices, the agency chose to shut down virtually all timber harvesting activity on National Forests all across the country until the problem could be worked out.

Finally, in 1976, Congress passed the National Forest Management Act which directly influences all management activities on all National Forests. The issue passed through the emerging and existing stages very quickly and became disruptive within a relatively short period of time. However, the issue could have been resolved at the emerging stage while numerous options remained open, eliminating the need for the 1976 Act.

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