In recent decades, tremendous emphasis has been placed on the importance of positive collaboration between federal public land managers and the states and communities within which they serve. This has marked a shift in federal land management from top-down, technical expert-driven management to a pattern that is far more inclusive of local stakeholders and their interests. Sarah Van de Wetering, a writer and scholar with deep roots in the Western United States, captured this trend in the preface to a book on collaborative conservation in the West:
“…this new movement represents the new face of American conservation as we enter the twenty-first century… collaborative conservation emphasizes the importance of local participation, sustainable natural and human communities, inclusion of disempowered voices, and voluntary consent and compliance rather than enforcement by legal and regulatory coercion.” –Sarah Van de Wetering
Indeed, in most regions of the West, collaborative efforts between local communities and public land managers have borne rich fruit and demonstrated the capacity to move beyond what, at one time, seemed to be especially thorny and intractable challenges. Place-based collaborative initatives are described by Barb Cestero of Headwaters Economics as initiatives that “focus on a specific geographic locale with which residents identify, including public land and encompassing nearby human communities.” These efforts can be initiated and facilitated by the federal land managers within those geographies but may also be led by local volunteers and community leaders.
These collaborative initiatives can range in structure and format from ad hoc working groups, which may organize around short-term needs like a federal agency planning process, to more formalized partnerships established between local, regional, and federal entities to undertake specific projects or activities.
In the Verde River watershed, there are a number of collaborative initiatives underway that involve federal land management agencies and local partners. Two case study examples of collaborative initiatives working on issues directly connected with supporting and maintaining a healthy Verde River watershed are examined in more detail below – the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, and the Verde Front.
One of the key lessons from the success of various place-based collaborative initiatives is the value of a more inclusive and open approach to involving local communities and residents in the conversation over land use, management goals, and decision making on federal public lands. This includes opening a dialouge around how public land management decisions affect the economic prosperity and quality of life of local communities. The history of the West is rife with stories of conflict between local landowners and communities and the adjacent federal public land managers. Collaboration offers a path to negotiating ideas and win-win solutions between the various interests and obligations of the parties involved, and provides a chance to move past old conflicts.
This approach can be especially important in grappling with the competing interests and high tensions that are often generated in discussions over such a vital resource as water. As the old saying goes, “whiskey’s for drinking, water’s for fighting over.” However, innovative approaches to resolving sticky water resource management issues have been developed through collaborative engagement of diverse stakeholders in watershed-scale discussions.
Place-based collaboration, if done well, can lead to more enduring, positive impacts on-the-ground – including ensuring the long-term health and vibrance of the Verde River watershed. As noted by Luther Propst and Susan Culp in reference to collaborative conservation efforts in the West:
“When people with different experiences, worldviews, and backgrounds come together to work out a solution to a land use or an environmental problem, increased creativity can produce results that are often more effective, enduring, and equitable than could be achieved when acting in isolation…[collaboration] can also lead to the creation of a lasting stewardship ethic within communities, which is generated from individuals within the community attempting to live sustainably in landscapes that they love…” –Propst & Culp