At PEC we believe in “conservation through cooperation”: an ethic of connection, engagement, and close collaboration with partners. By convening a diverse group of stakeholders to focus on a problem we achieve not only a better understanding of the challenges we face, but also a broader range of viable solutions – and, if we’re lucky, a more robust plan for implementing them.
One of our key partners on reforestation, Scott Eggerud at the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), has a saying that I like to think of as a corollary: the best partners are those who want the same things for different reasons.
I had a chance to see this principle in action at a recent planning session, “Roots for Success,” hosted by PEC in State College on November 8. The 30 participants gathered there represented federal agencies (OSMRE, USDA), state government (DCNR, DEP, and the Pennsylvania Game Commission), and a host of NGOs and other entities (Susquehanna River Basin Commission, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, American Bird Conservancy, Trout Unlimited, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, and The American Chestnut Foundation) working in conservation.
Each attendee brought a distinct set of perspectives to the table, but we all shared the same ultimate goal: re-establishing healthy forests to clean our air, protect our watersheds, and enhance the aesthetic and recreational value of our public lands.
The challenge: synthesize a collection of local projects into a coherent picture… in an institutional climate where it’s not always easy to see the forest for the trees.
Our vision for this first-of-its-kind gathering was an invitation-only event that would resemble a conference as little as possible, with the hope that a more interactive and participant-driven format would help us capitalize on the extensive knowledge and experience in the room.
The goal was two-fold: First, we wanted to better understand the extent of reforestation in Pennsylvania. This would mean synthesizing a collection of local projects into a coherent picture, in an institutional climate where it’s not always easy – so to speak – to see the forest for the trees. Secondly, we hoped to explore areas where strategic coordination could strengthen existing efforts, and perhaps set the stage for future collaborations. And we gave ourselves just five hours to do so.
Though this was only the second time I’ve played a role in planning and facilitating such a conversation, it was easy to see the value in bringing these organizations together to identify areas of overlap in our respective missions and seek out opportunities to advance our shared vision. But as with most worthwhile pursuits, it was clear that the strength of our approach – the heterogeneity of the team we hoped to assemble – would also present challenges.
After committing to an event date and curating a target list of participants, in fact, it became evident that this might be the first time many of these folks would even be in the same room together. How would they relate to one another? Would we find sufficient basis for a meaningful alliance? Could we lay the groundwork for an unprecedented, multi-organization, multi-agency, statewide collaboration in a single afternoon?
Welcoming participants to the session, PEC President Davitt Woodwell set the tone for the day with a thought exercise, asking: “Why does reforestation matter to you?” Some chose to answer the question through the lens of their organization’s mission, while others offered more personal reasons. With a sense of shared purpose established, it was time to learn about the current state of reforestation efforts across the Commonwealth. Scott gave an overview of the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative (ARRI) and its successes using the Forestry Reclamation Approach to restore native forests on former mine lands. I then walked the group through an ESRI Story Map detailing PEC’s Reforestation program, from conception in 2016 to future aspirations.
After a bite to eat, it was time to shake things up. Breakout groups were challenged to complete a “SWOT” analysis, identifying strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats implicit in the prospect of statewide coordination. The result was encouraging: in each group, points listed under “opportunities” outnumbered those in every other category. The feverishly-scribbled report out reflected broad similarities in the groups’ analyses.
So it appeared our hunch was correct — we were all on the same page. Now what? To help the group identify next steps, Davitt pulled out the major themes that had cropped up in the SWOT discussions: mapping, regulations, funding, projects on private lands, and planning and implementation. Guided by probing questions from Davitt, the group kicked around ideas.
Now the real work starts…
Finally, after a healthy back-and-forth, Davitt dropped the big question: Is there value in organizing an interagency committee for enhanced coordination, collaboration, and strategic planning? Heads nodded, and a few partners raised the idea of forming thematic committees to address the challenges and opportunities discussed throughout the day. More heads began nodding in recognition of an emerging consensus: as long as collaboration doesn’t require endless conference calls, most everyone was onboard.
Asked if anyone would like to step up to the task of organizing the effort, the room fell silent. Eventually someone spoke up: “Laura did such a great job pulling everyone together for the meeting. I think she and PEC should take lead.”
I smiled, thanking everyone for their participation, and said to myself: “now the real work starts.”