Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Oil, A Wild and Scenic River and Messy Situations

They came from over mountains: up the Lochsa to Lolo Pass and on through Missoula during the winter and spring of 2011, Behemoths by any measure of the term. Like nocturnal monsters, traveling only at night, yet indicators of a rapacious appetite and an impassive policy response. The media calls them megaloads; to transport operators, they are simply “oversized” and to the environmental community they are the “big rigs”. But at over 300 tons each encompassing 225 feet of length and carried by a trailer with 96 wheels, they can only be termed gargantuan sized loads (GSL).

First Gargantuan Sized Load (GSL) Crosses into Montana at Lolo Pass Early in the Morning Mid-February 2011.
Designed to enhance the Conoco-Phillips refinery in Billings, Montana the first pair of two-piece coking drums took over 65 days to travel from Lewiston, Idaho to Billings, far longer and with much more difficulty and fanfare than anticipated. While the trip from Missoula to Billings was simply long, the travel up the twisting road alongside the Lochsa River during winter's icy grip and the equally meandering highway down Lolo Creek proved to be more difficult and challenging than planned.

Moving the drums and preparing the highways is a complicated task. Since the GSL is as wide as the two lane highway that runs from Kooskia, Idaho to Lolo, Montana, traffic must be managed, pullouts prepared and loads secured. The height of the load required power lines to be moved or raised. Traffic signals in Missoula were taken down or turned to accommodate the drums as they passed through. Moving the GSLs requires dozens of people, representing the transport company, Conoco-Phillips, law enforcement, traffic management firms, and state transportation departments. Even an ambulance accompanied the loads to Missoula.
GSL Makes Turn onto Reserve Street in Missoula in Mid-March

The Conoco-Phillips GSLs were not the only ones expected. Exxon/Imperial had shipped 200 similarly sized GSLs to travel from Lewiston to Missoula and then up to northern Alberta as part of the Kearl  tar sands oil development projects. Manufactured in South Korea and shipped up the Snake River to the Port of Lewiston, the GSLs were scheduled to travel this route as the most efficient of any alternatives.
Crews Prepare to Remove Traffic Signals on Reserve Street in Missoula

These plans exploded into apprehensions, protest and legal action. Some of the protests, particularly in Idaho, involved the appropriateness of GSLs on the narrow Lochsa highway. The serpentine highway, designated a Scenic Byway and located along a federally designated Wild and Scenic River, simply was not designed nor managed for such large scale cargo. Many residents living along the scenic highway raised concern that modifications to the highway and power lines would result in a “high and wide” corridor suitable for additional industrial loads. Protestors argued that the loads would threaten tourism and recreationists, an important foundation to the local economy since the nearly fatal demise of the local wood products industry in northern Idaho. Several residents pursued action to prevent the Idaho Department of Transportation from issuing the permits needed for the over-sized loads.

Many environmentalists contended that it was “big oil’ that was plundering the locals, taking advantage of their weaker legal capabilities and making back room deals with highway departments. Environmentalists argued that extracting oil from the tar sands was environmentally destructive and permitting the GSLs to pass would represent complicity in this making these unacceptable impacts happen.

Demonstrators Protest GSLs and the Kearl Tar Sands Project in
Front of Module Temporarily Parked on Lolo Creek
Montana’s Governor Brian Schweitzer joined the fray by arguing that banning the loads would hurt efforts to attract business to Montana, thus upsetting chances for economic growth. The state has struggled recently, and spending by tranport crews was argued to be a diversifying effect. A decision to permit the GSLs to travel over the state’s highway would signal the private sector that Montana encourages a pro-business regulatory environment.

In Montana, several demonstrations and protests were also initiated and eventually accompanied by a suit by Missoula County over the adequacy of the environmental analyses conducted by the Montana Department of Transportation.  This suit focused on the potential impacts of highway pullouts on the environment. Such pullouts are needed to allow backed up traffic to pass by. Many were scheduled to be constructed along the two lane portion of the planned route.
Demonstrators Represented a Variety of Groups and Perspectives

Oil is the life blood of the North American economy and thus of its society. Under current conditions, without a plentiful and cheap supply of oil, we travel less, we produce less, we employ fewer. Tax revenues drop, government safety net and education programs receive less revenue. A growing appetite for petroleum—not only for gas and diesel, but also for plastics and other products—has not been mitigated by recession nor conservation. North American dependency on petroleum from overseas and frequently unfriendly governments remains high. While there has been modest declines in the U.S. in per capita consumption of energy, these have been more than offset by increases in population over the last 40 years.  The result is that more sources of energy are needed to maintain the quality of life we expect.

Oil companies and many political conservatives argue that domestic sources can help reduce the dependency on foreign sources if not demand. The Kearl tar sands development would add about 300,000 barrels per day to the North American oil supply. Current consumption is around 21 million barrels per day, so the project would, theoretically, reduce imports.
Not All Local Residents are Opposed to the Big Rigs or GSLs

For many, the controversy was never really about the GSLs and their potential impact on the Lochsa River and its scenic highway, but rather what they represented. In their eyes, GSLs reflect an unmitigated appetite for oil; fulfilling that appetite results in the environment being sacrificed. And, our appetite is large: 5% of the world’s population consumes 25% of the global production of energy.  Two hundred loads passing through Missoula almost daily for a year would be an in-your-face reminder of failures in energy conservation and management policy, aside from its practical disruption of traffic. Two hundred massively sized oil extraction equipment loads would represent a complicity with “big oil”.

Failures in the political system to develop a national energy policy since the Arab oil embargo of the mid-1970s continue to plague efforts to reduce consumption and encourage alternative sources of energy. While conservation has had a modest effect, an active, assertive energy conservation policy is still absent from North America. Of course, we have replaced incandescent light bulbs with mercury lined fluorescent ones. And some people have purchased hybrid automobiles. But what have we done more comprehensively? How often, when we make daily choices, such as where to shop and what to buy, does conservation become a large part of our household decision process? And what about decisions at other scales?  When does conservation become part of local zoning and subdivision ordinances and decisions? Is conservation in the mindset of the North American consumer?

Oil development, GSL's, scenic highways and livelihoods have converged here, creating a cauldron containing a complex and wicked set of tradeoffs. The values involved are real, but many are intangible. Traditional economic and policy analysis is incapable of measuring these intangibles nor are they suited for framing the character of the trade-offs. Venues for public discourse were limited to formal hearings and adjudication procedures, hardly the enabling fora for learning and productive deliberation called for by contemporary natural resource decision-makers and academics. The conflict involved more confrontation than collaboration. Science was absent. Procedures for dealing with future decisions of a similar kind (outside of the "oversized load" permitting process) were never discussed. In short, the strengths of a variety of social institutions were never brought to bear on decisions of enormous social import.

The decision to transport the GSL “modules” over Lolo Pass was influenced largely by the Director of the Port of Lewiston who convinced Conoco/Phillips and Exxon/Imperial to ship them there from South Korea. The Port Director’s mission is to create jobs in Lewiston, not to consider potential social and environmental impacts elsewhere. Thus, this locally focused decision carried with it latent consequences for other places and for other values. A scale mismatch occurred. Scale mismatches often have the devastating effect of displacing problems and producing surprises for other constituencies. In this case, the decision to ship GSLs to the Port of Lewiston impacted other people and the values of a Wild and Scenic River, but were not considered.

With the world's population set to exceed 9 billion by 2050, 28% higher than today, its enormous demand for energy and other resources will continue to confront local communities with what is termed  a "tragic" choice—conflicting values. These situations, where there is no good alternative, will challenge society to adopt new approaches to decisions and to engage all institutions available. There is no easy choice, contrary to what all sides in the GSL conflict argued. But with demands accelerating and diversifying, how many other protected areas may be surprised by decisions made elsewhere?
Very Large Load Parked in Lolo, Montana. Resident Fears
of a "High and Wide" Industrial Transportation Corridor have been Realized

The protests had a point, and civil society listened. In the fall of 2011, courts in Montana supported Missoula County's legal efforts to prevent the issuance of over-sized permits. But by then, Exxon had modified most of the GSL's awaiting transport and moved on an alternative route more acceptable to contending groups. As the environmental community and local residents predicted, the high and wide corridor is now being used to move very large loads for other industries.

All images (c) 2011 Steve McCool. Reproduction by permission only.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

What to do when tourism is threatening natural capital in a protected area

What can managers do to respond to accelerating visitation of protected areas that threaten the natural capital preserved within? This question was addressed in a recent publication authored by Andrew Drumm (a consultant who formerly worked for The Nature Conservancy), myself and Jim Rieger of The Nature Conservancy. Tourism has become big business in many of the globe’s 140,000 nationally nominated national parks, wildernesses and other types of protected areas. Tourism not only provides visitors with opportunities to see, experience, appreciate and learn about our natural heritage, but it provides opportunities for personal income for local residents and revenues for those areas. And yet, tourism has distinct drawbacks, that if not carefully addressed can become a threat. We note:
Protected area systems face a critical situation in which policy makers increasingly promote tourism within protected areas even while managers lack the basic capacity to manage the impacts of current visitor numbers. At the core of this dilemma is the concept of a “threshold of sustainability.” This is the point at which the management capacity of a protected area is sufficient to mitigate the most critical tourism-related threats, such that public use is limited to the parameters of sustainability of the natural capital within the site.
When there is an immediate threat to natural capital forming the basis of a protected area’s reason for being, how can managers effectively respond? This Nature Conservancy Quick Guide offers a framework for making important decisions, helping managers think critically about the character of the threat, what values are threatened and how. Understanding the threat can then lead to effective responses rather than reacting without thinking through possible management.
Briefly, the Thresholds of Sustainability framework—which is principally a way to structure our thinking about a tourism related threat—involves the following major components or steps:
· Step 1: Identify threatened natural capital, the most critical tourism-related threats, and key management issues: Identify threatened, tourism-related conservation objectives, the impact that tourism and other threats are having on them, and identify the extent to which protected area staff are able to prevent and mitigate these threats.
• Step 2: Identify efficient actions to address critical tourism-related threats: Identify which strategies will be most effective at addressing tourism-related threats.
• Step 3: Assess tourism finances in the protected area: At a minimum in the rapid response mode, identify the financial gap between existing and required funds and identify potential revenue sources and financial mechanisms. If resources and time permit, then begin to build the financial case for increasing funds available for protected area management by also estimating the economic impact of tourism on the destination, and identifying potential complementary opportunities, such as tourism concessions and co-management opportunities.
• Step 4: Assess the broader enabling environment: Assess the legal, regulatory, institutional, administrative and policy environment and assess the extent to which this environment enables effective management of tourism within protected areas. This should be done to different extents in both the rapid response and long-term planning situations.
• Step 5: Develop and implement a communications strategy: Although communication and participation is important at every point of the threshold of sustainability framework, accumulation of the breadth of information in Steps 1-4 requires development of a formal communications strategy to help win the support of key audiences and change policies.
• Step 6: Implement actions and monitor results: Establish basic infrastructure and capacities needed to 1) achieve minimum management effectiveness, 2) implement new funding mechanisms, and 3) monitor results, including the impact of threats, the status and trends of biodiversity health, community benefits, and the effectiveness of management interventions.
The Quick Guide provides detailed guidelines on how to accomplish each of these tasks along with case studies. You can download English, Spanish and French versions of the 44 page publication:

Thursday, March 31, 2011

What is Our Mental Model for Building Professional Competencies?

I spent last week in Taiwan where I had been invited, as a result of some other circumstances, to present a series of lectures at several universities concerning protected area stewardship. It is quite an honor to receive these invitations and I have learned much about what people in this country think about protected area planning and management of visitors.

These lectures, and the interaction with students, professionals and academics reinforce my feelings about developing critical thinking as an important professional competency. It also reinforces my perception that enhancing performance is more than simply giving workshops and then seeing participants returning to a normal work setting. Building the professional competencies needed to address the complex issues, challenges and opportunities of 21st century park management requires something more. This is not to say that conceptual skills are not a necessary condition to higher performance; they are necessary, but not sufficient.

Our current model of building performance can be loosely described as follows:

But we know now, that increased performance under this model is probably more a matter of chance than anything else. Upon returning from a workshop, seminar, shortcourse, job twinning or some similar capacity building exercise, a variety of barriers present themselves to the newly trained protected area manager. These include changed job description with different duties, jealous supervisors, a highly hierarchal organization that does not place a premium on learning, lack of incentives, little confidence by the trainee and so on.

We need to take another look at the model above. Not only does it not display what really happens, but it also downplays the role of job performance itself in increasing capacity. We need to take a systems thinking look at how capacity (in the form of enhanced professional competencies) actually works. So below is a simplified systems thinking approach to look at the relationship between capacity and performance, and what may influence performance.

A system is composed of a number of interacting components with the interactions often characterized by delays of different lengths. Here we see that building capacity does lead, potentially to enhanced performance; in systems thinking terms this is a reinforcing loop. Importantly though, enhanced performance also can lead to increased capacity or professional competency, particularly as managers gain confidence and experience in successfully addressing various issues, opportunities and challenges. This of course then potentially leads to even higher levels of performance

But in the middle of the graphic we see a couple of balancing loops, which serve to depress levels of performance. In the graphic, I have used the example of an organization’s incentive structure. Now many protected area managers are not motivated by financial incentives but rather opportunities for leadership, recognition and advancement (although research on this is needed). So if successfully struggling with complex problems is not recognized, there develops a negative feedback that dampens performance. Dampening performance, as we see in the reinforcing loop on the left leads to even further declines in performance.

In this case, a so-called ‘external” factor, an organization’s vision (for example, there are of course many other possibilities) may affect it system for awarding incentives for excellent performance. If one provides excellent performance but is not rewarded, then performance may decrease. So making changes in performance may require changing the organization’s attitude toward learning, and its incentive structure.

Of course, there are delays in this system. It may take a while before enhanced capability leads to increased performance. Incentive structures may not have a positive or negative impact for a while. The lack of an organizational vision that encourages dialogue and learning may have little impact at first on the newly trained or educated manager. But eventually, such factors will begin to take their toll, leading the organization capacity building efforts into a downward, and difficult to change, spiral.

So, the lesson of all this is for me, we need to think more systemically in terms of capacity building efforts. We simply can no longer afford to develop training workshops (“talkshops” to many) without consideration of the organizational environment into which the trainees will be placed.

More about this next time.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Building Capacity for Protected Area Planning -- A Brief Note

Even though I am “retired”, it is often difficult to sit down and put together my blog. It seems that I am much busier than when I had a full time appointment with UM, but perhaps I was just more efficient in those days.

There is always a lot of talk around protected area circles concerning capacity: simply put, many believe that the greatest advances in protection and conservation can be made by building skills and capabilities of those charged with protected area stewardship. And, I think they are right in a general sense. But the notion of building capacity goes far beyond these words: what capacities for what and for whom? We all know that protected area organizations are differentiated horizontally and vertically: jobs may be highly specialized in some agerncies, and there is frequently variation in the span of control. So different organizational levels, it could be argued require different capacities.

Typically, I hear organizations—both government and nongovernment—arguing for training as the response to the need for capacity building. Well, training may indeed, and probably is needed, but not for everyone. Others in the organization may require continuing education; the kind of skills these individuals will need are more critical thinking skills than the practical skills implied in the notion of training. Well, why? Well, if protected areas are indeed embedded in the complex, contentious, changing and uncertain environment that I have argued that they are, then we can never predict what may happen in the future, even tomorrow. So we need managers that can respond to rapidly developing situations with the conceptual and thinking skills needed to analyze what is going on, synthesize underlying trends and structures and frame these new challenges in ways that address the underlying causes not just their symptoms. They need these capacities in order to be prepared for the inevitable surprises that come along.

In an interesting paper on “Empowering People for Sustainable Development” Jonathan Cook made an important differentiation between capacity and performance. Capacity, he said, represented the potential, while performance was the actual results of working in an environment, the outcome, if you will, of decisions. So while we might emphasize building capacity, what we want to do in the long run, is to enhance performance.

Now, in our area, capacity means holding an array of professional competencies such as:

• Critical thinking

• Concessions or licensee management

• Business management

• Interpretation

• Understanding the structure of the tourism industry

• Communication and public engagement

• Planning and modeling

Obviously, no one person can hold all these professional competencies, but should not a proficient manager hold the capacity to ask penetrating questions, to motivate staff, or to help a community establish goals or become more resilient in order to face uncertainty?

Capacity, Cook argued, is a prerequisite to performance, that is, without the necessary skills, one is likely not to do too well. Imagine hiring a carpenter to help put up a house that had little or no skill in using a hammer or saw? Would there be a result other than disaster? Of course, the carpenter could be mentored under the tutelage of a master craftsman to build capacity as the house is being constructed.

So it is quite natural, that agencies would want to focus on building capacities. But Cook also argued that Capacity is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for performance, which is the ultimate goal. Other factors, such as personal confidence, organizational structure and incentives, experience and personal challenge are also significant in influencing the level of performance. So perhaps the question we should be asking is: What can be done to enhance the performance of managers to protect the values for which an area was designated? Rather than, what capacities are needed to manage a specific place? What this means is that building professional competencies and seeing them implemented requires an integrated approach, with attention to both the individual and the organization within which the individual works.

Cook’s final point was that performance breeds capacity. What he is saying here is that as individuals enhance their performance, their capacity increases as well. This makes sense. As one does better in a job, a number of results occur: confidence builds, new opportunities are seen, constructed or exploited; networks of peers develop, exposing the individual to new ideas to be tested and evaluated; learning happens.

So, to build performance, particularly in the wicked and messy world of the 21st century, we need to build capacities. At the middle management level, these capacities focus more on critical thinking skills than on practical skills. But building capacity only raises potential. Enhanced performance requires other factors in the job environment to be addressed.

[1] Cook, J. 1997. Empowering people for sustainable development. In P. Fitzgerald, A. McLennan and B. Munslow (eds.), Managing Sustainable Development in South Africa, 275-292. Cape Town: Oxford University Press.