Geese in the Garden

[A Public Involvement Process Gone Wrong]

The Canada geese were in the news again. Each winter here in Oregon's Willamette Valley, the story is the same - if the newspapers don't actually just put a different date on their story from the year before, they could. It is wonderfully predictable. Sadly, it is a story that might have quietly died many years ago, if an attempt to solve the problem behind the story had not ended so disastrously.

Stating the problem simply, Canada geese like to eat grass and other green crops. Farmers like to make money growing the same crops. If geese eat too much or otherwise damage the crops, farmers' costs go up and their profit goes down. Green crop farmers have always considered geese a nuisance, but beginning back in the 1970s or 1980s, significant increases in the numbers of geese have resulted in a change in the farmers' perception of the situation - in their minds, geese have moved from nuisance to competitor.

One year, while the story was still somewhere in the back section of the newspaper, winter came early. Snow and bitter cold at Thanksgiving caught both farmers and geese unprepared. Crops suffered from the weather, and geese looking for any patch of green they could find in the unusual white landscape caused more damage than they normally do. Farmers cried foul, and called their congressional representatives, who quite naturally called the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Sensing a problem to be solved, we [the Service] immediately jumped into the fray.


We in the Fish and Wildlife Service joined with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to set up a problem-solving process, with a strong public involvement component. The particular method we chose was one popular at the time with government agencies in the Pacific Northwest, known as coordinated resource management planning, or "CRMP" [E. W. Anderson and R. C. Baum. 1987. Coordinated resource management planning: does it work? Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 42:161-166].

The idea of CRMP is to get all interested parties together in a faciliated setting, to develop a land management plan or to develop a solution to a land management problem. The CRMP goal is to make land use decisions that best meet the needs of both land owners and public agencies, and that reasonably take into account the constraints and responsibilities that everyone has to work with.

In concept, and if the specific CRMP exercise works correctly, CRMP taps the best sources of information available so the best decisions are assured; develops mutual ownership of the problem and the solution; and results in a plan acceptable to all parties. The philosophical backbone of CRMP is built on the premise that it is a public involvement process from start to finish. The public helps identify the problem, helps devise the solution, helps implement the solution, and helps evaluate its success. CRMP aims for a solution with the best fit possible to meet everyone's needs. Written guidance given to participants stresses the concept of "compromise." CRMP stresses a cooperative approach to problem solving, noting in the guidance that "without cooperation there is no coordination."

On the surface, it appeared that CRMP was a technique that could be used to address the goose-farmer controversy. Yet, more than ten years after the process was initiated, the headlines were the same, and there was still a highly vocal, highly frustrated public to bring the issue back into the news every fall when the geese begin to arrive from their northern breeding grounds. Failure resulted from two factors that are implicated in many public involvement failures: the process selected was not right for the problem; and the process was mis-used.


Strongly inherent in the CRMP "rules" are the ideas that everyone's opinions and needs have equal weight, and that every problem can be solved by compromise. When the planning is for a specific piece of land, and all the decisions can be made by the CRMP participants themselves, there is usually no problem following those concepts. But the goose problem involves hundreds of thousands of acres of land, with hundreds of individual landowners. Geese haven't been a significant problem for many of these land owners - so they haven't been particularly interested in CRMP - but what they do on their land can influence how the geese affect other farmers. Also, Canada geese are covered by not only Federal and State laws, but by international treaties, so parts of the possible solution [e.g., changing hunting seasons so farmers could scare or shoot geese earlier in the winter, a "solution" put forth early in the process by some of the participants] were beyond the abilities of the CRMP team to implement.

This is a case in which all wants and opinions do not have equal weight [e.g., shooting geese vs. compliance with the Endangered Species Act or Migratory Bird Treaty Act], and in which not everything can be subject to compromise on-the-spot.


We would have been wise not to use CRMP, at all. Even if it had been the best process, we messed it up pretty badly. Just the way the process was presented set up the farmers to expect an easy compromise solution to their problems. When we finally got into discussing the difficulties inherent in changing hunting regulations, and how hard it can be to make major changes in the way government wildlife areas are administered, team members were flabbergasted, appalled, frustrated, and just plain mad. We should have taken much more time in the "definition" and "inventory" stages of the process, so that we built real understanding of the problem.

Our facilitator was one of our biggest problems. We selected someone well-versed in CRMP, and someone who should have been neutral in his relationship to all participants. But from the start, he adopted an "anti-government" attitude, and sided with the farmers and waterfowl hunters in the group against the agencies. We never really got the land owners or the hunters to acknowledge their "ownership" in the problem and the solution. After several years of meeting, the expectation of most of the "team" was that it was a "government problem" that the Government should fix. Because we couldn't get beyond the blame stage, we were never able to seriously discuss some possible alternatives.

Through poor facilitation and the lack of cohesiveness within the group, we let the CRMP get hijacked by a subgroup with a special agenda. A group of goose hunters felt they could use the farmers as their allies in liberalizing the hunting seasons in the Willamette Valley. [Farmers feel that, when geese are hunted liberally, they fly around a lot, and spread their feeding over much more acreage than they do when hunting pressure is light. Spreading the birds reduces the damage they might cause to individual fields. There is certainly some truth to that.] These hunters were so strident in pushing this one "solution" that it became almost impossible to talk about other alternatives that might have been of more direct value to the farmers.

Finally, the unwillingness of the farm community to really share ownership in the problem kept some options closed to the group. High dollar losses from goose damage were claimed, but the farmers were unable or unwilling to actually itemize those costs. Some congressional types were attracted by the issue because it was clearly a "squeaky wheel," but, once they really tried to understand the problem, they became unwilling to seek funding or legislative remedies because no one had a clue what a solution would cost. One congressman was brave enough to tell the group that he couldn't do anything for them, until they could convince him that the cure wouldn't cost more than the disease.

In a small way, the several years of CRMP had some positive results. There was some good information exchange, and even some improvement in our relationships with a few individuals who were able to stay objective and could separate themselves from the circus aspects of the proceedings. A few made it clear that they did believe that we - "the government" - were trying to work with them. Still, I don't recommend that anybody subject themselves to a generally bad process in hope that a little good will come out of it.


I opened by saying that I thought this problem could have been fairly easily solved, if we hadn't let the process get away from us. With the help of 20:20 Hindsight, what would I have done differently?

For a start, I would have tried to keep us out of any kind of formal public involvement process until the issue was better defined. Sometimes, we [correctly] use a formal process to define the issues, but I think that approach is most useful and appropriate when one is developing a broad-based or long-term management plan, or when there is time to leisurely develop a strategy to address a broad "problem." The goose ISSUE had been around a long time - and we were undoubtely remiss in not better anticipating what eventually happened - but, at the time we started CRMP, the goose PROBLEM was, as far as we knew, only a sensational headline in a newpaper brought about by a truly unusual weather event [one, by the way, that hasn't re-occurred in these next 30 years]. I would have resisted all efforts to elevate it to real "problem" status until I could learn what was really going on out there.

My first "public involvement" would have been one-on-one with those known to be most affected by "the problem." Before we turned a mere situation into a problem, I would have sent someone with good "people skills" to talk personally to the individuals who - according to the newspaper - were being hurt by the geese. I would have tried to assure them that we were interested and concerned, and that we were out trying to assess the magnitude of their difficulty. Because it appeared that the whole story might be just an overreaction to a one-time weather event, it's possible that showing a little concern might have been all that was needed. [That's really doubtful in this case but, hey, you never know.]

My second "public involvement" would be with those most likely to have a feel for the broader aspects of the current situation. If, as seems likely, the problem didn't go away after a few land-owner discussions, I would have arranged [still low-key, informal, and one-on-one] "chats" with individuals who might be able to give me some background on the issue. These chats might involve other farmers [have you been having problems?], extension specialists or farm advisors [have you been getting complaints prior to this, or have farmers been talking to you about geese?], or game department personnel [what are you seeing in the field, or what are your perceptions of the bigger picture?].   I would have tried my darndest to keep the discussions at this point away from elected representatives, advocacy groups [like the Farm Bureau, in this case], and people with related, but side, interests [like goose hunters, in this instance]. I know that this is often impossible - particularly once an issue has hit the Front Page, even for a day - but at this stage, we should be trying as hard as we can to keep the discussion "pure" and truly issue-oriented.

As soon as I felt we needed a more formal process - or as soon as we were forced into having a more formal process - I would have tried to pick a good one.

Because of politics or publicity, it isn't always possible to do "the right thing." This is particularly true with government processes. Nevertheless, you will forever be sorry [and probably will not be successful] if you don't make an upfront fight to assure that whatever you get into, it is THE BEST POSSIBLE PROCESS UNDER THE CIRCUMSTANCES. If I found that, either by misadventure or mistake, I was involved in an unworkable process, I'd do everything I could to get us out of it as quickly as possible.

Although CRMP wasn't the right way to handle the goose situation, some kind of resolution might have been possible if we had had a non-adversarial facilitator and if the goose hunters hadn't hijacked the process. Letting the process go on as it did only created more confusion and more ill-will. If a process is really working, then any participant should be able to point out perceived problems and expect discussion and [hopefully] resolution. If anyone in the group is deprived from that kind of action, then the process is not working.

Realistically, you may not be able to "get out of" a bad process. Many government administrators [and I suspect non-government administrators, too, but I don't know them as well] are afraid of "the public," and they are afraid of elected officials. Because they expect the worst [whatever "the worst" might be] from either group if they are made angry, these administrators [i.e., your bosses] will do a lot of pretty silly things to appease and accomodate. I suspect that this might have happened with the goose CRMP, even though [as noted above] our local congressmen were actually quite sympathetic with, and supportive of, the government effort. Hopefully, bosses will be more enlightened, some day. In the meantime, I urge you to make sure that you do whatever you can to make things go right. If there's a problem, it feels a lot better to know it's not really your problem.

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