Attendees of the 2019 RVCC Annual Meeting in Santa Fe, NM. Photo credit: Sylvan Pritchett

Bringing the Voices of Collaborative Conservation to Decision Makers in D.C.: An Interview with Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition

By: Karen Hardigg, Tyson Bertone-Riggs

Topic: Collaboration Learning networks

Type: Interview

Editor’s Note: Policy barriers play a substantial part in our everyday decision making processes and have significant implications for fire adaptation and community resilience work, yet advocating for improved policies that facilitate all-lands stewardship can be a challenge. What unfolds in Washington D.C. may seem far removed from work being done at the community level yet the outcomes directly impact how well we can steward our public and private lands. If you’re not familiar with Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition (RVCC), this is a great opportunity to get to know the organization. Their work addresses both short and long-term policy barriers elevating the voices of rural communities to the national stage. Led by Karen Hardigg, RVCC is in its 18th year of advocating for positive environmental outcomes and rural community development. With a small staff of four, RVCC manages to pack a powerful punch. We were able to connect with Karen and Tyson Bertone-Riggs, RVCC’s Policy Analyst, to learn more about ways RVCC weaves into our work to live better with fire.


Tell us a little bit about RVCC:

KAREN: The Coalition was launched in 2001, to give a voice to rural communities in the policy process, particularly in Washington D.C. RVCC has grown from its small beginnings to include over 80 nonprofit, public and private entities with shared interests in the economic health of western rural communities and natural resource management. Our purpose is to help build a common vision for viable and sustainable solutions affecting rural communities and landscapes in the West. In addition to advancing innovation in policy, we foster mutual learning and share stories that raise the visibility of our network participants and rural communities. RVCC’s Leadership Team members come from across the West, and include Wallowa Resources, the Watershed Research and Training Center, Forest Stewards Guild, Heart of the Rockies and Sustainable Northwest among others.

How is RVCC involved in the policy process?

TYSON: RVCC is involved in each aspect of the policy process —from working directly with rural community members to meeting with elected officials in Washington D.C. We help practitioners better understand the impact of new policies and how to utilize new federal programs and authorities. From there, we work with practitioners to find out how these policies are actually working on the ground and share their feedback with decision makers. This includes federal agencies at the leadership level, Congress, and the Administration. Our work focuses on three main aspects: policy tracking and interpretation; learning and training; and communication and connection. Keeping in touch with what’s going on across our Western communities helps us advocate for better programs and inform decision makers if a proposed new policy might impact collaborative conservation efforts.

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Karen and Tyson at the USDA Forest Service headquarters in Washington D.C. during Western Week 2019. Photo credit: Jessica Sabine Brothers

What is the most important thing we should know about RVCC’s programs and how they could support fire adapted community practitioners?

KAREN: We have three primary goals: advancing and improving policy, fostering learning, and communicating stories and outcomes. Most relevant to FAC Net is the policy work that Tyson explained, and our peer learning efforts. We regularly advocate for fully funding our federal agencies so they can meet their commitments to rural communities and the land. For example, we have championed the importance of investing in the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP) and fought for the fire funding fix for years. In addition, we focus on demystifying the policy environment and aiming to help practitioners navigate complex, multi-stakeholder projects. Earlier this year, we released the Trinity Integrated Fire Management Partnership case study outlining key steps and enabling conditions to implementing a cross-boundary burn in Northern California. We hope these types of products help practitioners understand some of the steps needed to be successful in large landscape projects.

Can you share one of RVCC’s big accomplishments from this year?

KAREN: Earlier this year, Secretary Perdue directed USDA agencies to centralize the review of all agreements with partners, a move that threatened to significantly curtail essential work, including prescribed fire and fuels reduction.  RVCC was instrumental in pushing back on the memo, enlisting a diverse group of nationwide partners in a letter outlining the impacts to communities and critical work happening right before fire season. Ultimately the memo was rescinded, allowing for much of the essential work your community has invested in to take place.

What do you like most about your job? And, on the contrary, what is one of the biggest challenges of your work?

KAREN: I enjoy the team of people I get to work with — our staff, our Leadership Team, and the coalition participants. I feel lucky to work with some of the smartest, most passionate and dedicated people. And to top it off, they’re fun! For me, the biggest challenge is the different scales at which we operate, and the remoteness of our core partners.  Tying threads together across both large landscapes and complex systems is an art.

TYSON: Having worked both in the field and in D.C., I find it incredibly satisfying to be playing a role in helping those two worlds talk. Decision makers need to know what’s happening on the ground to craft good policy, and practitioners have a right to understand the sometimes esoteric world of policy that can incentivize or constrain good work. It’s always a challenge to keep a foot in both worlds, but I think the value in doing so is immense.

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RVCC partnered with the Forest Stewards Guild to host an all lands peer learning exchange in New Mexico, focused on how to accomplish forest restoration across ownership boundaries. Photo credit: Emily Jane Davis

What is RVCC working on related to increasing prescribed fire?

TYSON: As Karen mentioned, RVCC released a case study of a successful cross-boundary prescribed fire project in Trinity County, California. This study was in partnership with Dr. Emily Jane Davis of Oregon State University and the Ecosystem Workforce program and Nick Goulette of the Watershed Research and Training Center in Trinity County. The goal of the project was to dig into details, identify which authorities were used and what role each partner played in the project.  This resulted in a product that offers resources, tools and lessons learned for other fire practitioners working to get their cross-boundary project off the ground.

The Trinity case study is a good example of the learning work that RVCC does, but we also know that seeing more successful projects in place is going to take more than local innovation, important as it may be. RVCC also works to communicate the need for increased prescribed burning to congressional members and staff. Advocacy in this space can help increase funding for more projects, remove policy barriers that limit projects and change agency incentives to focus more on prescribed burning.  We communicate important information like this through the creation of issue papers. These products help define a problem or policy in need of change, and develop a coalition position.

That kind of advocacy isn’t just academic—we’ve seen real interest from Congress in the last year to support more prescribed fire. It’s rewarding to see something this important go from one of many topics in a busy conversation, to getting traction as a main talking point for legislation. We’re hopeful that we’ll see some of these proposals come out in the next few months.

Are there any particular policy actions or barriers that you are currently working on related to fire adaptation?

TYSON: I’m lucky to get to work with both prescribed fire practitioners and researchers: RVCC depends on both to help identify policy barriers. In particular, the work of Dr. Courtney Schultz at Colorado State University has been essential to our comprehension of federal policy barriers.  Right now, I’d say that we need to think about how agencies staff for prescribed fire and how they track those accomplishments, separate from mechanical treatments. I think we also need to see more funding and support for local prescribed fire capacity. Local partners are vital to not only increase the amount of prescribed fire on the ground; they play a key role in cross-boundary projects.

Aside from federal policy, there are also barriers at the state level. Liability laws, state burn manager training and smoke management regulations all impact and effect the ability to put fire on the ground.

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Western Week 2019: The Capitol building, home of the United States Congress and the seat of the legislative branch. Photo credit: Jessica Sabine Brothers

What legislative changes are on the horizon that community leaders should be aware of?

TYSON: We’re likely to see legislation focused on prescribed fire introduced in the Senate in the next few months. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee—that’s the committee that covers the Forest Service and Department of Interior—has some members who are showing a strong understanding of the importance of getting more fire on the ground. I’ll share more on that in policy updates section of the RVCC newsletter as it becomes more clear.

How can fire practitioners working at the community level be more involved in advocating and driving policy efforts at every level? 

TYSON: As I mentioned above, I see growing interest in Congress to incentivize more prescribed fire and an increasing awareness that mechanical treatments alone, while important, may not reduce fire risk on some landscapes unless we reintroduce fire. Keeping that conversation going and continuing to raise the level of understanding in Congress is crucial to laying the groundwork for more specific policy changes.

It might seem redundant, particularly to those who spend so much time working in a space like collaborative conservation or prescribed fire, but many decision makers need to hear clear messaging about things like prescribed fire over and over before it sinks in. That’s something that FAC Net members can help out with: reach out to your local congressional staff and elected officials directly and talk to them about the importance of the work that you do. Don’t underestimate the significance of your personal story or experience with fire. Some elected officials may still be in the early stages of learning about the importance of prescribed fire. They won’t know there’s a need for more good fire unless you tell them.

Engaging at the state level is also very important. As many folks probably know, smoke regulation is largely managed at the state level. Oregon, for instance, just recently finished a review and update process for their smoke management rules. Another state-level opportunity for engagement is the revision of state Forest Action Plans. These plans historically helped guide investments from the Forest Service State & Private Forestry branch, but have been identified in the Shared Stewardship Initiative as being important to help guide work on National Forests as well. Each state is likely to take a different approach to updating their plan, but it’s important for practitioners to ask their local state forestry or natural resources departments about opportunities to engage in the process.

What advice do you have for folks interested in engaging with decision makers as part of their fire adaptation work?

KAREN: When I started working in collaborative venues, I knew very little about how federal agencies worked. I was totally lost in the acronym soup. But by asking questions, being curious, and having a willingness to learn (and attending an RVCC meeting!), I slowly began to understand the complexity. And along the way learned that policy, particularly how it’s interpreted or applied, underpins so much of a project’s success .  I think it’s always helpful to ask questions from a place of curiosity, and continue to be genuinely interested in learning.

What keeps you motivated in your job? What are your high level asks for the next 10 years?

KAREN: I like trying to understand and navigate complex situations, kind of geeking out on institutional bureaucracy and how to effect change within large systems. I also really like the nimbleness of our work, particularly the ability to be responsive and adaptive to changing circumstances. In 10 years I’d like to see genuine investments in our federal land management agencies that match the scale of the challenges facing rural communities and our natural landscapes.

TYSON: I won’t pretend to know what the policy landscape will look like in the future, but I think momentum is gathering around the idea that we need to modernize fire policy and federal land management in general. We’ve learned important lessons from collaborative conservation and local innovation in the last few decades, but from my perspective, we’re going to need to see changes to federal law and policy to institutionalize some of those lessons. Daunting though it may seem, the opportunity for that kind of big-picture change is a huge motivation for me. The safety and stability of our communities and the health of the land depend on it.

Thank you so much for taking the time to explain some of the work RVCC does in connection to the work of our fire communities! What are a few ways the FAC Net community can get more involved or keep up to date on RVCC related asks and opportunities?

KAREN: The easiest way to stay abreast of RVCC’s work is to sign up for our monthly newsletter. If you want to meet people involved in the Coalition, our Annual Meeting is coming up: January 14-16, 2020 in Silverton, Oregon. Following the Annual Meeting, we host a Western Week in Washington D.C. where we bring rural community leaders to share their stories. We also have a monthly policy call that Tyson leads. It’s a great opportunity to get involved and stay up to date on current policy tracking, analysis and interpretation. And of course, if anyone wants to learn more they’re always welcome to reach out to RVCC, or any of our Leadership Team members.

 

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