It’s Time for FAC Practitioners to Get Involved in Policy Education
Authors: Jonathan Bruno
Recently the Coalition for the Upper South Platte had the opportunity to help lead the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition’s (RVCC) Fire Adapted Communities working group. The goal was to pull together FAC practitioners, discuss some of our biggest concerns and needs, and draft a position paper that was presented to Washington, D.C. leaders in late May (read one recap from the event here). Through this process I learned how important it is for us to work together to create a collective voice for our work, our forests and our communities. The RVCC project to which I’m referring highlighted how we can all inform and educate a national audience. With our diverse socio-political, environmental and economic conditions, it is imperative that we, as leaders in the fire adapted communities movement, come together to voice our most relevant and impactful messages.
I believe we can all agree that the national-level perspective significantly shapes what we do. Some of the questions we ask frequently are:
- Will there be funding for our sustained efforts?
- Do our projects have bipartisan support at the local, regional and national levels?
- Will long-term maintenance, capacity, training, research, education and outreach be considered in future funding mechanisms?
Answering these and other questions will help us determine our direction and ultimately, our sustainability.
As populations grow, the line between natural and urban areas continues to blur, and the complexity of the challenges we face continues to expand. With these expansions in mind, and in light of the amazing successes of FAC and FAC Net, I believe it is more important than ever that we provide a platform to help coalesce our message.
Even One Voice Can Make Change
Individual views can carry significant weight if they are heard. A diversity of voices is important because our collective experiences have value. As a leading nonprofit on the Colorado Front Range it is our mission to act as the listener, as the collector of voices and messages, and as the entity that considers all view points and pushes them forward to fulfill our community members’ desires and goals. As FAC practitioners, I believe this process of raising our communities’ voices is all of our responsibility.
Policy Education or Lobbying? How to Do it. Why?
Policy education can be a tool to inform residents and policymakers about what practices work and how our efforts and successes shape the landscape — in being more fire prepared and resilient. It can also help promote stronger communities and economies through public policy. Education and awareness can be one of the strongest tools in our arsenal of activities to incite broad societal change. Informing our constituents on policy can range from attending a town hall meeting to having discussions with neighbors, board members, county commissioners, state representatives, senators and members of Congress as well as agency leaders. Providing briefings on current rules, regulations and policies, and informing our stakeholders of the current discussions within political and regulatory bodies is essential to build awareness of the issues we are facing. Policy education provides people with the information they need to make their own decisions related to what they believe and support. Policy education, however, stops here. When you recommend a specific stance on legislation you enter the world of lobbying, and with this comes some items you should consider.
According to the Internal Revenue Service, “in general, no organization may qualify for section 501(c)(3) status if a substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation (commonly known as lobbying). A 501(c)(3) organization may engage in some lobbying, but too much lobbying activity risks loss of tax-exempt status.” While some of our groups do lobby, many of us are more likely engaged in the policy education effort. Review the requirements of your grants to understand if you are allowed to lobby. Many federal awards bar such activities.
As nonprofits and agencies of with multiple missions and jurisdictions we need to give thoughtful consideration to how we most effectively discuss policy issues, while embracing the ultimate goal of working at collaborative, cross-boundary scales. One factor is that policy education requires a long-term commitment. Political players and landscapes change with every election. Federal, state and local politics and social structures are dynamic. A consistent and persistent message is needed to keep wildfire-adaptation practices and needs in the forefront of policymakers’ minds.
Just as fire does not recognize boundaries, one of the key approaches to our FAC practices is working across jurisdictional boundaries. Understanding the political environment is just as important (sometimes more) than understanding the physical world that surrounds our communities. Federal agencies, local communities and HOA’s all are constrained by their unique regulations and policies, and understanding these is essential. The dedication of FAC practitioners, their successes and the knowledge gained from on-the-ground implementation and community empowerment is the key to changing public and political perception.
Perhaps our consistent message is how the FAC movement genuinely works across social, political and geographic boundaries. As we continue to make amazing strides now is the time to come together and speak with a collective voice. I am not advocating that we create a lobbying effort, rather that we educate ourselves, share with our communities and push the needle in our direction.