Crowd sourced planning & distributed management for Wrangell-St. Elias

David Bornstein’s New York Times blog piece today, Crowdfunding Clean Energy, describes how solar energy is becoming another example of networked, distributed function potentially displacing hierarchic systems. With crowd sourcing, large numbers of people are able to each make small investments directly financing renewable energy. Distributed energy production in local solar installations is increasingly competitive with large-scale power plants. As the scale of these networked/distributed efforts grows, unit costs rapidly decrease. Bornstein describes social-cultural and ethical benefits as well as clean energy production resulting from this participatory system. While it can self-sustain and grow once launched, creative and assertive initiatives are required to get it going, especially because of the institutional momentum favoring centralized megaprojects.

What if Wrangell-St. Elias backcountry planning and management is considered in this framework? How about thinking of power flow and control in land management as analogous to that in electricity production? For an array of reasons, centralizing electricity production in megaplants is inadequate to meet requirements of present circumstances. Similarly, centralized agency production and control of land management regulation is now also inadequate in Wrangell-St. Elias, because it is too inefficient and expensive to be affordable with current government budgets and staffing, because essential sources of information and expertise are located outside the agency, and because ongoing participation of locally-knowledged stakeholders is in itself a necessary aspect of the human experience for which the area is being managed.

What would crowd sourced planning and distributed management of the Wrangell-St.Elias backcountry look like? For planning, consider online forums where locals, tourists, scientists and others identify discuss and debate values, issues and solutions. The National Park Service could be forum moderator (or someone else could be), and a co-equal participant. The agency could frame up the ground rules, e.g. the legislated mandates that establish the purposes of the public parklands. Imagine University of Alaska students fanning out, recording open-ended interviews with the diversity of people and organizations who care about the place. The agency planner, perhaps aided by the students, could use qualitative research methods to organize and analyze these conversations and feed the results back into the discussion. Note the fundamental ways this approach goes beyond the usual NEPA  process, with its public meetings and agency drafts. (It would not replace NEPA requirements, but supplement them, and hopefully make environmental compliance less expensive overall, because so much problem-solving is done, and hopefully done better, by the time the impact analysis is written.)

For management, consider these forums developing in some continuing way, so that park visitors, scientists, commercial operators, park staff, other locals, and the national and international constituency for the park report on conditions in the field, and raise and discuss issues and solutions. Those who know the place on the ground from multiple perspectives would contribute to monitoring and problem solving. One role of the National Park Service in this is as keeper of the public good, responsible for keeping alert to the long-term national mandates for the parks and setting boundaries on appropriate actions. But it would not and could not be the sole monitor, manager and regulator of what happens in the park backcountry. And the agency can achieve its management responsibilities only in a context of mutual trust and successful collaboration. Key questions are how and if that can be accomplished, given the divergent perspectives, goals and behaviors of the National Park Service and the multiple other stakeholders.

That Yosemite is eliminating most backcountry ranger positions in the current budget crisis indicates what the Park Service can expect for staffing backcountry management in far-away, less-visited Wrangell-St. Elias. Even if the sequester gets resolved, long-term budgets aren’t promising. The Park Service is unlikely to be in position to plan, regulate, monitor and enforce adequately on its own.

Because of the multiple involved legal jurisdictions and legislated limits on agency control, restricted government budgets, and the diversity of stakeholders with established sense of ownership in the place, effectively Wrangell-St. Elias management becomes in many respects the management of a commons, with the added complexity of a strong, but sometimes ambiguous and self-contradictory national mandate, which the Park Service as agent of the federal landowner is required to implement. I’m looking forward to seeing how the Nobel Prize winning work of Elinor Ostrom  on common pool resources can be can be applied in the Wrangell-St. Elias case.

I can imagine my mentor, Grant McConnell, scowling at the notion of  managing national park wilderness collaboratively. His Private Power and American Democracy goes into the reasons why wilderness preservation requires moving control from local interests to national agencies with uncompromised protection enforcement mandate and authority. Grant’s critique should be fully understood and addressed, when constructing any collaborative management system.

If the general ideas sketched in here have applicability, there is need for considerable further inquiry into the realities of how such decentralized systems would actually function in Wrangell-St. Elias, the problems involved, and possible ways to solve them.

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