There is no shortage of views on how best to manage our public lands. For the last 10 years, the National Forest Foundation (NFF) has facilitated more than 20 groups to come to agreements on how our National Forests should be managed.
These can be hard conversations. Strong viewpoints clash. Middle ground can be hard to find. Opinions struggle to be heard. But by investing in time together and listening to fellow forest enthusiasts across the table, the NFF helps make our forests common ground for all.
But what happens when the table is gone? When you can’t sit in a small group to discuss trail use? Or when you can’t use a coffee break to clarify a misunderstanding with another participant?
When the world adjusted to a new normal in late March, the NFF had to get creative to keep the momentum going for collaborative efforts supporting our National Forests. Just because in-person meetings had to pause, the work for our forests and communities didn’t.
After a positive face-to-face meeting in late February, the Stakeholders Forum for the Nantahala & Pisgah Plan Revision continued working through video-conferences and phone calls to develop comments on the draft forest plan by the end of June and meet their comment deadline.
The Lake Tahoe West Restoration Partnership developed a proposed project to restore 59,000 acres of forests, meadows, streams, and wildlife habitat. Then the Partnership went through a public scoping process with virtual public meetings to share information and collect public comment.
For the Beaverhead-Deerlodge Working Group, the move to virtual meetings coincided with the release of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest’s Out-Year Planning maps. At an in-person meeting, maps are typically projected on a screen and it can be difficult for everyone to see.
In the virtual meeting space, each Working Group member could download the maps and explore them on their own. The Working Group has made use of virtual meetings to take a deep-dive into complex subjects they had been wanting to learn more about but didn’t have the time during business as usual.
This continued work and the associated milestones would not have been possible without the dedication of collaborative members and their willingness to try new tools. We pushed our virtual facilitation skills to new levels and learned a lot while moving our meetings to a virtual space. Here are a few of our key learnings.
Add facilitation capacity.
Online meetings demand more from facilitators. They’re not only advancing the conversation and ensuring meaningful participation, but also running the virtual meeting technology, troubleshooting connection problems, and taking notes. Bringing in more team members with clearly defined roles (such as troubleshooting any technology issues) helped keep the meetings productive and moving.
Set the meeting up for success.
While this seems obvious, switching collaboration to a virtual platform adds new challenges and takes careful planning. We learned to set up time to meet with group members to get them acquainted with the technology, use shared documents for live editing, use polls that allow for real time feedback, open the meeting with a fun and interactive discussion, and establish a text chain for all those facilitating help to move meetings along smoothly.
Utilize new ways to share information.
Long meetings over virtual platforms have proven to be draining on attendees (and facilitators!). To limit screen time, we found it helpful to record presentations and send them out ahead of time to group members, allowing them to review on their own time and come to the next meeting prepared to discuss.
Use the pandemic as an opportunity to connect new participants.
With no travel required, we saw an increase in participation in many of our virtual events and meetings.
Use breakout groups to help people make more personal connections.
In in-person meetings those quick side chats over breaks or coffee go a long way toward making connections and building trust. We used virtual breakout sessions to help participants connect with others informally and to support deeper conversations amongst people than are possible in the full-group virtual meeting room.
Give yourself grace in stressful situations.
Sometimes the technology doesn’t cooperate and things don’t go as planned, despite extra preparation. We learned to take a deep breath, laugh, and recognize that everyone is affected by the impacts on our lives of the pandemic, including ourselves.
Make a personal connection.
Pick up the phone to make a personal connection with members whose participation has fallen off during the pandemic. Many of our collaborative members live in rural locations with unstable internet, poor cellular reception, and livestock whose care takes precedence over virtual meetings. Other members are retired and would rather not spend their time on a computer. For whatever the reason, checking in with personal calls to members whose participation has dropped off during the pandemic is a good way of maintaining connections and ensuring that no one is feeling left out.
We’ve also learned that during a pandemic when so much is uncertain, we depend on natural places. Our National Forests and Grasslands have become refuges from the “real world” and millions of Americans will continue to rely on these places for rest and rejuvenation. More than ever, it’s critical we continue to work together to find mutual ground for a plan forward for future generations – and this generation – to enjoy healthy National Forests.