Working With Land Managers|
Thursday, August 19, 1999
What you want... You call in at the park headquarters and the ranger flashes a big grin when you walk in, calls you by name and asks when you next want to go ride the trails. He then tells you about the $10,000 grant he just received for new mountain bike trails in the park.
What you need... a land manager that actually makes time to see you, is willing to listen to the views of a mountain biker, and knows the benefit of partnerships in a world of tight budgets and limited trail mileage.
In the real world, land managers barely have time to work effectively with any one user group. They have to juggle internal politics with external pressures and have a limited capacity to respond to clubs and individual volunteers.
So what can you do about it? Whether you are trying to get approval for building a new trail or fighting to save an old one from closure, follow the basic rules of strategy. Learn the rules of engagement, be persistent, and get some help from your friends.
Here are 12 sure-fire steps that will help you get beyond a "foot in the door."
Steps 1-4. Focus & Fact Finding!
1. First of all, decide what you want and what you don't want.
Make a list of the goals of the proposal, break them down into objectives and actions. Don't forget to list things you don't want as well. Why? Because time (yours) is precious and everything you do must directly help the cause.
2. Get the scoop; do your homework.
Find out as much as you can about the land unit and the agency, the other trail users, your likely opponents (if any), and what the arguments for and against your proposal might be. Estimate the cost and time involved in the project, including the value of volunteer hours you have already put into other trails.
3. Be strategic.
Break your proposal down into bite size chunks and phases. The last thing you want to do is over-commit yourself and not be able to follow through. Remember, be careful what you wish for - you might just get it! More likely, you will have to compromise, so work out ahead of time what you are willing to negotiate.
4. Develop a hit list.
Find out who among the par staff is the best person to contact for a meeting on the issue. Ask around, there is usually someone designated to work with trail users, but it does not hurt to "cc" a copy of the letter to the land unit's director - the park superintendent, forest supervisor, or chief ranger - as a matter of protocol. Also, make a hit list of who you can rely on for assistance, who you may call allies, and who you might call opponents.
Steps 5-9. Face to Face
5. Be professional.
Communication is very often improved by the degree of professionalism shown. There are enough distractions to derail dialogue without things like clothing, or trendy jargon getting in the way. Club T-shirts are great if they are clean and the message aids your argument, but watch those gnarly graphics. Same goes for letters, e-mail and phone calls: Keep them short, clear, and to the point. Return calls as soon as possible, even if it to say "Thanks for calling, I'll get back to you by Friday." Then do call by Friday!
6. Find common ground.
Look for an issue you can both agree on and work from there. Perhaps key concerns are trash dumping, park budget cuts, or the threat of development adjacent to the park. Ask how you and your group can help the park fight these threats.
7. Be honest, be fair, and be prepared to "agree to disagree."
Nothing gets attention better than up front honesty and the ability to move past disagreements. Don't get stuck on obstacles. Instead, make a note and come back to the issue later if you think it is worth your time.
8. Understand before you seek to be understood.
This is an old proverb, but it really helps if you understand the system, priorities, and constraints the land managers must deal with. Scope out the following about the situation: the budget cycle; the availability of staff to help; the other priorities the land manager has to deal with (short and long term); the politics; and traditions and trends associated with the park.
Steps 9-12. Follow Up
9. Be persistent.
End the conversation with a summary of what you have agreed on, what each of you will do with the information, and a date for your next meeting. Stick with the person you have been working with unless they just can't follow through.
10. Find as many helpers, partners, and supporters to help spread the load and add credibility.
Delegate! Face it, you are going to need help because the last thing you want to do is burn out half way through the process. Look beyond your group for partners because the most attractive proposal to land managers and grant committees is the one that has more than one proponent, brings commitment, and involves the community. Don't be afraid to call the local newspaper, they are always looking for stories and photo opportunities.
11. Scope out other sources of support.
Remember there are many organizations out there built to assist people like you. For example, IMBA has Advocacy Director Jen Lamb who has experience with a wide range of issues and agencies. Local politicians may also be of assistance in charting the political waters. Sometimes local academic institutions have information that can help you understand the bigger picture with studies on recreation trends, economic impacts, and demographics.
12. He said-She said. How do you know? Keep good notes.
You will be more effective, learn more, and leave a better legacy of your efforts if you take good notes. Keep in one place everything associated with the proposal, including a calendar, note book, and binder. Good things take time to develop. But in this highly mobile society people move on, so in case you leave for another job, or the ranger leaves for another park, keep accurate records on file. That way new participants can rapidly get up to speed and momentum will not be lost.
One last thing. Don't take it too seriously. You will make mistakes, learn lots, make new friends, and have something to add to your resume, At the end of the day it will matter less who won than how well you played the game. Go for it and good luck!