To develop a Collaborative Process for Landscape Conservation in Western North Dakota
What has been most instrumental to your progress?:
Establishing the Badlands Advisory Group (BAG): The main and most important component of this project was the establishment of the BAG in September 2016. This working group is comprised of five members representing different stakeholder groups (ranching, conservation, oil industry, county government, and the state legislature). WWF supported the establishment of this group so community representatives could develop an Action Plan based on WWF’s 2016 Stakeholder Assessment. Through their meetings and the members’ collective work, they successfully decreased tensions and distrust between stakeholder groups; developed strategies to improve oil development and landscape planning efforts, factoring in the needs of all stakeholders in western North Dakota; and collectively developed an Action Plan to implement these strategies in the North Dakota Badlands. The group’s diverse membership, small size, and closed meeting format provided a safe space to discuss issues, brainstorm solutions, and work through disagreements. BAG members established trust with one another, and all members reported that the group’s collaboration and knowledge sharing were the most valuable aspects of the BAG.
Connecting BAG members with other stakeholders and decision makers: The BAG meetings in December 2016 and June 2017 were key milestones in the success of the project. These meetings were opened to a larger group of attendees, which gave BAG members an opportunity to share their ideas and proposed next steps with key decision makers, including the Lieutenant Governor and his staff, the Director of the Department of Mineral Resources, members of the oil industry, and conservation groups. BAG members received feedback on their proposed strategies and secured buy-in from others. The June 2017 meeting concluded with the Lieutenant Governor suggesting that BAG propose a structure and strategy for a formal task force within the Governor’s office to adopt and implement the strategies outlined in the BAG Action Plan. This request legitimized the BAG as an entity, allowed members’ ideas to gain traction, and demonstrated a sense of shared ownership with the local government.
The importance of enabling conditions: One of the important lessons we learned is that, in some cases, the enabling conditions are as important to the success of community engagement as the process itself and, when possible and appropriate, we need to leverage political and economic conditions to advance work with impacted community groups. In the case of this project, we started this work as oil prices were decreasing and an oil “bust” began to spread across western North Dakota. This slowdown in development provided an opportunity for North Dakotans to catch their breath, consider lessons learned from the past decade, and think about how they wanted to develop oil resources in the future. Another condition that was conducive to the success of the project was the election of a new governor. Unlike governors in the past, Governor Burgum’s campaign was not supported by the oil industry. He also prides himself in being a strategic thinker focused on innovation, and he expressed interest in bringing such thinking to North Dakota. Lastly, he has a ranch in the Badlands and understands firsthand the landscape’s value and beauty. These factors greatly helped the BAG’s work progress.
Key lessons learned:
Managing the size and scope of the collaborative: In the spirit of collaboration and openness, past collaboratives in the Badlands were large in size and broad in thematic and geographic scope. These factors led to a lack of focus and the collaboratives spending more time on issues where they disagreed than on issues where consensus could be built. Ultimately, they were unsuccessful because they were too broad in their focus and size. In this project, WWF took a different approach by intentionally keeping the BAG small (only five representatives), geographically restricted (western North Dakota), and focused exclusively on strategies to address oil development and its impacts on the Badlands. This structure proved successful because it kept the members focused on a shared end goal, allowed them to let go of issues they didn’t agree on, and ensured that voices representing varying stakeholder groups were heard. In these ways, WWF took lessons learned from past collaboratives and helped the BAG be successful. Now that BAG is fully operational, and its members have developed trust internally, we believe the group could expand to include other members and engage more stakeholders.
Exiting the project: When BAG members told us that they wanted to move forward on the next grant proposal without WWF’s involvement, we initially perceived it as a failure on our part and were disappointed by their decision. However, we came to realize that this was a success. A new, locally-led group was formed and was taking ownership of their future. They are now working with the Governor’s office and will be engaging more stakeholders. Though the group developed great trust with WWF, they felt they would be more successful without an affiliation going forward as conservation is still viewed with skepticism and distrust in the state. With Bush Foundation support we catalyzed the community innovation process, laid the groundwork for North Dakota communities to address oil development and landscape-scale planning, played an important behind-the-scenes convening role, and successfully “exited” the project in a way that demonstrates the success and sustainability of this community innovation effort. Based on a survey, we learned BAG members’ perceptions of WWF changed over the project period from skepticism to trust, due in part to our emphasis on the effort being locally led.
Addressing landowner education: An activity in our proposal was to educate landowners on their rights as surface owners by disseminating existing materials through partners, working group meetings, and presentations. After spending considerable time gathering the existing resources, reviewing those materials, attending education workshops, and interviewing representatives of landowner groups in North Dakota, we learned that landowners can readily access such resources but they often choose not to. Landowners do not have the time or interest in learning about these issues if oil development is not occurring on their property or if development generally decreases in their community, which has been occurring in North Dakota for the last couple of years as part of the current “bust” cycle. We also realized that WWF may not be the best organization to increase landowner education because of the innate skepticism and distrust shown towards conservation organizations in North Dakota. However, WWF built relationships with existing landowner groups and offered technical expertise, such as mapping tools, to enhance their education materials once oil development ramps up again.
Progress toward an innovation:
In 2015, WWF began to explore new ways to address oil development and conservation in the North Dakota Badlands. We started by contracting a North Dakota-based consulting team, led by Rod Backman, to interview stakeholder groups to learn how North Dakotans felt about the Bakken Boom and the effect it was having on the Badlands. The assessment increased collective understanding of the issues when it was released in August 2016. At the beginning of this grant, we established the BAG to develop an Action Plan based on the stakeholder assessment. After sharing their ideas with a larger audience, the BAG members are now entering the stage of testing and implementing possible solutions. Capacity to implement these solutions and achieve the community innovation is growing; the BAG has identified possible partners and secured buy-in from the Governor’s office. If some of the solutions tried in the testing and implementing stage are unsuccessful, the BAG may return to earlier stages in the process, reassessing needs or developing new ideas. Overall, we have confidence that this group will ultimately find a solution to address the community needs identified in the stakeholder assessment.
What it will take to reach an innovation?:
In our proposal to the Bush Foundation, we identified the community innovation as, “WWF envisions a collaborative process that enables local communities to have a voice in how their natural resources are developed.” The establishment of the BAG, their development of an Action Plan that addresses the community’s desire to protect the natural assets of the Badlands while also developing mineral resources, and the interest expressed by the ND Governor’s office in formalizing the group and their recommendations mean the innovation was largely achieved. The next six-to-twelve months will be crucial for engagement with the Governor’s office whose endorsement is critical for implementing and testing the recommendations in the Action Plan.
BAG members are currently working with the Lieutenant Governor to establish a task force within the Governor’s office to carry out the BAG Action Plan, which was released in May 2017. The Lieutenant Governor was particularly interested in the idea of developing a state-led, long-term strategic plan for oil development in the Badlands and asked for a proposal to integrate this idea into the task force. Consultant Rod Backman, who conducted the 2016 stakeholder assessment and facilitated the BAG, developed this proposal with the BAG members. Additionally, the North Dakota Natural Resources Trust is leading the development of a habitat mitigation program to restore grassland habitat that has been impacted or lost due to oil development. Lastly, the BAG members are in discussions with an oil company active in the Badlands to develop a pilot project for landscape-scale planning of oil wells, roads, and other infrastructure. WWF will continue to offer resources and technical expertise to the BAG to ensure their strategies maintain momentum, but these efforts will largely be locally driven.
If you could do it all over again...:
We should have been more confident in the “kitchen cabinet” approach we took. As discussed above, after learning from the previous attempts at collaboratives in western North Dakota, we consciously decided to pull together a small group of local, influential, and largely unaffiliated members who shared a passion for the Badlands. However, we weren’t sure that such a small group could develop a solid, clearly defined Action Plan or gain credibility with decision makers. Furthermore, our partners in North Dakota advocated for additional members and making the meetings open to the public. In the end, however, this approach exceeded our expectations. The small size allowed BAG to be nimble, incubate ideas, and stay focused. The carefully chosen members legitimized the group to outsiders. We will certainly utilize it again in future work. Additionally, we’d tell ourselves to survey the groups we work with more. We adapted the Wilder Collaborative Inventory provided by the Bush Foundation and gave it to BAG members along with a survey in December 2016. The results from both were illuminating. We wished we’d also given the survey when the BAG first began meeting to compare results.
One last thought:
The Bush Foundation’s approach to solving problems, its emphasis on communities, and willingness to support stakeholder engagement is refreshing in a space where funders generally focus less on the process and more on outcomes. WWF’s approach to conservation is also focused on collaboration and working with local communities, but it is rare to have donor support specifically for this incredibly important stage in addressing conservation and environmental issues. It has been wonderful to work with a funder that shares that philosophy. We are grateful to the Bush Foundation for its generous, flexible, and innovative financial and technical support over the last year, and we hope to find additional ways to work together in the future.