Consensus building is hard work. It demands that you bring a collaborative spirit to the table. It is not about fighting. It’s about honoring all values. You cannot have ulterior motives. You must be transparent and you must do your work out in the open for everyone to see.”

Gary Burnett, Executive Director
Blackfoot Challenge – Ovando, Montana

Gary Burnett is the Executive Director of the award-winning Blackfoot Challenge, a 23-year-old community-based collaborative outreach that brought together a diverse group of private and public interests that shared a desire to develop a 21st Century model for conserving and protecting the 1.5 million-acre Blackfoot River watershed in western Montana. The watershed, which features a mix of public lands and working ranches, provides refuge for multiple fish and wildfire species: bull trout, grizzly bears, Canada lynx, fishers, gray wolves and migratory birds, including trumpeter swans. The Blackfoot River was turned into the stuff of legend by the late Norman Maclean, whose 1976 book, “A River Runs Through It,” probably did more to popularize fly fishing than any book in history. In this interview, Mr. Burnett answers questions concerning the Challenge’s work and, more broadly, misconceptions about forest collaboration itself.

Evergreen: Mr. Burnett, the Blackfoot Challenge is easily one of the longest running and most successful collaborative groups in the nation. How’d you do it?

Burnett: One step at a time. It helped that all of those who were involved in our 1993 startup shared an interest in conserving the Blackfoot River watershed. The call to action was concern over the health of the Blackfoot River. We are continuing to respond to other changing conditions – rapid land use changes, drought and livestock/predator conflict – that are occurring in so many western valleys.

Evergreen: What was the goal and has it changed?

Burnett: The goal was to work together to conserve and share the resources that are the sum and substance of an intact ecosystem, yet working landscape that hasn’t changed much since the Blackfoot’s first white settlers put down roots more than a century ago. Our approach has not changed, though we continue to respond to changing conditions by turning to those affected to help build durable solutions.

Evergreen: How has your goal evolved?

Burnett: When you start an organization like ours, you don’t initially see yourself as becoming a 21st Century model for conservation, yet that is what we have become in the eyes of many observers and other groups that have borrowed from us, and from whom we’ve shared lessons learned.

Evergreen: But something here is different. Something allowed you to do what other collaboratives have not yet been able to do.

Burnett: At a time when it wasn’t fashionable to do so, we opted for a partner-centric approach rather than the more conventional biologist-centric approach. That’s maybe what distinguished us from other groups that were getting started about the same time.

Evergreen: How do the two approaches differ?

Burnett: Biologist-centric conservation is based on prioritizing conservation actions based on science, with the biologist and the resource of concern at the center of decision-making. By contrast, partner-centric conservation emphasizes social processes and the formation of the right team of people. The lines that typically separate public and private interests, local knowledge and technical expertise and biological and socioeconomic values are purposefully blurred.

Evergreen: Sounds a lot like process used by the collaborative groups we’ve been interviewing over the past eight months.

Burnett: We think that’s true. We focus first on the 80 percent that we have in common and leave the 20 percent that divides us until the trust relationships are in place that allow us to tackle the 20 percent by pacing with partners.

Evergreen: There is some public misunderstanding about how collaboratives function. Some see compromises in which one set of values is sacrificed for another. Others who have been watching our collaborative series have accused us of sleeping with the enemy. Do you hear this skepticism, too?

Burnett: We did initially, but rarely anymore. The Blackfoot Challenge – and it has been a challenge to bring private and public values together – grew out of a shared desire to build consensus. That’s a very different process than compromise. It’s finding the sweet spot in difficult issues. It’s focusing on what we leave behind, not what we take, thus insuring that all participating stakeholder values are represented in the outcomes.

Evergreen: Not everyone wants to participate in collaborative partnerships. Some seem quite content to sit on the sidelines and throw stones at those doing the work.

Burnett: Consensus building is hard work. It demands that you bring a collaborative spirit to the table. It is not about fighting. It is about honoring all values. You cannot have ulterior motives. You must be transparent and you must do your work out in the open for everyone to see.

Evergreen: How do you handle stakeholders who show up at the last minute, most likely in hopes of throwing a monkey wrench into years of collaborative work?

Burnett: Consensus building is like a marathon. You have to run the whole race, not step onto the track at the 24-mile marker in a 25-mile race.

Evergreen: That’s a nice way of saying it, and emphasizing the fact that it probably took years to build the trust relationships that make the Blackfoot Challenge what it is today.

Burnett: When you bring a group together as diverse as ours – and here I speak of loggers, cattle ranchers, outfitters, sawmill owners, hunters, anglers, public land managers, conservation groups, doctors, lawyers and other interested parties – it takes time for everyone to find the overlap in values and consensus opportunities. This isn’t Kumbaya stuff. Its plain old hard work and civil democracy.

Evergreen: What was your beginning point?

Burnett: Successful collaboration – consensus building – accepts and honors all values, all people and all points of view. The discourse is civil and respectful. It’s community development. Its town hall stuff. Visits over coffee and a beer stuff. It’s a simple idea, but it can be hard to stay on track and not make assumptions about other’s values in this fast paced world.

Evergreen: Which is why focus and honorable conduct are so important.

Burnett: Exactly. As much as we’ve accomplished in partnership with private and public values, it is the approach that is most important. Civil discourse is a process that can lead to big solutions to difficult problems. It feeds on the right stuff, not the wrong stuff.

Evergreen: As working journalists for more than 50 years, we’re often dismayed by the fact that stories like this on aren’t pursued by more of our colleagues.

Burnett: Deception and uncivil behavior will always make for sensational headlines. We have a great story to tell here, and we’re always leased when someone wants to tell it.

Evergreen: How can we measure your success?

Burnett: To date, we have facilitated protection of more than 400,000 acres, responded to drought conditionsin 10 or the last 16 years, conserving tens of millions of gallons of water in those years, and reduced conflicts between grizzly bears and livestock by 93 percent since 2003.

Evergreen: That tells us why the biggest conservation outfits on earth have all come here to see what you’re doing. It must be very satisfying. What worries you at this stage of the game?

Burnett: Sustaining our responses and ensuring that our approach is valued for the durable solutions it delivers. The Blackfoot Challenge believes that one of the most important building blocks in any region is strong, inclusive and locally-driven partnership network. We also believe in being a good neighbor, recognizing that this investment promotes innovation and collaboration that will support the Blackfoot Watershed. Whether that is reducing conflicts between predators and livestock, working together to protect working land or sharing access to water resources, we believe we are part of this region, not apart from it. Our natural resources, communities and economies are connected and rely on working together.

Evergreen: How do you do this?

Burnett: Successful consensus building – collaboration – lights the way. If we have demonstrated nothing else over the last 23 years, we have demonstrated that local knowledge and local values are vital components, but as yet, no one has come up with a mechanism for branding collaboration – what we call the community-based approach – for giving it an official stamp of approval that says you are credible and accountable.

Evergreen: And yet the success of these collaboratives often seems to turn on their own individual personalities, which seem to us to be a fairly accurate representation of the communities they serve. How to you brand collaboration without undermining its’ true spirit?

Burnett: It is yet another step in the consensus building process. Once again, we have to find the sweet spot by focusing on what we leave – what we can all share – not on where we disagree. We do believe that if collaboration is to mean anything it has to have some definition. But it must also retain flexibility to respond to local conditions, resources and partnerships.

Evergreen: What advice would you give other smaller collaboratives that hope to emulate your success?

Burnett: Keep working together and building trust. Be open and honest with one another. Honor all values. Stay at the table until trust is built. Focus on what you have in common. Consensus will follow. Be inclusive of all values. Begin with local values which are often brushed aside. Just because you disagree on some issues is not an excuse to leave people out of the conversation. Coordinate the consensus building. Support the conversation with good science.

Evergreen: That’s good advice. And your approach seems to be working well.

Burnett: We take as a good sign the fact that we have gained the respect and support of private landowners, many state and federal resource management agencies, Montana Governor Bullock, and other conservation groups and local communities. Sustaining outcomes for conservation, social equality and economic vitality, demand that we build durable solutions. Consensus building and collaboration are the keys to moving forward.