In 2009, the United States Congress mandated development of a strategy to comprehensively address wildland fire management across the country. What is now known as the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy (Cohesive Strategy) rests on the premise that because wildland fires do not respect jurisdictional boundaries, our management of fire must involve collaborative effort and simultaneously address resilient landscapes, fire adapted communities, as well as safe and effective fire response.
In today’s environment, nine years is a long time to craft a strategy and make it a reality. Yet here we are in the first quarter of 2018 and, too often, discussion of the Cohesive Strategy sounds as if that strategy is something new and unfamiliar that we cannot quite figure out how to do. I have frequent opportunity to talk with my colleagues about our implementation of the Cohesive Strategy, our struggle to gain traction with it, and just why that struggle exists. I have concluded that we are struggling because too often, at regional and local levels – and one might argue even nationally- we have failed to build widespread familiarity with the Cohesive Strategy, to identify tangible strategic actions for implementing it, and to create active stakeholder networks to carry those actions out.
As for realizing a national strategy, we have yet to effectively and universally implement key guiding principles and core values of the Cohesive Strategy that provide the foundation and, without doing so, we will find it darned difficult to achieve the strategy’s goals. Our difficulty in pursuing the goals of the Cohesive Strategy is unfortunate, both because we have collectively invested heavily in the development of the strategy and because, I believe, successful implementation of it would address some big problems that are straining interagency relationships and raising the probability of undesirable consequences arising out of negative public sentiment and resultant action by state legislatures and Congress.
Without solid implementation, the Cohesive Strategy is little more than some fine, inspiring words on paper bringing about too little meaningful change on the ground in fire response, landscape resilience, or in creating fire adapted communities. Still, turbo-charging the Cohesive Strategy seems a challenging but achievable task given some strong and focused leadership action beginning with a collective reaffirmation of the strategy and a clear statement of leaders’ intent from the highest levels of our natural resource management agencies and associations. However, I have noted a serious and fundamental impediment to Cohesive Strategy implementation — being that agencies and organizations cannot interconnect, unify, and be cohesive with one another until they are cohesive internally.
For example, if Agency X does not act on the inter-relatedness of its fire management and vegetation management programs, and the personnel of those programs have not identified common internal goals and collaborated on ways to achieve them, Agency X will struggle mightily to collaborate with other agencies and organizations in any meaningful way. In any organization finding itself in this less-than-cohesive internal state but desiring to be better; focused, robust, and sustained leadership action will prove necessary. In my experience, that leadership will need to be both formal, the work of people in charge, and emergent, the work of people without assigned leadership roles but who exercise their influence and initiative to get things done. I would be less than honest if I did not say that I have encountered plenty of people who are skeptical about their agencies’ plans and initiatives in general, and about the Cohesive Strategy in particular.
This “dis-cohesiveness” reflects, in part, the mood of our society; we’ve grown cynical and we seem to be getting worse all the time. However, it also reflects the fact that the people who make up our natural resource agencies have seen so many fire policy initiatives come and go; and that breeds skepticism as well. I am seeing that people, even those who are supportive and enthusiastic about the Cohesive Strategy, want to see tangible action and results immediately. Yet organizational leaders and change agents must remember: the mood is often dark out there, people have really high expectations these days, and producing results that will satisfy people takes much more than good intentions, nice words, and a meeting or two. To succeed, leaders committed to the success of the Cohesive Strategy need to deliver the goods; including producing sustained attention, effort, action, and progress. Consequently, success with the Cohesive Strategy will require the hard work of leadership engagement, relationship and network building, collaboration, and keeping the daily activities of people and organizations aligned with strategic intent.
Despite these challenges, the Cohesive Strategy has real promise; and that promise includes the potential to overcome some important issues that strain our partnerships and hold us back. Frankly, if we all just did what we theoretically committed to in the strategy, a lot of thorny issues that often threaten the continued success and growth of our interagency partnerships would largely go away.
That is why I believe that invigorating the Cohesive Strategy is worth the effort that the necessary leadership will require. I am encouraged by the Second Annual National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Workshop, precisely because of the attendance and participation of some key state, regional and national leaders. These are the very people whose leadership could produce the collective reaffirmation of the strategy and clear statement of leaders’ intent from the highest levels of our natural resource management agencies and associations that I believe will further animate widespread, meaningful action. The engagement of these leaders throughout the workshop will mean a lot to the participants. However, the participants will need to treat the outcomes of the Second Annual National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Workshop, not as accomplishment, but as the foundation of action oriented to producing durable results on the ground.
After the workshop, the agencies and organizations expected to produce those results will require effective leadership that results in well-focused effort dedicated to producing results. Otherwise, we will just have a nice, interesting, and informative week in Reno. I fully expect that workshop participants will leave Reno with positive energy and a sense of momentum. But that energy and momentum will recede with time, particularly since they will return to organizations in which people are already skeptical about whether the Cohesive Strategy is bringing about real change.
Strategic thinking, strategy, and well-communicated strategic intent are all important to organizational effectiveness. However, people implement strategy and people, working both individually and collectively, achieve strategic success in the trenches. Implementing strategic intent in the trenches requires purposeful, engaged, focused leadership. In my experience, that leadership will need to be both formal, the work of the people in charge — and emergent, the work of people who may lack assigned leadership roles but who know how to get things done by using their influence and initiative.
BIO: Mike DeGrosky is Chief of the Fire and Aviation Management Bureau for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Division of Forestry, and 2016 Adjunct Instructor of the Year for the College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Fort Hays State University, where he taught for the Department of Leadership Studies for 10 years.