July 28, 2005

Canada: A lesson in salmon recovery planning

  • Salmon recovery plans were recently discussed over 15 sessions in a number of western British Columbia communities.
    Norton-Arnold & Co.

    Photo by Chris Hoffman
    Community dialogue sessions, including this one in Pender Harbour, B.C., were recently held to discuss ways to improve salmon recovery strategies in Canada.

    In 2003, the United States Endangered Species Act reached the 20-year mark in protecting listed species and preserving their habitat. To many in the Puget Sound area, the road to recovery has become a familiar if somewhat uncertain journey.

    The same year we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the ESA, Canada signed its version of the ESA into law. While our ESA and Canada's Species at Risk Act are different in many ways, they both have the goal of recovering listed species and require public involvement. However, neither specifically addresses how the public should be involved.

    Lessons learned from a recent salmon recovery planning process in Canada provide guidance for future public processes.

    The planning environment

    Canada's Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) is the federal agency responsible for recovering listed aquatic species. In late 2004, the DFO selected Norton-Arnold to design, facilitate and report the results of an extensive effort to involve British Columbia citizens in recovery planning for three salmonid species — Interior Fraser River coho, Cultus Lake sockeye and Sakinaw Lake sockeye — through a series of community dialogue sessions.

    Unlike the state of Washington, where five regions are developing recovery plans to recover all listed species within their geographic boundaries, the DFO is developing recovery plans for individual species.

    The Canadian listing process is guided by an independent body, the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Once a species is listed, the DFO appoints a multi-stakeholder team to develop a recovery strategy. Planning includes developing recovery strategies and action plans.

    Recovery strategies focus on the best available traditional, local and scientific knowledge on the species, as well as the development of recovery goals and objectives.

    Action plans develop specific actions to protect and recover the species, based on the recovery goals.

    Public input plan

    While the composition of the recovery teams ensures that all interest groups are represented, there is no mechanism for broader citizen participation. Our challenge was to help the recovery teams get informed input on their draft strategies.

    Realizing that most people would not read the lengthy, largely technical documents, we determined that working with the three recovery teams to identify and expand upon key issues — population and habitat, threats, goals and objectives, and recovery approaches — would be more effective than just presenting the documents wholesale for comment.

    A discussion guide, with specific questions about each issue, was developed for use in small groups to encourage specific comments on the draft strategies. All other materials and presentations focused on the issues presented in the discussion guide.

    Putting the plan into action

    The DFO held over 15 dialogue sessions in communities such as Prince Rupert, Campbell River, Victoria, Chilliwack and Vancouver. The three-part sessions were held over two days, and included all-day meetings with First Nations, an evening open house and all-day meetings with stakeholders.

    The sessions were one-stop-shopping events that also covered a range of other marine issues. At each meeting, the recovery team chairs gave presentations that focused on each of the issues. The afternoons were spent in discussion groups, where conversation was shaped by the discussion guides. Input on each of the questions was recorded on flipcharts. The open houses consisted of staffed displays that provided information on each species' issue area.

    Reviewing the road traveled

    As with any public process, there was some uncertainty prior to our journey throughout western British Columbia. A review of the process design, its implementation and its results provides guidance for future public processes, both in Canada and the U.S.:

    PROCESS DESIGN. The sessions had to involve the full range of interests, provide accessible information on three separate species and generate input to improve recovery plans. The process, as it was designed, satisfied all those needs. The multi-part sessions were targeted to be inclusive, with enough time and resources for all subject areas, and benefited from early consultation with and buy-in by the recovery teams, as well as senior DFO officials.

    IMPLEMENTATION. A substantial effort was put into the sessions' advertisements and invitations, as well as developing the issues for participants to consider. However, attendance at the sessions was lower than expected, and it was difficult at times to get participants to respond to the discussion questions in spite of the facilitators' efforts. However, many participants appreciated the substance of the sessions, the range of related issues presented, and the heavy emphasis DFO put on listening to their input.

    RESULTS. While attendance at the sessions did not meet our expectations, we were pleased by the range and quality of comments. Participants had a clear understanding of what we were asking of them and recovery teams felt the information from the sessions was highly useful.

    Planning the next trip

    Public processes are not one-size-fits-all. We learned a number of lessons that can be applied to a variety of situations:

  • Involve internal stakeholders early. To fully engage project teams it is important to involve them in planning, ensure the questions asked are on target, and get the process and the technical people on the same page.

  • Listening is more important than talking. Public distrust of government is not limited to the U.S. To overcome some participant distrust, an emphasis must be put on listening. In our case, more time was spent in facilitated discussions among different perspectives than on talking at participants. Making the discussion guide the central part of the sessions, and the basis of what was included in the presentations, was a critical part of this.

  • Simplify complex technical information. Boards, posters, fact sheets and presentations communicating recovery strategy issues should be presented in non-scientific language. A concentrated effort to be consistent and focused on a few key issues will keep participants engaged.

  • Make the agenda flexible. We initially planned a series of presentations in the morning of each session to free the remainder of the day for discussions. This proved to be too much information at once. We changed the agenda so that brief presentations were followed immediately by discussions.

  • Numbers don't tell the whole story. We didn't have high participation, but aggressive outreach to include diverse interests and to engage them in discussion paid off. Meeting attendance is an incomplete indicator of success and disrespects those that do participate. A more comprehensive measurement is the diversity of attendees, the range of issues addressed by the group, and the utility of their input.

  • Public meetings are not isolated events. There was a public meeting before the one you're about to hold and there will be more in the future. What you do at your next meeting will help build trust and understanding. Getting different interests to discuss issues together rather than state positions will also contribute to long-term success.

    Chris Hoffman is vice president of Norton-Arnold & Co., a facilitation and public involvement consulting firm that specializes in natural resource issues. Hoffman was project manager for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans community dialogue sessions.

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