Editor’s note: This week, we are diving into the world of fire policy with a blog authored by Annie Schmidt (former FAC Net Policy and Partnerships Director) and Tyson Bertone-Riggs. Annie and Tyson were the staff co-leads for the congressionally-chartered Wildland Fire Mitigation and Management Commission (Commission). They supported the development of 167 consensus recommendations from a 50-member body and the submission of two reports to Congress in just a single year. Tyson and Annie are here to talk about the process of “fire diplomacy” and what comes next. Blog cover photo credit: Roni Fein, USDA Forest Service.

The Commission Process

Walking into the first Commission meeting in September of 2022 was a little daunting. We had one year to both design a process to get 50 people to craft critical federal policy actions and get those same 50 people to agree (unanimously) on which of those actions to forward to Congress in two reports. The first report, the Aerial Equipment and Strategy Report, was due in just 135 days after the start of the Commission. The final report was to cover one of the most sweeping reviews of federal wildfire policy undertaken to date. We had the benefit of a staff solid team, including Emery Cowan (now with FAC Net) as our writer/editor. We also had the benefit of knowing some of those 50 people from our previous work – Annie as the Director of Policy and Partnerships for the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network and Tyson as the Executive Director of the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition – but we didn’t know them all. We didn’t know how they would work together, how they would manage disagreements, or where they were experts and where they were learners. Those, and dozens of other small but important details, were unknown to us. What we did know, and what would become critical to the Commission’s success, was that they all deeply believed that we absolutely had to change our wildfire paradigm and that the Commission represented an enormous opportunity to do so. 

That belief became the foundation of the Commission. As a staff team, we worked to create an environment that nurtured that belief into commitment to the process, to each other, and to their eventual success. The Commission succeeded, in part, because the members felt that the problems they wrestled with were simply too important to allow failure. Other enabling conditions and principles included:

  • Time-bound mission: The intensity of the Commission’s task (complete a lot of work in very little time) reflected the urgency and magnitude of our wildfire challenges. This pressure on Commission members to prioritize issues and to negotiate details and language in good faith. With no time to waste, working together to get to consensus became the most viable pathway to success. 
  • Semi-permeable systems: Commission discussions were closed which may have  frustrated some in the larger wildfire community. But that closed system created a safe space for Commission members to listen, to learn, to negotiate and to change. Pathways into the Commission (through bi-monthly topical panels, the public recommendations portal, and seated subject matter experts) enabled the Commission to draw outside expertise in while simultaneously protecting Commission discussion space. Commission members were encouraged to reach out to their communities of interest and practice and seek outside input as long as they maintained the Commission’s non-attribution rule.
  • Clear operating protocols and rigorous process: The first task of the Commission was to determine how they would go about their work. This included the rules by which they would operate and the commitments they would make to one another. Key components of the operating protocols included the specifics of the consensus process, the non-attribution rule, and a framework for interpersonal interaction. A process that was clear, consistent, and supported by Commission members helped to ensure that the ultimate product was seen by all Commission members as legitimate. 
  • A “leave it all the field” approach: Commission members were so passionate about the need for change and the opportunity in front of them that any process which did not allow them to feel like they gave it all they had– to put any idea, no matter how controversial or contentious in front of the group– had the potential to undermine the process and the results. Commission members had multiple and repeated opportunities to bring forward ideas: workgroup meetings, in-person exercises, and multiple calls for individual recommendations. We asked more of them than they could have imagined, and then we asked for more– making sure they felt like they had given all they could. We also shared in that approach as a staff team.
  • Engagement outside of meetings: No matter how good a process, we also knew that Commission members needed to engage directly with each other to get their work done. There was no pathway forward if they were not actively working together, listening to and respecting one another, and sharing collectively in their success or failure. This was as true in meetings as outside of them. We strongly encouraged them to connect directly with one another to resolve their differences, sometimes with facilitated assistance as needed, but most often as the leaders – and fire diplomats – they were and are. 

The result of these conditions, and a few others, was both on-time delivery of the recommendations to Congress and a group of passionate, committed individuals ready to work together to see those recommendations into policy. The process helped to establish and maintain the Commission’s legitimacy, strengthening the value and importance of their work, and giving the Commission’s recommendations the best possible chance to become policy. 

Transforming Recommendations into Action

So what is next in that quest to transform recommendations into action? We are pleased to share a new effort, the Alliance for Wildfire Resilience (AWR). AWR is focused on creating fundamental shifts in wildfire policy to support better wildfire outcomes across multiple sectors. AWR will build on the report, recommendations, and holistic approach of the Commission, as well as the interest in collective action from the broader wildfire community to continue to advance policy change to address the rising challenges of wildfire.

AWR was established as a fiscally-sponsored project of Resources Legacy Fund and Fund for a Better Future and includes both 501(c)3 and (c)4 entities. Using the report as a common playbook to achieve meaningful and lasting change in wildfire policy, AWR works directly with congressional offices to bring a deep institutional knowledge of the Commission process and deliberations to operationalize recommendations. AWR also serves to build on the trust and connections built through the Commission process to connect existing advocacy efforts to create a more effective and comprehensive education and outreach campaign to Congress and the Administration. Finally, utilizing the flexibility provided by 501(c)4 structure, AWR staff can advocate directly for congressional action.

AWR is not intended to duplicate good work which is already occurring in the wildfire policy space. Rather, AWR seeks to connect those existing efforts with others across the broad spectrum of the wildfire system and, in doing so, to amplify existing efforts. One of the greatest strengths of the Commission process and recommendations was the way wildfire itself was framed– the idea that wildfire is no longer, if it ever was, solely an issue of land management. Instead, wildfire is a cross-cutting issue, one that touches emergency management, public health, land management, and more. By connecting existing coalitions and advocacy efforts across these silos, AWR is able to use a collective action model. A diverse group of actors with shared framing and shared interests has tremendous capacity to create change. AWR works with other organizations to coordinate advocacy and outreach, and provide points of connection for practitioners and policy experts to such efforts. Our advocacy efforts are always stronger as a community when we work together. 

Moving Forward

We see the Commission report and recommendations as a vital opportunity to unify our voices as fire practitioners and policy experts to amplify our calls to Congress and the Administration. If we use the report as a roadmap for solutions, we can avoid fracturing our messages and strengthen and clarify our calls for policy change. There will always be a time for developing new solutions – and focusing on implementation on the ground – but the Commission offers a unique, time-limited opportunity to advocate for national policy change. Congress created the Commission, and the report is directed to them. And to their credit, we have already seen several offices, across the political spectrum, lean in to act.  

There are multiple ways you can be involved and help. The simplest is to point back to the report and recommendations as a roadmap for success when you interact with leaders and policy-makers. For those of you who want to become more involved in a particular topic, we recommend becoming – or staying –  engaged in any of the policy coalitions and networks you may already participate in, such as the Wildfire Resilience Coalition, the Beneficial Fire Working Group, FAC Net, or Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition. We will both engage in those venues and look forward to seeing you there! You can also sign up to receive periodic updates on specific topics directly through AWR. We hope to use occasional emails to inform practitioners of impending legislation and opportunities for engagement. Please follow the link to register your interests here.

Better Together

Stanford professor and wildfire scholar Michael Wara noted, shortly after the release of the Commission’s recommendations, that the work of the Commission was a remarkable achievement in “fire diplomacy.”  In an increasingly divided nation, that 50 people can agree on one thing, let alone 167 things, is indeed remarkable. The Commission’s work shows us that there can be pathways forward to solve some of our most pressing problems. Yet, it is incumbent upon all of us, individually and collectively, to continue to work toward actual policy change. A pathway to better outcomes doesn’t mean much unless we walk upon it, relentlessly and persistently pursuing action.

To read the Commission’s reports, please visit this link. To learn more about the Commission’s ties to the Fire Networks, check out this blog from October 2023!


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