The core design principles used by PROSOCIAL were originally derived by Elinor Ostrom for groups that attempt to manage Common-Pool Resources (CPR) such as forests, pastures, fisheries, and irrigation systems. Ostrom and her associates studied CPR groups around the world and observed that some worked better than others.  Further analysis pointed toward the core design principles as the “active ingredients” of the successful groups.

Based on Ostrom’s work, it appears that some groups can evolve the core design principles on their own, without requiring the kind of assistance provided by PROSOCIAL. As a documenatary filmmaker who has become part of the PROSOCIAL development team, I was surprised and intrigued by encountering an example in one of my own documentary projects. 

Many of my documentaries have focused on environmental issues —  particularly the forests and salmon of the Pacific Northwest. Because trees and fish are valuable resources, as well as critical elements of natural ecosystems, much of what I’ve covered has involved conflict. 

On one hand are those who place a higher value on the short-term economic benefit gained by extracting resources — primarily trees in this case — and on the other, those who value fully functioning forests that provide a wealth of services, such as habitat for a wide diversity of animal and plants, soil creation, clean water and air, opportunities for recreation, and spiritual renewal. 

The conflict in the Northwest forests boiled over when a species known as the northern spotted owl – which depended on old growth forests to survive – was added to the endangered species list.

The conflict that erupted was immediately characterized in the popular press as owls versus jobs. Thousands of timber and mill workers in rural communities lost their jobs when a federal judge ordered an immediate cessation of timber sales on public lands. There were few if any alternatives for employment in many small towns, resulting in economic pain and social suffering across the region. 

I made a feature-length documentary at the time, titled Critical Habitat. There wasn’t much to cover on the social side of things, except for the conflict. I tried to walk a narrow line in my editorial decisions by focusing mainly on the science. The science, however, tended to support the environmentalists’ arguments, particularly at that stage of the game. Only about 10% of the original old growth forest remained, from Northern California to the Canadian Border. Hundreds of native species, in addition to the spotted owl, were threatened with extinction.

Among the threatened species were Pacific salmon. I didn’t know at the time that they would play a major role in changing the nature of the game.

The documentary was popularly received and won some awards, but I don’t think it contributed much to resolving the conflict. In 1993 the newly elected President Clinton stepped in and ordered a compromise solution, which at least brought the impasse to an end. The compromise, like the science, favored the environmental side, so timber activity was greatly reduced. In most of the forests that had been affected by the ban on logging, some timber activity was allowed to resume, and with it some of the jobs.

However, in one particular national forest along Oregon’s central coast, called the Siuslaw, logging was more than reduced — it was ended entirely. To understand why, you have to understand that salmon, which most people think of as ocean fish, are actually creatures of the forest. The icy cold creeks that originate on mountain slopes and cut through deep valleys on their way to the sea are the places where salmon’s life begins and ends, and begins again. Without healthy, forested, freshwater streams, there would be no salmon. That life cycle was seriously disrupted by the practices involved in clearcut logging.

So, the compromise plan that Clinton put into place was aimed at saving not only the forest, but also the salmon, which were as iconic to the region as its ancient trees. The Siuslaw National Forest had such a high density of salmon streams that the provisions of the plan intended to protect salmon rendered the entire forest off-limits to further logging. The result was continuing high levels of unemployment in the surrounding communities. 

The Siuslaw National Forest was unique in another way, however. The forest supervisor at the time was a man named Jim Furnish, who had a vision of a new approach to forest management. When faced with the reality that his forest’s mission had come to an abrupt end, he could have chosen to do nothing. Had he chosen that path, the forest would have become a de facto preserve, and the human conflict would have continued.

For reasons described in the documentary I recently produced, titled Seeing the Forest, Furnish realized the “do nothing” option would not be the best choice, for either the people or the land. So he took a radical step.

He invited members of the community from all sides of the conflict to start talking with each other, and with his agency staff — to stop throwing rocks from the outside, and come in to sit down at the table. In a remarkably short period of time, an interesting transformation began to take place. In the words of one environmentalist I interviewed: 

“I remembered saying, I will not sit at the same table with the timber industry. I absolutely cannot. But I did. And it was a great learning experience. We had one common goal that we would talk about — lots of things we would not talk about — but we could all talk about the restoration of salmon.”

Finding an area of agreement — a shared purpose, a common goal — had an almost magical effect on the tattered social fabric of the region. They had come upon design principle one, and everything else began to come together from there. 

Principle two emerged as they planned the work that was needed to restore salmon. Over time they’ve evolved what’s known as a “virtuous circle” — a self-perpetuating cycle that allocates costs and benefits among the citizens, the forest, and salmon. It begins with thinning the overgrown stands that were left behind after clearcutting, which creates local jobs. The revenue generated by thinning sales is invested directly back into restoration projects — on roads, in watersheds and streams — which all produce more jobs. As clearcutting on public land fades into memory, the Siuslaw is becoming an increasingly attractive tourist destination, creating more jobs.

Principle three emerged from the governance structures they created to manage all this work. Watershed Councils, organized around those natural boundaries instead of arbitrary political and property lines, are responsible for coordinating and contracting the restoration activity. Stewardship Groups decide which restoration projects to fund with the receipts from thinning operations on public land. They’re composed of interested citizens from representative sectors of the community. Both kinds of organizations rely on consensus decision-making, at the heart of principle three. Inclusivity is built into their process, as was described to me during an interview with a local landowner and forester:

“ If you’re gonna have a discussion over fish or forests, you’ve got to invite everybody that might possibly have an interest. So that later on, if they don’t show up, and you come up with a plan, and they weren’t there, they can’t say, I didn’t have anything to do with that, and you say yeah, we know. But didn’t we invite you?”

Monitoring of performance and results — principle four — is managed by both the Watershed Councils and the Forest Service. While I have to admit I have no direct knowledge of the details of their implementation of principle five, I feel reasonably confident that they have a system of graduated sanctions in place.

Principle six — conflict resolution — is handled by professional facilitators that preside over their public meetings. 

Principle seven — authority to self-govern — is officially granted by state authorities via the Watershed Councils, and informally granted by the Forest Service via the Stewardship Groups.

Finally, principle eight, polycentric governance, is built into everything they do. Local restoration initiatives fulfill regional goals, and comport with the aims of federal regulations. There is communication and coordination between a series of nested groups, up and down the line.

The most surprising aspect of the way the people of the Siuslaw found the core design principles, and used them to establish a new approach for managing their common resources and goals, was that no one I interviewed in the course of producing Seeing the Forest was familiar with Ostrom’s work.

The transformation that has taken place in the Siuslaw over the last 25 years — since the bitter conflict and closing of the forest over the northern spotted owl — is truly remarkable. The forest is healthier, the community is at peace, and there is sustainable economic activity. They didn’t consciously employ the design principles; in this case, the design principles evolved naturally on their own. However, I attribute their success to following the design principles, albeit unintentionally. You can see how this happened in the documentary, embedded below.

For every group that spontaneously evolves the core design principles, there are other groups that don’t and can benefit from PROSOCIAL. Even the groups that do can probably benefit from a more conscious awareness of what they are doing right. As a filmmaker, I know that seeing the stories of the ways other groups worked together to succeed will help lift up their efforts. Thus, I welcome this opportunity that PROSOCIAL provides to assist groups in learning about and adopting the core design principles for themselves.

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