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Creating Stable Agreements in Marine Policy

by Scott McCreary, Meredith Cowart
March 2016

The entirety of this article was originally published in the Negotiation Journal.

Marine Protected Areas are frequently developed in consultation with the full range of stakeholders, but without proper process design, the agreements are not always stable. Marine Protected Areas are sometimes called “underwater parks”, because they designate various levels of protection for marine ecosystems. We at CONCUR have just published an article which details the challenges encountered in the stakeholder process to design Marine Protected Areas in Southern California. Our article, Creating Stable Agreements in Marine Policy: Learning from the California South Coast MLPA Initiative (in Negotiation Journal, which is published by the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School, available here) draws insights from the conflict resolution field on how to improve the design and management of these multi-stakeholder processes to ensure a stable outcome.

Our article describes the South Coast Regional Stakeholder Group process to negotiate the development of proposals for networks of Marine Protected Areas stretching from Santa Barbara to the US-Mexico border south of San Diego. Two authors, Scott McCreary and Phyllis Grifman, participated in the process, as facilitator and stakeholder negotiator, respectively. Meredith Cowart helped analyze survey results. In addition to our first-hand experience, our analysis is based on a detailed post-hoc survey of the participants, and a close review of relevant literature.

Dozens of articles have been published on the California Marine Life Protection Act Initiative and, overwhelmingly, authors herald its successes. In contrast, our article examines the South Coast MLPA stakeholder process from the field of conflict resolution, and finds that the process was good – but not great.

In our view, while the South Coast stakeholder process had many positive outcomes, it failed to achieve what we call a “stable agreement” – for example, near consensus was not reached, and our post hoc survey demonstrated that stakeholders do not now view the process as fair. We assert that the pitfalls of the South Coast stakeholder process could have been avoided had the management and facilitation team consistently considered and applied best practices in dispute resolution.

We highlight four major problematic process design choices that encouraged stakeholders to engage in positional bargaining, discouraged them from developing cross-interest agreements, and ultimately led to a distrust of process legitimacy. We then offer recommendations for future stakeholder-driven marine planning efforts:

  1. Ensure equal representation on the stakeholder group.
  2. Provide up-front training in principled negotiation for stakeholder representatives.
  3. Create stronger incentives for negotiation towards consensus.
  4. Consistently articulate and enforce strong decision rules.
  5. Integrate the facilitation team in all policy panel process design choices.

We hope that this deeper dive into the California Marine Life Protection Act process design will be used to improve future marine planning processes around the globe.


Dr. Scott McCreary is President and Managing Principal at CONCUR Inc, serving as senior facilitator and mediator. He specializes in multiparty deliberations involving water supply and quality, marine resources, land use, species protection, air quality, climate change, renewable energy and other complex natural resource issues. As a facilitator, he focuses on finding effective ways to bring research and analysis environmental decision making processes—a specialty developed at UC Berkeley’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning and doctoral work at MIT and the Harvard Program on Negotiation. He has strong dual experience in natural science and public policy and in the full range of facilitation and mediation techniques. Building on 32 years of work as an environmental planner and 25 years of experience as a facilitator and mediator, Scott has facilitated deliberations among diverse agencies, businesses, community groups, and conservation organizations. Scott has lead over 100 projects for CONCUR, ranging from site-specific cases to federal regulations to broad policy initiatives that span multiple states and international transboundary regions.  He often consults with government agencies and colleague organizations on process design for complex environmental cases.   He recently co-taught the UC Berkeley graduate course: Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation: Global Analysis and Regional Response.

Meredith Cowart is an Associate at CONCUR Inc, where she supports the full range of facilitated and mediated negotiation efforts, training courses, and research inquiries. Her area of interest is finding effective ways to bring forest and climate science into multi-stakeholder environmental negotiations. She served as co-facilitator for the California Coastal Commission-Poseidon Resources Independent Scientific Technical Advisory Panel (ISTAP); and the South Dakota NSF Experimental Program to Stimulate Research Competitiveness (EPSCoR). She co-authored this post hoc evaluation of Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning efforts, and is currently working on a case study for a volume on Joint Fact-Finding. She has taught several negotiation and facilitation courses for a range of levels and backgrounds, from Masters students at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, to agency staff at the National Marine Fisheries Service Greater Atlantic Regional Fisheries Office. Meredith earned a Master’s degree from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and a BA from Wesleyan University.