No consensus on consensus

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Collaboration, consensus and community-based conservation are buzzwords invoked by federal agencies, environmental groups, and even Western governors as part of a new strategy for conservation, a happy-face solution to the gridlock over managing natural resources management. But so far there's no consensus on consensus.

Some common threads exist. All of these efforts, at least on the surface, try to break down long-standing feuds as they search for common ground rather than high ground. On the regional, state, and local level, these new groups attempt to create communities out of factions.

Participants hope these new alliances will move ahead, inventing a future for the West that's chosen rather than blundered into - a future for public and private lands that's somewhere between unsustainable extraction and industrial tourism.

But many environmentalists think the collaborators are naive, and fear that tough federal protections will take a back seat to local interests. Until we can all agree to work within the limits of our natural resources, they say, there's no room for negotiation.

Not everybody has taken a seat at the table. Far from it. But this new brand of activism is rolling forward, and it deserves a long look. In this issue and in future issues, with the help of a grant from the Ford Foundation, HCN will explore the successes and failures of the diverse collaborative conservation efforts taking shape throughout the West.

Our first report is from the watershed of the Rio Costilla in New Mexico and Colorado, where farmers, ranchers, and environmentalists are arguing over the West's most controversial resource: water. Some residents blame the scarcity on an outdated compact agreement. Others blame their neighbors, or say there's just not enough water to go around. A conservation group called Amigos Bravos recently jumped into the controversy, using the untested tools of collaboration to bring these private water users together. As this small coalition labors to change the watershed, it's finding that common ground along the Rio Costilla is a scarce commodity.