In search of a politics of union
So far, a bigger table for decision-making
has not led to more agreement, just more litigation
People in the West who tend land learn
routinely that the greatest challenge to stewardship of a place is
not its natural ecology. It is the political ecology. Not that
natural systems are a snap. We have hardly mastered keeping
forests, grasslands, and rivers healthy. All too often, our lands
and waters respond to our touch by demonstrating that the Law of
Unintended Consequences holds jurisdiction over our best-laid
plans. Nevertheless, we manage land better today than a few decades
ago, and we can do much better still.
Politically, our progress is harder to discern. This was driven
home for me two years ago when a project I direct was attacked from
opposite flanks. We were creating a public-lands grass bank -
setting aside a chunk of public rangeland where national forest
grazing permittees from other allotments might place their cows
while their home ranges were rested and
The group I work for, The
Conservation Fund, bought a small private ranch with donated funds.
Then we applied for the national forest grazing permit associated
with that ranch. We planned to operate the allotment in cooperation
with the Forest Service, the Northern New Mexico Stockman's
Association, and the Cooperative Extension Service. The goal was
But the New Mexico Cattle
Growers Association, the Farm Bureau, and a few other groups wanted
none of that. We were environmentalists, and we could not, must not
be trusted to do what we said we would do. It did not matter that
the Northern New Mexico Stockman's Association wished the project
to go forward or that permittees were ready to
A principle was involved: Ranchers
ought not fraternize with the enemy. Our critics prevailed upon New
Mexico's combative lieutenant governor to browbeat the Forest
Service into refusing to issue us a permit.
Fortunately, the Forest Service and our other partners stood firm
through weeks of harassment. Ultimately, after the project received
glowing endorsements from the Santa Fe and Albuquerque papers, the
lieutenant governor lost interest, and the bullying
But we had not seen the end of feckless
opposition. The permit we sought needed to be brought up to date
with an environmental analysis, or EA, which is a lesser species of
environmental impact statement. The EA process trudged on for
nearly a year, and when it was at last complete, an environmental
group, Forest Guardians, appealed it.
they said, did not take into account the effect of grazing on the
allotment's "valuable recreation and fishery values' -
notwithstanding that the subject area - a high mesa - has no live
streams and no fish. Writers of the appeal also wrote that we
should have consulted the state of Arizona as to the effect of
grazing on non-point-source pollution - notwithstanding that our
mesa is in New Mexico.
To wrap everything up,
they urged that the supervisor of Carson National Forest reject the
EA and withhold permits for the three allotments - notwithstanding
that the responsible decision-maker was the supervisor of the Santa
Fe National Forest.
Clearly, the Guardians'
protest was a badly handled exercise in word processing, and it
left their boilerplate looking rusty. Just as clearly, the
Guardians' response to the EA, like that of the Cattle Growers and
Farm Bureau to the project, was generic and unspecific. They were
acting as a matter of principle.
a few trees to fuel the paperwork of the appeal and sentencing a
few people (myself included) to unproductive work, no serious harm
resulted. But the episode drove home for me the way in which
knee-jerk dissension limits us.
In today's West,
our capacity for coming to agreement - and staying there - is
underdeveloped. We lack the politics of union.
In the bad old days, when good old boys made all decisions, we
didn't need the politics of union. If the boys wanted to dam a
river or log a forest, they pretty much went ahead and did it. The
circle of necessary agreement was small. But in the 1960s, things
began to change, accelerating through the 1970s. A suite of new
laws profoundly changed environmental decision-making. They widened
the circle of necessary agreement to include environmentalists,
tribes, local communities, recreationists, and others, including in
a roundabout way the increasingly humbled good old boys
The widening was long overdue, and
nothing in the nation's agenda could have been fairer, more just,
more democratic. It was the right thing to do, and it is still the
right thing, but it has not yet led to more agreement. It has led
instead to complexity and seas of litigation.
Some of the complexity would have arrived with or without the
legislation. Goaded by explosive growth, for example, Albuquerque
and other communities of the Middle Rio Grande have entered the
end-game of water allocation for that depleted
Four counties, nine cities and towns, six
pueblos, and four federal and five state agencies, plus the
Interstate Stream Commission and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy
District, are all involved. Wielding the most clout is the
Conservancy District, which irrigates 54,000 acres and could gin up
wet water for urban areas or environmental uses if it became more
efficient. At stake in the outcome, obviously, is the future of New
Mexico's largest metropolitan area. Less obviously, the existence
of the Rio Grande silvery minnow is also at stake, as is the health
and survival of the Southwest's best remaining example of native
cottonwood willow riparian forest - the Rio Grande
Some say that only litigation can cleave
a path through this snarl of jurisdiction and competing vetoes.
They may be right. But given the pace at which the law advances,
only a long succession of very wet years will buy the minnows time
enough for the law to save them.
I do not mean
to disparage litigation. But a toolbox that holds only that hammer
will not build all that society needs.
are good for stopping things, less good for starting them. The
question we have yet to answer is how we will get started with
needed work - especially when that work depends on collaboration
among diverse and historically hostile groups.
One way to begin is to focus on distinguishing between one's
positions and one's interests. This is what the Northern New Mexico
Stockman's Association did in allying itself with the grass bank.
The association held no special love for environmentalists, but its
leaders recognized that the future of its members depended not just
on defending their rights but on advancing their interests. Among
those interests is the restoration of rangelands through the
reintroduction of wildland fire, and the Stockman's Association
recognized that the grass bank could help this to
The politics of union converge in a
place many of its advocates call the radical center. They don't
think of it as a land of happy make-believe where everyone agrees,
but as a place where people put aside disagreements to focus on
what unites them.
It is also where all parties
depart from business-as-usual. In the radical center, ranchers
assent that they must move toward a higher standard of
environmental performance; environmentalists realize that the
conservation of large landscapes requires working with the people
who occupy and use them; and bureaucrats resolve to focus on
tangible results, not merely the defense of
The politics of
union are where the enfranchisement of recent decades was supposed
to take us. We can still get there, and we still need to go.
2000 HCN and William deBuys