Can citizen collaboration solve every environmental conflict?
"This isn't a
magic bullet," says Gerald Mueller of Missoula, Mont., who has been
a mediator since 1988. It is successful under limited
circumstances, he says, but it takes hefty amounts of work and
time. "It's not usually a lot of fun to do, because you're usually
involved with people you may have had conflicts with and that you
may not like."
Here are the ingredients that
Mueller and other mediators say are
A feeling that
something must change. Without some common threat, people have no
reason to collaborate. On the other hand, if different parties in a
situation are at the point of hanging someone in effigy or actually
committing violence, it's unlikely they will be able to find a
"The biggest question is, are
people ready to do something different?" says Mueller. "If they
want to perpetuate the status quo, they'll continue to do that. So
long as people think they can amass legal political power and beat
whoever, that's what they'll do."
example, the fractious debate over wilderness in Utah. Of two of
the environmental groups in the state devoted to wilderness
preservation, one recently shut down and the other rejects
collaboration altogether. As Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance
issues director Ken Rait puts it, "Our time is better spent filing
appeals rather than sitting around the table trying to talk to a
bunch of people who aren't interested in listening ... the
collaborative approach takes people's focus off the land. I think
our track record using NEPA and the ESA is better than it has been
in sitting down and trying to seek collaborative solutions."
A focus on the future. "If
your focus is on the past, on being compensated for something that
happened in the past, you're not likely to get what you want," says
Mueller. These processes don't work for people trying to determine
rights or obtain justice.
"The key word is
innovation," says Don Snow, who heads the Northern Lights
Institute, a longtime player in mediation. "You may get something
at least as good as what you wanted that you didn't anticipate.
What we find in these processes is something new emerges. People
think they're going to lose something. But the thing to keep in
mind is not what you're going to lose, but what you gain."
The presence of relevant
people. "Sometimes two or three factions will get there fairly
easily, but "God help us, we don't want to let that fourth faction
in," "''''says Lucy Moore, a partner in Western Network in Santa
Fe, N.M. "If they don't, sooner or later it won't work, because
sooner or later they'll run into that group that was excluded from
The absence of
irrelevant people. People who don't have a specific interest in the
outcome of the process can also torpedo the proceedings. "They have
no reason to reach an agreement," says Mueller. "They're only there
to stop other people from achieving one, or to express their
ideological views. Some groups have had legislators in them; they
don't have an interest in the outcome, but they feel strongly about
how things need to happen."
Strong leadership. "It takes
someone with enough confidence or view of the big picture to be
able to take some chances by reaching out to "the other side," "
says Moore. Such a leader, according to Snow, has to believe in F.
Scott Fitzgerald's definition of intelligence: "The ability to hold
two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain
the ability to function."
"It's the kind of
leadership that's not single-interest or doctrinaire, but civic,"
Snow says. "It depends on a shared recognition that a certain place
Moral - but
not legal - authority. "If the group has the ability to compel an
action, some people won't come to the table at all," says Mueller.
"It has to be a safe place, so you can disclose what your interests
are. Generally these groups come up with some recommendation they
take to a body, an administrator or legislature. To the extent that
they've had all the stakeholders present, every one I've been
involved with has been accepted."
An awareness of pretenders to
the round table. "The potential for misuse of these processes is
enormous," says Snow. "You can manipulate well-meaning people
arriving with the best of motives and naiveté. That's why I'm
not an advocate of governmental agencies setting the table. The
Forest Service is a neutral party? Hardly! The BLM? They're as
neutral as the Sierra Club! What you want as your convener are
groups whose mission is to be a convener."