ASHTON, Idaho - In a potato-farm warehouse, about 50 members of the Henry's Fork Watershed Council sit in a circle of folding chairs. They stare quietly at the floor or close their eyes in silence.
"I hate this part," a woman whispers
to her neighbor. "It's a waste of time." The neighbor scowls her
A middle-aged woman in a denim
shirt speaks first. "See those things?" She points to a wall where
tractor fan belts, shovels and axes hang in orderly rows. "Two
years ago we wouldn't have dared to meet within reach of them.
Someone might have been killed."
skitters through the group. Memories still smart from earlier,
uglier meetings of the area's water users. The pain of watching
disagreements escalate into outright acrimony led to this cautious
coalition of farmers, ranchers, kayakers, fishing aficionados and
agency officials. The circular seating arrangement and the time
designated for reflection follow the ideas of M. Scott Peck, who
wrote the bestselling The Road Less Traveled before advancing his
ideas on building community in A World Waiting to be Born. Peck
says conflict must be acknowledged, that utopian communities
faltered because people buried their differences in trying to
adhere to a unifying idea or religion.
council has spent the morning hearing concerns ranging from
conserving water for farms to closing roads in grizzly habitat. In
the afternoon, they break into study clusters that each produce a
summary to be read to the larger group. Finally, the group observes
a time of silence and goes on to draft a consensus statement on
The Bad Old
The 2 million-acre Henry's Fork watershed in
southeastern Idaho is dominated by farmland and national forest. It
is its rivers - the Henry's Fork of the Snake, a blue-ribbon
fly-fishing river, and the spring-fed Fall River, which starts in
Yellowstone National Park - that have attracted tourists,
recreationists and growing controversy.
of the rivers bumps up against another. For Janice Brown, who has
run a guest lodge on the Henry's Fork for 20 years, the competitive
use was the long-established diversion of water from the river for
farms. Her involvement with watershed politics started in the late
1980s, when she joined with fishing interests to sit on a
Department of Water Resources advisory
"Every meeting, there was a fight,"
she said. "I'd get sick to my stomach before going." Drought had
made farmers particularly sensitive to water issues, and Brown
remembered standing in a line to register for a hearing while
watching irrigators come down the street "like a mob."
Then, in 1992, the Henry's Fork suffered a
man-made catastrophe that focused everyone's attention: The Idaho
Department of Fish and Game and the Bureau of Reclamation drew down
the Island Park Reservoir to kill "trash fish" like chubs and
suckers. Many fish died, and in two weeks, 50,000 to 100,000 tons
of sediment from the reservoir's bottom headed downstream. The
usually crystalline Henry's Fork ran brown with mud; the trout
fishermen who buoy the economy of towns like Island Park didn't
arrive that summer.
When the state proposed
forming a committee to oversee the Henry's Fork watershed, Brown,
who was also a staffer with the nonprofit Henry's Fork Foundation,
offered to facilitate the group. And so did Dale Swensen, the
executive director of the Fremont-Madison Irrigation District. "No
one could believe it - two citizen groups taking over something
agencies had always done," says Brown.
are as many as 150 participants in the coalition, including
river-runners, loggers, farmers and land managers. Darrel Reinke, a
coalition member who publishes the local weekly Fall River Review,
says that although the group has no actual authority, "it has a
moral authority. It begins to be a public institution on a local
level. Some watchers of Western issues have said it's time for us
out here to grow up and have our own institutions."
Once a month, Idaho Falls sign-maker
Jon Ochi locks his shop for the day and drives north to attend the
council. An avid kayaker, Ochi made a run for the Idaho Legislature
through eddies of water controversy. As a first-time Democratic
candidate in a Republican stronghold, Ochi lost but attracted
enough votes to make a surprising showing, and, from opponents,
denunciations that he was an eco-extremist.
Although the council's early Boise hearings were
acrimonious, Ochi said, "We saw each other face to face, not just
as people we were debating in the newspapers." For the earnest,
reserved Ochi, that's the group's continuing
Targhee National Forest hydrologist
Ronna Monte makes sure she gets to the meetings so she can catch
opportunities to "sit in the corner and talk." She says when news
got around that water adjudication in national forests was under
revision, "people became frightened the Forest Service would grab
their water. I invited a Forest Service specialist to come address
the group. Hearing the truth put fears to rest."
Trust in the
The philosophy of the Henry's Fork
Watershed Council holds that "None of us is as smart as all of us."
Brown's training with Scott Peck's Foundation for Community
Encouragement focused on creating a "safe zone" where people could
tell what they thought without being challenged or scorned. The
circular seating arrangement encourages a feeling of equality, she
says, and the time of silence gives members a chance to quiet their
minds and collect their thoughts.
leaders have widely different backgrounds. Originally from Los
Angeles, Brown has spent the last 20 years immersed in Idaho
conservation issues. In the bad old days, a farmer compared her to
Saddam Hussein, but her respect for differing views eventually won
appreciation from both sides.
Swensen, a Mormon father of six, says he felt relieved when Brown
asked him, "Can't we try to get along?" Swensen says he seeks
protection for irrigators, but when the council can't find
consensus, he urges it to proceed in one of two ways: "Either back
off, or get more educated on the issue. Lots of times we find that
when we get more educated, we can set aside philosophical
differences and get on with things. Recently, I was called an
environmentalist. It was quite a shock to my system."
An incident last summer showed how the link
between Brown and Swensen works. Normally by midsummer, farmers
along the Henry's Fork are irrigating, thereby pulling cooler,
deeper water from Henry's Lake into the river. But continual rain
had made irrigation unnecessary, and by July, water in the Henry's
Fork was heated to near-lethal levels for
Brown called Swensen and told him how bad
it was for fish; hearing her concerns, the irrigation district and
BuRec immediately sent 200 cubic-feet per second of cool water down
the river, to be captured downstream. In the past, such an action
might have taken a week or two - and the lives of many fish - says
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of the
council is its consensus on the salmon issue, a particularly
sensitive one in Idaho. Though salmon have never made it as far as
eastern Idaho - they return to central Idaho - recovery of the
species may put demands on reservoirs throughout the state through
experimental "flushes' to speed smolts on their way to the Pacific
Ocean. Farmers have worried that taking storage water for fish
might set a precedent or be the first step toward condemning water
rights to satisfy the Endangered Species
Now, the council has agreed that the eight
dams on the Columbia and Snake rivers play the biggest role in fish
destruction and should be modified. The group has also agreed that
plans for salmon recovery should not require extreme sacrifice from
any one interest or economic sector.
council grows in reputation, its very success could be a hazard,
some observers say. "We may become so taken with being the model
that we don't do the hard work, which is to air conflict," says
newspaperman Reinke. "We may decide not to bring up issues that
might splinter the group."
Ed Clark, chairman of
the board of directors of the Fremont-Madison Irrigation District
and another member of the group, remains optimistic. As part of the
federal effort to downsize government, he says, BuRec is
considering transferring title of two dams to the irrigation
district he heads, and it's not just because the district has shown
it can save a third in maintenance costs. A major reason is that
the watershed council will play a key role.
think we can dispel the worries of those concerned about the
changeover," he says. "We've made excellent friends with people on
the other side."
For more information, contact
Henry's Fork Watershed Council, P.O. Box 852, Ashton, ID 83420
works in Idaho Falls, Idaho.