Problem-solving in the West

A conversation with Lucy Moore, one of the Southwest's premier environmental mediators

  • Environmental mediator Lucy Moore


Lucy Moore has spent nearly 30 years in the Southwest working as a mediator and “problem-solver.” She grew up in Seattle, graduated from Radcliffe with a degree in modern history and literature, and worked as a social worker in Cambridge, Mass. When Moore’s then-husband, a freshly minted lawyer, landed a job with Navajo legal services, they moved to the Navajo Nation in 1968. There, she held a variety of jobs, ranging from car insurance sales and day care work to being justice of the peace.

Her seven years there led indirectly to her career in mediation. Moore spent more than 10 years with Western Network, a nonprofit mediation and research firm, and now runs her own mediation firm, Lucy Moore Associates. Although her main focus is environmental issues, Moore has also dealt with federal tribal consultation policy, airspace and overflights in the Grand Canyon and land-use planning. She labors to reach consensus with often-hostile parties – from federal, state, local and tribal governments and agencies to individual citizens. She is currently working with the Forest Service to develop mitigation measures for a proposed uranium mine on Mount Taylor in northwest New Mexico, which has been designated an official traditional cultural property and is one of the four sacred mountains of the Navajo people. It’s also revered by the Acoma, Laguna and Zuni peoples.

Moore, who now lives in Santa Fe, N.M., just released a new book about her experiences, Common Ground on Hostile Turf: Stories from an Environmental Mediator (2013, Island Press). She previously authored  Into the Canyon: Seven Years in Navajo Country, (2004, University of New Mexico Press). HCN correspondent Debra Utacia Krol recently spoke with Moore.

High Country News: You’re an Anglo woman from a privileged background. How did you come to be so respected in Indian Country?

Lucy Moore: I arrived in Chinle, Ariz., in 1968 with few skills and idealistic hopes of helping a needy population. I learned to be patient, observe and listen, to give up my own ideas of what people needed, and learn from them how I could be useful.  I learned a little Navajo, enough to make people laugh really hard. … I think they are still laughing, in fact. Those seven years gave me a great foundation for working across cultures and a deep affection for Indian Country.

I was drawn to situations that involved tribal governments, communities or interests. And, as it does in Indian Country, word spreads. I was lucky to become trusted by many and to have credibility.

HCN: What attracted you to environmental mediation?

LM: I really fell into it. After moving to Santa Fe, I worked with John Folk-Williams, a program officer for small foundations interested in supporting tribes. I became aware that how environmental conflicts are resolved – not only the result of the mediation but the process used to resolve the conflict – is critical for our future. We can beat each other up in court or wage war through the press and become greater enemies. But listening and learning from each other, developing some mutual respect, is just as important as the substantive resolution.

HCN: How do you get people from disparate backgrounds, cultures, business interests and the like at the same table to come to any sort of agreement?

LM: Sometimes, they have no choice. They have to come to the table, or they will risk a decision being made without their interests considered, such as the permitting process for mining on federal land.

They are often fearful they will be overpowered or railroaded, or that they may be seen to be supporting something that they strongly oppose, just by coming to the table. They may also fear just being at the same table with the “other.”

I ask the people to be open, honest and respectful with each other. I don’t want them to sit back and just let me drive them through some hoops to some foregone conclusion. It is up to them to find the solution, while my role is to ensure that we travel that path with clarity, honesty and consideration.

HCN: What tactics have you used to gather public input in challenging situations?

LM: I recommend “going to where they are” to engage people. I have set up card tables at malls, post offices, coffee shops or bingo halls. … Government agencies have a particularly tough time engaging the public. Connecting with tribes is even more frustrating for agencies. I urge them to make visits to tribes, go to their turf, listen and learn.

HCN: What makes for a successful mediation?

LM: Success is a slippery word. I have had signed agreements where the signers felt dissatisfied for a variety of reasons. However, other groups have failed to reach agreement, and yet relationships have been made, trust and even affection developed among those who were previously adversaries. They see each other as human beings just like themselves. I consider that an important measure of success. Those people will face the next conflict with a better attitude, more interpersonal skills and a greater chance of success.

HCN: How do group dynamics, personalities, culture, history and other interpersonal factors affect negotiations?

LM: I have seen a single personality open a group to resolution. I have also seen a personality cause stalemate and hostility, and nix all chances of resolution.

Culture and history must be taken very seriously. History deserves “a seat at the table” when tribes or other traditional communities are involved. Historical trauma … can be very uncomfortable for some non-Indians who do not want to “go back there,” who are intimidated and maybe even guilt-ridden to hear painful history and its very real place in current Indian life.

HCN: When is mediation useful–– possible, or not possible? Are some disputes hopeless?

LM: Mediation can work when there is some flexibility in the decision to be made –– the policy to be drafted, the regulation to be created or the facility to be sited. Without any wiggle room or discretion, it is a waste of time to bring stakeholders together.

Mediation also won’t work if key parties won’t participate. They will remain outside the process and probably work to derail the solution in court, in the press, in public, etc.

It is also impossible to mediate beliefs, religious or cultural. And, in fact, it is dangerous to try to do so. I would never ask someone to reconsider a religious belief in order to allow an activity or agree to access to a sacred site.

HCN: How do you ensure that all parties have a sense of ownership in the process and the result?

LM: Give all parties a role in the design of the process; predetermining the process is an immediate cause for suspicion and mistrust.  Ownership in the result/agreement depends on the integrity of the process. Did the mediator manage a fair, respectful process? Did everyone get a chance to participate? Was every voice understood and valued? Was the purpose of the process and the method for making decisions clear in the beginning and carried through as expected?

HCN: What would you say are specific examples of your most successful negotiations? Most challenging? Most heartbreaking?

LM: One of my most successful negotiations was the facilitation of the Department of Interior’s Tribal Consultation Policy, the overarching policy for all bureaus and offices within DOI.  After a six-month process involving 50 tribal leaders and DOI program managers and comment periods by tribes and the public, the secretary of the Interior signed a secretarial order, implementing the policy in December 2011.

I facilitated a board meeting of a major national environmental organization that was deeply divided over working with local land-based communities to try to improve grazing and logging practices. The opponents felt the environmental movement had no place partnering with these land-users, that it was a serious compromise, even breach, of their principles. … These were people all supposedly on the same side, and yet their treatment of each other was shocking. I have never had to step in so often, or so forcefully, to uphold some level of civil discussion.

My most heartbreaking negotiation was the Homestake uranium mine’s Superfund site, which has seriously contaminated the residential area north of Grants, N.M. I facilitated a community meeting where federal and state agencies gave presentations on the site’s cleanup progress and for providing clean drinking water. More than 50 attended, many of them extremely emotional. We facilitated a dialogue between community members and the agency representatives, and created action steps to help address concerns. There was nothing to do to address the tragic situation for these people living in the heart of a Superfund site, however, and there was a lot of pain in the room from both community members and agencies.

HCN: What ongoing conflicts in the West do you see that you think could be resolved using mediation?

LM: We’ve seen examples of good negotiated resolution of grazing and environmentalist conflicts. …The Quivira Coalition and the Malpai Borderlands Group come to mind. I believe there is enough common ground there for meaningful solutions. I think water rights can be mediated. There are enough “moving parts” in these cases to offer combinations of winning hands for everyone. There are also plenty of pitfalls, like federal funding and local matches, which can make or break a settlement, the huge number of interests and individuals in these mediations: tribes must take proposed settlements to their councils and their communities; a state must get legislative approval; the general public/average water user needs to be included somehow; there may be endangered species (plus) water-quality issues and, in the West, priority dates to establish. But the opportunities for mutual gain are great.

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