Partisan politics are pulling my town apart

Can lessons from ecology offer a way to find common ground in our polarized nation?

 

When New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker recited Maya Angelou’s poem “We Will Rise” with its refrain of “still, like dust, I will rise,” in his speech at the Democratic National Convention, I thought of Salida, Colorado, the town I’ve lived in and loved for 19 years.

At the foot of the Rocky Mountains with the Arkansas River running through it and with thriving arts and recreation opportunities, Salida is often described as idyllic. Despite some serious local issues, including a lack of affordable housing, the warmth of the community’s culture has often made it feel that way. Until recently.

An anti-growth faction has taken control of the city council, purging city government and blocking long-planned local development projects. The council has voted 4-3, with the mayor casting the tie-breaking vote, to revise the contract of our city administrator, effectively firing her, despite the overflow crowd speaking in her favor.

The downtown historic district in Salida, Colorado.

The council also — by the same narrow majority — fired the city attorney and hired a new one who has zero experience in municipal law, but who bills at a substantially higher rate. The city’s highly regarded finance director quit, citing harassment; the public works director decided to retire. Other city employees also say they’ve been harassed at work and at home by supporters of the anti-growth faction.

Moreover, public meetings these days are more often punctuated by insults and accusations from all sides, and our town discourse has devolved into the “bitter twisted lies” in Angelou’s poem. It’s as if the national habit of declaring those who disagree with you the “enemy” has infected our town, too.    

At the end of a recent town hall meeting, Salida’s mayor and the head of the anti-growth faction admitted that the city council and the community were “broken.” “We need help,” he said, and asked for time to assess how to move forward. “Trust us,” the mayor said. The audience response was, to put it mildly, not positive. 

The anger in Salida, and in our polarized country, feels too much like Angelou’s poem. How do we get over this?

Maybe there’s something to learn from what’s called “reconciliation ecology,” which aims to increase the earth’s health by acknowledging problems, working with all species no matter how disruptive, healing broken relationships, and re-building biodiversity. Although I didn’t know about this approach at the time, it’s how I’ve worked to restore the stretch of degraded urban creek that runs by my property, which is considered industrial, just off Salida’s downtown.

Rather than attempting to restore the creek to some possibly imaginary pristine ecological past, I chose to work with what was there, gradually reducing the area occupied by invasive species. In a project that’s been 19 years in the making, I encouraged species that helped bring about healthy relationships.

Today, the banks of the once-barren creek are alive with birds and monarch butterflies and other pollinators. The addition of native wetland plants helped cleanse our urban runoff on its way to the Gold Medal trout waters of the Arkansas River, so now the block is a model for a community-wide trail restoration project.

In a way, it’s been an experiment in reconciliation ecology, minimizing what was ugly and didn’t work while enhancing what was healthy and is now productive. We’ve succeeded in adding beauty while encouraging both biodiversity and community health.

The word reconcile comes from the Latin for “to bring back together.” That’s a good metaphor for what we need in Salida and this nation: to rejoin our splintered communities. We could start by remembering what Westerners have always known, that we thrive by finding commonalities to build on. Suppose, for instance, you must evacuate because of a forest fire; as you hastily load up your most valuable possessions, you realize the firefighter leading the crew and defending where you live is the neighbor you disagree with on just about everything.

You disagree totally, except for the fact that you both love the place where you live. That’s what we can build on to create community, a word whose roots are in “common” and “shared.” It’s when we cease to exercise civility and treat some people as the “other” that we forget where we’re living and cease to be neighborly.

What I want for Salida, this nation, and for the entire world is reconciliation. We may never agree with each other, but I hope all of us want people to have the chance to rise.

Susan J. Tweit is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She is a writer and plant ecologist who would rather wade into the muck of a degraded urban creek than venture into political discourse.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS MANAGER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a Government Affairs Manager to support our legislative and administrative advocacy efforts in Colorado. This new, mid-level position will report...
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance, a leading grassroots conservation advocacy organization for over 30 years, seeks a passionate, dynamic, organized, and technology-savvy communications professional to help...
  • OPERATIONS AND FINANCE MANAGER
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness, a national grassroots organization led by women, seeks a resourceful, self-motivated, team player to serve as Operations and Finance Manager....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    ORGANIZATIONAL BACKGROUND Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) fosters community stewardship, education and awareness of our National Conservation Lands with a focus on Dominguez-Escalante, Gunnison Gorge and...
  • WYOMING STATE DIRECTOR
    Save the World ... or at least a piece of it! Join The Nature Conservancy and make a tangible and lasting impact by creating a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR FOR AN ENVIRONMENTAL ADVOCACY NON-PROFIT NEAR YOSEMITE
    Demanding, but rewarding, advocacy work on forest, water, wildland, and wildlife issues. Applicants should have experience dealing with land management planning, public speaking, grassroots organizing,...
  • NEW AGRARIAN APPRENTICESHIP
    Quivira Coalition's 2020 New Agrarian Apprenticeships in Regenerative Ranching and Farming -Apprenticeships run 4/20 - 11/20 Applications accepted 10/15/19 - 12/1/19 NAP partners with skilled...
  • PHILANTHROPY DIRECTOR AT WILDERNESS WORKSHOP
    Wilderness Workshop seeks a full time Philanthropy Director to raise funds for our team. Learn more: www.wildernessworkshop.org
  • EXECUTIVE ASSISTANT WITH WESTERN RESOURCE ADVOCATES
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks an enthusiastic and organized problem solver to join our growing team as an Executive Assistant. The Executive Assistant is instrumental...
  • WYOMING OUTDOOR COUNCIL
    Two positions: Development Director OR Development Writer, Communications Director. Full job descriptions at https://wyomingoutdoorcouncil.org/careers.
  • CONSERVATION PROJECT MANAGER
    Great Land Trust seeks to hire a Conservation Project Manager. Position is full-time, based in Anchorage, Alaska. First review of applications will be on October...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eagle Valley Land Trust Executive Director Position Description Summary of Position: The Executive Director, working with and reporting to the Board of Directors, has overall...
  • FINANCE & LOGISTICS COORDINATOR
    The Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, founded in 1928 as an independent nonprofit organization, is a biological field station located near Crested Butte, Colorado. Our primary...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    See Full Job Description
  • DEVELOPMENT COORDINATOR
    Position: Development Coordinator Responsible to: Executive Director Time Commitment: 15-20 hours per week, or as otherwise agreed upon General Description: The Development Coordinator assists the...
  • EDUCATION CENTER MANAGER
    Friends of Cedar Mesa seeks a full-time Education Manager for the Bears Ears Education Center to provide day to day operational and administrative oversight. See...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED SCP SOUTHWEST REGIONAL DIRECTOR
    Seeking to hire an experienced advocate/manager to oversee the organization's sportsmen/women-driven advocacy in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. Open until filled
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    for northern AZ collaborative conservation ranchlands group
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Partners are seeking an experienced and energetic Executive Director who is excited about the opportunity to lead our growing organization! A full description of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country News Seeks an Executive Director to advance its mission, grow its audience and influence, and strategically and sustainably guide the organization through a...