What I learned from Western royalty


During a symposium on natural resources and sustainability last Friday at University of Colorado, Boulder, law professor Charles Wilkinson took a look at a group of panelists that included two former secretaries of Interior, and in a moment of appreciation for their service, declared them “Western royalty.”

No one said anything particularly groundbreaking at the event. There was talk about how there should be policies to incentivize mining, oil and gas companies to innovate toward environmentally sustainable strategies, for instance, but not a lot of new ideas about exactly how to do that. Still, it was far from boring. Here are three things I learned in 10 hours last Friday (plus some extra research):

The seed of what we now call sustainability started the Civil War, took root in 1905, and blossomed in 1982.

To help put the “sustainability challenge” in perspective, two professors recapped the idea’s history – a rivetingly nerdy tale for anyone invested in ongoing issues surrounding things like forest management and sustainable agriculture.

It was Edmund Ruffin, farmer and political rabble-rouser who fired the first shot in Charleston, S.C. in 1861 that helped set the stage for the Civil War. After finding that the previous century of tobacco had depleted the ground of nutrients on his property and that of many others, Ruffin began regularly publishing studies on soil in his home region. And fed up with what associate history professor Paul Sutter described as a “pattern of impermanence” in land use, he became one of the United States’ first agricultural reformists.

The man credited as the forefather of today’s sustainability movements, the inaugural U.S. Forest Service chief, Gifford Pinchot, may never have used the word sustainability, but it’s what he meant. Following the creation of the service in 1905, the Connecticut native vastly increased acreage of national forests and instituted practical steps toward the philosophy of “greatest good for the greatest number” in the long-term. By the time he was fired in 1910, Pinchot had begun to put our forests to use in a way that would help sustain for future generations many values and resources of the land, rather than just timber. This idea marked a break from the notion that national forests should consistently provide commercial product no matter the environmental cost.

Gifford Pinchot, the first chief of the U.S. Forest Service, and a forefather of today's sustainability movements.

Last week, Wilkinson pointed to efforts in the Yellowstone ecosystem to sustain the futures of bison, wolves, and the tourist economy as a contemporary example of Pinchot’s philosophy.

According to the professors – and a Google algorithm that analyzes every word published in millions of books that are now digitized online – it was the 1982 United Nations World Charter for Nature that marked the beginning of the use of the term “sustainability” as we know it today. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Norwegian prime minister central to a global environmental movement in the early ’80s, launched the concept with her  groundbreaking 1987 report, “Our Common Future.” In it she laid a framework for long-term strategies for sustainable development, including everything from establishing national family planning policies to keep population growth under control to including, rather than ignoring, the economic consequence of forest degradation when measuring timber profits.

Sutter called this movement “sustainability synthesis, which combined environment and development strands that had been somewhat at odds before that.”

Building “social license to operate” is an emerging frontier for resource extraction companies.

The events that brought the most onlookers over the course of the symposium were discussions of local control over natural resource development, and how companies can get community buy-in. “We need to understand people’s sustained interest,” former Interior Secretary Gale Norton said of community needs in the face of an expanding extractive industry.

As the amount of oil and gas development has increased – sweeping through parts of North Dakota, Montana, California, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and other states – public fears and suspicions about pollution and possible public health effects have also increased. Recent films like “Promised Land” and “Gasland” have given popular voice to these valid concerns, while also feeding a fear frenzy that often misses the facts. In at least some cases, local opposition movements have gained ground. The fracking moratoriums that passed on Colorado’s Front Range last year, the state’s new air quality regulations, and momentum in various Western cities over whether to boot out big energy providers like Xcel and PG&E in favor of local control of energy production, are all good examples of industry losing social license to operate.

Part of the process Robert Boutilier and Ian Thomson developed to help companies achieve social license to operate. Courtesy sociallicense.com.

In the spirit of history that the professors instilled in me last week, I started digging around to find the origins of the phrase, “social license to operate,” which led me to Mexico-based mining consultant and sociologist Robert Boutilier.

Consultant Jim Cooney coined the phrase in 1997 and Boutilier began to use it to help clients who “were losing millions of dollars at the hands of third world villages,” he says. “I was looking for a concept to get a handle on it.” By 2009, he’d created a step-by-step process for companies to foster positive relationships with communities. Now stakeholders on both sides of the political spectrum, from fracktivists to the Newmont Mining Corporation executive who was at last week’s event are using the phrase.

Pete Kolbenschlag, an independent consultant who works on energy and public land issues and community engagement in western Colorado, says more conversation around social license to operate “is probably movement in the right direction, but it’s not just a checklist. It has to be an actual dialogue.” Local residents have to be the ones that grant the social license, he says, and companies and third party regulators need to earn it with meaningful action, not platitudes. If you replace the informal and organic nature of local buy-in with a legal structure, Boutilier agrees. it won’t work: “It wouldn’t be a social license any more; it’d be a legal license.”

Colorado residents protest hydraulic fracturing. Oil and gas companies clearly have no 'social license to operate' here. Photograph by Flickr user Erie Rising.

Politics are still politics.

“It takes one Wyoming guy to take on three Coloradans and it takes only one governor to handle three feds,” was one of the first things former Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal said into the mic last Friday, only half jokingly. He was referring to the difference between himself and his three panelists – former secretaries of Interior Gale Norton and Ken Salazar and the new Interior Deputy Secretary Michael Conner. Despite the clear goodwill of those convening to talk about how industry can be more sustainable, Freudenthal’s comment underscored the longstanding power struggles between state and federal governments over Western natural resources.

The sustainability movement has blossomed (though in a partisan way) and social license to operate is emerging from its roots as a business tactic for mining companies into a way to describe true community participation. But entrenched political dynamics aren't going anywhere, and as Freudenthal alluded to, all sides will still play hard ball.

Tay Wiles is the online editor of High Country News. She tweets @taywiles. Correction: a previous version of this story indicated that former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland is a man, but she is in fact a woman.

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