In search of a politics of union

So far, a bigger table for decision-making has not led to more agreement, just more litigation

  • Cartoon: Hospital beds of grass

  • William deBuys

    Photo courtesy William deBuys

Note: this essay is part of a package of articles in this print edition speculating about the future of the West as a cultural region.

People in the West who tend land learn routinely that the greatest challenge to stewardship of a place is not its natural ecology. It is the political ecology. Not that natural systems are a snap. We have hardly mastered keeping forests, grasslands, and rivers healthy. All too often, our lands and waters respond to our touch by demonstrating that the Law of Unintended Consequences holds jurisdiction over our best-laid plans. Nevertheless, we manage land better today than a few decades ago, and we can do much better still.

Politically, our progress is harder to discern. This was driven home for me two years ago when a project I direct was attacked from opposite flanks. We were creating a public-lands grass bank - setting aside a chunk of public rangeland where national forest grazing permittees from other allotments might place their cows while their home ranges were rested and rehabilitated.

The group I work for, The Conservation Fund, bought a small private ranch with donated funds. Then we applied for the national forest grazing permit associated with that ranch. We planned to operate the allotment in cooperation with the Forest Service, the Northern New Mexico Stockman's Association, and the Cooperative Extension Service. The goal was rangeland health.

But the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association, the Farm Bureau, and a few other groups wanted none of that. We were environmentalists, and we could not, must not be trusted to do what we said we would do. It did not matter that the Northern New Mexico Stockman's Association wished the project to go forward or that permittees were ready to participate.

A principle was involved: Ranchers ought not fraternize with the enemy. Our critics prevailed upon New Mexico's combative lieutenant governor to browbeat the Forest Service into refusing to issue us a permit.

Fortunately, the Forest Service and our other partners stood firm through weeks of harassment. Ultimately, after the project received glowing endorsements from the Santa Fe and Albuquerque papers, the lieutenant governor lost interest, and the bullying ceased.

But we had not seen the end of feckless opposition. The permit we sought needed to be brought up to date with an environmental analysis, or EA, which is a lesser species of environmental impact statement. The EA process trudged on for nearly a year, and when it was at last complete, an environmental group, Forest Guardians, appealed it.

The EA, they said, did not take into account the effect of grazing on the allotment's "valuable recreation and fishery values' - notwithstanding that the subject area - a high mesa - has no live streams and no fish. Writers of the appeal also wrote that we should have consulted the state of Arizona as to the effect of grazing on non-point-source pollution - notwithstanding that our mesa is in New Mexico.

To wrap everything up, they urged that the supervisor of Carson National Forest reject the EA and withhold permits for the three allotments - notwithstanding that the responsible decision-maker was the supervisor of the Santa Fe National Forest.

Clearly, the Guardians' protest was a badly handled exercise in word processing, and it left their boilerplate looking rusty. Just as clearly, the Guardians' response to the EA, like that of the Cattle Growers and Farm Bureau to the project, was generic and unspecific. They were acting as a matter of principle.

Beyond killing a few trees to fuel the paperwork of the appeal and sentencing a few people (myself included) to unproductive work, no serious harm resulted. But the episode drove home for me the way in which knee-jerk dissension limits us.

In today's West, our capacity for coming to agreement - and staying there - is underdeveloped. We lack the politics of union.

In the bad old days, when good old boys made all decisions, we didn't need the politics of union. If the boys wanted to dam a river or log a forest, they pretty much went ahead and did it. The circle of necessary agreement was small. But in the 1960s, things began to change, accelerating through the 1970s. A suite of new laws profoundly changed environmental decision-making. They widened the circle of necessary agreement to include environmentalists, tribes, local communities, recreationists, and others, including in a roundabout way the increasingly humbled good old boys themselves.

The widening was long overdue, and nothing in the nation's agenda could have been fairer, more just, more democratic. It was the right thing to do, and it is still the right thing, but it has not yet led to more agreement. It has led instead to complexity and seas of litigation.

Some of the complexity would have arrived with or without the legislation. Goaded by explosive growth, for example, Albuquerque and other communities of the Middle Rio Grande have entered the end-game of water allocation for that depleted river.

Four counties, nine cities and towns, six pueblos, and four federal and five state agencies, plus the Interstate Stream Commission and the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, are all involved. Wielding the most clout is the Conservancy District, which irrigates 54,000 acres and could gin up wet water for urban areas or environmental uses if it became more efficient. At stake in the outcome, obviously, is the future of New Mexico's largest metropolitan area. Less obviously, the existence of the Rio Grande silvery minnow is also at stake, as is the health and survival of the Southwest's best remaining example of native cottonwood willow riparian forest - the Rio Grande bosque.

Some say that only litigation can cleave a path through this snarl of jurisdiction and competing vetoes. They may be right. But given the pace at which the law advances, only a long succession of very wet years will buy the minnows time enough for the law to save them.

I do not mean to disparage litigation. But a toolbox that holds only that hammer will not build all that society needs.

Lawsuits are good for stopping things, less good for starting them. The question we have yet to answer is how we will get started with needed work - especially when that work depends on collaboration among diverse and historically hostile groups.

One way to begin is to focus on distinguishing between one's positions and one's interests. This is what the Northern New Mexico Stockman's Association did in allying itself with the grass bank. The association held no special love for environmentalists, but its leaders recognized that the future of its members depended not just on defending their rights but on advancing their interests. Among those interests is the restoration of rangelands through the reintroduction of wildland fire, and the Stockman's Association recognized that the grass bank could help this to happen.

The politics of union converge in a place many of its advocates call the radical center. They don't think of it as a land of happy make-believe where everyone agrees, but as a place where people put aside disagreements to focus on what unites them.

It is also where all parties depart from business-as-usual. In the radical center, ranchers assent that they must move toward a higher standard of environmental performance; environmentalists realize that the conservation of large landscapes requires working with the people who occupy and use them; and bureaucrats resolve to focus on tangible results, not merely the defense of procedure.

The politics of union are where the enfranchisement of recent decades was supposed to take us. We can still get there, and we still need to go.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and William deBuys

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