Squishy-soft processes - hard results


In Nye, Mont., and in Paonia, Colo., two difficult disputes were recently resolved by people sitting together at a table. In Montana, the fight was about hardrock mining and 1,000 jobs. In Colorado, it was about coal mining and several hundred jobs. Each dispute involved tens of millions of dollars in investment capital, public land and ways of life (HCN, 7/31/00: Out of the darkness).

This is hardball stuff. But an approach usually portrayed as squishy-soft - collaboration - resolved the conflicts without lawsuits. Moreover, the settlements added to the prestige and clout of the two relatively small, local environmental groups that signed the agreements.

Coincident with these agreements, former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club, Michael McCloskey, now retired, has warned again, in recent talks and papers, that widespread adoption of collaboration would betray democracy. He said in one talk that wide use of collaborative processes "would effect a massive transfer of power, a repudiation of the progress of the past century, a collapse in environmental gains, and a grievous wound to the practice of democracy."

He says that collaborative processes also try to paper over what he sees as a vast chasm between urban and rural people. "It (the Sierra Club) knows that the rural-urban split has not gone away - that the views, interests and aims of rural and urban populations still diverge sharply. It is not ready to surrender national interests in the environment to rural, local interests."

These attitudes do not just come from national groups. The July 2000 newsletter of the very local, very grassroots Hells Canyon Preservation Council also attacks collaboration, and its president, Ric Bailey, is especially upset by the idea that Westerners may have more of a stake in the West than other Americans.

McCloskey and the Hells Canyon group both see loggers, miners and ranchers using the Trojan Horse of collaboration to grab control of the West. McCloskey calls collaboration "a generationally inspired cultural presumption."

What did the boomer generation's presumption just achieve? In Montana, politics prevents state environmental agencies from protecting water quality. In Colorado, the federal Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service lacked the will to deal with railroad noise and road blockage and other problems caused by underground coal mining. In response to this failure of government, two different environmental groups worked out direct agreements with the mining companies. Both are hard-nosed contracts involving bonds, extra expenditures by the companies, and long-term monitoring.

The mining companies didn't lightly incur the added expense and the anger of their fellow corporations. They signed because they otherwise faced costly delays from appeals or lawsuits brought by these groups based on state and federal laws.

But financial pain wasn't enough to bring the two sides together. These agreements were possible because the environmentalists were worried not just about air and water and wildlife, but also about jobs for those they live among. In both cases, environmental passion was intertwined with broader community concerns.

Despite the fact that local needs were met, no national or state laws were undercut, and if anything, democracy was strengthened. In Montana, the environmental standards were raised by the contract between the four-decade-old Northern Plains Resources Council and a palladium mining company. (Palladium is used in automobile catalytic converters.) In Colorado, the Western Slope Environmental Resource Council negotiated an agreement with two coal companies to ameliorate the off-site impacts. (The coal in question is very low in sulfur, and therefore desirable under air-quality standards.)

But legalities are not the only issue here. McCloskey and the Hells Canyon group also charge that collaboration undercuts the desires of the national owners of the federal lands. They have a point. Most members of environmental groups, whether local or national, would probably prefer to see no mining. They want the federal lands to be pristine, as shown by the Sierra Club vote demanding an end to logging on federal land. This is probably where the urban-rural divide is deepest, and where local environmental groups trying to bridge the divide still find the most difficulties. In addition, for ease of communication, it is easier for some groups to paint rural Westerners as all straining at the federal leash that prevents them from cutting down the last trees, damming the last streams and overgrazing the last public grasslands.

The West is a large and varied region and there is plenty of truth in this stereotype - enough to keep the Sierra Club and the Hells Canyon Preservation Council in productive business for years to come.

But there are also places where local environmental groups have learned what they can and cannot win from warfare. They also have a somewhat different view of the Interior West than most of those who are only able to visit. They understand that little of the rural West is "pristine'; most of it, even beautiful places, has been burned and grazed and logged and plowed in the past. And because they live here, and have become attached not just to the land but also to their neighbors, they are probably more willing to strike a different balance than those who love the region but who do not live here.

So there's an element of ingratitude. For decades, local groups depended almost solely on the national clout wielded by the major environmental organizations. And now a few of them, operating under the umbrella of this protection, are making their own arrangements.

It may be ungrateful, but it is also very healthy. It means the West is maturing. It is no longer everywhere split into two warring camps where solutions can come only from Congress or courts or the White House. Agreements are possible on the ground. One can argue over the details of those agreements. But it's a mistake to raise the stakes by saying that extractive interests are grabbing control of the West, that environmental gains are being lost, and that democracy is in peril. Instead, in a few Western communities blessed with local leadership and the right circumstances, citizens and companies have overcome personal and ideological antipathy to strike an agreement well within our laws and practices and values.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

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].

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