It's unAmerican, or at best unWestern, but cooperation works

  • Management team of Arizona's Orme Ranch

    Jay Dusard/Grand Canyon Trust

My mailbox is sounding the call to arms again. Since a Republican majority was elected to Congress, it's been bulging with warnings that Newt Gingrich and his munchkins will dismantle most of the environmental gains made since the 1960s. Send more money and write more letters, the warnings trumpet, or risk seeing this environmental "dark age" extend past the next election.

I've answered that bugle call for over two decades, but this time, for the first time, I get the real message: Politics won't solve our environmental problems.

That's why next fall, when it's time for the biennial bloodletting we call elections, I won't be leafleting neighborhoods, calling voters or putting up signs. I'll be out in the world of trees and grass and bugs and streams. Sleeves rolled up, I'll be with one of a number of groups of ranchers, vegetarians, wise-users, and Earth First!ers I've been working with for a couple of years now. Together, we'll be celebrating small successes that can be measured in green meadows, healing riparian areas and increased biodiversity.

The lesson that inspired this transformation is a simple one. A mere change of majority can wipe out a generation's worth of hard-fought environmental gains. What could be more convincing proof that the political process is too fickle, too unreliable, too reversible to solve long-term problems such as the extinction crisis, global warming, and destabilization of the worldwide ecosystem?

If putting the "wrong" people in charge, even now and then, can stall or reverse reforms needed to solve problems this serious, then to solve our environmental problems via the political process we will not only have to elect the right politicians, we will have to elect them over and over and over again.

You and I both know the chances of that happening are zero.

When I decided to desert the political process for the collaborative process, I had been a soldier in the environmental wars for so long - 22 years - I had forgotten how uplifting it is to be part of a group of people who don't paint the world in shades of guilt and look for someone to blame. When I decided to join the growing number of people who have made the commitment to work together in spite of diverse politics, religious beliefs, and culture, I realized that our concern for the environment is more important than differences people have gone to war over.

Think of how powerful a statement that is. Certainly, we still have our differences, and in many cases they are big differences. But we also share the belief that, if we can work together, our differences will shrink. And that has happened.

The process we use to achieve these results is neither complex nor difficult. It's something each of us uses every day when we set a goal and then work to achieve it - to plant a garden, to paint a house, to do our job. Frequently, in these situations, we work with people we don't agree with politically, but we still get the job done. And we get better results than the politicians do when they try to solve our problems for us.

How much better? Teams I have worked with have made significant headway against problems that have stymied the political process for over a century. In central Nevada, an association of ranchers, government land managers, and just plain citizens called the Toiyabe Wetlands and Watersheds Management Team has made progress reversing the effects of more than a century of overgrazing. The once-productive grasslands of the western slopes of the Toiyabe Mountains had been reduced to little more than sagebrush flats and gullies that deepened with every rainfall. Though the federal government had plowed truckloads of money into this land, it had continued to worsen until the Nevada group began its program of collaborative stewardship in 1987.

On a significant portion of that land, citizen stewardship has covered 80 percent of what had become bare dirt with green and growing plants; streams that had become desert storm drains now flow as they were meant to.

On the northern Arizona ranch that belongs to the family of Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt, a team of local environmentalists, ranchers, students and National Park Service staffers is studying better ways to sustainably manage grasslands of the arid Southwest. On a five-acre study plot, we have increased by 75 percent the number of young plants available as food to both wildlife and cattle while actually increasing grazing pressure. We've done it without lawsuits or government subsidies.

In southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico, members of a rural citizens group called the Malpai Borderlands Group have joined with The Nature Conservancy, government bureaucrats and scientists from nearby universities to see that wildfire once again performs its natural function of keeping these magnificent grasslands free of invading species. The ranchers in this group have also committed themselves to a policy of non-fragmentation of private lands. Now, there is a de facto block of uninterrupted habitat on over a million acres of public and private lands. These and other groups have come together outside the political process, and almost in spite of it.

There will always be a role for government in environmental matters because there will always be people who refuse to work together. There will always be people seeking to solve environmental problems by winning political battles because politics has become the ultimate sport in a society obsessed with sport, and with winning.

But think how much less of this factionalism and confrontation, how many fewer laws, regulations, enforcement and the funds to sustain them we would need if more of us were working together. Some will call that starry-eyed romanticism, but we've got the results to prove it can be the purest kind of realism.

Dan Dagget is the author of Beyond the Rangeland Conflict: Toward a West that Works, $19.95, co-published by the Grand Canyon Trust and Gibbs Smith, Publisher, Box 667, Layton, UT 84041.

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