Howdy, neighbor!

As a last resort, Westerners start talking to each other

  • Cartoon: Westerners joining hands around the consensus table

    Rob Pudim

Slowly, unevenly, the members of the group introduce themselves. Some are aggressive, some calm, some red-faced with anxiety. When they're finished, a woman stands up and reminds everyone to keep their eyes on their common vision and not let themselves get tripped up in the details. She steps up to a huge white pad of paper on an easel, uncaps a marking pen the size of a handgun, and the meeting begins.

This isn't Alcoholics Anonymous or a church support group. It's a collection of people, often neighbors, concerned about the state of the West. Coalitions of environmentalists, ranchers, county commissioners, government officials, loggers, skiers and jeepers are popping up as often as wood ticks across the Western landscape. Under such labels as collaborative efforts and consensus groups, they are bringing together the people who use the rivers and public lands of the West to try to make decisions among themselves.

Nobody is keeping an accurate count of this upswell. West-wide, there are about 70 coalitions organized around watersheds. Five Western universities teach natural-resource conflict resolution, and a periodical devoted to collaboration will begin publication in Montana this summer. Resolving conflict is a growth business.

Why is this happening? Some say it's a process of maturation. The West, which has long been closely tied to the federal government through its huge tracts of public land, has historically been governed through special-interest jockeying in Washington, D.C. That machine started to overheat as the West's populace became larger, more diverse and more demanding. The alienation intensified in the last few years, when the region was hit from both sides - voters elected the most anti-environmental Congress in history, and unprecedented numbers of quality-of-lifers moved to the West.

The West is now a grouchy place, a place where nobody gets what they want. Budget cuts have stripped federal land managers of funding, leaving them largely unable to do their jobs on the ground. Environmentalists feel persecuted by politicans who seem intent on dismantling every environmental law on the books. And forestry is at an impasse, with loggers feeling hamstrung by environmental appeals and environmentalists feeling crippled by the notorious salvage rider.

Some of the region's best brains have long agitated for the West to grow up and start governing itself. Daniel Kemmis, the mayor of Missoula, Mont., told an audience in Utah this spring, "I do not believe the federal government has the capacity to manage the West. I do not believe, either, that any solution coming from one end of the political spectrum or the other is going to have the capacity to do what this landscape requires. The danger is that one ideology or another will win a temporary victory because we did not work hard enough to find our common ground.

"The bottom line would be to say that we want and we need control over our own land. We do not expect to be given that control until we get our own act together."

A growth industry

These efforts at collaboration haven't exactly transformed the Western landscape. They're slow, tedious, fragile processes that seem to fail at least as often as they succeed. And the status quo is still strongly in evidence: Senators still get called into action to knock down obstacles to natural resource development; environmental lawsuits get filed in droves; Subarus cluster around one small-town cafe while Ford trucks pull up outside the diner.

But one place that's acutely aware of the shaky efforts at neighborliness in the West is Washington, D.C.

"A new dogma is emerging as a challenge to us," wrote Sierra Club Chairman Mike McCloskey last November in a memo to the club's board of directors. "It embodies the proposition that the best way for the public to determine how to manage its interest in the environment is through collaboration among stakeholders, not through normal governmental processes ... such processes tend to de-legitimate conflict as a way of dealing with issues and of mobilizing support ... Too much time spent in stakeholder processes may produce the result of demobilizing and disarming our side."

He was particularly dubious about consensus: "Only lowest common denominator ideas survive the process."

McCloskey isn't alone in his fear of an epidemic of hand-holding breaking out all over the West. Former Sierra Club staffer Darryl Young, who has watched coalition attempts backfire, says environmentalists are often outgunned - in numbers of people and in skills - by the user groups at the table.

"They get hammered," he says. "Or they get hornswoggled. Or they get the Stockholm Syndrome (in which captives start to sympathize with their captors). They go in expecting the other negotiators to be bad, horrible people, and they turn out to be nice - 'Hey, come over for a barbecue," and they get soft."

Indeed, industry that depends on public lands is cottoning to collaboration: "It's the difference between survival and demise," says Reeves Brown of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association. A figure as unfamiliar to environmental circles as Idaho Rep. Mike Crapo, R, has sung the praises of the Henry's Fork Watershed Coalition (see story page 9). Crapo received a rating of zero from the League of Conservation Voters.

"Industry thinks its odds are better in these forums," writes McCloskey. "It is ready to train its experts in mastering this process. It believes it can dominate them over time and relieve itself of the burden of tough national rules."

Warns Young: "You can be friendly to these people, but they're not your friends. Hello! They are not your friends. It doesn't mean you can't respect them. It's just that they're not your friends."

The politics of compromise

Are the environmental faithful being appropriately wary, or are they just trying to save their own skins?

"The Sierra Club is threatened by local people working out their differences," says Seth Diamond, wildlife program manager of the Intermountain Forest Industry Association, based in Missoula. "Their organization generates resources by fostering and operating in a climate of hostility and polarization. So when people closer to the resources and the issues work out their differences, it becomes difficult to raise funds - and the kind of anger they use to generate those funds."

Diamond has been working with National Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildlife, and regional timber and recreation groups to find a way to reintroduce grizzlies to Idaho's Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. The reintroduction would be managed by a citizens' committee. "The key issue with grizzly bear recovery is creating an environment where people aren't hostile," says Diamond. "Our plan will minimize that, because the people closest to the problem have the best chance of creating creative, flexible solutions to the situation ... These bears will become the community's bears."

But the plan, which would permit the grizzlies to be shot if they cause any problem to local residents, is enormously controversial among environmentalists.

"It's the biggest sham that's ever been promoted in the northern Rockies," says Montana activist Steve Kelly. "These (coalition) groups are awash with this happy talk about what we're going to do along with the timber industry. Well, the timber industry only wants to do what they've always wanted to do, which is cut down trees."

As for the environmentalists involved in the grizzly plan, "When you crawl into bed with the enemy, you become the enemy," according to Kelly, who directs both the Friends of the Wild Swan and the Montana Ecosystems Defense Council. "What really hurts is that, before, we could always identify who the enemy was. This is all happening in the face of a real disaster that's occurring in terms of the "94 Congress... When you disguise the wolf in sheep's clothing it's very difficult to generate opposition. We used to fight the Forest Service; now we fight Defenders and the National Wildlife Federation."

To fight back, Kelly is doing what he's done for 20 years - suing. "I'm filing more lawsuits than ever before," he says. "The foundations (who fund many of the environmental groups involved in collaborative efforts) are saying, 'We don't fund lawsuits, we fund foot-rubbing sessions with the timber industry; we're gonna have seances with miners.' And I'm saying, 'Take your money back East; this crap doesn't work here.' "

"How many lawsuits can we file?"

But some environmentalists argue that the legal and legislative solutions that carried the cause for 30 years are proving too fragile in today's surreal political climate. They say the only way to make change stick is to include local communities in the planning process.

"You'll have much greater gain doing this than as a bunch of road warriors who flash into the legislature and put laws onto agencies who have the power of the lion in The Wizard of Oz," says Don Snow, executive director of the Montana-based Northern Lights Institute, which has been involved in mediation for more than a decade. "There's no way they can carry out their mandate. I mean, how many lawsuits can we file? If you want to save the environment, roll up your sleeves and get working with people who care about that land as much as you do, but who may have different values than you do."

Rural environmentalists see rural communities as the springboard for change. Steve Hinchman, director of the grassroots Western Slope Environmental Resource Council in Colorado, has been a member of a collaborative advisory group for a grazing allotment that overlaps with the West Elk Wilderness. The group has achieved improvements in elk habitat, cattle forage and riparian health over the last two years. And neighboring ranchers now want to use the same process on their allotments.

"Regardless of what's happening in Washington, D.C., positive changes are happening here," says Hinchman. "We resolve conflicts with our neighbors ... The Gunnison sage grouse that lives nearby is going to become an endangered species, and now we have the relationships in place to deal with it without it becoming a war zone. My overall goal in this process is not to advance the agenda of the environmental movement. My overall goal is to improve the environmental conditions in the lower Gunnison Basin."

Asked about the importance of rural communities to environmental protection, McCloskey says the Sierra Club doesn't have a policy. "I don't have experience in rural towns," he says. Much of the West's backcountry is more familiar to people visiting from San Francisco and Seattle, he adds, than it is to local residents.

What McCloskey and many other urban environmentalists do want to talk about is the right of urbanites to have a say about what happens on public lands.

"This re-distribution of power is designed to disempower our constituency, which is heavily urban," he wrote. "Few of the proposals for stakeholder collaboration provide any way for distant stakeholders to be effectively represented. It is curious that these ideas would have the effect of transferring influence to the very communities where we are least organized and potent."

Hinchman acknowledges that a mechanic in Delaware owns the public lands as much as anyone else. "But for the person in Delaware to actually sit at the table, they have to convince the people at the table that they're serious, that they know the ground, and that they're going to contribute to the process and not just be a spoiler."

There is plenty of middle ground on this point. McCloskey says that on issues of local concern, locals should by all means be involved. "The more local the issues are in nature, the more comfortable I am in them dominating the process," he says. "But to the extent that it concerns a larger audience, a large audience should be involved." Collaboration-seeking environmentalists, meanwhile, aren't claiming that the age of environmental litigation has come to an end. "I don't think we're ever going to put lawyers out of work," says Montana-based mediator Gerald Mueller.

Collaboration or capitulation?

What is being argued long and loud, however, is what the upsurge in collaboration is all about. Many environmentalists are quick to point out that rural people have long influenced local land management decisions through advisory boards governed by federal agencies; it's rural environmentalists who are the new players. For example, the Coordinated Resource Management Program groups, pushed by the BLM to manage grazing allotments in the 1980s, were based on consensus, but environmentalists who sat on the grazing boards often felt pressured and outnumbered. They evolved into Resource Advisory Councils, which are structured to provide a more level playing field.

"It's precisely because of the gains in environmentalism, like the Wilderness Act of 1964, that we're able to have this discussion in the first place," says Snow. "The policy world that the environmentalists helped build gives us the background against which to build consensus. I say to environmentalists, this isn't to be feared; this is your accomplishment of the last 30 years. It's actually a very logical outgrowth. We've done a lot on paper. Now it's time to get it on the ground."

Darryl Young, the former Sierra Club staffer who now works for the California State Senate's Natural Resources Committee, warns that environmentalists shouldn't underestimate their power.

"These consensus groups are fear-based," he says. "We ought not be operating in fear. I think that's what we've been doing for the last two years: 'We might lose it all, so let's give away half of it.' "

But many Westerners, like the ones profiled in this issue, see collaboration as an effective, lasting and civilized way to solve problems. Whether they're concerned citizens, county commissioners, ranchers, loggers, federal officials or environmental lawyers, they are all trying to do things a new way. In Idaho, an advisory group has eased tensions among users of two of the state's most prized rivers. The same spirit of cooperation infused the dialogue among the 1,000 participants in the American Forest Congress. In southwestern Colorado's Montezuma County, county officials broke down barriers between themselves and the Forest Service to form a new kind of counties' movement. A case in California's High Sierra shows the perils of what happens when the Forest Service isn't responsive to local concerns, and a collaborative effort to reintroduce grizzly bears to an Idaho wilderness area shows how environmentalists who collaborate can come under fire from their own movement.

Bruce Farling, executive director of Montana Trout Unlimited, offers what could be seen as the middle view on the middle road: "It's another tool," he says. "It works in some places and doesn't work in others. I've had mixed results with some (collaborative efforts), but I'm more hopeful than I was five years ago. They're not alliances; they're dialogues. And I have seen some beneficial stuff. Not monumental, but I'll say the tenor is a hell of a lot better than it was five years ago."

Lisa Jones is a project writer for High Country News.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- The skeptic: Collaboration has its limits

- Some not-so-easy steps to successful collaboration

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