Some not-so-easy steps to successful collaboration


Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories, Howdy, neighbor!, about collaboration efforts in the West.

Can citizen collaboration solve every environmental conflict?


"This isn't a magic bullet," says Gerald Mueller of Missoula, Mont., who has been a mediator since 1988. It is successful under limited circumstances, he says, but it takes hefty amounts of work and time. "It's not usually a lot of fun to do, because you're usually involved with people you may have had conflicts with and that you may not like."

Here are the ingredients that Mueller and other mediators say are needed:

A feeling that something must change. Without some common threat, people have no reason to collaborate. On the other hand, if different parties in a situation are at the point of hanging someone in effigy or actually committing violence, it's unlikely they will be able to find a common vision.

"The biggest question is, are people ready to do something different?" says Mueller. "If they want to perpetuate the status quo, they'll continue to do that. So long as people think they can amass legal political power and beat whoever, that's what they'll do."

Take, for example, the fractious debate over wilderness in Utah. Of two of the environmental groups in the state devoted to wilderness preservation, one recently shut down and the other rejects collaboration altogether. As Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance issues director Ken Rait puts it, "Our time is better spent filing appeals rather than sitting around the table trying to talk to a bunch of people who aren't interested in listening ... the collaborative approach takes people's focus off the land. I think our track record using NEPA and the ESA is better than it has been in sitting down and trying to seek collaborative solutions."

A focus on the future. "If your focus is on the past, on being compensated for something that happened in the past, you're not likely to get what you want," says Mueller. These processes don't work for people trying to determine rights or obtain justice.

"The key word is innovation," says Don Snow, who heads the Northern Lights Institute, a longtime player in mediation. "You may get something at least as good as what you wanted that you didn't anticipate. What we find in these processes is something new emerges. People think they're going to lose something. But the thing to keep in mind is not what you're going to lose, but what you gain."

The presence of relevant people. "Sometimes two or three factions will get there fairly easily, but 'God help us, we don't want to let that fourth faction in,' " says Lucy Moore, a partner in Western Network in Santa Fe, N.M. "If they don't, sooner or later it won't work, because sooner or later they'll run into that group that was excluded from the process."

The absence of irrelevant people. People who don't have a specific interest in the outcome of the process can also torpedo the proceedings. "They have no reason to reach an agreement," says Mueller. "They're only there to stop other people from achieving one, or to express their ideological views. Some groups have had legislators in them; they don't have an interest in the outcome, but they feel strongly about how things need to happen."

Strong leadership. "It takes someone with enough confidence or view of the big picture to be able to take some chances by reaching out to "the other side," " says Moore. Such a leader, according to Snow, has to believe in F. Scott Fitzgerald's definition of intelligence: "The ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."

"It's the kind of leadership that's not single-interest or doctrinaire, but civic," Snow says. "It depends on a shared recognition that a certain place is important."

Moral - but not legal - authority. "If the group has the ability to compel an action, some people won't come to the table at all," says Mueller. "It has to be a safe place, so you can disclose what your interests are. Generally these groups come up with some recommendation they take to a body, an administrator or legislature. To the extent that they've had all the stakeholders present, every one I've been involved with has been accepted."

An awareness of pretenders to the round table. "The potential for misuse of these processes is enormous," says Snow. "You can manipulate well-meaning people arriving with the best of motives and naiveté. That's why I'm not an advocate of governmental agencies setting the table. The Forest Service is a neutral party? Hardly! The BLM? They're as neutral as the Sierra Club! What you want as your convener are groups whose mission is to be a convener."

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