Civility reigns in living rooms
The “coffee klatch” method of engagement finds favor
In 2005, the Coos Watershed Association launched an outreach program directed at landowners in the lowland areas surrounding the Coos estuary. Unlike the large timber acreages of the uplands where the group had been doing much of its work, the lowlands are characterized by a diversity of use by many small-acreage landowners.
In the past, the potential for conflict with the many private landowners in the lowlands had persuaded the group to concentrate their work elsewhere. This time, the organization was determined to forge strong working relationships with an intentional engagement strategy.
Along with the coffee, residents are served salmon
The strategy did not include holding traditional public meetings. “Anyone who has been to any public meeting on natural resources, particularly in rural areas, realizes how uncivil they can be,” says Executive Director Jon Souder. His solution? Take the meetings out of town hall and put them in a living room, and limit invited guests to the people directly involved.
Souder calls this the “coffee klatch” method, and says it’s so successful that his group has used the assessment and planning method in nine lowland stream basins around the watershed. The association holds three meetings in each area they want to assess. A local landowner is recruited as host, and letters of invitation are sent to the residents. The first meeting is intended to solicit land management concerns and objectives from landowners, but its main purpose is to introduce the watershed representatives and assure residents that their participation is voluntary.
“In addition to emphasizing that we’re not regulatory, our primary purpose is to listen to landowners concerns—that’s what’s so disarming compared to what they expect,” Souder says.
Salmon on the menu
Along with the coffee, residents are served salmon. “We want to let them know we like to eat it as well as protect it,” Souder says with a laugh. The second meeting is to familiarize residents with restoration and look at local projects. At the third meeting, watershed representatives present assessment results, identify potential restoration opportunities, and allow participants to rate potential restoration project types for their suitability.
The process has significantly increased the group’s ability to do survey work on streams, and Souder says it has also had some unexpected benefits. A lot of landowners work in town and don’t really know their neighbors. After the living-room meetings, many of them continued to socialize.
“One of the really interesting outcomes was to watch conversations across fence lines,” Souder says. “People started talking to each other, started playing cards together. It really highlights the importance of having processes like this that bring people together.”