Collaboration yields results
Organizations prove civility can prevail, even with divisive issues
Differences of opinion about the management of Oregon’s natural resources have led to a lot of very public conflict over the last 20 years. They also have led to the creation of highly collaborative organizations that seek to deal with those differences civilly.
Eco Trust, Wallowa Resources, Nature Conservancy, Sustainable Northwest––these are just a few groups with a reputation for dealing with difficult issues in an all-inclusive, solutions-oriented manner.
Sustainable Northwest, for example, was instrumental in helping stakeholders come together to develop the historic Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement, beginning its efforts about the time the region was struggling with the infamous “water wars” of 2001.
Mistakes are inevitable, and successful groups learn from them
The group describes its mission as “providing dedicated, nonpartisan support for a community-oriented, conservation-based economy in the West.”
It took nearly a year and a half of consensus-based discussions for the group that would become Wallowa Resources to decide on a mission statement: Promote community, forest and watershed health while creating family wage jobs and business opportunities, and broaden the understanding of the connections between community well-being and eco-system health.
It has accomplished that mission in part by its deep partnerships with diverse stakeholders, from the U.S. Forest Service to private landowners to the Nez Perce tribe.
A model of civility
The Coos Watershed Association has been, from its very inception, a model of civility. It was founded in 1993 by a group of landowners and land managers who had just endured the spotted owl conflict.
“They were trying to find a way to avoid having a similar sort of train wreck occur with coho salmon,” says Jon Souder, who became the group’s executive director in 2000. “They believed if they came together to come up with a plan for the Coos Basin, they could avoid the species being listed under the Endangered Species Act.”
The group spent the first couple of years working at learning to talk with each other—from state agency officials to private landowners, foresters to estuary reserve managers.
Coho salmon did get listed in the late ‘90s (and continues to go on and off the list), but by then the watershed group had built relationships among stakeholders that helped it develop a necessary resiliency. “People truly believed our work was worth doing, and in the end, whether salmon was listed or not did not make a real difference to our objectives,” Souder says.
Mistakes are inevitable, and the most successful groups learn from them. Souder identifies one misstep made by his group in pursuit of civility or — more accurately — in avoidance of conflict. In the late 1990s, counties were required to come up with agricultural water quality management plans, at the same time that farmers were dealing with an initiative about fencing cattle out of streams.
“It was a heated, very polarizing process,” Souder says.
Instead of participating, Souder says, the Coos Watershed Association pulled its restoration efforts out of the lowlands and “retreated to the woods, where we could work with willing landowners.”
After a 2002 board retreat, leaders of the organization decided that not getting involved in the contentious issue was a mistake. In 2005, the organization launched an outreach program to address the lowland issues.
“You always have to pick your battles,” Souder says, “but just because they are going to be controversial isn’t a reason to avoid them.”