Can’t We All Get Along? 

Making the case for collaboration in Western politics

Accuse us of provincialism, regional fascination or simple narrowness of mind, but the fact is that the continuing transmogrification of the West is inherently pretty damn interesting. Look at the resettlement patterns of bears and humans in the Bitterroot where the ultra-rich, the ultra-religious and the working poor all hunker down in western Montana’s paradise valley. Take a statistic used by Ray Rasker in the new primer on Western environmental policy, Across the Great Divide, which states that “[s]ince 1970 the state of Montana has added 150,000 new jobs and not one of the net new jobs has been in mining, oil and gas, farming, ranching, or the wood products industry.” You can extrapolate for yourself.

Dan Kemmis, former mayor of Missoula, contributes an introduction to this new collection and succeeds in setting a tone that is carried out, by and large, throughout the book. Our ex-mayor states firmly: “The land demands much of its inhabitants, not least a particular kind of truth-speaking. So when an idea or set of new ideas comes into this landscape, or grows out of the landscape, it moves through the region on the land’s own rugged terms. The ideas serve the land, and if they do not serve it, they move on.” The question is, according to Kemmis, “whether we in the West might ever manage to create a politics worthy of this place.”

The 30 pieces that make up this conservation reader attempt to accomplish exactly that through particular historical examples of disagreements over resource use; however, most of the writers want to deconstruct the notion of the “political” and its association with behind-the-scenes gamesmanship on the part of both industry and the government. The ideas of collaborative conservation and alternative dispute resolution are hallmarks of this new approach, which focuses largely on the process of making decisions that do not result in ultimate victory for either side.

According to co-editor Donald Snow, the qualities of collaborative conservation entail: “coalitions of the unlike—often they are composed of people who normally do not work together or are adversaries. Often they are efforts of last resort. … [T]hey seek innovation rather than compromise. … They often lack corporate status and are informal in structure. … Most collaboratives are nongovernmental in origin; they may include agents of government, but their origin typically lies outside of the agencies. … Collaboratives deal explicitly with questions of process, especially the decision making process within the group.”

The fact that many of the essays here are about the merits of a different kind of process of making decisions is enough to make even the most hardened policy wonk’s eyes glaze over, and this is part of the problem. What we are used to hearing about in the resource wars of the West are the gestures of action: Decisions, protests and lawsuits are what grab headlines. Because the approach of Snow et alia seeks to circumvent this kind of antagonism, it will never make headlines. And, when these ideas are fleshed out in actual scenarios, such as the history of the Clark Fork Superfund designation and water rights, or the role of the citizen action committee with respect to reintroduction of grizzlies into the Bitterroots, then it becomes timely, relevant and interesting.

Despite the belief in the possibility of collaborative conservation, there is still the problem that even if timber executives, environmentalists, federal land managers and concerned citizens are all able to check their agendas at the door and solve their problems in a non-adversarial atmosphere, other problems emerge. They are problems best set forth by University of Kansas law professor George Cameron Coggins, whose essay “Of Californicators, Quislings, and Crazies: Some Perils of Devolved Collaboration” points out that control of national forests by citizen groups, timber interests and environmental groups may not only be impossible, given human nature, but may actually do more harm than good. Coggins points out that groups like Defenders of Wildlife and Montana ranchers will never come to an agreement on the release of wolves into Yellowstone or migration of bison out of it, simply because, as he puts it, “No person, group, or industry in the West will give up its historical preferences, subsidies, and special treatments without a to-the-death fight in Congress and the Courts no matter what.”

And because most of these controversies involve federal lands, Coggins argues that it is inappropriate, if not illegal, for ad hoc special interest groups on either side to decide the fate of property belonging to all citizens. Coggins concludes by arguing: “The flaws in the current legal system will not and cannot be cured by the New Age wishful thinking that believes all problems can be solved by just sitting down and talking. … Some form of coercion is absolutely necessary, and it can only come from the law.”

So, to create a “politics worthy of this place” reflecting the “rugged terms of the land,” we ought probably to speak the truth about the land and the humans that inhabit it, which doesn’t always seem the best way to be neighborly.

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