As a govie, I often find myself framing things as a letter in my mind that starts with “Dear U.S. Taxpayer." It’s a great way to remind myself that what I’m working on is connected to something larger. It helps me appreciate the wider range of voices who try to engage but often feel disenfranchised.
Opening dialogues with people who have been critical isn’t easy. Breaking through the gridlock is quite an effort to have a conversation. especially when – up to that point – you have only disagreed.
In that scenario, the one thing all parties seem to have in common is the impasse, but is that really all? No. Everyone in that scenario is also frustrated because there is something that they feel strongly about or strongly misunderstood.
There have been a number of initiatives around the country to create formal collaborative groups to tackle this gridlock. The progress has been impressive and it’s a model we can all build on.
Fundraising Beer, Saving the Last Mill
The idea started with a brewery in Bend, Oregon that creates brews to raise funds for local groups as a regular part of their business model. In 2016, the Goodlife Brewing company launched Wildland Sessions Ale as a way to raise funds for the Deschutes Forest Collaborative Project. Not long after, the Nature Conservancy built on this effort and took it nationally to help raise funds for forest restoration work around the country.
It’s fun, innovative and a symptom of great working relationships that have built around a common goal: healthy forests.
For decades now, the way groups have presented their concerns about best forest management practices have culminated in litigation. The approach was effective in halting management all together with a number of other consequences to local communities and economies. In the early 2000s, people on all sides of the issue started asking themselves, “Is this working for any of us?”
The Blue Mountains Forest Partners, based in John Day, Oregon, is a group that came from this soul searching. In the early 2000s, a county commissioner approached the environmental attorney who had just successfully challenged a salvage logging project on the Malheur National Forest in court. They recognized that neither side was getting what they wanted.
It wasn’t easy but they realized that their goal was something larger than either of them. An area that used to support more than a dozen mills was down to the last working one. Communities were declining as their economies trended downwards. And this not only affected the local economy but the decline also prevented restoration work.
The progress was slow and impressive. The collaborative includes environmental lawyers, timber industry representatives and everything in between. The Malheur National Forest has not been litigated on a vegetation management project since 2007. The last mill remains open, populations in local schools have begun to increase and restoration projects are underway across the landscape.
Similar initiatives have been happening across the country. A number of studies documenting the impacts of their successes have been conducted by the University of Oregon’s Ecosystem Workforce Program (EWP). Govloop explored collaboration through a series earlier this year and with a research guide, “Fostering True Collaboration in Government”.
In one of the EWP studies, they looked at the intricate relationships between public lands management and rural communities in California, Oregon and Washington. Among other things, they found that community-based organizations “tend to fill critical gaps at the community scale and help to build the physical and social infrastructure for sustainable natural resource-based economic development.”
These organizations tend to develop organically and can be valuable partners in progress.
It’s a different approach; a practical one.
The key is to remember it’s a long game. It’s about the partnerships and requires time, patience – give and take. It starts, as always, with finding common ground. The benefits are widespread.