Cooperation: Key for a successful democracy

by Ari van Schilfgaarde

Last week I focused on the goodwill and collaboration that led to the Xeriscaping of the new Health Center. The implication of the kind of collaboration that led to this reasonable compromise on all sides was mutual respect and the messy business of public involvement.

The great downfall of participatory democracy is that it takes time and energy that few busy people like to expend, and expediency decries. The reason that I keep harping on about true social participation is that without it – without educated and interested citizens/students – the things that sustain us (as a society and species) will not continue.  I don’t mean that last statement as rhetorical flair, nor as fire-and-brimstone, but rather a sober declaration of fact.  Here are some examples.

The undeniable appeal of the veneer of collaborative conservation is now evident in the rhetoric emanating from the Offices of Interior and Agriculture. Last week, the former governor of Idaho and new Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne began a “listening tour” of the country. He is following on the heels of Gale Norton, the recently retired Secretary of the Interior when she came up with the “Four C’s: communication, consultation and cooperation, all in service of conservation.” Secretary Kempthorne has since added “community” to the original four.

One might expect that with such a focus by the Federal land managers on cooperation and community, the Department of Interior would not go to court to defend rules that prevented public comment on any projects. The 2003 rules were designed to allow “environmentally benign” projects like logging and mining operations to cruise through rural communities like Walla Walla without the added trouble and red tape of consultation with, or cooperation of, the community.

Three weeks ago, the BLM – which Secretary Kempthorne oversees – auctioned off 22,000 acres in Colorado and Utah for oil and gas development on previously roadless areas. This despite calls from the governor of Colorado to preserve currently roadless areas and the fact that the new oil and gas rigs will go onto slopes that provide drinking water for 45,000 people.

Another major land manager in the West, the Forest Service, under the able direction of Mike Johanns was recently slapped in court for exactly the same overstepping of authority.  Using the 2003 rules, the Forest Service allowed oil and gas drilling and the logging of thousands of acres of your land without any sort of public appeals process.  This includes the recent leasing of land torched by the Biscuit Fire despite public outcry and the public dissent of the governor of Oregon.

But there are bright sides to these stories, and they all stem from the active voice of the interested and active citizen. Continued and active pressure has convinced oil and gas interests to donate the mineral rights leased to them by the government to conservation groups. In the Walla Walla Valley, local watershed groups, tribes and farmers have partnered to return the Walla Walla River from a dry trickle to a measurable flow year round. The most recent wilderness area added to the Federal Wilderness system is in Utah, where W’s approval ratings are the highest in the country. The Cedar Mountain Wilderness Area was developed in part because the people of Utah, particularly those near Salt Lake City, realized that their state would become a dumping ground for high level radioactive waste, and in order to keep their families safe, they joined forces with the conservationists to protect 100,000 acres of land.

By virtue of the fact that the interests of the conservation movement aligned with the interests of families, those interested in preserving wild places had allies to go to Congress and the decision making bodies. On a much smaller scale this happened at Whitman with the Health Center. Coalitions of interested citizens do, in fact, make a difference, and that is what four years at Whitman is trying to teach us.  Make a difference now and bring people with you; you only have forty years left.


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