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Collaborative Conservation - Red Lodge And On

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Rocky Barker, journalist for the Idaho Statesman, their man on the ground who covered conservation of natural resources and the dramas that played out as contending stakeholders, at times unruly and violent, fought the issues out, in court and often in person, was one of the attendees at the Red Lodge Workshop, October 18 to October 21, 2001. The timing was unfortunate. 9/11 had just jolted America and the world, yet almost 100 people: ranchers, public policy people, academics, conservationists, agency representatives, journalists, people who fit the mold the foundation had in mind showed up at the Rock Creek Resort in Red Lodge, Montana.

Our letter to the participants read "We have sought to identify primarily individuals with direct and practical field experience and a willingness to engage in collaborative efforts to resolve resource use conflicts."

We weren't disappointed. Rocky e-mailed me last year, "It all started at Red Lodge."
That beginning, highlighting case studies of collaboration at work, encouraged the formation of well over a hundred new partnerships. It has also encouraged the participation of policy makers like Senator Mike Crapo of Idaho, Senator Max Baucus of Montana, house members George Miller of California and Mike Simpson of Idaho and others to lead the way in keeping contending groups at the table despite what seemed unbridgeable differences. The Owyhee settlement in Idaho is a prime example of patience and learning how to compromise issues and get on with it.

The Red Lodge Clearinghouse was a product of the workshop. Its mission was and is to help local people build the capacity, both technically and financially to work with the relevant agencies in an orderly and civil manner to resolve resource use and development differences. It also archived stories of groups at work and interacted with the Forest Service when Stewardship Contracting was introduced. This is a process that includes natural resource management practices seeking to promote a closer working relationship with local communities in a broad range of activities that improve land conditions. Stewardship contracting is a means for federal agencies to contribute to the development of sustainable rural communities, restore and maintain healthy forest ecosystems, and provide a continuing source of local income and employment. This approach was championed by Dale Bosworth, then Chief of The Forest Service, reporting to Mark Rey, undersecretary of Agriculture and former aide to Senator Craig of Idaho. These were not people of the conservation community, yet they backed a policy of accommodation.

It seemed that a new way of doing business had taken hold

"Cooperative Conservation" was the headline of a brochure published by the Bush administration in August of 2005. A conference was held in St. Louis at the end of August - "Dialogues in Cooperative Conservation - a Compilation of Facilitated Discussions." The agenda was much like that of the Red Lodge workshop: numerous case studies, plenary sessions, attendance by a broad swath of knowledgeable players, carefully and knowingly invited, and key members of the administration giving input and listening and learning. Quite amazing, I thought, but terrifically helpful. A poster child of the conference was "The Blackfoot Challenge," a multi-party effort in Montana that engaged local ranchers, Tim Love of the Forest Service, Jim Margulies of the Nature Conservancy and Hank Goetz of the University of Montana. The group remains active, productive, and best of all, Norman MacLean's beloved Blackfoot River is running clear, truly, now, the "the river that runs through it."

One would expect that the Obama administration, public-minded, would have aggressively continued the work of collaboration. But one would be mistaken. Last month a hurried get-together of resource-use experts was called for a single day meeting in Washington. Little effort was made by CEQ (Council on Environmental Quality) to canvass the field for the most knowledgeable practitioners. Staff was unresponsive and the meeting produced nothing worthy of distribution. That was it. The chair of CEQ, normally held by a person steeped in public land issues is now chaired by Nancy Sutley of Los Angeles, admired and capable, but more acquainted with issues of water and solar energy. Thus, perhaps this accounts for the phlegmatic approach to some of the more pressing issues on public lands and public waters.

The current grass-roots disaffection with federal involvement in land use is undeniable. Utah would like to float off and control all of its federal lands. "Return them to the people" is the slogan. That slogan is being heard repeatedly in the west. This is the time for a major push on the part of the administration to reawaken the collaborative spirit. Instead it is in the process of possibly reversing the "roadless area" principles of the Clinton administration so that new roads on public lands will be available for mining.
The Obama administration on the other hand clamors about "America's Great Outdoors."
This is a slogan, not a program.

This, while the atmosphere for collaboration is becoming polluted: climate change, natural gas drilling, oil exploration and drilling, coal bed methane, the processing of coal, the need to make the use of bio-mass to produce energy a practical tool, mining and grazing of livestock on public lands, public land fund shortages as drought portends longer seasons of fire and other issues are becoming very hot to handle.Contention is more rampant than ever.

The Liz Claiborne Art Ortenberg Foundation has been at the center of the community-based cooperative conservation effort for decades. Work on the ground to protect the soil, the creatures both human and animal, work to protect our waters and the life they support, and work to engage local people working together is what Red Lodge was about - and still is.