By Ruffin Prevost
CODY, WYO. — Managing high-profile public lands, especially national parks like Yellowstone and Grand Teton, often means navigating a minefield of public passions over hot-button issues like snowmobiles, wolves, bison and grizzly bears, just to name a few. Inevitably, it seems, disagreements over such topics end up being settled not in planning sessions, public forums or at bargaining tables, but in the courts.
Or worse still, even the courts appear unable to offer a final and workable solution for the most contested natural resource management issues, as has been the case for the past several years with snowmobiles, wolves, bison and grizzly bears.
Collaboration might always seem preferable to litigation, but getting feuding factions to sit down together to try and work through disputes isn’t as easy as it seems, according to four seasoned Wyoming public policy experts who debated collaboration in natural resource management during a panel discussion Monday at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody.
“It takes tremendous patience,” said Alan Simpson, who represented Wyoming in the U.S. Senate from 1979-1997.
“You have to start with trying to be a good listener and gathering information, and you have to try to find people on all sides who have a genuine interest in a solution,” said John Turner, director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from 1989-1993.
Joining Simpson and Turner in the discussion was William D. Ruckelshaus, the first head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Nixon administration, and again from 1983-85 under the Reagan administration.
Ruckelshaus is chairman emeritus of the Ruckelshaus Institute of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming, which fosters collaboration, research and education in resolving environmental disputes. The Institute sponsored Monday’s discussion, which was moderated by former Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan.
Not every environmental dispute is “ripe” for collaborative decision-making, Ruckelshaus said, because as long as one side believes it has the upper hand, it is unlikely to see an incentive in bargaining. But what may seem like a win in the short term can often turn out to be a costly and marginal victory over many years of subsequent appeals and contrary court rulings, he said.
Collaboration on resource issues requires sticking to initial agreements over the long term, Simpson said, something he claimed some environmental groups have failed to do after early recovery targets for grizzly bears and gray wolves were met.
“You can’t have anything collaborative or honest unless you keep your word,” he said.
Sullivan wondered how state and local governments could get the federal government to more readily negotiate on natural resource issues.
Turner said it was too often “good politics” to bash federal agencies, and that “those agencies, for the most part, have some very good people.”
Turner cited multi-jurisdictional efforts to protect greater-sage grouse as a good example of the kind of collaborative work that can move forward if groups put politics aside.
“There’s a great opportunity there if Western states whine a little bit less,” he said.
Ruckelshaus said that any policy decisions must include input from people living in affected areas, and should take into consideration socio-economic issues in addition to environmental and scientific data.
“When that’s not done, it doesn’t work,” he said.
All three panelists agreed that the National Environmental Policy Act, which guides federal land management decisions, began as a good idea which has since grown into an unwieldy process that doesn’t always best serve ordinary people.
Turner said that NEPA has “grown into a monster in process and bulk,” and that the law should be revisited to make it more user-friendly for everyday citizens.
Ruckelshaus quipped that the law has been a boon to environmental consultants hired to help factions analyze and comment on complex policy matters, but he agreed that NEPA should be “streamlined.”
Turner said news reporters are sometimes guilty of oversimplifying complex issues, while Simpson said the news media are too often more interested in focusing on conflict instead of the less glamorous work of finding solutions.
Too many reporters play up “confusion, controversy and complexity” over clarity, he said, and “when you knock on them, they shriek like gut-shot panthers.”
Success in collaborative policy solutions comes only through “continual perseverance,” Simpson said.
“Never give up, and never believe the naysayers,” he said.
Contact Ruffin Prevost at 307-213-9818 or [email protected].