Breaking the Natural Resources Gridlock with Consensus Building

Jul 17, 2017 | EDR Blog

By Gina Bartlett for This post originally appeared on Consensus Building Institute’s blog Feb. 6, 2017. We are reposting it with Gina Bartlett’s permission.

In California, where I live, rarely a week goes by when the headlines aren’t putting a magnifying glass on the climate shifts in the West and their impact on our natural resources and people. We face stressed natural resources – and a series of heated debates among citizens, government, industry, and environmentalists about how we should allocate our scarce resources. Because of conflicting stakeholder perspectives, agencies do what they can with the information they have and often find themselves in gridlock, unable to define a clear path forward that won’t face strong opposition. The conflict escalates, our resources languish, key constituents become frustrated, and the public blames government. Photo Credit: Richard Ellis / CC BY 3.0

There is a different way forward, one that I have used with great success in challenging natural resource debates. This process starts by generating a comprehensive understanding of the problem by conducting an assessment — interviewing all key parties to determine their concerns and what they think needs to be addressed. This assessment helps level the playing field by ensuring that all important issues are on the table for examination.

The next step is to design an approach that will manage the entire problem, including social, environmental, technical, and political dimensions. My goal is to help the affected parties fix the problem in a collaborative, comprehensive way that produces quality outcomes, not to address issues in isolation with support from only a small subset of constituents. When multiple agencies or organizations are involved, I start by getting them to select representatives who can make decisions in the process. I then work with these individuals and others from non-governmental organizations, industry, etc. to generate a fair and transparent process that will drive effective decision-making, define how they will resolve conflicts, and outline responsibilities and timelines.

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A key to the success of these processes is determining the best structure for engaging different parties at certain junctures and avoiding involving everyone in all decisions – a common pitfall with these complex issues. For example, in a project I am working on in Lake Tahoe, we have a small group that is leading the process, and the group reaches out to the public, as well as policymakers, at points where their input is most critical, seeking buy-in and strengthening solutions. In the end, the group will present recommendations for key decision-makers to approve. When agreed-upon in advance by stakeholders, an approach like this uses people’s time efficiently, advances sound decision-making, and often results in unexpected breakthroughs and agreement.

Building on the comprehensive input and agreed-upon decisions throughout the project, the final step is to generate an implementation plan that clearly outlines actions, responsibilities, deadlines, and practices to ensure accountability.

One project where such a process yielded success and innovation was Owens Lake in the Eastern Sierras. Like most water resource issues in California, the issues in this story are complex and the history goes way back. The impacts of diverting water from the Owens Valley to Los Angeles for drinking water in the 1940s surfaced over time. Owens Lake dried up and toxic dust blew throughout the region, producing one of the worst pollution problems in the West. In the late 1990s/early 2000s, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) was charged with addressing the dust on Owens Lake.

I was brought in during 2010 to generate a collaborative solution. I conducted an assessment to understand the problem and the players. In addition to health concerns, environmentalists were hopeful about bird habitat, ranchers wanted to graze cattle, tribes were concerned that dust storms were exposing antiquities, and most wanted to conserve water. The issues were complex and viewpoints divergent at the start of the process.

Building on the insights from the assessment, I worked with the LADWP to convene agency regulators (air pollution, wildlife agencies, etc.) and other critical parties (tribes, ranchers, environmentalists) and design a collaborative approach, which included outlining a plan of action and timelines. This process, executed over multiple years and involving many complicated negotiations, ultimately led to a master project, addressing water conservation, habitat improvements, and dust mitigation on Owens Lake.

This is just one of many examples of collaborative success related to natural resource disputes – and we could have many more if people are willing to come together to collectively generate solutions. For agency heads, the collaborative process removes the burden that they alone bear the responsibility to solve these challenging problems, engages them strategically in decision-making, provides a process for hearing constituent views, and typically yields a widely supported path forward. The process also positions for future funding because agencies and organizations can demonstrate a multi-faceted strategy, with research and broad support. For all involved, this process offers a pathway to innovation.

We are surrounded by reminders – trucks carrying water to drought-stricken communities, homes burned to the ground by wildfire, and more – of how critical it is for us to come together on these issues now, for the benefit of all. It is my personal goal for 2017 to help areas of the West generate strong agreements on how to best allocate our rapidly diminishing natural resources.

Gina Bartlett is a senior mediator with the Consensus Building Institute. Based in San Francisco, California, Ms. Bartlett has more than twenty years’ experience as a facilitator, mediator, and trainer in consensus building and collaborative planning on public policy issues over a broad range of areas, including water and natural resources, land management, scientific and technical issues, energy, and education. She has extensive experience facilitating strategic planning and collaborative governance and mediating multi-party negotiations with government, non-governmental and business leaders, and other decision makers.