TOWARDS CIVIL DISCOURSE: The Need for Civility in Public Land Management
By Gloria Flora

January 2000

Conflicts over public land management continue to escalate and challenge even the most innovative land stewards and community members. When values collide, the first touchstone, and frequently one of the only common denominators is the ability to communicate our views with civility and respect. Failure to do so exacerbates the problems, shifts focus to extremism instead to the real issues. Name-calling and blame setting replace solving problems. It is critical that we set aside emotional rage, not just for our communities but for the future of the West and the national treasure chest that we call public lands. We owe it to our selves and future generations to uphold civil discourse as the norm when discussing public land management.

So why am I here? Aldo Leopold summed it up in a quotation I put on the back of my business card. 'There are two things that interest me, the relationship of people to their landscape and of people to each other.' Frequently, those phrases embody a passion for those landscapes. How we treat each other is often reflected in how we treat the land.

Most of you are aware that at year's end, I resigned my position as Forest Supervisor of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest in protest of the pervasive and escalating intimidation and harassment of Forest Service employees. Let me be clear that I did not allege that there were prosecutable threats of direct violence. In the past 18 months there are none that I am aware of. However, there have been bombings and other serious threats within the last five years. I am also protesting the behavior of many public officials at all levels who either turn their backs or openly condone such behavior

Some say that I over-reacted. In an atmosphere of hostility, how do you decide when your employees are truly at risk? How do you calculate how many insults, personal attacks in the media, refusal of service in public establishments, are 'acceptable' and how many equal a precursor to violence? When actively hostile citizens threaten to break the law using 'Remember Waco' as a rallying cry and the local sheriff, the FBI and the Justice Department warn you and your employees to stay 100 miles away instead of doing your job... is that the warning salvo that violence is just around the corner? I remind you, the last time someone 'remembered Waco' in a very visible manner, over 180 people lost their lives in Oklahoma City. None of them reported a 'prosecutable threat' prior to losing their lives.

So, my point is simple. When frustrations grow and dialog becomes uncivil... nasty and personally demeaning towards individuals of a certain group of people, an unsavory element is attracted to the fray, like sharks to the smell of blood. There are far too many boastful threats about armed insurrection and civil uprising to be sanguine about this situation. When an atmosphere of victimization is cultivated, we shouldn't be surprised to find alleged villains in the cross-hairs of a want-to-be hero. The newspapers report on them weekly, in public places, in corporate offices, and to our horror, public schools.

My challenge to you tonight is to not allow the dialog about appropriate long term uses of our public lands to degenerate into hostility and violence so that someone can claim a hollow victory. It's not about winning and losing, it's about sharing and caring for the resources, and creating a vision for the land our children will inherit. What a tragic epitaph for our generation if our grandchildren look at lost species, degraded air quality and a lack of clean water and ask, 'Why was factional short-term victory more important than working towards a sustainable solution for the problems they so clearly saw coming?

When seeking solutions to complex natural resource problems, I find it worthwhile to step back and look at the larger context. This often helps us to understand why we are where we find ourselves. We must look at, local and regional history, social trends, the condition of the land and indeed examine the national and global trends that effect us.

Many acres of public lands are deteriorated. Non-functioning, denuded riparian areas, dropping water tables, degraded water quality, sediment in streams, excessive fuel build-up, loss of biodiversity, and species heading towards extinction confront us. And all of this against the backdrop of significant climate change and loss of ozone. There are still abandoned mines leaking acidic water with a pH of 2 and poisoning ground water, despite billions of dollars spent on clean-up.

A headline in the Reno Gazette Journal last week echoes grimly 'Ecological Bust during Boom'. The facts from the Worldwatch Institute are tough to read...

Looking at the social situation in the rural west, things are just as tough. The operative word here is change. Life as we know it has changed dramatically and the pace continues to accelerate with every new technological development. Despite the broad national economic prosperity, there are plenty of folks still struggling to get by. The 'have's' are getting mighty rich and the 'have not's' are seeing their buying power and political influence diminish.

A shift in demographics is evident, geography for many is no longer essential to job. Many people can work anywhere, and you know exactly the places they want to live... where the air is cleaner, and the mountains tower majestically over their new home in the last, best place. Indeed local culture is changing... name a town that doesn't have at least one place to buy expresso.

The population is shifting and growing. This requires a greater degree of tolerance and sharing; a greater degree of tempering individual demands for the sake of the community... getting along with others by working out equitable solutions to sharing the public resources. History is replete with examples of civilizations having to share or lose their 'traditional' uses. It's only been a little more than 100 years since this society appropriated all resources from the First Americans.

Now, a century later, we are again thrusting massive change upon the western landscape, its people and what our culture considers 'traditional use' communities. There is much to value in these hard-working decent communities and much we can do to ensure these communities continue to be viable.

Any conservation plan or policy for public lands that does not consider the economic health of both the rural communities of the intermountain west and struggling tribal nations is woefully inadequate. It is not too much to ask for the wealthiest nation on the face of the planet to have a sound economic transition strategy when we change the way we value and manage the resources on public land. We can not throw people out of work with just a shrug and a brief apology. However neither can citizens expect that their chosen way of life is an inherent right that all others must protect regardless of consequences.

Let's reflect for a moment on what we call traditional uses. By definition, that means activities that have been around for awhile.... ways that people have used the land. In many cases, that means extraction of renewable and non-renewable resources. Traditional uses in our culture tend to be associated with the theme of multiple use. A concept which, despite claims to the contrary, is still alive and well. That concept of multiple use was institutionalized on public land by an Act of Congress in 1960 - the Multiple Use/Sustained Yield Act. But many seem forgot about the second part of that title. It has been proven repeatedly that in recent decades, we did not harvest timber, graze, nor use water in a sustainable manner. We, as a nation, departed from sustained yield to increase the temporary flow of wealth. Now, we are paying the price.

The miracle of technology has been both a god-send and a curse. When the Forest Service increased annual output of timber from 4bbf to12bbf in the ''70's, logic suggests that there should have been a three-fold increase in jobs. Wrong. The number of jobs in the timber industry decreased by 40% during that same timeframe. Technology works wonderfully to keep prices low and profits high by improving utilization and eliminating laborer jobs. But the proclaimed villain? Not technology and change, it was the Forest Service. And what did they do? They finally started to follow the National Forest Management Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, and especially, the Multiple-Use/Sustained Yield Act. All Acts passed by Congress at the behest of the American people. And followed at the insistence of the public.

The angst comes when you are one of those who have lost or are in fear of losing your job as a result of legislation and politics. Politicians regardless of what you think of them are going to do what their contributors and constituents want. How do you think all these laws came into being? Contributions from environmental groups pale by comparison to those of business and corporations. If there were such great opposition to the Endangered Species Act, why couldn't a Republican Congress even come up with a revision that made it to the floor? The simple truth is the American public cares very much about the quality of their environment and is not going to tolerate a lowering of standards. Vitriolic rhetoric and threats from a minority does nothing but strengthen the resolve and prove that indeed stricter measures must be implemented. Uncivil conduct undermines the credibility of any cause.

Life has never been easy for those who choose to make their living off the land. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, it's likely 90% of individuals depended directly on natural resources for their livelihood. Since the Industrial Revolution, labor related to natural resources has been steadily declining. Now basic extractive industries account for less than 5% of our gross national product, that's the price of the product plus the labor to produce it. Life is getting tougher for those who want to continue to make their living off the land while contesting the changes that society mandates.

What do I mean by that? Well, pick up a magazine or turn on the tube and follow the harbinger of societal trends, advertising. Basic extractive industries - timber, mining, energy - are advertising big time. And they are using what sells, and I'm not talking about scantily clad babes, I'm talking about an emphasis on clean water, clean air, and environmentally sensitive management techniques. That's great. But it just might be a decade too late to save the jobs that technology has left unscathed. The American public has seen too many examples of insensitive management to be so easily convinced. They are not going to trust extractive industries until sensitive, sustainable practices are the norm.

It is not my intention to be harsh or cavalier. I've worked in small communities for over twenty years, I know how bad this hurts. But I am saying that this shift is just as inevitable as the massive societal transformation of the industrial revolution, the invention of the computer and introduction of mass communication. We have accelerated the rate of change, change that is inevitable. How we manage that change is critical for both the rural communities in the West and the surrounding landscapes. Civil discourse is step one. There's no bogey man out there. We're in this together, like it or not. We as a nation can't consume and waste, populate and communicate at this rate and expect that the rural west will be just like it was when we were growing up. There is no going back.

Respectful civil dialog is an essential tool in establishing long-term goals for the nation's natural treasures. In my opinion, this approach is essential in convincing the American public that an investment in the health of their children's inheritance is wise: a sound fiscal strategy. Such an investment in restoration and natural wealth accumulation will also bring a sustainable prosperity to the communities previously dependent solely on extraction.

Why do I think the time is right for the nation and especially the Intermountain West to adopt a new strategy in the management of public lands through civil discourse? It is because of the widening chasm between the majority of American and the groups fighting for status quo in resource extraction through local control.

For example, despite a number of people in the West being opposed to any further protection for unroaded areas, they are in a small minority. Just last Friday, the front page of the Wall Street Journal reported:

'Clinton wins broad support for his plan to protect more than 60 million acres of national forest from logging and commercial development. In a poll the GOP firm American Viewpoint conducted for the Heritage Forests Campaign, 76% of Americans said they favored the plan, including 62% of Republicans.'

Obviously, those who oppose change are in a shrinking minority. Granted, many of those polled may have limited understanding of the effects of such decisions. Rather than wasting energy on fighting, why not educate them? Wouldn't it be more worthwhile to focus on convincing people that part any new policy needs to include transitional measures for activities displaced? To ensure that forest workers can use their skills for the benefit of forest health? That maintaining the existing network of roads and trails is essential to provide a spectrum of recreation opportunities and access? Local control will be a continue to be a pipe dream if the majority of Americans see groups in the West promising armed insurrection if they don't get their way. To be taken seriously, one needs to act in a manner that commands respect.

The advocates for decreasing environmental regulation are outnumbered in this democracy. However, we are responsible for the fabric of our communities. We cannot disenfranchise part of our population, our neighbors, just because they disagree with the majority of Americans. We must work together to find a way to ensure all citizens are given the opportunity to develop sustainable prosperity and make a decent living in industries insulated from the typical boom and bust extractive cycles.

I recently read that a Montanan proclaimed that 'we, the people, will decide' what uses will be permitted in a heated protest of the roadless initiative. He promised armed conflict and bloodshed if uses were restricted. He's right on the first item, the people will decide. And most of you know that 'We, the People...' are the first words in the Constitution. It applies to all Americans. All the Americans who have been paying for the care and maintenance of the national forests, and subsidizing every use for over 100 years will decide what we leave for the future.

We are facing predicaments that can only be resolved by civil discourse. Through a series of events, natural and social, we are trying to make the land do more than it is capable of in terms of supporting us for the next hundred years. Clearly one of the least effective ways of seeking resolution is to vilify the federal employees who are stewards of this land we all share. What sense does it make to shoot the messengers?

In constructive dialog, maintaining perspective is essential. I'm aware of a recently published report of an elected official in Montana who likened a Forest Service manager to a Nazi for not openly rebelling against the roadless initiative. Similarly, a chairman of a county Public Land Use Advisory Committee in Nevada wrote a lengthy diatribe likening the Forest Service to the Vichy government in Nazi-occupied France. Along with false accusations against specific employees, he included thinly veiled threats against 'collaborators'.

To evoke the image of fascism and compare it to contemporary public land management in America is at best delusional and at worst, a disgrace to the memories of those who suffered unimaginable terror at the hands of the Nazi regime. Try to convince the relatives of millions of people who lost their lives that the situations that we face in the rural west are comparable. Exaggeration and incendiary language do nothing to elucidate issues.

A word about public officials... to my knowledge, all elected officials, as well as Forest Service employees sign an oath of office to uphold the Constitution and the laws of the United States. That oath should not be taken lightly. Those who wish to selectively support the laws, that is, only the ones that please them personally should recognize that they are violating their oath of office and doing a disservice to the public.

I find it somewhat disingenuous that those folks who threaten armed insurrection, are also frequent quoters parts of the Constitution. Quoting the Constitution is excellent, but let's not be selective or take parts out of context. The preamble provides the context, 'We, the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure Domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessing of Liberty to ourselves and our posterity.... '. I haven't heard a fed-basher yet who told me they were fighting for domestic tranquillity or to form a more perfect union.

Fed-bashing is a tough word. I define it as destructive actions or words, meant to hurt and belittle federal employees, personally and/or collectively. It's the dark side of the lack of civility. It's not much different than racism. You pick a class of people, you decide they are the source of your problems and you proceed to systematically make them unwelcome in your community. I don't begrudge anyone for being upset with certain federal laws or policies but how we handle that dislike is measure of our own personal integrity and ultimately, the yardstick of a community. Because I resent a tax, I do not have the right to personally vilify the tax collector or members of his family. Why do some media and elected officials, even federal officials condone this behavior? In response to my expressed concerns about the treatment of my employees and their families in Nevada, a member of Congress, casually quipped, 'You?re federal employees, what do you expect?' Try this litmus test, the next time a federal employee is personally attacked in public... substitute your name or imagine your child hurling those hurtful words. Is this what we want to teach our children? That fear or anger justifies hatefulness? That if you feel like a victim, strike at the closest target?

Let's look at the cattle industry on public land, where a very small percentage of American's beef originates. In many areas, the land can't sustain traditional levels of grazing. Plant species are lost, riparian areas shrink. When landscapes are degraded, people get alarmed and ask that basic stewardship be enforced. The Forest Service re-evaluates the allotment management plan and reduces allowable numbers in some places. Ah-ha! The range con and district ranger are villains attacking custom and culture. Wrong. What's the real story?

The real story is economic and social. The market for beef doesn't keep pace with inflation, production costs rise, middle men profit while price on-the-hoof plummets. Trade policies loosen. Cheap, subsidized beef from other countries flood the borders. People have grown concerned about their health; they don't trust chemicals, they want less fat in their diet. Although they buy significantly less red meat, they'll pay more for chemical free, low-fat beef. Ranchers need to understand that public values, market forces and international trade agreements effect their livelihood far more than Forest Service policies.

Some ranchers get it. They don't attack the Forest Service, they figure out how they can use the research capabilities of the government and universities to help determine better techniques to graze cattle, improving weight gain while maintaining habitat diversity. They switch to lower fat breeds, and stop using chemicals. They find a niche market for the product in demand, sell directly to the retailer and get twice the price. These folks work with the agencies and organizations to develop a certification program for beef raised in environmentally sustainable methods, creating a cache for concerned consumers and higher demand. They sell a conservation easement on the ranch and keep it in the family. They thrive, the community thrives and so do their cattle and the wildlife.

Their neighbors try a different approach. They make sure everyone in the community knows what those Forest Service bastards have done to them. They violate the commitments they signed off on in their grazing permit, overgraze the land and their cattle do not thrive. They mortgage the ranch to sue the Forest Service based on what they believe is a constitutional right to run as many cattle as they want, wherever they want on public land because their grandfather did. They refuse to change. They lose the suit and the ranch is subdivided. They suffer, the community suffers. Whose fault is it?

Well, my grandfather made a living selling ice from a horse drawn-wagon. If I was in the family business today, I'd be selling stainless steel-clad Frigidaires with ice-makers... on-line. Same business, updated product and delivery. Survival requires change.

I do not mean to oversimplify, there are fundamental problems that even the hardest-working folks cannot easily overcome. One is lack of market incentives to help transition to sustainable methods in industries. Shifting from dependence on non-renewable energy sources is one area that shows promise: fuel cell technology and solar advancements are emerging methods of providing energy, reducing demand for a non-renewable resources, reducing air pollution and ozone depletion, as well as providing jobs that can be located in rural areas. Organic agricultural products reduce ground and water pollution, bring higher prices and can be an economical small business in rural areas. There are many deteriorated landscapes and areas of poor forest health. Restoration using the equipment and skills of forest workers is a very viable idea that needs an influx of money and a change of perspective.

The paradigm shift required is that natural capital, i.e., the real dollar value or replacement value for the goods and services that we get from the land need to be taken into account. The cost of restoring degraded landscapes frequently far exceeds the value of what has been extracted. Although it may sound shocking to some, I suggest it would be a better value for the public to subsidize extractive industries to not operate on some public lands, especially during these tough times of transition. We cannot lose site of our responsibility to leave a quality environment for the future. The superfund sites and abandoned mines that we spend billions on to stabilize and prevent further damage are perfect examples of waiting until the damage is done to face the issue... and shift the higher cost to the taxpayer.

But, a plan for managing public land as a long-term trust, ensuring we're living off the interest and not depleting the capital, is possible only with the willing, civil participation of all interested parties.

We need to be willing to collaborate on solutions rather than wanting to overpower and win. Freedom to share and hear all viewpoints was clearly seen by the crafters of the Constitution as imperative. We need to accept the fact that we don't know everything. There is a golden opportunity to learn from our neighbors and for us to share with them our experience and knowledge. The bottom line showing respect and civility towards others despite what you think about their opinion or in how they express their relationship with their landscape.

I suggest that our personal relationship with the land is an excellent barometer of how we relate to other people. I believe there are different levels of maturity in land relationships. A child-like attitude may lead one to take the land and its resources for granted, as if it will always be there and it will meet all of your needs. In fact, it exists to fulfill your needs. A mature attitude recognizes that you are much more transient than the land. With maturity comes the understanding that you must give and sacrifice for the sake of the relationship. What you take must be returned and never take more than you absolutely need for the sake of the those who come after you.

Solutions are tough. We need to recognize that no one is going to win it all. But I remind you, this isn't about winning, it's about finding balance through sustainable practices. We're in this for the long run. Demeaning each other will not bring about solutions, nor will it suggest to the rest of the nation that people in the West are thoughtful, reflective, inclusive individuals; people who can be trusted to make good choices and therefore deserve greater local control. If we can demonstrate to the rest of the nation that we collectively are far-sighted, cooperative stewards, we will gain the support of the rest of the nation in our efforts to reach sustainable solutions to our considerable natural resource challenges.... civilly.