The foundation for effective collaboration
by Mary OBrien
This week is the 29th Public Interest Environmental Law Conference (PIELC) at the UO. I remember attending the first PIELC in 1982. If I recall correctly, it was scheduled for just a Thursday afternoon and Friday, not four days. I was in my second year of working at Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides and was thrilled to have the chance to learn about environmental laws, and how I might make sure they are followed. I brought a small cassette recorder to tape what I was hearing.
Im back for the PIELC this year. (I dont think Ive missed more than one or two.) While my love of strong environmental law and of citizen litigation when it is necessary remains, I am much more conscious now than I was in 1982 of the complementary role of collaboration within the sideboards of environmental law (or labor law, or civil rights law). Generally, when environmental (or labor or civil rights) litigation is completed, someone has won and someone has lost. Thats not necessarily bad, because sometimes, for the sake of a society guarding its natural resources, environmental or social health, and future generations, someone needs to lose.
But losers can be a pretty sore bunch, and they often have a lot more money and political power than the winners. And thats where collaboration comes in. Because more often than we think, there are more possibilities than a stark win-loss (think Wisconsin).
Once, when some power companies were duking it out over who would build how many dams on the Snake River in Hells Canyon, the Supreme Court didnt decide between them, but rather sent the case back down to a lower court to consider whether any dams needed to be built in Hells Canyon at all. Its that kind of thinking that often comes up in collaborations.
Ive spent the better part of the last 30 years in one collaboration or another ã whether developing alternatives to aerial herbicide spraying on national forests in Oregon and Washington; drafting Oregon groundwater legislation; developing Toxics Board and industry reporting processes following passage of Eugenes Toxics Right-to-Know Law; considering alternatives to the West Eugene Parkway; developing a new management plan for Hells Canyon; developing aspen restoration guidelines for national forests in Utah; jointly drafting a beaver plan for Utah; or grazing cattle differently on some beat-up national forest allotments in southern Utah.
The end result of a successful collaboration feels different than a win in court. There isnt the fist-pumping rush. Generally, there are just some quiet last hours of wording being worked out by the ones who are still willing to sit in a chair. But collaboration, particularly if it has run on consensus and all principal stakeholders have had a strong, informed representative, generates its own rewards.
One of them is that a solution has been reached that seems workable to all, and thus is likely to be implemented rather than undermined.
Another is the gratifying moments when a participant has broken a stalemate with a suggestion that seems just right to everyone. The interesting thing is that it isnt always the same person. Sometimes a person who got stuck in one situation is the very person who unsticks everyone else at another point in the collaboration. Sometimes the person who offers a workable solution is one who would have been expected to have opposed such a solution.
And thats the best of collaboration: when each participant is honestly working at hearing everyone else and looks a little sideways at the situation and sees some possibility that hadnt been on the table till then. Sometimes its just a different wording; at other times a significantly different way to accomplish underlying, rather than surface needs. But each time the participants get unstuck they get an increased sense the collaboration is working. And each time one of the participants is generous at changing, others are more likely to be generous.
There is a prerequisite for collaboration, however, and that is good environmental (or labor or civil rights) law. We do need to decide we will protect the Earth and societys opportunities for everyone. And then were surprisingly good at putting our heads together to figure out how to do that, to the ultimate benefit of all.
Mary OBrien has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She is currently dividing her time between Eugene and Castle Valley, Utah.