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Git Home!




Getting down on hands and knees
to see what makes up the ‘big picture.’

© Mike Connelly

One night I was sitting at my desk, trying to make sense out of a new federal resource management plan. As usual, my desk was covered with rolled-up maps and thick government reports. When my wife walked up behind me I had a large GIS map spread out in front of me, and a confused, aggravated look on my face. She looked over my shoulder for a second, turned around, and then just as she walked out said, “Where would you be without all those maps?”

“It’s my belief that
any effort to address
resource management
in the West that does
not accept–or better
yet embrace–the
everyday local reality
in all its complexity is
doomed to eventual
failure. Kind of like
trying to learn chess
by pretending it’s

The more I thought about it, the more I decided it was a damn good question: Where would we be without all these maps? It wasn’t all that long ago that nobody knew what the West looked like from above, when it was impossible to see anything more than a small chunk of it at any one time, even from the top of the highest mountain. Did folks living then live in a different place than we do today? Is our understanding of “the land” and its demands superior to theirs because we can go look at it from the sky, measure it with our instruments, and then sit down and make pictures of it?

We humans enjoy taking in a whole bunch of territory all at one time, whether it’s from a mountaintop, on a map, or even in a scientific report. Although we like to think we are seeing more, what these “big pictures” really do is simplify things; they make the world in front of our eyes seem less complicated by obscuring all the messy details. It’s nice to believe, even for just a little while that the world is always as beautiful as the sun going down behind endless waves of mountains and valleys, always as simple as the color-coded legend in the lower right-hand corner, always as orderly as the conclusions and recommendations section at the end of a report.

Like the view from the mountain, we like our documents not just for what’s in them, but for what’s not. But the data that matters most to me, and probably to most people, is all the unverifiable, unscientific stuff that gets left out of those documents. Things like the family histories preserved only in the memories of our elders; the real hands-on work that turns raw nature into our food and shelter; the dense network of relationships that give form to even the smallest of rural communities; and the unwritten stories that connect human history with the landscape. These are the things that turn a landscape into something we might call “home.”

It’s my belief that any effort to address resource management in the West that does not accept–or better yet embrace–the everyday local reality in all its complexity is doomed to eventual failure. Kind of like trying to learn chess by pretending it’s checkers.

In the West, most of the focus of management efforts has always been on publicly-owned land and resources, with policies coming ultimately from thousands of miles away. For decades these policies have been heavily influenced by coercive pressure from national environmental organizations. Now some of my best friends think of themselves as “environmentalists,” but it has always bothered me that certain organizations have kind of wrecked the word for the rest of us–organizations like the Oregon Natural Resources Council (ONRC), which often seems more interested in fundraising and self-perpetuation than in addressing real, on-the-ground ecological problems. So I’m going to use another word to describe the organizations that would rather be part of a problem than part of a solution: “confrontationalists.”

For the last couple of decades, resource management in the West has gone something like this: Well-funded confrontationalists lobby Congress, resulting in the enactment of broad and general environmental laws. Regional and state officials, when faced with the daunting task of applying these laws in the real world, expend most of their limited budgets writing reports and developing plans.

The confrontationalists get wildly indignant that agencies don’t just roll into town with armed troops and declare martial law, so they print up dramatic and colorful “action alerts,” informing their corporate contributors and their wealthy urban membership that if they don’t send a bunch of cash right away a virginal and awe-inspiring national treasure is going to be lost for all eternity just so some Republican can buy a new Cadillac and some fat cigars.

The confrontationalists then sue the government for not “enforcing the law.” The local officials respond by throwing together an accelerated plan that they know is going to cost a lot of money, and that everybody knows won’t work. The jubilant confrontationalists issue another round of three-color, thick-bond fundraising literature proclaiming victory over the evil forces of corruption, collusion and resource extraction.

Now this arrangement worked fairly smoothly for a couple of decades–budgets were approved, reports were issued, fundraising goals were met–and there was no danger that any of our environmental problems would ever actually be addressed in any durable way, which would have made it nearly impossible for either the agencies or the confrontationalists to justify requests for budget increases.

But then someone came up with the novel idea that the local people who actually rely directly on the natural resources of a given area might have something to contribute to this effort. Some bizarre things started happening in townhalls and on streambanks across the West. Resource users and environmentalists started focusing less on ideology and more on the land itself. And things were getting done–things you could see with your eyes and touch with your hands.

But the confrontationalists saw such local, collaborative approaches as dangerous, as a threat to their very existence (which they most likely are). Wendell Wood, of the ONRC, described such efforts as “a monumental waste of time,” and as a front for extractive “lawbreakers.” Many recent litigious actions on the part of the confrontationalists seem to many to be directly aimed at destabilizing the delicate partnerships that have been nursed along for the last several years. The lengths to which they will go to maintain an atmosphere of hostility are almost amusing. In recent years, the ONRC has taken to publicly and self-righteously demanding that agencies do things that they have already done, like suing for ESA consultation just before the consultation documents are released, or suing municipalities for Clean Water Act compliance plans even after those plans have been submitted. More and more, these are becoming standard tactics of organizations desperately seeking to reignite the fires of righteous indignation that have gone ice cold since the end of the spotted owl wars.

But increasingly the membership of these confrontationalist organizations, and even sometimes their leadership, are beginning to ask the question, “What have you done for us, lately?” Michael Donnelly, vice-president of the ONRC during Andy Kerr’s reign, resigned after Kerr characterized the obliteration of resource-dependent livelihoods as “‘collateral damage’ in Kerr’s imagined War for the West.” He was disgusted that “a once acclaimed grassroots organization [had been] reduced to pandering for grants from big oil foundations.” And he complained that the “stump-pimping wimps of the ONRC” are motivated by the need for a “permanent threat [to public resources] that they can raise funds on.”

The confrontationalists’ policy of avoiding and even actively opposing collaborative approaches to resource management seems to have become an integral part of their fundraising strategy. And while it may be true that some other stakeholders participate in collaborative processes to save or make a buck, it seems increasingly obvious that the confrontationalists refuse to participate for the same reason.

I understand that in a democratic society it is important to have people with an outside perspective who are committed to “keeping people honest.” But there is a big difference between “keeping people honest” and deliberately derailing efforts that have been proven to result in improved ecological conditions simply because they are not in the political or financial best interest of the organization that signs your paycheck.

What is going on now in the West is no longer about “people vs. nature,” or about “jobs vs. the environment.” It is about, on the one hand, local people who will lose their livelihoods if we do not find a solution to these environmental challenges, and on the other, confrontationalists who will lose their livelihoods if we do find a solution to these environmental challenges.

A friend who teaches science back East told me about a technique that he uses with his elementary school students. He takes them outside and walks to a knoll overlooking a meadow with a small pond. He asks his students to count how many critters they can see. On a good day, he said, they will see 10 or 15. Then they walk to the edge of the pond and he asks them to count again. It takes a while longer this time, and they may count 40 or 50. Then they get on their hands and knees and look into a single square foot of water in the pond, and the kids give up before they’ve counted them all. Finally, the teacher puts a drop of water on a slide and puts it under a microscope. The kids get the point.

Until recently, resource management in the West has been organized from up on the knoll overlooking the meadow. But we’re starting to get down on our hands and knees and see all the little things and processes that make the view from the knoll so pretty and pleasing. A lot of people are beginning to realize that “The Big Picture,” by itself, makes it impossible to see the vital and vibrant details that make us at home in our respective communities, that matter more to most of us than any map or management plan. The solutions are out there waiting for us, but we will never find them if we don’t start looking in the right place.

Mike Connelly is a public lands rancher and federal project irrigator in Klamath County, Ore. He is an alternate director for Water for Life, an organization dedicated to protecting agricultural water rights.


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