• Marc Johnson

Collaborate or Litigate


You’ll get lots of hits: Alaska v. Babbitt or Defenders of Wildlife v. Kempthorne or Andrus v. Shell Oil Company. Much of the litigation results from a legitimate need to sort out claims to competing rights. My right to use the land or drill for oil versus some other right to protect a species or complete a process.

But a good deal of the litigation over what we might broadly call “the environment” comes about because legitimate competing interests can’t find a basic level of trust in the other side to try and sit down and hash out a compromise that leaves the lawyers advising rather than suing. That may be changing a little as so called “collaborative processes” produce significant win-win situations in various places in the West.

Last Saturday’s Andrus Center conference in Boise highlighted two successful and very different collaborations in Idaho.

One – the Owyhee Initiative – resulted in legislation that both protects some of the most spectacular river canyon country in the U.S. and helps preserve a rural way of life in the rugged ranching country of southwestern Idaho. Fred Grant, a property rights lawyer who worked for eight years on the collaboration, told the conference his willingness to come to the table with the once-hated enviros had cost him friends, but the payoff had been worth all the heartburn and hard work.

The second collaboration has been underway in eastern Idaho in the Henry’s Fork drainage where irrigators, environmentalists and federal agencies meet regularly to work through water and habitat issues. They’re not looking for legislation, but rather a constructive forum to work on problems. With the Henry’s Fork Watershed Council they seem to have found the forum.

The Idaho Statesman’s Rocky Barker covered the conference that also featured Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and BLM Director Bob Abbey. Rocky’s piece today offers more insight into how the collaborative process is working in the Henry’s Fork basin.

Over the next few weeks the Andrus Center – I serve as the Center’s volunteer president – will distill the innovative thinking from the conference, produce a “white paper” and engage a working group in an attempt to create more forward progress focused on collaboration rather than litigation. Look for more follow up.

Collaboration that solves problems and builds trust has to gain more traction in an American West where fundamental values – open space, wildlife habitat, clean air and water, working landscapes that support ranching and resource utilization – are in danger in a changing economy and a changing climate.

To some, as former Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus likes to say, the word “compromise” is an unclean concept. But, if you believe as I do, that personal relationships built on trust are what ultimately make the world go round, then finding a way to collaborate and not litigate really is the path to a better future in the often contentious American West.

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©2019 by Marc C Johnson