Two Ways to Do the (Dam) Thing

Breaching Snake River dams could save salmon and orcas, but destroy livelihoods, Ron Judd’s recent article in the Seattle Times’ Pacific Northwest Magazine, does a pretty good job of presenting a side that doesn’t generally get a whole lot of air west of the Cascades.

This is not to say it isn’t very sad, but hoisting a mama Orca pushing her dead calf flag is also a highly opportune, brilliant piece of PR designed to move one-dimensional knee jerk reactions.

Breaching dams is on a long list of environmental conflicts (Klamath water, Delta smelt, spotted owl, wolf reintroduction, public lands grazing, etc.) pitting environmental interests against human interests. In the conflict resolution business we call these intractable conflicts.

We should call them seemingly-intractable because they can be solved, but only if we work together.

My watershed friend Dennis Bowker shared this bit of wisdom with me. He says, there are only two ways to do a thing:

  • The way we’ve always done it, and
  • Some other way..

Dennis is right.

The first, the way we’ve always done it with torches and pitchforks, name calling, and lawsuits seldom solves longterm problems. We may win a skirmish but typically lose the war.

How has that been working for us – all of us? Not so well.

People with brains and courage must focus on finding the second way to do this (dam) thing: some other way.

There are other options – likely more than one – other ways to satisfy multiple goals. We need leaders – from all sides – with the courage to step forward and help advance them in every resources-based conflict.

I come from a ranching family, I’ve lived in counties dependent on timber and grazing on public lands. I know about loss and I understand the worth of traditional socioeconomic industries and the value of healthy resources. For the past eight years I’ve worked in a voluntary agricultural stewardship/conservation partnership to give landowners tools to balance human and natural environments and educate the general public.

What these diverse experiences have taught me is that there are truly more of us who would prefer to work in the middle than mobilize to the fringes. I have seen a steady migration to that effective, committed center here in Idaho. It started with the groundbreaking Owyhee Initiative and continues in so many other efforts now underway.

To get to that fertile place requires rejecting dog whistles of every ilk. It requires a willingness to look for common ground and to build trust. It requires standing up for people and things we might never have embraced a decade ago. It requires we evolve in both understanding and ways of handling conflict.

Dams or industry, wolves or livestock, Delta smelt or water for communities and Agriculture, these false dichotomies are effectively advanced by people with one-dimensional agendas.

We’ll only succeed in finding some other way if we marginalize the radical noisemakers, if we reject the way we’ve always rallied to our coalitions and look for it. Look hard in good faith.

There’s another way. Let’s find it together.

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