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Can Utah talk constructively about the environment?

Published January 21, 2013 3:24 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

"A lesson relearned: Consensus can be achieved."

This quote from a participant in the Collaborative Group on Sustainable Grazing for U.S. Forest Service Lands in Southern Utah gives me hope that we have reached the tipping point for productive dialogue on Utah's many environmental, natural resource and energy issues.

The group issued its final report and consensus recommendations on Dec. 31. The collaboration, convened by Utah Department of Agriculture & Food Commissioner Leonard Blackham and Department of Natural Resources Director Mike Styler, included representatives from the livestock industry, conservation and sportsmen's interests, state and federal agencies, universities and local governments.

After a year of hard work, the group developed consensus agreement on grazing management principles and practices that provide for ecological sustainability, and that are socially acceptable and economically viable.

How did they do it? Through dialogue.

Webster's defines "dialogue" as a conversation, an exchange of ideas and opinions, discussion aimed at resolving conflict. Another participant commented: "When one can hear, first-hand, the concerns and wishes of those who are otherwise perceived as 'on the other side of the issue,' it makes it much harder to reject views when they don't align with your own."

But this was not the only example.

In mid-December, environmental groups and Great Salt Minerals Corp. reached agreement on long-standing environmental issues related to operation of evaporation ponds in Great Salt Lake. While a legal challenge to the company's discharge permit prompted this dialogue, the settlement initiates continuing dialogue through a transparent monitoring program offering information access and opportunities to discuss monitoring results.

Dialogue is also going on in a county-specific pilot project to resolve hitherto intractable differences over RS 2477 roads. Agreement was reached in 2012 to resolve environmental and other concerns related to oil and gas development by Anadarko in the Uinta Basin. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality is spearheading a collaborative approach to finding solutions to air-quality issues related to oil and gas development in the Basin.

These examples — and many more — involve issues with a history of extreme controversy and parties that often are perceived as inflexible. But now, diverse interests are discovering the benefits of dialogue.

The Environmental Dispute Resolution Program at the S.J. Quinney College of Law's Wallace Stegner Center recently issued a report card on environmental dispute resolution in Utah. It is based on a written survey and confidential interviews with a cross-section of stakeholders in conflicts over Utah's environment and natural resources.

Based on this informal assessment, the stakeholders find three practical outcomes legitimate and compelling.

First, talk that leads to agreement provides certainty. Longtime adversaries value the ability to move past roadblocks and find workable solutions that allow projects and activities to begin or continue.

Second, dialogue fosters conversation about core concerns, which creates opportunities to pursue creative solutions that address the "real" issues, regardless of whether a court might order the same result.

Third, dialogue is an effective means of doing business. Many stakeholders are glad for a chance to build long-term relationships that might help prevent, or at least manage, future conflicts.

My wish for the new year is that many more decision-makers and concerned individuals will have the courage to engage in the dialogue necessary to fully understand possible solutions to Utah's environmental, natural resource and energy challenges.

Michele Straube is director of the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program at the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment in the S.J. Quinney College of Law, University of Utah.