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The Western Confluence: A Guide To Governing Natural Resources

The Western Confluence: A Guide To Governing Natural Resources

by Will Harmon

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For 150 years, the American West has been shaped by persistent conflicts over natural resources. This has given rise to a succession of strategies for resolving disputes-prior appropriation, scientific management, public participation, citizen ballot initiatives, public interest litigation, devolution, and interest-based negotiation. All of these strategies are still


For 150 years, the American West has been shaped by persistent conflicts over natural resources. This has given rise to a succession of strategies for resolving disputes-prior appropriation, scientific management, public participation, citizen ballot initiatives, public interest litigation, devolution, and interest-based negotiation. All of these strategies are still in play, yet the West remains mired in gridlock. In fact, these strategies are themselves a source of conflict.
The Western Confluence is designed to help us navigate through the gridlock by reframing natural resource disputes and the strategies for resolving them. In it, authors Matthew McKinney and William Harmon trace the principles of natural resource governance across the history of western settlement and reveal how they have met at the beginning of the twenty-first century to create a turbid, often contentious confluence of laws, regulations, and policies. They also offer practical suggestions for resolving current and future disputes. Ultimately, Matthew McKinney and William Harmon argue, fully integrating the values of interest-based negotiation into the briar patch of existing public decision making strategies is the best way to foster livable communities, vibrant economies, and healthy landscapes in the West.
Relying on the authors' first-hand experience and compelling case studies, The Western Confluence offers useful information and insight for anyone involved with public decision making, as well as for professionals, faculty, and students in natural resource management and environmental studies, conflict management, environmental management, and environmental policy.

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The Western Confluence

A Guide to Governing Natural Resources

By William Harmon, Matthew McKinney


Copyright © 2004 Matthew McKinney and William Harmon
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-252-1


The Nature of Western Resource Disputes

The Klamath Basin situation is a dramatic illustration of the type of disputes common throughout the West at the beginning of the twenty-first century. A quick scan of any local newspaper or one of the West's regional news media, such as High Country News or Headwaters News, provides a bird's-eye view of an endless parade of disputes similar in tone to the Klamath debate. Despite the variety of natural resource issues, and the vastness of the West, these disputes tend to share a number of common characteristics. But to understand the interplay of these characteristics, it helps to first understand something of the nature of the West itself.

Nature of the West

Wallace Stegner, one of the more astute observers of the region, said that the two most compelling factors shaping society in the West are its aridity and its high concentration of federal public lands. With the exception of a few areas along the Pacific Coast, most of the region receives less than twenty inches of rain each year, making it a semi-arid to arid environment.

Ongoing concerns over the chronic drought seem to forget this basic fact of physical geography. The history of the region's settlement and development, however, makes it clear that the West is a "hydraulic society," dependent on a vast network of dams, reservoirs, and canals to move water from its source to where it is most needed—for mining and agriculture, and increasingly for urban centers and instream environmental values. In the West, conflicts arise over water in part because so many different users rely on common waterworks.

While the lack of water (and generally poor soils) in the West has determined mining, ranching, and agricultural practices and shaped urban growth patterns, it is the region's landscape that most impresses and captivates people. From high plains to rugged mountains, from deserts to rain forests, the West is defined by its wide-open spaces, abundant wildlife, and unparalleled scenery. The landscape has shaped history, inspired myths, and attracted people from all walks of life. It is also the focus of many public policy debates, largely because so much of the West is common ground.

More than 90 percent of all federal land is found in the eleven westernmost states and Alaska. The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management administer about 34 percent of the western landscape, including 83 percent of Nevada, more than 60 percent of Idaho and Utah, and more than 45 percent in four other western states (Arizona, California, Oregon, and Wyoming). The region also holds most of the nation's tribal lands, constituting about one-fifth of the landscape in the eleven westernmost states. Finally, these western states also hold about 45 million acres of "school trust" lands—federal land grants given upon statehood to help fund education. Taken together, these public and tribal lands dominate not only the physical geography of the region but also its politics.

Since the 1990s, the West has also been the country's fastest-growing region. The five fastest-growing states of that decade were Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and Idaho. Between 1990 and 1998, the region's cities grew by 25 percent and its rural areas by 18 percent, both significantly higher rates than elsewhere in the United States. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, Americans on the move are turning once-quiet suburbs in Arizona, Nevada, and California into the fastest-growing cities in the country. Some of the people moving to these suburbs left larger nearby cities, but much of the growth comes from the continued migration of people from other regions. The West is also one of the most urbanized regions of the country, with most people living in cities and with rural areas averaging fewer than ten people per square mile.

Historically, disputes over natural resources in the West have changed along with the demographics of the region. The first conflicts were between settlers and natives over land ownership. Once this issue was more or less established, conflicts emerged among settlers wanting to use the same resource—minerals, grazing lands, and water—for the same purpose. As people started moving into the West in the 1960s, more and more disputes arose over the use of common resources for different purposes. Debates over consumptive versus nonconsumptive uses of the land, commodity versus noncommodity uses, the economy versus the environment, and visions of the "Old West" versus the "New West" have been driven in large part by the changing demographics of the region.

Some of the West's fastest-growing cities are not job centers but residential, large-scale communities, revealing that not everyone who moves to the West is looking for work. That said, some of the region's growth is due to "footloose entrepreneurs," people whose work (computers and software, biotechnology, telecommunications, and so on) allows them to locate anywhere. Such people are increasingly attracted to both urban and rural places in the West. This shift in demographics, along with changes in the global economy, means that the region has slowly moved from a resource-based economy to a knowledge-based economy. Many western politicians continue to promote the myth that the economy revolves around the extraction of natural resources, but there is an emerging consensus among economists of all stripes that the region's future will revolve around a knowledge-based economy, not the traditional industries of farming, ranching, mining, and logging. Today, the West's natural assets—open space, forests, rivers, and vistas—add more economic value by attracting footloose entrepreneurs than can be gleaned by developing the raw materials.

As the demographics and economies of the West diversify, the region's political geography appears to be seeking its own gyroscopic balance. After the 2002 elections, the West's 117 congressional districts were split: 59 Republican, 58 Democrat. Similarly, of the eleven governorships, five were Republican (Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, and Utah) and six were in Democrat hands (Arizona, California, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming). The 2003 recall of Democrat Gray Davis in California, and the subsequent election of Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, though widely seen as a contest of charisma rather than partisanship, shifted that ratio to six Republican, five Democrat. During this same period, Democrats controlled only two of the eleven western state legislatures (California and New Mexico). Republicans controlled both the house and senate in seven states (Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming), and the parties split the chambers in Nevada and Washington (Republicans controlled the senate and Democrats the house in both states).

The West's aridity and landscape, demographic and economic trends, and political geography help define the region's identity and set it apart from the rest of the country. They also provide a foundation for understanding the nature of disputes over natural resources in the West.

Nature of Western Resource Disputes

Box 1.1 provides a simple but comprehensive list of characteristics common to most western resource disputes. This framework provides one way to analyze western resource disputes, identify the source of disagreements, and understand the behavior of the disputing parties. It helps explain both the chronic nature and the durability of disputes and suggests what needs to change in order to arrive at more sustainable solutions.

Multiple Parties

The first and most obvious characteristic of western resource disputes is that they involve multiple parties—farmers and ranchers; conservationists and environmental advocates; old-timers and newcomers; local, state, federal, and tribal governments; business and industry; community leaders and private citizens. Given these multiple parties, disputes emerge and are difficult to resolve for a number of reasons.

Many disputes arise because of a clash of values. Environmental philosophers have helped us understand that natural resources provide a plethora of values, including biological, economic, recreational, aesthetic, scientific, historical, cultural, religious, and intrinsic values. While many of these natural values are compatible with one another, there is an inherent tension between economic value, which is often consumptive, and other natural values, which are frequently nonconsumptive and difficult to quantify. Such disputes are often framed as a choice between livable communities and vibrant economies or a healthy landscape. The disagreement over the use of water for agricultural purposes or the protection of endangered fish in the Klamath River basin is a case in point.

Natural values other than economic may also conflict with one another, such as the tension over managing national parks for recreation as well as for biological, scientific, historical, cultural, and aesthetic values (or the tension over providing water to one endangered fish to the detriment of another, as in the Klamath). People who care about the West also hold strong ideological beliefs, such as the nonnegotiable and often conflicting principles of private property and the public trust. In the Klamath situation, for example, conservationists argue that maintaining stream flows and protecting endangered fish produces a greater public benefit than using that water to irrigate a relatively small amount (in the national scope of agricultural production) of cropland. Irrigators counter that reducing or eliminating their water allocation not only ignores the legal right they hold to that water but also unduly restricts how they can use their land, amounting to a "taking" of their private property rights.

Conflict among values is often framed as an issue of rights. In the Klamath Basin, the basic value conflict between people who believe that the best use of the water is irrigating crops and others who believe that fish and wildlife deserve priority is being played out, at least in part, in terms of the legal rights to use water. Because values and rights are almost always a factor in western resource disputes, it often helps to set aside—but not ignore—these differences and refocus on what the parties need to satisfy their interests. If the issues cannot be reframed to focus on the needs or interests of the parties, it may be difficult, if not impossible, to constructively resolve the dispute and prevent recurrences. In the Klamath Basin water crisis, key players continue to characterize the central dispute as "fish versus farmers," which limits the field of apparent options for resolving the problem and splits the disputants into two hostile camps rather than helping them work together to solve the common problem of insufficient water at critical times.

Sometimes disputes over western resources are based on competing interests. In the Klamath situation, for example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service represents two interests (protecting species listed under the Endangered Species Act and fulfilling the broader priorities of the basin's wildlife refuges) competing for the same limited resource. Interest-based conflicts occur over substantive issues (such as the allocation of water), procedural issues (whether citizens and tribal people, for example, have meaningful opportunities to participate in the process of decision making and dispute resolution in the Klamath), and psychological issues (perceptions of trust, fairness, and respect). To effectively resolve interest-based disputes, all affected parties must have their interests meaningfully satisfied in each of these three areas. In the Klamath case, few of the parties have seen their interests satisfied in any one of these areas (and all are competing for the same limited resource—water)—and so the conflict continues.

Many western resource disputes are also intensified because of complicated relationships among the multiple parties. Historic tension, lack of trust, and misperceptions often prevent the affected parties from focusing on the substantive issues and their real interests because they see the opposition as inherently suspect. Impaired relationships erode any sense of community and prevent people from developing a common sense of place or purpose. Coalitions often form among groups with similar interests, and communication outside the coalition becomes increasingly difficult. New players frequently emerge as issues are reframed and new solutions are proposed. Parties may vary in the degree to which they want to maintain and improve their relationship with other stakeholders.

Given the multitude of players that are commonly involved in western resource disputes, it is not surprising that the parties possess varying types and levels of power. In the Klamath situation, each party has its own perspective on the history of the problem and the legitimacy of the other parties' concerns, and chooses from a smorgasbord of strategies for advancing its interests over the competing interests of other parties. Each party may also prefer or insist on one decision-making forum over others, hoping for a more favorable outcome from the courts, say, than from an agency's internal planning process. Some parties will have more access to money or decision makers or have more scientific and technical resources than others.

Complex Information

Another common characteristic of western resource disputes, and another source of such disputes, is complex information. As illustrated by the Klamath Basin situation, many disputes are characterized by a lack of information, rampant misinformation, different views on what types of information are relevant, different procedures for collecting and assessing data, and different interpretations of data. In the Klamath Basin, the parties are trying to come to grips with interrelated and highly complex water and biological systems, further complicated by the overlay of dams, ditches, water rights, and a multiplicity of laws and regulations. It's no surprise, then, that the federal agencies responsible for managing most of the resources in the basin have so far been unable to agree on what constitutes the "best available science." Information-related problems are magnified when long-term impacts are uncertain or appear to be irreversible, and when people differ in their willingness to accept risk.

The complexity of information also influences the way different parties "frame"—or interpret and understand—a situation. How an issue is framed influences the degree to which people perceive it as intractable. The debate over federal lands and resources, for example, is frequently framed as a competition of local versus national interests. But what do we mean by "local" or "national"? How do we define such terms, much less bring them together for meaningful discussions?

A Briar Patch of Policies and Institutions

In response to the physical geography of the western landscape, unique policies and institutions have grown up organically from the land and the people who inhabit it. Historian Walter Prescott Webb argued that there is an "institutional fault" running along the 100th meridian. West of the 100th meridian, where most areas receive fewer than 20 inches of precipitation annually and irrigation is necessary to grow most crops, society has created a number of distinctive institutions adapted to demands of the landscape. Two of the region's most influential and durable laws emerged in the mid-to late nineteenth century: the prior appropriation doctrine in water law and the Hardrock Mining Law of 1872. These and other policies, which are examined more closely in chapters 2 and 3, promoted the laissez-faire attitude of the time, providing free and open access to public resources governed by an unrefined rule of capture. This 150-year-old body of laws and policies still pervades western resource policy and favors commodity interests. The laws are joined with numerous other laws and policies (notably the National Environmental Policy Act) that apply disproportionately to western resources, such as timber in the national forests, grazing on public lands, endangered species, and wilderness.

Each piece of the framework governing western resources, taken by itself, can be seen as good public policy, developed in response to the concerns and needs of the time in which it was enacted. Each substantive goal and procedural requirement is, for the most part, well intended. Taken together, however, the policies and institutions create a briar patch of often overlapping and contradictory efforts to manage resources and resolve disputes. As illustrated by the Klamath River basin situation, issues may cross many different jurisdictions, and responsibilities are often fragmented or overlapping. The fractured political geography of the region means that any given dispute may involve several federal agencies, tribal governments, governors, state and congressional legislators, counties, and cities. The convoluted mix of laws, policies, institutions, and jurisdictions means that a clash in priorities is inevitable. Should tribal water rights take precedence over irrigation water rights? Are endangered species more valuable than the local economy based on irrigated agriculture? Should one endangered fish be protected to the detriment of another endangered fish?


Excerpted from The Western Confluence by William Harmon, Matthew McKinney. Copyright © 2004 Matthew McKinney and William Harmon. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

MATTHEW MCKINNEY is director of the Public Policy Research Institute at the University of Montana in Missoula.

WILLIAM HARMON is communications director of the Western Consensus Council based in Helena, Montana.

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