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Has 'Collaborative Conservation' Reached Its Limits?

A veteran rural land use planner says we need a new narrative to save the wild American West and the essence of local communities

The western slopes of the Tetons as viewed from Teton County, Idaho which is coping with an inundation of newcomers and people who work across the mountains in Jackson Hole but cannot afford to live there. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
The western slopes of the Tetons as viewed from Teton County, Idaho which is coping with an inundation of newcomers and people who work across the mountains in Jackson Hole but cannot afford to live there. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
EDITOR'S NOTE: How can community character be saved in the face of epic change? How can the ecological integrity of  wildlands be safeguarded in the face of growing human pressures? How can the soul of a special place be sparred from following the same script that has destroyed the essence of other communities like it? Lee Nellis, who has decades of extensive experience as a rural land use planner working with local county governments in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and beyond has written this insightful essay for Mountain Journal. He believes many corners of the West have reached critical turning points and it's important to openly discuss the limits of collaborative conservation.

by Lee Nellis

We—those of us who want to give future generations a West of abundant wildlife, open lands and sustainable communities that aspire to justice, equity, diversity and inclusion—need to create and promote a new story, a new narrative, a new myth about the American West and how it should work. 

If we cannot do this our efforts to sustain this landscape we love will be undermined and, ultimately, fail. 

There are two narratives at work in the West today. If you have been involved in land-use or natural resource issues, you will recognize them. 

The Narrative of Collaboration

Let’s begin with the first—the Narrative of Collaboration. What does it entail?

Somewhere near you, a group of people meets regularly to talk about a contentious land-use or natural resource management issue. Maybe more than one issue;  how many or which issues don’t matter here. Participation in the process is voluntary, though some members may have been “volunteered” by their employer to represent a specific interest. Some of these groups have been meeting for decades. Others (sometimes because they were planned that way) will be ephemeral.

Because collaborative groups strive to include everyone who might possibly be affected (the “stakeholders”), members bring different experiences and worldviews into the room. At a minimum they share one thing: a belief that working together will achieve a goal that none of them can attain alone. That goal may be a better future for their community. It may be to avoid litigation. 

Meetings are friendly and informal, led by a facilitator, usually, not a chairperson. There is an emphasis on respectfully listening to every point of view. There is an emphasis on having the facts. Carefully considering all perspectives and assembling information takes time, of course, and “the process” can be tedious. Fortunately, these groups sometimes escape the meeting room for a picnic or float trip. 

Despite the pace dictated by the search for consensus, the patience needed to build partnerships, and inconsistent funding, these groups get things done. They support the stewardship of both private and public lands in dozens of specific ways. Restoring a section of stream may be their most common achievement, but collaborative conservation groups have been effective in many other arenas.

Where they are effective—not every place can support a process that requires such commitment—these groups deal with the localthe particular, and the tangible. Their work occasionally influences state or federal policy, but their success is rooted in a shared sense of community and a willingness to compromise, to move ahead only with projects that can be supported (or at least not opposed) by every stakeholder. 
"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Makes Its Way" by Francis C. Palmer (1868)
"Across the Continent: Westward the Course of Empire Makes Its Way" by Francis C. Palmer (1868)

The Narrative of Domination

There is also another narrative. This one is called  the Narrative of Domination, which is the dominant narrative. It goes like this.

Somewhere equally nearby, another group meets. Its members also discuss land-use and natural resource management issues, but they are not seeking consensus, nor do most of them recruit those who have different points-of-view. These groups have an outcome in mind—it could be resuscitating the uranium industry or opening a trail in a Wilderness Study Area to mountain bikes--and they advocate for that outcome. 

Meetings of these groups tend to be formal and boring (the meaningful conversations take place away from public view). Facts figure more prominently with some advocacy groups than others, but they are not the driving force. The driving force is the group’s myth, its identity. Advocacy often seems to be as much about who (note that I did not say what) a group opposes as about what it wants. These groups host social events, especially celebrations of past achievements, but those occasions can be more ceremonial than fun.

These groups’ advocacy is not confined to the local or the tangible. They operate at all scales and are much more likely to present testimony than to string wildlife-friendly fences. This narrative is about power—about influencing decisions of the county commissioners, the state legislature, Congress—and it celebrates victory, not compromise. Advocacy brought us the national parks, the Wilderness Act, the Clean Water Act, the framework of conservation as we have known it. It has also brought us leaking Superfund sites, sprawling subdivisions, industrial recreation, and the current effort to dismantle the framework of conservation.

We all know that I am stereotyping here, trading off detail for brevity. The small conservation advocacy groups scattered around the West are only so formal. Their meetings can be great fun. There are advocates for industry (a term I use in the broadest sense) who understand the value of listening to different perspectives, who would like to contribute to a sense of community where they invest. But, having played multiple roles—advocate, conservationist, facilitator, planner—in both narratives for more than 40 years, I stand by these descriptions. 

I also state the following conclusion and stand by it, using bold for emphasis:  Collaborative conservation has reached its limits. It operates only (a bold word, not perfectly accurate, but true) in the shadow of the Narrative of Domination. In that shadow, it cannot do all that needs to be done protect and restore the landscape we want our kids to live in.
I also state the following conclusion and stand by it, using bold for emphasis:  Collaborative conservation has reached its limits. It operates only (a bold word, not perfectly accurate, but true) in the shadow of the Narrative of Domination. In that shadow, it cannot do all that needs to be done protect and restore the landscape we want our kids to live in.
This is not to say that collaborative conservation should end. The Blackfoot Challenge, the Henrys Fork Watershed Council, and their peers should continue doing what they do, as should the Gallatin Valley, Jackson Hole, Lemhi Regional, and other land trusts. We do not need a new narrative because these groups are failing. It is their success that proves my point. 

Land trusts have protected millions of acres of Western ranch and farmland from development. This has been possible because conservation easements could not fit better into the dominant narrative. An easement is a commodity, just like beef, barley, or a subdivision lot. And while donating or selling an easement may be incentivized by the tax code, it is voluntary, an individual or family decision, not a mandate. Nothing about the prevailing dominion of property rights is challenged. 

Beyond land conservation, collaborative conservation is most successful when it supports landowners in reducing their impacts—often the impacts of grazing, but farming and logging, too—on shared resources, again especially impacts on fisheries and wildlife habitat. This good work should continue, but with the understanding that it facilitates continuing commodity production, that it serves the dominant myth.

Collaborative conservation also has literal bounds. How far from local can these efforts get? Can they protect the immense landscapes, the multi-state regions, that are needed to sustain viable wildlife populations? At what distance do the personal connections and sense of belonging to the same place that fuels these efforts fade away? 

We may not know for sure. We know that collaborative conservation can work in fair-sized watersheds. We know that a few land conservancies—the Montana Land Reliance is one example—operate on a large geographic scale. 
Beyond land conservation, collaborative conservation is most successful when it supports landowners in reducing their impacts—often the impacts of grazing, but farming and logging, too—on shared resources, again especially impacts on fisheries and wildlife habitat. This good work should continue, but with the understanding that it facilitates continuing commodity production, that it serves the dominant myth.
But whether it can encompass more territory or not, we know that when collaborative conservation ventures outside the shadow cast by the dominant myth, the story changes. Independence is part of that myth (except, of course, when it is convenient to accept federal grants or subsidies) and so, the threat of federal intervention via the Endangered Species Act inspired collaboration to protect sage grouse habitat in Wyoming. 

We are about to see if the Cowboy State can repeat that effort as it seeks to protect long-distance wildlife migration corridors. But anything resembling success will require aggressive land-use regulation that is coordinated (if not enacted) at a regional scale, and not just on public lands. It will require telling the oil and gas lobby to stand down. 

Do the people of Wyoming love their elk, mulies, and pronghorn enough, do they care enough about their outfitting and hunting traditions to accept that? Their best selves do. Where else can you get an “I brake for MIGRATION” bumper sticker in the colors of the state flag? But it is not always peoples’ best selves who show up at public meetings or cast ballots.
We know what the failure to wisely plan and gauge cumulative effects by federal land management agencies has had on wildlife on the Pinedale Anticline and Jonah Field overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. Declines in mule deer and imperiled Greater Sage-grouse and severe impacts on pronghorn and likely other species. What's the parallel with counties failing to assess the impact of scattershot sprawl on private land and refusing to consider planning and zoning?  Ironically, Wyoming's fossil fuel economy has collapsed while its nature-tourism industry is booming. Photo courtesy eco flight (ecoflight.org)
We know what the failure to wisely plan and gauge cumulative effects by federal land management agencies has had on wildlife on the Pinedale Anticline and Jonah Field overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. Declines in mule deer and imperiled Greater Sage-grouse and severe impacts on pronghorn and likely other species. What's the parallel with counties failing to assess the impact of scattershot sprawl on private land and refusing to consider planning and zoning? Ironically, Wyoming's fossil fuel economy has collapsed while its nature-tourism industry is booming. Photo courtesy eco flight (ecoflight.org)
I have learned this from more than 40 years’ experience watching rural Westerners refuse to regulate land use in any but the mildest ways, seeing even gently progressive land-use plans blown away by the narrative of domination. If you need confirmation, ask my colleague Dennis Glick of FutureWest—he knows better than anyone—how difficult and painful (which is also to say how threatening to some interests) it can be to promote communication and coordination, no more, among public land management agencies. 
I have learned this from more than 40 years’ experience watching rural Westerners refuse to regulate land use in any but the mildest ways, seeing even gently progressive land-use plans blown away by the narrative of domination.Is there even one local land use plan in Greater Yellowstone that does more than instill a bit of order into the continuing subdivision of the landscape?
Where has collaborative conservation transcended the local, the particular, and the tangible? Is there even one local land use plan in Greater Yellowstone that does more than instill a bit of order into the continuing subdivision of the landscape? Where has any part of the landscape been held sacred, beyond compromise? Where has collaborative conservation led to a broader regional view, much less changed policy on that scale? Where has it changed the prevailing myths about the role of government and property rights? Where has listening carefully changed the story a community tells itself? 

Asking these questions is a grim task for someone who has invested much of a life in the collaborative approach. But there is one more question: the biggest question as I have come to see it. It may seem like a sharp turn, like a provocation (which it is!) but this question must be answered.

How can community-based conservation escape the shadow of the dominant narrative, the narrative of power that is shared only when it has to be, if it has never inspired a great novel, an epic poem, a powerful drama? if there is no popular film (nor even a hit song) about “The Facilitator,” if it produces no heroes? If it leaves everything open to compromise? 

The working groups and land trusts produce local leaders too numerous to list. I have been privileged to learn from some of those people, to see the patience and humor with which they try to create a landscape in which stewardship outshines speculation. But you meet these women and men mostly on the websites of small nonprofits. And they may be embarrassed by even that much publicity. 
Professional land use planner Lee Nellis, who worked with counties and local municipalities in Greater Yellowstone, participated in collaborative efforts intended to safeguard open space, wildlife habitat and community character in Teton Valley, Idaho. A lot of committed people got involved in the process which was met by pushback from people opposed to any kind of regulation. At stake is a critical wildlife migration corridor located between the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the High Divide Ecosystem. One local community conservation group, Valley Advocates for Responsible Development (VARD) has made the case for planned development using both ecological and economic arguments. Unfortunately, VARD is a rarity in Greater Yellowstone and almost no other community has a committed conservation organization scrutinizing the cumulative effects of development. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
Professional land use planner Lee Nellis, who worked with counties and local municipalities in Greater Yellowstone, participated in collaborative efforts intended to safeguard open space, wildlife habitat and community character in Teton Valley, Idaho. A lot of committed people got involved in the process which was met by pushback from people opposed to any kind of regulation. At stake is a critical wildlife migration corridor located between the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the High Divide Ecosystem. One local community conservation group, Valley Advocates for Responsible Development (VARD) has made the case for planned development using both ecological and economic arguments. Unfortunately, VARD is a rarity in Greater Yellowstone and almost no other community has a committed conservation organization scrutinizing the cumulative effects of development. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
In contrast, the application of mythic power by heroic individuals has been celebrated in literature since Homer. He had a ship, not a horse, but wasn’t Odysseus the first cowboy? The dominant narrative is a book people never stop reading, a movie that is always playing on some channel. Was Star Wars not a “Western?” Even environmental icon Ed Abby gave us a story about a man on a horse with a gun.  

Conservation advocacy has its heroes, too: Teddy Roosevelt (another man on a horse with a gun), John Muir, Rachel Carson, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, and the Jackson Hole Muries among them. Men and women who wielded power, even if it was just the power of the pen. But can we really imagine an heroic treatment of collaborative conservation?

How mythic is the story of a rancher who participates in the local watershed working group or sits on the board of the local land trust, raises good grass, and touches a firearm only to put an elk in the freezer? What type of hero is it who makes sure that those who do not share her views are not merely invited, but encouraged to turn out for a meeting? Can they challenge the heroes of the Old West narrative, the men (let’s be clear about the patriarchy here) who built railroads, emptied the plains of bison, subdued the Native Americans, opened mines and mills, set us on the path to the current edition of the dominant narrative? Manifest Destiny may have been watered down to “economic development,” but it is the same story.  

We can’t answer, because what I ask here has never been our question. We have challenged myth with science, not with a narrative of our own. After all, we have irrefutable information. We have theories like island biogeography to connect the factual dots. And our data are not only biological. We can show how the economy of the West revolves, in large part, around the appeal of its open spaces and wildlife. We publish great maps. We write conservation design manuals, instructions for development that will have less impact on water quality and wildlife. 

We operate, or try to, rationally. We believe in a science-based process in which facts are marshaled, laid out in charts, on maps, and in prose, then calmly discussed by all concerned, leading to good decisions. We have hoped, I think, that the logical appeal of this process would counter the dominant narrative. 
Traditional "collaborative conservation" has succeed in myriad small ways and sometimes at a minor watershed level, but never at the scale required to save a still-functioning ecosystem like Greater Yellowstone. So long as the holders of power continue to prescribe that the way to save nature is to consume it in service to human needs and profit, collaborative efforts that keep perpetuating this dominant mythological narrative will fail.  Nature and bioregions like Greater Yellowstone will only persist with healthy wildlife if humans acknowledge the things non-human creatures need to survive and even reframe the way we think about citizenship, success and community.
Traditional "collaborative conservation" has succeed in myriad small ways and sometimes at a minor watershed level, but never at the scale required to save a still-functioning ecosystem like Greater Yellowstone. So long as the holders of power continue to prescribe that the way to save nature is to consume it in service to human needs and profit, collaborative efforts that keep perpetuating this dominant mythological narrative will fail. Nature and bioregions like Greater Yellowstone will only persist with healthy wildlife if humans acknowledge the things non-human creatures need to survive and even reframe the way we think about citizenship, success and community.
But science itself is making it clear that our way is not the way most people do, ever will, or (possibly) even can operate. Moral and social psychology, and the “brain science” in which they are rooted are demonstrating that facts matter mostly when they support a story everyone already knows, a myth. And current events certainly seem to confirm what psychology is telling us: that most people prefer a comfortable story to an abundance of information.

People are going to interpret the world in the way that maintains their status in whatever group matters most to them. We feel safe with science as our lens because our friends see through it, too. But how helpful is science when you’re trying to blend in at the chamber of commerce? There is experimental evidence that the people who are best prepared to understand the facts, the best educated, work the hardest, not to understand new facts, but to make those facts fit their group’s ideology, their myth.

Our commitment to science also distracts us with the fear that we have not communicated well enough, that those who do not share our understanding will be persuaded if we just try harder. But we communicate science very well. That others will not rely on it as we would like is not about deficiencies in either science or our ability to communicate. It is about the pervasive power of the dominant narrative, about how relying on that myth will always be the default setting for those who do not make a conscious choice to do otherwise, for those whose individualistic ideology binds them to what they see as their self-interest.

Whatever science tells us about the ecological unity of the expansive landscapes we love, about the value of connectivity to the animals we want to see there, the dominant narrative compels us to protect that habitat as a commodity, one parcel at a time. It compels us to manage wildlife because it brings visitors (and their credit cards) to town rather than because our hearts leap when we see a grizzly or because there is the faint hope that we will see a wolverine. 
Whatever science tells us about the ecological unity of the expansive landscapes we love, about the value of connectivity to the animals we want to see there, the dominant narrative compels us to protect that habitat as a commodity, one parcel at a time. It compels us to manage wildlife because it brings visitors (and their credit cards) to town rather than because our hearts leap when we see a grizzly or because there is the faint hope that we will see a wolverine. 
To take a dramatic, if dated, example: Science can explain the potential impacts of a gold mine in the Yellowstone high country in great detail. But it cannot show us how to transform the dominant narrative so that the damage we know will be done will balance out the value of the gold that may be there. We had the facts, but they did not stop the New World Mine. We paid to stop it. It cost us, cost every taxpayer, more than $65 million to not suffer the harm the project would inflict. That is the cost, one of many costs, of not having a competitive myth. 

And so, I repeat, we must craft that new myth. We can save some scenery without one, acres of ranchland with cattle grazing at the foot of the mountains. We can have blue ribbon trout streams without a new myth, at least for a while. What we cannot have is a West that is more than a playground or a Greater Yellowstone that feeds our souls the way this landscape still manages to do. 

We need a mythic narrative that supports the patient creation and sustenance of community that includes all women and men and our wild relatives. We need a myth that tells us what is sacred, that helps us express our gratitude for our natural heritage This new story doesn’t have to be told just in prose or poetry. Art, music, dance, film, theater; any or all of those can be used. We can incorporate science, too, if we just acknowledge that most people aren’t asking questions that science can answer. They’re asking how to sustain a meaningful identity (and a livelihood, though that sometimes seems incidental) in an uncertain world. The myth of domination offers them easy answers. We have to match that.
We need a mythic narrative that supports the patient creation and sustenance of community that includes all women and men and our wild relatives. We need a myth that tells us what is sacred, that helps us express our gratitude for our natural heritage This new story doesn’t have to be told just in prose or poetry. Art, music, dance, film, theater; any or all of those can be used.
If we cannot give people a compelling alternative story, the narrative of domination—the story in which all values are reduced to dollars—will continue to define the space within which efforts to protect our landscapes and nurture sustainable communities succeed or fail. It will undermine conservation and planning efforts that fall outside the bounds it sets. We will lose much of what we love. We will pay dearly for little victories.
 
What will the new narrative look like? I will propose some specifications for it in an essay that follows this one. The question to end with here is: How does one assemble a myth?

I have friends who insist that myths can only evolve, not be created. Some of the academic literature says that values will not change. Perhaps. But what then is our alternative? It has been, I think, to believe that conservationists will eventually assemble enough political power to impose a science-based, rational narrative on the West. Can we do that? It must have seemed possible when I was organizing teach-ins on the first Earth Day. But I soon found myself taping poster paper to the walls of rooms full of stakeholders striving to find consensus. I didn’t see it then, not clearly, but even our best collaborative work (and there have been great moments!) barely troubles the dominant narrative. 

I propose, therefore, that we write, paint, compose, do whatever it takes, to create a new myth. I propose that we replace the narrative of domination with a new story, a story soulful enough that people will want to tell it to their children. What do we have to lose by trying?  
Beyond inspiration, though, our new myth must arise from lot of voices (and hands and feet) taking a brave stand. The only way to counter the myth of heroic domination is for us all to be heroes.
We will have to work together to do this, though with inspiration from individual artists. I’d be delighted to read about a collaborative process that resulted in wildness being protected before it was lost. We have The Lorax, but that is a tale in which everything except a single seed has been lost. We’re not at that point, yet. Perhaps someone who is reading this will write that novel. I’d also love to hear a song about “The Facilitator.” Will it be a rap? Country and Western? Maybe someone who is reading this will pick out the chords.

Beyond inspiration, though, our new myth must arise from lot of voices (and hands and feet) taking a brave stand. The only way to counter the myth of heroic domination is for us all to be heroes. And so, as soon as it can safely happen, even before we get through this pandemic, I propose that someone who is reading this provide the funding needed to get the people who are doing the day-to-day work of sustainable agriculture, art, conservation, facilitation, and planning in our region together. To invite also those who are native to this place (and may teach us how to involve voices that are not human), philosophers and psychologists, and publishers, all those who can contribute. To begin a conversation that may start locally, maybe even virtually, but then blossoms at a gathering held for the purpose of consciously beginning to generate a new narrative for Greater Yellowstone.
What do you think? Would you like to be there? I look forward to hearing what you all have to say.

Before signing off for now, I wish to extend my appreciation to our editor at Mountain Journal.  He has been patient, he has raised the right questions, and forced me past timidity while allowing me to hold my own voice. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: For further reading, take a look at Susan Marsh's Mountain Journal piece When The Government Tries To Think Big

Lee Nellis
About Lee Nellis

Lee Nellis is an elected member of the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Certified Planners and a pioneer of planning and community-based conservation in Greater Yellowstone and the rural West. He has taken sabbaticals from the constant controversy of western planning to work in Vermont, where planners are more popular, and to serve as a guide and ranger in the Big Horn Basin, the Thorofare, and other parts of Yellowstone. 
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