Land Debates Lose Nastiness

August 2002. by Christopher Smith, the Salt Lake Tribune

With subdued lighting and sugary treats, professional mediators and cafe seating, federal land managers are tweaking the format of the typical public input meeting to cool tempers and warm hearts. The trend eventually may mean the demise of a cherished Western tradition: standing in front of a rowdy crowd and behind a microphone to vent your spleen at a government bureaucrat. Utahns got a glimpse of the possible future of the public involvement process for determining environmental impacts to public lands last week when the National Park Service hosted an "open house" to gather comments on updating the 1989 management plan for recreation on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

The 30-year-old debate over recreation use in the canyon is a minefield of user and environmental conflicts: how to divide use between private boaters and commercial outfitters; whether to ban helicopters and outboard motors used by outfitters; the fairness of a 20-year waiting list to get a float trip permit; and how many people are too many in the river corridor. Instead of the usual vox populi format of people getting a few minutes with a microphone to express their views to a uniformed federal employee, participants at the Sandy open house were given colored felt-tip markers and asked to draw what they would like to see in the Grand Canyon on an 8-foot-long map. Tables were loaded with brownies, cookies and bottles of water, and the few chairs in the hall were arranged around tables rather than in rows.

Displays explaining the pros and cons of various issues were stationed next to easels of blank paper that gradually became filled with handwritten opinions and comments. Every 30 minutes, a professional mediator hired by the Park Service would hold a small-group discussion in a separate room, writing down the essence of participants' comments and encouraging them to visit a court stenographer seated in the hallway to dictate their thoughts. The result was a public airing of divergent opinions in an atmosphere as laid-back as a Starbucks coffee house. "It was totally by design," said Mary Orton, the Phoenix, Ariz.-based professional mediator who specializes in environmental dispute resolution and was hired by the Park Service to orchestrate the Grand Canyon hearings along with public relations firm BJ Communications. "Sure, some people are disappointed they don't have a soapbox," she said. "But what we're trying to do is make sure everybody has a satisfying experience, maximize the number of useful comments and improve relationships between stakeholders and the park so they don't get sued." The National Park Service (NPS) began studying ways to diffuse the expected head-butting between user groups months before the series of public workshops that opened Aug. 1 in Denver, continued last week in Sandy and Flagstaff, Ariz., and conclude this week in Las Vegas on Tuesday and Mesa, Ariz., on Thursday.

"One of the first things we did was hire these outside consultants to help neutralize our presence at these meetings," said Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Joe Alston, who, along with his staff, wore street clothes rather than official green-and-grey NPS uniforms during the sessions. "In my career, I've been on the receiving end of some of the nastiest, meanest public hearings where things get personal and threats are made. Those meetings accomplish nothing toward finding solutions." Using principles of group behavior dynamics and social sciences, Orton met with 40 past participants of Grand Canyon river meetings in four states to get ideas for a new public involvement format before staging the open houses. "No matter what side of the issues they were on, everyone I met with said, 'Please make sure it is not as contentious as last time,' " Orton said.

"Last time" was September 1997, when Grand Canyon park staffers came to Salt Lake City to solicit public comment on the same issues for what would become an aborted effort to revise the 1989 river plan. Crowded into an airport hotel conference room, participants were watched by uniformed Park Service law enforcement officers wearing side arms. Grand Canyon National Park's top management, charged with making the decisions, did not even attend. The hearing erupted into near chaos and some people walked out when park staffers announced they would not allow verbatim comments at a microphone but merely wanted focus group discussions. The breakdown at the Salt Lake City meeting was an omen. In February 2000, then-superintendent of Grand Canyon Rob Arnberger said he was ceasing work on revising the river management plan because the debate had "intensified to the point of reducing the park's ability to bring together divergent perspectives toward collaborating and reaching acceptable resolution." Decrying "gutless" management, boaters sued the park and earlier this year reached a settlement requiring Alston, who succeeded Arnberger in November 2000, to hold new public hearings within 120 days and to complete revisions of the river plan by Dec. 31, 2004. Alston said he intends to meet the court-ordered deadline and wanted this second attempt to begin with more positive energy than polarization in the public scoping process.

"We all remember how bad those 1997 meetings were, and this new format is so much better," Richard Martin, president of the Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association, said during last week's open house in Sandy. "What we learn through this sort of public process is that these issues are not black and white. There is a gray area, a middle, where most of us live. That's the change I see." Added Mark Grisham, director of the Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association: "There is a sense of shared frustration and camaraderie on all sides that is helping this new format succeed. The situation is not as intractable as it has seemed and a reasonable outcome seems possible."

Tom Martin, founder of River Runners for Wilderness and one of the most outspoken critics of the park's current management of the river corridor, said he was dismayed when he learned of the new format, fearing it would "dumb down" the public input and diffuse deserved criticism of the park's policies. After attending Thursday's open house in Flagstaff, he changed his mind. "When you sit down with that court stenographer, you get a lot more than just five minutes behind a mike to explain your ideas," he said. "In essence, the park is casting a wide net to try to capture one or two groundbreaking ideas that may lead to the solutions they are gleaning for. I don't know if the public is seeing all the park's dirty laundry on those displays, but as someone who has been in the trenches and taken my own lumps, it's a much better start.

Orton said determining if the new format works depends on "whether the park gets some useful comments that result in something that brings people together instead of driving them apart." And that outcome may not be known until Alston signs the final "record of decision" on river plan changes 2 1/2 years from now. "It's our job to go forward with the process, and we hope we can do that by decreasing the tension and building some relationships at these sessions," he said. "People may miss the soapbox, but it's still fun to be living in a place where you can help decide public policy."