As the popular narrative has it, Wyoming residents can neither get along nor solve problems. If the media are to be believed, we are a rather uncivil bunch who certainly cannot deliberate our way to agreement on serious issues.
My experience tells me otherwise.
As a facilitator of natural resource public policy processes, I have seen Wyomingites with wildly differing opinions roll up their sleeves to hammer out the thorniest issues. And more than ever, we need to acknowledge and use this collaborative capacity. If you invite people in Wyoming with different interests and needs to voluntarily participate in this time-consuming unraveling, solutions appear. They learn complex technological information together, deliberate options and trade-offs, find out where there is disagreement, and the reasons for them and — very often — find recommendations that meet as many interests as possible.
There is no shortage of problems. Dynamics related to technology, demographics, the pandemic, climate change and public mores challenge our deeply held cultural perspectives and values concerning landscape and community. With these shifts comes loss. Fluctuating market demands are changing Wyoming’s energy economy, for example, whereby jobs are sometimes lost, or gained at unsustainable speed. Community structure and long-held beliefs are affected.
However, we can use collaborative problem-solving tools to tackle these shifts. For this to work, we stress one common goal: allow Wyoming people to understand and create possible options, build consensus and collaboratively find trusted solutions that minimize loss.
We who work in the field of conflict resolution have seen this process work repeatedly. In my 30 years of experience, recent examples include the Wyoming Game and Fish Department tackling the “wicked” (complex and controversial) topic of chronic wasting disease, Wyoming State Parks and Cultural Resources convening an Outdoor Recreation Taskforce that resulted in numerous recommendations and federal agencies and non-governmental organizations taking on collaborative problem-solving initiatives.
How do we make these collaboration processes as successful as possible? I often hear past “failures” cited as “evidence” that collaborative problem solving doesn’t work. We’ve had our struggles, yet in every case, having the conversation was laudable.
For example, the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative gave interested parties a chance to learn the level of agreement that can be reached regarding Wilderness Study Areas. In some cases we learned that the available common ground is considerable, in others not. This effort reminds us that when a topic is very controversial, it can be better to frame it as “let’s explore the topic and related interests” first. If participants find such a learning process to be productive, then they can progress into agreement-making.
Another reason I’ve heard a process termed “unsuccessful” or worse, a “sham” is that the decision had already been made. In other words, the process was to meet the requirement of public engagement and did not influence the decision one way or another. No disagreement there: that is a sham process. Successful collaborative problem solving is based on the acronym FOTE: full, open and transparent exchange. An insincere public-engagement effort is not that. Fortunately, I hardly ever feel this is the case in Wyoming.
A process will founder with positional participants, i.e. when stakeholders have an outcome in mind and cannot/will not engage in a deliberation based on others’ interests or explore the reasons behind positions. And if participants can find a better alternative and find their needs met outside the collaborative process, this can also render the effort moot.
One component of Wyoming’s collaborative capacity is that we have strong conflict resolution expertise, including in the fields of natural resources, education and community health. Colleagues at the Ruckelshaus have worked with outdoor recreation collaboratives, facilitated the Wyoming Renewable Energy Siting Collaborative and the Pole Mountain Gateways project with the US Forest Service. There is more expertise in Jackson, Cody, Cheyenne, Gillette and other parts of Wyoming. These consultants and the Ruckelshaus Institute also offer a variety of training and education opportunities in collaborative skills and leadership.
Our federal land management partners are becoming increasingly adept at collaborative problem-solving. Challenges remain, however. Many of us believe federal agency leaders need to do more to make collaboration the way of doing business across all federal agencies. Nevertheless, our federal partners are another resource to value and use in collaborative problem-solving. Additionally, numerous state agencies and non-governmental organizations have demonstrated their value as excellent partners in collaborative processes.
Ultimately, Wyoming people are our biggest asset. They have clearly demonstrated willingness and ability to do the hard work to explore complex issues and find solutions. Now is the time to recognize this capacity, invest in it and use it. Now that the pandemic is subsiding, let’s get ready to go back into the room and work on our future together.