Despite more than 100 years of stewardship and protection from agencies like the National Park Service, America’s wild places are still vulnerable to commercial and residential land development. In the Grand Canyon, uranium mining and increasing rates of tourism not only threaten land and air quality, they also undermine a social balance that Native Americans and other local groups have worked hard to maintain.

On March 10, Satellites in the High Country author Jason Mark and Common Ground on Hostile Turf author Lucy Moore will come together for a free webinar as they discuss the importance of wild places in America and how stakeholders can work together to resolve their environmental disputes. To learn more about these issues, we asked Lucy about the role of environmental mediation in conversations surrounding wild places. Check out her answers below and register for the webinar for free here.

Can you provide context for some of the proposals and controversies currently surrounding the Grand Canyon? What plans are there to involve the public in discussions surrounding these situations? 

The two controversial development proposals at Grand Canyon are on different tracks, given the different jurisdictions and legal frameworks. The future of the Navajo Escalade Project, proposing to build a major resort on the edge of the canyon with a tram to the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers, seems to depend on the political preferences of those in power. The current Navajo Nation president Russell Begaye opposes the project and has put it on hold indefinitely. Whether or not it survives and is viable is up to the tribal council and the Navajo citizens it represents.

The second controversy involves the major housing and shopping center development at Tusayan, the small town adjacent to the National Park. Tusayan would like to be able to offer housing and services to its own residents and to the hundreds of Park employees who are currently in mobile homes within the Park, cramped and with no hope of home ownership. Proponents of the development claim that it would relieve pressure on the Park and allow the town to become a badly needed commercial center in the area. Opponents are concerned about the size of the development and its impact on groundwater, air and other environmental resources. Because the development requires road easements from the neighboring Kaibab National Forest, this proposal is wending its way through a federal decision-making process, the environmental impact assessment.

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North part of the Grand Canyon. Photo Credit: Hendric Stattmann, via Wikimedia Commons

As an environmental mediator, it’s always a difficult question to know when and how to weave the public into a formal mediation process. I believe strongly that the public has a right to know who is at the table, who they represent, what the goals are and when they can have their say.  A challenge is in the definition of the public. Should local residents be given priority? What about those from elsewhere who have an interest in the proposal, either pro or con? I find it a strong argument that if you live and work on the land your “stake” in the outcome is greater than the environmental organization executive director who flies in from the coast to testify. But we can all think of examples where local control is not in the best interest of the long-term health of the resource or the community, and outside voices are needed. Keeping a balance, and maintaining respect, is tricky indeed.

The federal process at Tusayan, cumbersome and time-consuming as it is, does require public involvement and a comment period at different points. How seriously those comments are taken and how they are weighed is always a worry for advocates. Does the number of comments on one side or another matter? Is anyone who counts really reading my comment? Is the decision already a done deal? When I am managing the public meetings prior to these comment periods I make sure that the decision-makers are there, that they are paying attention, are responsive to questions, and are respectful. That’s all I can do.

I don’t know if there are requirements for public involvement in the Navajo decision-making system, but I am sure that the grassroots citizens have ways of making their wishes known. And, also, outside interests advocating for environmental and cultural protection, or economic development, are certainly ready to become involved if there is an opportunity to influence the decision.

Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson has suggested that uranium mining in his county could be worth $29 million. Could you share some of your experiences in environmental mediation that involve the balance between economic development and environmental quality?

Finding that balance can be impossible. Sometimes there are ways to modify a project so that it provides some economic benefit and offers some environmental protection. But for major projects, like a uranium mine, it will be difficult to negotiate a “smaller” mine. The developer will have needs of scale to make a profit; the opponents will see any mine as unacceptable.

I have an example from many years ago that sticks with me as a valiant effort to meet the economic and preservation needs of a region. I hang onto it, I think, because it is a rare example of someone who could see both sides and find a creative step to take.

The Mexican Gray Wolf is an endangered species that has been reintroduced by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona. The wolves are raised with minimal human contact and under strict protocols that prepare them to behave in the wild mountains of this region as they once did. Ranchers and small-town folk in the region have opposed the program from the beginning, and over the years some have killed wolves with a variety of motives: protection of cattle, fear for their own safety, or general resentment of feds butting into their business. The USFWS educated communities as best they could and offered compensation for cattle killed by wolves, but the killings continued.

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Mexican Gray Wolf. Photo Credit: Jim Clark (USFWS), via Wikimedia Commons

Kevin Bixby is the founder and executive director of the Southwest Environment Center, based in Las Cruces in southern New Mexico. Distressed with the standoff and the decreasing population he also was able to see the ranchers’ point of view. Rather than take them head on and tell them they were wrong, uneducated, unenlightened and heartless people, he came up with an idea to meet both sets of needs. He designed (and I facilitated) a workshop in the heart of the reintroduction area for ranchers to hear from local residents in the Yellowstone area, where wolves were introduced a few years earlier. They described their struggle with the wolves, their fears and resentments, matching their audience perfectly. And then they talked about how they turned the situation around into a money-making venture, a much more profitable one, they said, than the ranching and outfitting they had been doing. They were offering to well-heeled eco-tourists an experience in wolf country that included going into areas on horseback, camping overnight, listening to wolves calling, hearing local legend and history of the area, learning the truth about wolves and their habits. The local New Mexico ranchers were intrigued, had lots of questions and stayed after the workshop ended to talk more to these compadres from another region. They took brochures, asked for phone numbers, and said they were interested in pursuing the idea.

I don’t know if anything came of it, but I do know that Kevin took a bold step in reaching out to that community – the traditional enemy of the environmentalist – and putting himself in their shoes. Thinking “what can I do to help these people whose needs are real?” is a rarity among advocates on any side. I thank Kevin for that moment of inspiration. 

Arizona Trail. Photo Credit: Rick Moore

In your book you mention that the Native American community is often – and with good reason – reluctant to align with the federal government, even when the goal is the protection of their land and sacred sites. Can you talk more about the challenges surrounding federal-tribal relationships? 

The federal-tribal relationship adds a layer of complexity to any conflict where a tribe, or tribes, and a federal agency, or agencies, are involved. Part of that complexity derives from their painful common history. It is difficult for tribal representatives at the table to forget about those travesties when they are sitting across from people working for that same federal government that perpetrated those crimes. The fact that it happened 150 years ago means nothing when it comes to matters of the heart. And it is painful in another way for the federal representatives to have to confront this history. No matter that they were not born until many decades after the atrocities; guilt has no expiration date.

Another part of the complexity comes from the inherent conflict of interest for the federal government. They have a trust responsibility to all federally recognized tribes to defend and represent those interests. At the same time, an agency like the Bureau of Reclamation may propose to build a dam that will prevent seasonal spawning for fish critical to the tribe’s economy and/or culture. Lawyers for the Department of Interior, which houses Reclamation, the National Park Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Fish and Wildlife Service, and many others, find themselves in conflict, bound to represent both the interests of the bureau and the trust responsibility to tribes. Tribes often feel in these cases that their interests are sacrificed for those of the non-Indian world. This is an artifact of federal law that is not within my purview as mediator to resolve. What I can do is help tribes air their anxieties, help feds listen and respond, and focus on the issues at hand and a resolution that is satisfactory to all. And finally, for me it is all about the relationship. If individuals can appreciate each other and see the humanity in each other, we have a chance at a good solution.

Want to hear more? Don't forget to register for the webinar this Thursday and enter for the chance to win a 5-day adventure with Jason Mark in Flagstaff, Arizona to learn more about the threats to the Canyon and explore its surrounding wildlands.