by David Dobbs and Richard Ober
Originally appeared in Whole Terrain, vol. 6: Creative Collaborations

“If you don’t know the ground, you are probably wrong about nearly anything else.”
— Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire

Maclean was talking about fighting forest fires, but he could just as well have been talking about environmental politics in the post-spotted-owl era: Try to do the work without local knowledge, and you’ll likely muck it up.

We — a freelance environmental writer and a professional environmentalist — became soundly convinced of this during the four years we researched and wrote our book, The Northern Forest. During those four years we spent a lot of time with northern New England residents — loggers, landowners, hunters, millworkers, biologists, innkeepers and fishing camp owners — as they responded to the debate over how to keep their region from being fragmented beyond repair by real estate development and overharvesting. This debate has been and remains the region’s biggest land-use issue, and will continue, in some form, for at least the next couple of decades. Keeping track of it as journalists, activists, and citizens has taught us a lot. But nothing taught us so much as getting to know some of the people most caught in the debate’s crossfire– the people who actually live on, and make their livings from, the land in question.

Getting to know several of these people changed, utterly and forever, the way we thought about environmental issues. We found residing in these people a deep (if conflicted) sense of dedication to the forest’s future –dedication that led them, more often than not, to do the right thing for the forest, even when it compromised their own situations. We also found that most of these people felt alienated from what is generally considered “the environmental community” – that is, the activists, groups, and causes most of us consider environmentalism.

All this led us to an unavoidable conclusion: Neither the environmental community nor our larger society will resolve today’s complex land-use problems unless we fully involve the people who live in the places we hope to save. For only if we involve local residents as equal partners in the search for solutions can we draw on their care, their support, and their immense knowledge of the places they live. If we’re serious about “saving” these places, in other words, we should “do environmentalism” the same way foresters do good forestry: from the ground up, and in response to local conditions.

This won’t be easy, particularly for the environmental community. It’ll mean going into rural communities on an extended basis, getting to know the people there, and working on areas of mutual concern. It’ll mean overcoming longstanding enmities and class differences. It’ll mean sometimes compromising on short-term goals in favor of developing long-term relationships. It’ll mean having the courage to make some mistakes, and to learn as well as teach. Perhaps most difficult, but most important, it’ll mean letting locals have at least an equal hand in shaping the agenda.

Staying such a course will be difficult. But as the old saying goes, democracy is often difficult. Consider, for instance, the tradition of town meeting. Town meeting can be unwieldy and frustrating, but it allows all interested citizens to deliberate on matters of community importance, and it addresses and often solves difficult problems without breaking the social bonds of community dialogue. Its first rule is to make all players equal. To paraphrase, historian and philosopher Ronald Jager writes, “Equality is the first principle of town meeting, and patience its salient virtue.”

This tradition of participatory democracy and town meeting makes the Northern Forest a good place to recast the way we solve land-use problems — to find a way that integrates social and natural communities into a single, but various, fabric that is both ecologically and economically sustainable. Some argue that town meetings can’t deal with complicated matters like land use. Yet our local boards of planning, zoning, selectmen, and conservation commissions daily write and enforce laws affecting every aspect of the Northern Forest debate: zoning, subdivision and development, commercial growth, forestry, and water quality. This work is “inefficient” and time-consuming, and it can’t solve all land-use problems. Yet the process such deliberation entails, born of equality and honored by patience, sustains a dialogue between competing interests, giving them the time, opportunity, and mutual regard to find common ground. It humanizes the debate.

We’ve seen this humanizing effect — and the sheer political power such face-to-face contact generates — repeatedly over the last few years in the debate over the Northern Forest.

Perhaps the clearest, most dramatic example we know of is the friendship between Jeff Fair, a wildlife biologist from the central New Hampshire town of Sandwich,and Leo Roberge, a paper mill worker and hunter from Berlin, N.H. in the state’s far northern reaches. These two men seem unlikely political allies, and even today they probably don’t think of themselves as such. Yet their relationship helped save one of the Northern Forest’s most important wildlife areas.

During the 1980s, Jeff Fair spent much of his time trying to restore loon populations on Lake Umbagog, a 7,000-acre lake high on the New Hampshire-Maine border, about 30 miles north of Berlin, and some two hours north of Jeff’s home in Sandwich. In the course of this work he met Leo, who also spent a lot of time on the lake — hunting whenever possible (Leo likes to hunt like most of us like to breathe), but also planting wild rice and mounting duck-nesting boxes to improve duck habitat. Leo and other members of his hunting club, the Umbagog Waterfowlers Association (UWA), had been doing this work since the 1970s, when they saw that duck numbers on Umbagog, as in the rest of North America, were declining precipitously.

As Leo and Jeff ran into each other on the lake and around town, they became friendly. They talked duck and loons and bird numbers, and occasionally hunted together with a mutual friend, Armand Riendeau, an older hunter and UWA member who had started Leo on the duck habitat work. And at one point, when Jeff was trying to convince the local power company to stabilize dam releases so that fluctuating lake levels wouldn’t drown shoreline loon nests, Leo and other local hunters, who were similarly concerned about shoreline duck nests, added their voices to his. Together they won the needed concessions. For the most part, the men shared a personal bond — their love of the lake and its wildlife — rather than a political one.

Then, in autumn 1990, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service presented to area citizens its plan to establish a National Wildlife Refuge at Lake Umbagog. As one of the region’s most important wildlife resources, the huge, undeveloped lake had long been considered a candidate for protection. By the late 1980s, the increasingly attractive bids that developers were making to the land’s owners, who were mostly timber companies, made the need for protection imminent. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the area’s environmental groups, recognizing this, began negotiating with the companies to sell the critical land and easements to create a federal wildlife refuge.

Unfortunately, negotiations with the owners were delicate, and therefore kept secret, so that when the Service announced the proposal in late 1990, it came as a complete surprise to the local populace. As the Service learned at the hearing it held in Berlin to announce the refuge plan, the populace didn’t much like that sort of surprise. “We don’t need you federal guys coming up here and telling us how to protect our lake,” said one man.

“What right do you have coming here and telling us what to do?” said another.

A third told the officials that any feds snooping around up his way “would get a twelve-gauge up the ass.” The crowd cheered.

After an hour of listening to this, Jeff Fair stood up and gently reminded the crowd that as much as they loved the land around the lake, they didn’t own it. The paper companies did. And the paper companies wanted to sell.

Then he sat down.

After a long silence, a fiftyish mill worker pushed his chair back and faced the crowd.

“Jeff’s right,” the man said. “These paper companies have other things on their minds than saving Umbagog. If the feds don’t buy all that lakefront, someone else will. And they’re not going to invite us all in for a chat about their plans.”

The crowd wilted, its anger losing focus. When the hearing broke up shortly after, the voices were muted and tired.

In the weeks that followed, the town discussed the refuge plan in living rooms, coffee counters, at work, at the local sporting goods store, in hunting cabins, on the lake itself. Their responses would bear mightily on the fate of the refuge, for New Hampshire’s Congressional delegation had said it would not support the refuge plan unless the local populace backed it.

Since Leo was a director of one local hunting club and a member of another, his was an important part of that local opinion. He struggled with the decision for months. Having already seen several of his old hunting spots turned into “wilderness lots” – and posted against trespass – he recognized the development threats to the lake. Yet he harbored the general North Country antipathy toward the federal government, and feared a possible hunting prohibition on the lake.

In the end, however, Leo and most of the other hunters supported the refuge. As Leo said, “We’ve got to do it for the ducks.” As a result, Lake Umbagog National Wildlife Refuge was dedicated in 1993.

Such is the impact that a single genuine relationship between “outside environmentalists” and “locals” can have on important land-use decisions. Jeff’s words of moderation carried weight not simply on their merits, but because of who said them. Had either of us, for instance, stood up and made the same point Jeff made, he would have been ignored or shouted down. But Jeff’s long relationship with local people and the lake gave him an undeniable credibility.

One can’t hope, of course, to send a Jeff Fair to every town in New England and strike up friendships with the locals. (It’s important to remember, however, that there are Leos everywhere). However, other efforts to consult with local people have shown that doing so not only generates the political support necessary to conserve or protect land, but also creates truly grassroots ways of meeting these goals as well.

One of the most convincing such efforts was conducted by that most allegedly heavy-handed and centralized of behemoths, the federal government, in the form of the Silvio O. Conte National Wildlife Refuge. The Conte was brought into legal being in 1991, when Congress passed a bill authorizing the creation of a Connecticut River wildlife refuge. However, the bill, passed hastily soon after the death of the Connecticut Congressman who had long pushed for a Connecticut River wildlife refuge, left decidedly vague what form the refuge was to take. It charged the Fish and Wildlife Service with protecting the watershed’s biodiversity and ecosystems; but it didn’t say how to go about it.

In this vagueness, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the late Mollie Beattie, saw a chance to do something new. Acutely aware of the region’s traditions of public involvement as well as of its historic skepticism regarding anything federal, Beattie appointed Service biologist Larry Bandolin the task of creating a new sort of refuge – one that would seek to conserve habitat throughout the entire watershed, and one that tailored itself to the local landscape and culture.

Bandolin, who had never managed any sort of refuge before, and Service planner Norman Olson then made the move that more than anything else would make the Conte both unique and uniquely suited to New England. They turned to the watershed’s citizens for help in defining the refuge. They didn’t meet with just the usual “interested parties.” In 1993 and 1994 they met and talked with thousands of people, holding meetings in virtually every town in the entire valley, from Pittsburg, New Hampshire, to Old Saybrook, Connecticut — over 200 meetings altogether. They asked all of these citizens, along with state and local agencies and conservation, outdoor recreation, and landowner groups, to contribute and respond to ideas on how the watershed’s wildlife habitat could best be conserved. Then, in 1995, some of these participants formed workgroups to cobble those ideas into a plan.

After a long weekend pondering possibilities and digesting biological and mapping data gathered by the Service (including a map of “Special Focus Areas” showing the most critical habitat) these workgroups came up with five possible plans for the larger public and the Service brass in D.C. to consider. One was the obligatory call for “No Action”; another prescribed a traditional refuge. The other three, however, called for using different mixes of public and private efforts to protect habitat, educate the public and landowners, and learn more about the watershed so that efforts could be efficiently directed and coordinated.

After dozens of public meetings to gather feedback on the alternatives, the Service, making a few modifications suggested by the public review, settled on the alternative that relied most heavily on this diverse, decentralized, watershed-wide approach. The plan calls for no significant new federal programs, no interpretive centers, and only limited federal purchases of land. The Service will buy about 6500 acres outright; purchase conservation agreements on 1400 additional acres; and negotiate “cooperative management agreements” to help protect another 19,000 acres of private land. The rest of the work — restoring and protecting habitat, educating the public and landowners about the watershed ecosystem, and gathering more information so that efforts can be ever further refined – will be done by landowners, nonprofit organizations big and small, schools and universities, and state and local governments, all aided by funding and technical assistance from the refuge staff.

These scattered efforts aren’t auxiliary projects of the Conte refuge; they, more than anything else — certainly far more than the 6500 acres of land the refuge will buy — are the Conte refuge. Through their cumulative effect this very different sort of refuge, run by a four-person staff in Massachusetts, seeks to protect and improve wildlife habitat over the entire 7.2 million-acre Connecticut River watershed. It’s an extraordinary approach, singularly suited both to the region, drawing as it does on a tradition of local action and a well-established conservation network, and to the true challenge facing conservation today. And it was made possible only because the refuge planners from the beginning turned over a large part of the work of conceiving and planning the refuge to the people who lived in the watershed.

“We see our role as a conduit of information and assistance to people, agencies, and organizations working at the state and local level,” says refuge biologist Beth Goettel, who helped work on the plan. “The mapping we’ve done about habitat types and cover types, the standardization we’re bringing to wildlife and habitat inventories, can help them understand how their efforts fit into a landscape approach. But the people who live in these places are the best ones to do the work, because they know the habitat and communities in far more detail than we ever will.”

The Conte recognizes what few big conservation efforts do: that in a world where ecosystems die most commonly by a thousand cuts, the appropriate prevention and cure will be similarly multifaceted – a thousand band-aids and shields. The Conte also recognizes that the ecosystem in question includes, for better or worse, the humans living in it, and that these people and communities must be part of the solution. It’s hard to imagine a better demonstration than a town-meeting based participatory approach can indeed effectively address regional land-use problems.

The Northern Forest region offers many opportunities to come up with similarly creative solutions. But the only way to take advantage of these opportunities is to engage residents in a sustained dialogue.

Fortunately, some environmental groups are doing just that. The Natural Resources Council of Maine and Maine Audubon Society created an alliance with local officials, business owners, and citizens to defeat takings legislation. The Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (SPNHF) has held dozens of living room meetings in the North Country to help local residents compile an inventory of more than 100 sites that the residents believe worthy of protection, and then explore strategies for protecting them. The Northern Forest Alliance has made an effort to move beyond “the choir” by initiating Businesses for the Northern Forest, a network of more than 100 businesses committed to educating customers about environmental issues in the region.

And in one of our favorite success stories, the Vermont Natural Resources Council joined forces with Northeast Kingdom fishing groups and Newport-area businesses to win the first-ever recommendation by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) that a hydropower dam — one that had ended salmon spawning runs on the Clyde River, and with it a fishing tourist attraction that had been a local economic mainstay — be removed to relieve the environmental and economic harm it had caused. In the midst of this toughly fought political battle, the river added its voice to those of the local activists and businesses and the VNRC by washing out the dam in spring floods. As a result of this coalition — local businesses and anglers, state and national environmental groups, and the river itself — the Clyde now runs free through the old site of dam #11, and the salmon run up the river each fall.

These successes show clearly that using a locally based, participatory approach to environmental problems can can solve the sorts of problems that threaten to fragment and degrade the ecology and culture of the Northern Forest. Nevertheless, many environmentalists, including some working almost exclusively on Northern Forest issues, insist that such approaches don’t work. They object that such bridge-building efforts accept too readily the status quo; that they take too long; that because land-use decisions are often made from corporate power centers, the granting primacy to locals weakens your hand; that you can’t win the hearts and minds of local people who work for those extractive industries anyway; and finally, that solutions to problems as big as those facing the Northern Forest require “a bolder vision.”

Status quo, hearts and minds, too little time …. These are the spinnings of minds deep in denial. The truth is, truly inclusive, participatory environmentalism of the sort we’re advocated presents a much bolder vision for change than do “bold vision” campaigns such as, say, the Northern Forest Alliance’s Wildlands proposal or the 1996 Maine Clearcut Referendum. Both these campaigns address real problems. But neither has truly involved, much less sprung from, the region’s residents, and as a result they’ve ignored some critical realities and needlessly alienated many locals.

We like a good environmentalist as well as the next person. But objections like these make us suspect that perhaps the real problem some environmentalists have with a more grassroots-based, truly participatory model of environmentalism is not that this approach fails to challenge the status quo of the way the forests’ abusers operate – for it most certainly does challenge that status quo – but because it challenges the status quo of the way many environmentalists think and operate.

When you care about something as intensely as many of us care about the Northern Forest, patience comes hard. Yet if we are to ask foresters, loggers, and landowners to be patient in managing the forest, we should ask the same of ourselves in dealing with the forest’s inhabitants. If we can learn to use our care and dedication to create solutions along with local people who share that dedication, we can do something truly extraordinary: We renew not just this land, but environmentalism itself.


David Dobbs, a freelance writer, writes on environment and science issues from his home in Montpelier, Vt.

Richard Ober, of Hillsboro, N.H., is senior director for communications and development at the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests. Parts of this essay were adapted from their book The Northern Forest (Chelsea Green Publishing, White River Jct., Vt., 1995).