t sometimes seems that we human beings are an unusually contentious species. We seem to enjoy arguing, sometimes for the sake of arguing.
If the subject is the relative merit of eastern versus western North Carolina barbecue, a little contention is probably harmless; indeed, may even be helpful as a means of letting off steam.
But there are other areas where disagreement can be damaging, especially when we yield to the temptation to fall back on knee-jerk responses whenever a particular subject is mentioned.
The future of our natural resources is one such area.
In recent years, viewpoints regarding natural resources seem to have hardened. Environmentalists who wish to preserve natural resources have become pitted against industries that wish to use these resources. If these opposing groups decide that there can be no compromise on their positions, the result can be gridlock as far as the development of good public policy regarding natural resouces is concerned. In such a scenario, everyone loses.
That’s why, in June 1994, the Natural Resources Leadership Institute was established in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service obtained a $700,000 grant that year from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to establish the institute and operate it for three years. While a pilot program was established at N.C. State University, the grant also funded two similar programs in the Southeast, one at the University of Kentucky and the other at the University of Arkansas.
The institute, according to a report on the program, was formed “to improve the management of natural resources in the South and to enhance rural economic development while maintaining or improving environmental quality.”
“We’re involved in environmental issues that are typically conflictive,” says Dr. Steve Smutko, institute director. “What we’re trying to do is reduce conflict by bringing people together and teaching them leadership skills and how to solve problems collaboratively.”
One of the principal ways the institute brings people together is through its Leadership Development Program. Each class of this program includes around 30 people, known as fellows, and lasts for 18 months. Over the first six months, fellows must attend monthly three-day workshops. That leaves a year during which fellows are expected to complete a practicum, a project that involves using what they’ve learned to affect a natural resources issue.
Some representative practicum topics are “Collaborative Land Management for Endangered Species Recovery,” “Negotiating for Sustainable Forest Practices” and “Sediment and Erosion Issues in Western North Carolina.” Participants document the impacts of their projects, many of which have produced significant outcomes, such as grants leveraged through collaborative projects, creation of county ordinances and adoption of management plans.
Since 1995, 165 people have entered the Leadership Development Program, says Smutko. Included among those 165 fellows are the 30 people in the class that is now in session and is scheduled to end in June 2001.
Much of each class is devoted to what Smutko, who is also an Extension specialist, calls “conventional leadership training.” The classes include subjects such as communication skills, self discovery and trust building.
“We also teach more unconventional skills, such as conflict resolution,” Smutko adds. And each class meets in a different part of the state, where fellows study the science and policy implications of a natural resources issue related to that part of the state.
The makeup of each class is one of the most important elements of the Leadership Development Program. The institute seeks diversity, seeks representatives from organizations that are likely to take different stances on resources issues.
“We provide a framework for people to learn other perspectives,” Smutko explains. “We enable that to happen. That’s why we have trust building at the beginning of each class.”
The exposure that the leadership development program gives fellows to different viewpoints is among its most valuable elements, says Chris Canfield, excutive director of the North Carolina office of the National Audubon Society and a member of the leadership class that began in 1999.
Canfield says the program “put me in a network of people concerned about the same issues, although we were coming at those issues from different angles. I learned about the perspectives of industry, government, of other conservation leaders, the academic community. That knowledge of those perspectives now informs everything I do.”
For Steve Brown, a member of the first leadership development class in 1995, the program “provided a different perspective both on myself and the many partners we come in contact with and rely upon.”
Brown works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as operations manager for Falls and Jordan lakes.
“My job is to look after the dams [that form the two lakes] from an operational standpoint and to assist our state partner agencies to make sure these resources are managed to their best use and to maintain the resource base,” says Brown.
Brown describes the Leadership Development Program as “one of those things that came along at an appropriate time in my career. I was at a stage [where] I was frustrated with my lack of ability to deal successfully with issues.” Through the program, Brown gained “some insight as to why I react the way I do to things, and why people respond to me the way they do.”
It was a revelation to Brown “to realize there’s a multitude of right answers out there, some that can only be reached through group activity.”
Brown adds, “When you do this collaborative process, you arrive at solutions everyone agrees on.” Such solutions, Brown points out, tend to have more permanence.
In a sense, Smutko and other institute staff members practice what they preach. Beginning in 1996, the institute began providing an Environmental Decision-Making Program to complement the leadership program. The staff members provide process design and facilitation assistance to groups involved in environmental disputes. They also assist groups working to design state environmental rules and regulations.
Development of the decision-making program was a logical outgrowth of the leadership program, Smutko says.
“As we were training people in collaborative problem solving, we found they needed help with facilitation,” Smutko says. “They needed help to organize and get groups to start to talk.”
The institute provides this help through the decision-making program. The institute has worked, for example, with the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources to involve stakeholders in developing the rules the department uses in implementing environmental laws.
“We were already on that track [with the leadership program],” Smutko says. “As leadership program participants needed assistance, we provided it.
“We’ve pulled together groups around probably 20 different issues, ranging from timber harvesting to riparian buffers and intensive livestock operations.”
Institute facilitators are not always successful.
But when groups do come together to reach consensus, it’s satisifying work.
“There’s a transformation of people,” Smutko says. “They’ve actually met face to face. They’ve learned to agree and they’ve learned they can agree to disagree. They’ve learned there is a relationship they can engage in.”