Earth Matters: Breaking bread and finding solutions

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People have many areas to disagree about, and the environment and environmental protection are no exception.

Recently the New York Times Nicholas Kristof wrote about one of these disputes and how it ended with the two sides, in a very unexpected way, sitting at a table together, eating and reaching a mutually agreeable solution.

The disagreement involved loggers and environmentalists in a small town in eastern Oregon. Feelings of animosity ran deep on both sides.

They did not trust each other and certainly did not socialize. Their conflict was over forest policy impacting the local sawmill. A Portland attorney’s lawsuit to protect certain species like woodpeckers and redband trout brought to a stop logging in local national forests.

It also cut off the loggers’ livelihoods and threatened the existence of the small town they live in. Rather than pursuing the more typical path of name-calling, counter-suing, and public-bashing, the loggers invited the lawyer to visit the forest with them.

They spent three days together, arguing about protecting trees and getting to know one another. They learned that neither was evil and they could talk to each other; so they continued to do so.

The attorney began to better understand the human cost of protecting the forests; people losing their jobs, becoming homeless and suffering in many ways as a result of the ripple effect of sawmills closing all over the region.

She also understood the need for forest management to prevent destructive fires made more dangerous by drier and hotter conditions caused by climate change. She led other environmentalists in joining with the loggers to thin the forest and restore the traditional landscape under a 10-year stewardship contract.

As a result, the sawmill stayed open, the town survived and the forest was protected.

If the two groups had not taken the time, (and it took a lot of time, effort and energy), to talk and learn more about the other’s situation and perspective, the story would have ended very differently. It didn’t come without its costs though.

A supporting politician lost his next election, the attorney was ousted from an environmental organization and the sawmill operator is a pariah within the logging community. But, there are already others following their example.

Here on Long Island, we face several environmental issues, many of which engender strongly held positions on seemingly opposite sides of the issue. Our reliance on a sole source aquifer is a great example and one that has been discussed extensively in this column.

The issue as I and other environmentalists see it is that water is not an endlessly renewable resource. The more we pump from the aquifer, the more we need to replace, but only so much water falls from the sky as rain and only so much of that rain can make its way to the ground and then to the aquifer.

The people on the other side include developers, golf course owners, and homeowners, to name a few. Developers want to convert open space, where rain can reach the ground and make its way to the aquifer as recharge, to homes, shopping centers, office buildings and parking lots.

Golf courses want to maintain verdant greens for their customers’ enjoyment and so water frequently and extensively, placing a significant demand on the aquifers that provide all our water. Homeowners want perfect lawns and install sprinklers to ensure a consistent supply of water.

Could we learn about each other and what underlies the decisions we make and policies we support related to water conservation and protection? By talking to each other could we arrive at a workable solution?

Could golf courses learn about groundcover options that are less water-intensive and ways to increase the recharge ability of their acreage?

Could developers incorporate more green infrastructure to offset the loss of open space if they understood that long term they are putting themselves out of business with their practices? Could homeowners come to understand that normal rainfall is adequate to maintain a green lawn?

Currently, Port Washington is involved in a fight over a request for zoning waivers to enable a 7-Eleven to open. Manhasset residents already fought a 7-Eleven opening in that community and prevented it from happening.

Development and density are regular issues in local news with communities legislating in many ways to try to control density and development with people arguing both for and against for environmental and economic reasons.

If we learn anything from the loggers and environmentalists in eastern Oregon, it’s that the issues are not one-dimensional, and the ripple effects can be extensive. Opening a 7-Eleven is about much more than an increase in traffic.

If the stakeholders sat around a table, maybe with some food as those in Oregon did, all sides would start to understand each other and, just maybe, establish enough mutual respect and trust to work out a solution. And then, maybe, that example could be brought to all our issues, environmental or otherwise.

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