Defusing a Land-Use Showdown Between Westerners and Uncle Sam: Dispute Resolution to the Rescue
The University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, Albuquerque, N.M. continued and expanded a violence prevention program through a dispute resolution and community decision-making process in Catron County, N.M., one of the most isolated counties in the continental 48 states.
The disputes in the county, which had reached a level where violence was feared, arose mainly from the county's role as a national leader of the "sagebrush rebellion," a movement focused on gaining local control of federal lands.
Under the project, which took place between February 1995 and July 1997, staff at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, designed and implemented a process of community problem solving and planning around the issues of land use and management, violence prevention, and economic development.
- The residents learned dispute resolution skills.
- A video was produced that documents the dispute resolution process.
- A national conference was held in Reserve, N.M., in July 1997 that shared lessons learned.
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) partially supported the project with a grant of $49,594.
Catron County, N.M., one of the most isolated counties in the continental United States, is the largest county in New Mexico. Although only 2,500 people are scattered over an area the size of Massachusetts, the county is the acknowledged national leader in the latest incarnation of the "sagebrush rebellion," a widespread movement based primarily in the Western states focused on gaining local control over federal lands within county boundaries.
More than 80 percent of Catron County's land, including a major portion of the Gila National Wilderness, is under federal domain. Recent economic downturns and resulting unemployment led to a crisis. The county government wrote its own land-use policy for the Gila National Wilderness. It also enacted an ordinance calling for the arrest of any federal official who imposed the "will" of the federal government on the "custom and culture of the people of Catron County," and a non-binding measure mandating that every household possess the "firearm of their choice."
Many citizens viewed these actions as extreme and were frightened by the increasing level of rhetoric and resultant threats of violence.
The crisis also was affecting the health of the county's residents. The only physician practicing in the county reported a substantial increase in the number of prescriptions for antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications. Spousal beatings and family disruption, alcoholism, and drug use were rising. The physician, along with the county government, requested the assistance of dispute resolution experts from two dispute resolution organizations the New Mexico Center for Dispute Resolution, in Albuquerque, and the Western Network, in Santa Fe to begin a process of community problem-solving.
The University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center (UNMHSC) entered the picture to expand the scope of dispute resolution and community decision-making in the county.
In addition to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), other funding partners included: the Hewlett Foundation ($50,000 for videotape production), the Surdna Foundation ($70,000 for community process work), and the Beldon Fund ($15,000 for community process work).
UNMHSC designed and implemented a process of community problem-solving and planning around the issues of land use and management, violence prevention, and economic development. The investigators used a model developed by the Mountain States Group, a Boise, Idaho, nonprofit community health planning organization, to facilitate creation of a structured approach to community organization and action. The specific accomplishments of the project were:
- The residents learned dispute resolution skills. The investigators helped Catron County residents develop skills and processes that would enable them to continue to implement plans that would achieve their long-range goals. Community health became a focus for community action, as the community began to recognize that its health, in all its dimensions physical, environmental, economic, and social was being affected by conflict.
- A video was produced that documents the dispute resolution process. As a vital adjunct to the project, UNMHSC produced a broadcast-quality videotape documenting the complex process of community problem-solving. The documentary is currently in the final stages of production; plans are to disseminate it to other communities grappling with similar problems. It is also under consideration for national broadcast by the Public Broadcasting Service.
- A national conference was held that shared lessons learned. A national conference was held in July 1997, in Reserve, N.M., to share lessons learned in working toward a consensus process, and strategies devised during the initiative. The 150 participants from around the country represented other collaborative groups, interested citizens, and representatives of public and private agencies and institutions.
The project received significant local and national press coverage. Stories appeared in the New York Times and on National Public Radio. An article appeared in the journal Consensus, published by the MIT-Harvard Public Disputes Program. Additional reports are being prepared for medical, public health, and mediation journals. Conference proceedings were disseminated to participants and others. See the Bibliography.
- Community health is a strong rallying point. Community health in its broadest definition can be effectively used as an organizing principle for community collaborative work.
- A neutral facilitator can be key. It is very helpful for the community to hire a neutral community coordinator to help manage the "process work."
- Community collaborative work takes time and patience. Participants in this endeavor need to understand that effective dialogue requires persistence and commitment.
- It is important to be inclusive. All parties to the conflict need to be invited to the table.
- Many environmental funders are supporting adversarial rather than collaborative processes. An immense amount of money, including taxpayer dollars, is being spent on litigation. There is a compelling need to develop a coordinated national policy regarding environmental conflict that endorses and supports collaborative efforts as a first-line remedy for communities to consider.
AFTER THE GRANT
The Catron County project will continue with limited funding for the immediate future and is exploring additional funding opportunities to sustain its efforts. Representatives of the group have been invited to share their experience with numerous other collaborative groups around the country. UNMSHC hopes to sponsor continuing conferences on the utility of collaboration and mediation for resolving environmental and other causes of community conflict. A meeting of environmental funders, relevant agencies, and other groups was held in spring 1998 to discuss the roles of mediation and litigation in environmental conflict; another meeting is planned for spring 1999.
In May 1997, RWJF made an additional grant (ID# 032870) to the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center to provide partial funding to complete production and post-production work on a documentary videotape about the ongoing process of problem solving and environmental dispute resulation in Caton County, N.M.
GRANT DETAILS & CONTACT INFORMATION
Implementation of a Community Dispute Resolution Program
University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center (Albuquerque, NM)
Dates: February 1996 to July 1997
Benson R. Daitz, M.D.
(Current as of date of this report; as provided by grantee organization; not verified by RWJF; items not available from RWJF.)
Moore CM, Daitz B, and Smith M. "Peace-makers Gather in the Wild, Wild West." Consensus, October 1997.
"Cooling off Catron County: Old Enemies Try Conversation to Resolve Old Conflicts," The Albuquerque Journal, May 25, 1997.
"Attempt at Alliance Brings Together Old Enemies," The Albuquerque Journal, July 19, 1997.
"Good Press on Catron County: Communities, Land Use and Conflict: A Problem-Solving Conference," Magdalena Mountain Mail, July 30, 1997.
"Enviros, Ranchers, Feds Trying to Work Together," The New Mexican, September 8, 1997.
"Rivals Seek Accord on Environment," Los Angeles Times, May 3, 1998.
"Communities, Land Use and Conflict: A Problem-Solving Conference," July 1819, 1997, Reserve, N.M. Attended by 150 individuals from 21 organizations and institutions.
Audio-Visuals and Computer Software
"Whose Home on the Range?" A one-hour broadcast-quality documentary videotape, completed and distributed to communities. Continues to be broadcasted by the Public Broadcasting Service and CNN. The documentary was screened at the TAOS Talking Picture Film Festival, April 1999.
National Public Radio, October 1997.
Public Broadcasting Service, December 14, 1999.
Report prepared by: Paul Mantell
Reviewed by: Richard Camer
Reviewed by: Marian Bass
Program Officer: Nancy J. Kaufman