Conservationists work on cooperation

  • Ben Long is working to reframe the environmental debate in the Flathead


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "The West’s Biggest Bully."

KALISPELL, Mont. — “In the past, almost everything you read about (environmentalists) was about lawsuits, appeals and conflict,” says Ben Long. “We’re trying to reframe the debate around what the community agrees on, rather than what splits us up.”

Long, who used to make his living as a journalist, has landed an unusual job — he’s the regional representative for Resource Media, a Westwide nonprofit that assists conservation groups and other public-interest groups with outreach campaigns. It’s a spin-off of Environmental Media Services, which has been operating in Washington, D.C., since 1994. The funding comes mostly from foundations, with a smaller portion from contracts with the groups that are served. Resource Media has its main offices in Seattle and San Francisco, and other branch offices in Denver and Portland.

Long’s work takes him around the Northern Rockies from his base in his Kalispell home office, which is a jumble of files, a secondhand computer, science books, hunting rifles and antlers, with a yard overlooking a swampy Stillwater River slough.

Long talks of “conservationists” rather than “environmentalists,” because it’s a less controversial label. “Environmentalists are seen as ideologues ... while conservationists are seen as practical people, looking for practical solutions.” With Long’s help, local conservationists are building a new message here using a variety of tools, including the “Flathead Roundtable” — an informal monthly meeting of representatives from about two dozen local groups, ranging from hook-and-bullet types to wilderness advocates. They gather to share ideas, and to report what they’ve been doing and what needs to be done.

While the Roundtable model has been used in Great Falls and a few other places in the West, the Flathead effort is unusual. It’s been going on since 1998, longer than other roundtables, and “the participants are really committed to it,” says Mayre Flowers, who’s been involved from the beginning, representing the Citizens for a Better Flathead, a pro-planning group with about 1,000 members. The people in the Flathead Roundtable are “people who live and work in the area,” she says. “It’s not national, outside environmental groups. It’s very much a homegrown, local conservation effort.”

Even within the movement, “these groups are very different politically, and there is a certain amount of tension,” Long says. “But because we come together and talk, there’s a little more cohesion and understanding of how things fit together. ... It’s a communications network.”

The Flathead Roundtable has no official projects, but the networking leads to cooperation on projects between several groups at a time. There’s discussion of various moves, such as lawsuits and ad campaigns, and of what works and what doesn’t work.

From the core of the Roundtable talks, the movement has rallied here and methodically reached out, even as John Stokes’ radio show continues to broadcast hostility. In one offshoot project in 2001, the groups held a “Celebration of Elders” — a bonfire gathering of gray-haired conservationists who traded war stories of the movement’s local origins. In 2002, this thread of outreach widened into the Flathead Conservation Conference, which included scientists who shared their research. This summer, it went fully public on July 11 as the Flathead Freshwater Festival, sponsored by 21 organizations, including Glacier National Park and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

The festival celebrated Flathead Lake, which has declining water quality due to development around the county. About 300 people turned out on the lakeshore. Bands cranked through the afternoon, vendors offered food and beer, kids swam and fished, and a line of teens waded in the shallows, wearing a Chinese- dragon costume as the dreaded “Flathead Lake Monster.” Tickets were $20, and proceeds benefitted a program that monitors the lake’s water quality.

The groups had information booths at the festival, and, “It was a good, positive way for the community to interact with conservationists, instead of (secondhand) through the newspapers,” Long says. “It didn’t have to do with any specific fight. It was more about building social capital, showing we’re neighbors, not hidden forces.”

Now there are plans to try a television ad campaign that would encourage businesspeople and others across the spectrum to support water quality and preservation of nature. “The conservation community tends to be very print-oriented, but the public tends to be very TV-oriented,” Long says.

Other places around the West can learn from the Flathead Roundtable strategy, Long says. “We used to waste a lot of time arguing with the other end of the political spectrum — the 10 or 15 percent on the far-right wing. Now we talk about what we have in common — we all like water quality, we all want farming to be preserved, we all want open space. One thing we’ve learned: It’s more effective to speak to people in the middle.”

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