Northern Wilds Magazine
Points North

Points North: Environmentalists Need New Strategies to Break Green Gridlock

By Shawn Perich

Paul Hansen believes that drawing a line in the sand opposing construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline Project was a dead-end strategy for environmentalists seeking to combat climate change.
Last week, the State Department released its environmental review of the project, which found that increased oil production destined for the new pipeline would likely occur anyway. Without the pipeline, the oil would be transported to market via rail. The report concludes building the pipeline will not have a significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions. Many political observers believe President Obama will approve the pipeline. The environmental community, so far unwilling to compromise, will then be left of the President, leaving it little room to negotiate on Keystone issues.
For Hansen, placing ideals ahead of possible pragmatic outcomes hamstrings the environmental community’s effectiveness. During his career in conservation–25 years with the Izaak Walton League, including 12 as the executive director, as well as a stint as director of The Nature Conservancy’s Greater Yellowstone Program–Hansen had ample opportunities to watch the environmentalists die on their figurative sword for ideals rather than work with like or opposing interests to resolve environmental issues. He hopes a new generation of environmentalists doesn’t continue to make the same mistake.
He makes his case in a new book. “Green in Gridlock” (Texas A&M University Press, College Station) where he draws upon his extensive professional experience for examples of conservation achievements built upon collaboration and compromise. From acid rain to military over flights, Hansen relates how disparate corporate interests, politicians and environmentalists sat down together and, in spite of their differences, hammered out solutions to difficult issues. Unfortunately, an inability to play well with others has limited environmentalist’s success on other issues.
“I wrote this book because I believe in it,” said Hansen during a telephone interview from his Jackson Hole, Wyoming home. “I spent too much time during my career watching the perfect be the enemy of the good.”
Environmentalists are certainly not the only idealistic political tribe. And, like other political idealists, environmentalists battle among themselves, creating internal divisions that undermine their overall effectiveness. Clashes often occur with environmental groups and sportsmen organizations, even though they have the same or very similar goals, especially regarding habitat.

And on habitat issues, “They can’t succeed without one another,” says Hansen. He points to Minnesota’s Legacy Amendment, where sportsmen, environmentalists, parks and trails advocates and the arts community came together to achieve secure, long-term funding for habitat, clean water, parks and trails, and the arts. While sportsmen had tried for years to acquire long-term habitat funding, they weren’t successful until they combined forces with like interests.

Hansen also believes much good for conservation can be accomplished by reaching out to the other side. From 1999 -2007 he served on the board of the Louisiana-Pacific Corporation, during a period when the company transitioned away from using old growth timber to fiber from sustainably managed forests. While some environmentalists assumed he was a token ‘greenie” for the company, many more correctly saw, as did Hansen, an opportunity for outreach to the forest industry.

During his years on the years on the board, writes Hansen, “…we returned the company to profitability and doubled the stock price while reducing environmental notices of violation from 76 to 0. LP divested holdings in the redwood forests of California, closed their operations in southeast Alaska’s old-growth forests and focused their business on high-tech engineered wood products that…can use smaller short-rotation trees from thinning projects and sustainable forestry. They put in place an environmental management system that saved the company $18 million in 2003. This alone added $0.17 to the company’s earnings per share that year.” Perhaps most importantly, Hansen had opportunity to get to know and interact with corporate executives and to show it was not only possible, but also beneficial for corporations and conservationists to work together.

For some environmentalists, the idea of working with corporations is a step too far away from their ideals. Instead they choose an adversarial approach, which too often boils down to the same, old refrain that “you just can’t trust the Man.” It’s a refrain that has echoed through environmental politics since the 1960s when the radical political movement reached center stage. Since then, radicalism has remained part of the environmental movement, ranging from acts of civil disobedience such as lying down before bulldozers to clandestine violent acts—like blowing up the bulldozers.

Radicals often gain notoriety for their actions, but are they effective? Hansen thinks not. While the strident voices of radicals may draw attention to an issue, rarely do they have the message or tactics to achieve solutions. To the contrary, if an issue becomes associated with radicals, it may become more difficult to resolve.

This occurs even though public opinion polls consistently show overwhelming majorities of Americans of all political persuasions favor sound conservation of natural resources and the environment. Few issues have such strong public support. Why then, are environmental issues so often polarized in the political process and bound up in gridlock? Part of the problem may be how the environmental community packages its issues, which very often are wrapped in doom and gloom. Hansen writes such an approach depresses and demoralizes people, rather than getting them excited about opportunities for progress. And, although Hansen fails to mention it, using rhetoric to frighten people about impending environmental doom is a proven way to motivate them to open their checkbooks in support of environmental organizations.

When it comes to the current crop of environmentalists, it will be hard to teach old dogs new tricks. That’s why Hansen places his hopes with the environmentalists who will follow in their footsteps. In fact, “Green in Gridlock” would be an excellent textbook for environmental studies.

“I’d love to see the next generation do a better job of thinking strategically than we did,” says Hansen. “I have high aspirations for stewardship, but we need people to engage in good faith and work together to find solutions.”

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