Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 5.14.09

Reconcilable Differences
Two tricky cases with hopeful outcomes
by Mary O’Brien

In this column, published in the Dec. 6, 2007 issue of Eugene Weekly under the title “Irreconcilable Differences?” I wrote the following:

I promise to report back a year from now. I’m participating in two collaborative efforts wherein people who have disagreed for a long time have agreed to try to agree. By next December, when I’ll report again, each collaboration will be succeeding, middling or failing.

Well, it’s five months later than my promised December report-back, but by March 2009, both collaborations had succeeded. The West Eugene Collaboration generated recommendations to enhance transportation, commerce and the environment in west Eugene. The Tushar Allotments Collaboration agreed on grazing management and monitoring changes on two over-used cattle allotments on the Fishlake National Forest in south-central Utah.

Both collaborations had boring, awful, inspired and key moments. Both reached consensus about solutions. Both provided recommendations in a public report that felt like a well-deserved endpoint to the participants. Whew!

But of course recommendations don’t change anything. Bummer! Only implementation of recommendations can result in better conditions in west Eugene or on a broken stream in southern Utah. And this will be an interesting challenge because the implementation will require government agencies to work in a less compartmentalized manner than usual and in a more collaborative way with their communities.

Collaborations aren’t compartmentalized; their recommendations aren’t compartmentalized; and implementation of the recommendations can’t be compartmentalized.

We locked horns in west Eugene because Eugene, Lane County and Oregon transportation and highway departments were running down their transportation track at the same time Eugene, BLM and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers environmental departments were slogging through their wetlands restoration track. The proposal to build a highway through recovering wetlands was a train wreck.

We locked horns in southern Utah because the Forest Service and livestock permittees were turning out the same number of cows to trample the same streams and eat the same small aspen sprouts the elk were eating and graze the same grass to nubbins every year while environmentalists were photographing the results.

The west Eugene recommendations call for simultaneously accommodating vehicle, mass transit, bicycle, pedestrian and fish travel. The southern Utah recommendations call for simultaneously accommodating cattle, fish, aspen and (novel thought in the grazing world) flowers and pollinators.

The challenge to governmental agencies, elected officials, non-governmental organizations and citizens is to consider what both reports say about existing conditions and desired conditions and how we might get from existing to desired conditions. At critical moments during each of the two collaborations, certain people rose above their particular perspectives to propose or accept novel approaches or to drop favored positions that weren’t gaining traction. 

And that’s what it will take to test and implement the recommendations: At critical moments, certain people will need to rise above their particular perspectives to propose or accept novel approaches or to drop favored positions that aren’t gaining traction. Whether governmental or non-governmental, we’ll all have to keep telling ourselves, “I will not do business as usual. I will not do business as usual.”

Do social conflicts ever get solved any other way?

Mary O’Brien of Eugene has worked as a public interest scientist since 1981. She can be reached at The West Eugene Collaboration report is posted at and the Tushar Allotments Collaboration report is posted at 



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