Paul Andersen: Fair Game |

Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Hatred is a dead-end emotion. Hostility is self-destructive. Fighting is adolescent. War is a failure of communication and leadership.

Fixing these habitual breakdowns shouldn’t be so hard, but we seem hardwired for battle. Christ strove to teach a better way, but look what happened to him. We celebrate his birthday, but learn nothing from his death day. Christ is crucified every time his teachings are ignored.

That’s why it’s important to recognize what happened in a Utah canyon this summer when the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) and others in the conservation community made peace with the Bill Barrett Corp., an oil and gas company. SUWA and Barrett had been at each other’s throats for five years over a drilling proposal in Desolation Canyon – a much loved wilderness-quality section of the Green River. Each side lawyered-up, as tradition dictates, until last summer, when Duane Zavadil said he’d had enough

Zavadil handles government and regulatory issues for Barrett, and he was on the front lines in the Deso Canyon fight. He had come to know and respect his counterpart at SUWA, Steve Bloch, an attorney, and invited Bloch to meet with him, mano y mano. Zavadil “uninvited” his company attorney so the two men could meet without oversight. Together, they hashed out a workable compromise that stands today. Barrett agreed to drastically reduce the number of its drilling sites, and SUWA agreed to drop its legal challenges. Peace was declared.

I called Zavadil to find out how two embittered foes forged a collaboration that benefited both parties. He explained that peace was made outside the strictures of regulatory bureaucracy. “I’ve been in this business for over 20 years and I’ve seen how broken the public land process had become,” lamented Zavadil.

BLM regulations often pit adversaries against one another by discouraging direct negotiations between parties in contest. Zavadil and Bloch had to go outside the regulatory structure to forge a relationship that was based, not on third-party protocol, but on trust.

“It is unlikely we would ever have achieved such significant on-the-ground gains without this agreement,” wrote Bloch in the SUWA newsletter. “Fortunately, the Bill Barrett Corp. was a willing partner.”

Partnering proved more productive that fighting because each party had something to gain from the other. Barrett realized the value of certainty in its drilling plans on senior leases that predated the Wilderness Act. Rather than force the hard line, Barrett realized that certainty through compromise was the most expedient outcome.

SUWA won by preserving the wilderness quality of Deso Canyon, as Bloch explained. “We decided to engage with the company in the hope that we could reach a result more favorable to wilderness protection than we could achieve through protracted legal battles.”

So why not use the Deso compromise as a template for future resource wars? Because all cases are not suitable to compromise, and all parties are not amenable to peace. Barrett is currently embroiled in plans on the Roan Plateau, with no peacemakers so far in sight.

It seems to take years of war – at the expense of blood and treasure – to make peace attractive. For enviros and extractos, rigid ideology often provokes unwillingness to even talk to one another as respectful human beings. Such incivility is at the heart of partisan divisions in Congress, and perpetuates age-old rifts between Arabs and Jews, Sunnis and Shiites, North and South Koreans, etc.

My psychotherapist wife says it’s all about relationship. She and I long ago agreed that marriage is not about fighting, but about love. This may seem obvious, but marriages often spin out of control because gender conflict brings up antipathy that some defend as virtuous passion. Fighting with a spouse is an accepted tradition. So is war.

Lawyering-up in resource battles has similar overtones. Fighting has become the default position because the gulf between industrialists and environmentalists appears intractable. The resulting bitterness drives the wedge further still through legal bickering refereed by ineffective regulatory constructs.

Real progress occurs when two individuals – or institutions – sue for peace rather than for damages. Not only is peace restored, but so is communication that can produce other positive relationships. This doesn’t mean an end to conflict, but a positive way of confronting it beyond regulatory battlegrounds.

There has to be something better than the contentious status quo, an approach where human beings can forge peace with mutual respect. Individual initiatives forged in the right spirit can temper conflicts from the Roan Plateau to the Golan Heights, saving money, time, ecosystems, wilderness, and even human lives. Willing parties may not always find the love, but it’s worth looking for.

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