Legacy of the Muries, Part 3

Paul Hansen has held a series of important positions over a long career as a leader of the conservation movement.  Among other things, he is a former director of The Nature Conservancy’s Greater Yellowstone Program, a long-time executive director of the Izaak Walton League, and a former chair of the leadership forum for national environmental NGOs known as the Green Group. 

Currently, Paul serves as executive director of the Murie Center, about which I have been writing in this blog series on the Legacy of the Muries.  This is a very appropriate position for Paul because he personifies the spirit of dignified collaboration and dialogue that the Muries championed on the front porch of their ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.  Yes, Olaus and Mardy, and Adolph and Louise, were vigorous and passionate advocates for wilderness.  But everything I have read by or about them suggests that they placed a high value on civility, on bringing different sides together for constructive conversation.  And that is Paul’s approach as well.

In a recent book, Green in Gridlock (Texas A&M University Press, 2013), Paul Hansen sets forth a powerful argument that modern conservationists needs to be more inclusive and collaborative in order to achieve success in today’s complex world of competing social priorities.  He quotes a mentor who asked an argumentative Paul, early in his career, if he wanted “to make a point or make progress?” 

This might be paraphrased as, do you want to fight or do you want to win?  Too often, uncompromising environmental advocates resemble political or ethnic partisans who can’t see solutions staring them in the face because they are blinded by generations of historical prejudice and animosity.

In Green in Gridlock, Paul draws on his personal involvement in some of the great environmental struggles of our time to illustrate the value of common sense and collaborative solutions.  These notably include the international cooperation that led to science-based agreements on eliminating CFC chemicals that deplete the atmospheric ozone level, and the U.S.-Canadian agreements that have significantly curtailed emissions that cause acid rain.  The current issues of climate change look just a little less daunting when one stops to appreciate what has already been accomplished in these other areas.

Paul’s recipe for success is not a naive call for civility for its own sake.  He is goal oriented and firmly rooted in practicality.  “Adversarial advocacy is not working,” he writes, “and radical environmentalism has now become part of the problem.  ...  ‘All or nothing’ rarely results in all and often results in nothing.”

I need to pause here to say that while I am personally comfortable with the cooperative and constructive approach to problems that Paul describes, I perhaps disagree with him in the nuanced sense that I celebrate a diversity of styles within the conservation community, some of which will be effective on particular issues, while others will work better in different contexts.  As I noted in Missions and Niches, Part 3, I believe “it is important to recognize that not all conservation organizations need to follow the same path or occupy the same point on the multi-dimensional spectrums [of advocacy and public policy].  ... 

“Some organizations, like Earthjustice and NRDC, will pursue highly adversarial litigation strategies.  Others, like the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society and the Alaska Wilderness League, will promote policy initiatives using tactics ranging from public advocacy to outright lobbying.   And others, notably The Nature Conservancy, will promote collaborative, market-based solutions wherever possible, including developing rigorous science and working with corporate interests on large-scale projects when doing so can achieve important conservation goals.”

I’m not sure that Paul would disagree with any of that sentiment.  However, the core message of his graceful and interesting book is more focused: 

“To succeed in conservation, we need to stop driving people away from a cause that they are inherently predisposed to support.  We need an inclusive and collaborative approach that welcomes people and is respectful of differences of opinion, especially on the inexact art of strategy and compromise.”

The Muries were eloquent advocates for wilderness, contributing to some of the greatest successes of the conservation movement, including passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964 and the designation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  It is significant, however, that both the Wilderness Act and the Arctic Refuge were brought about only as the result of significant compromise and negotiation. 

In 1975, Mardy Murie made a presentation to an economic forum in Alaska and told a story about a family of porcupines, and a stray cat, that peacefully coexisted in eating the birdseed she had placed outside her kitchen window at the Murie Ranch in Wyoming.  She observed that these two species are perhaps not the most natural of friends, then added:  "Well, it occurred to me that if cats and porcupines can tolerate each other and eat together, shouldn’t conservationists and businessmen be able to?  And not only these two forces, but all the others?"  I am fairly sure that Paul Hansen would agree.

The full text of Mardy's speech excerpted above is on file in the archives of the Murie Center in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

This is the third in a series of four posts about the Legacy of the Muries.  See the Blog Index for the related posts.