Resolving Community Conflicts

Following a screening of The Fire Next Time, residents of Flathead Valley gathered in small groups with discussion facilitator Melinda Smith in Whitefish, Montana, to talk about the future of their community.

POV: Are environmental conflicts different than other types of community conflicts? Can you share some examples of other environmental conflicts that you've worked on that resulted in a positive outcome?

Melinda Smith

Melinda Smith: Yes and no. Environmental conflicts are also community conflicts. They can also be political. You can have faith-based environmental conflicts, too. Natural resource conflicts like the ones we've seen in Kalispell and other parts of the West are based on land and water conflicts. And these are conflicts that run very deep in terms of value systems, identity and sense of place -- and also ideology. For example, property rights activists are pitted against environmental activists regarding how private and public resources should be managed.

Environmental conflicts in the West aren't just about the environment, but about change, how land is used and how the character of communities is changing. And the other very significant issue is pitting economic development against environmental protection. These do not have to be adversarial positions. You can protect the environment and grow the economy. But environmental protection did have an impact on the extracting industries: logging, grazing, mining, etc. and that's what's happening in Kalispell, because of restrictions on logging in the Flathead Valley forest. That is a big stressor of this burgeoning conflict.

There are two other environmental conflicts that I can share. One community that I worked with is Catron County, New Mexico. Their issues were very similar to Kalispell's. They had restrictions on logging and grazing practices on public land, which resulted in a downturn of the economic health of the community. There were deep value and ideological conflicts between environmentalists and resource-dependent people. But in that community we were able to develop collaborative problem-solving processes as a way of bringing people together around sustainable forest practices, learning how to log to both contribute to the health of the forest as well as to the economic viability of the community. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to cut down trees in a way that will also promote a healthy forest. So we started a process of focusing on forest health.

The community began a project in which all sides agreed on how to thin the forest so loggers could work, but in a way that would make for a healthier forest. Forest practices in the past were focused on trying to produce as many trees as possilble. Forest practices now are focused on bringing forests into a healthy balance. The fire that's shown in "The Fire Next Time" was the result of 100 years of fire suppression -- a focus on production that is not a healthy ecosystem.

People in New Mexico came together and agreed on the best forest management practices, which would be both sustainable and profitable, by allowing for the forest to remain healthy, but also to put money into loggers' pockets.

POV: In looking at the situation in Kalispell, what advice would you give to community leaders? Is the situation in Kalispell unique, or is there a protocol that conflict negotiators follow in all community conflicts that would be appropriate in Kalispell?

Smith: Kalispell is a good example of multi-level complex conflicts. It's important to understand what is distressing people. This situation in Kalispell mirrors many conflicts throughout the West. Although, it is more intense there than in some other places. It's been exacerbated by talk radio and fringe militia elements. I think the leaders are on the right path, by encouraging community dialogue. The film project is an excellent example of what a community can do to begin a conversation.
Dialogue processes are very effective in helping to create trust, build common ground, and allow people to see their common humanity.

These are the kinds of things that can help people to communicate. Another thing is to find the sources of power, because power relationships are very important in assessing a conflict and helping people to resolve it. Power can come in many different forms: political power, people power, and/or respect and standing within the community.

POV: Do various conflicts reach different levels, making them candidates for different types of resolution? Is there such a thing as an intractable conflict?

Smith: Yes, there are intractable conflicts. These include long-standing conflicts between groups over land, resources, identity -- like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Violence is used when parties feel there is no alternative. This happens in situations of colonial occupation, oppression, etc. An example of this is the Algerian Revolution to throw out the French. Violence is indeed avoidable, but people have to have the skills and will to negotiate, to be able to understand their interests, and be willing to make trade-offs of the things they need versus the things they can give up. This happened in the case of South Africa.

POV: What tools do negotiators use when approaching a conflict? What criteria do you evaluate when assessing a conflict?

Smith: It's important for mediators to find out what players really need. What are the feelings and emotions that they bring to a conflict? What are the experiences they've had that have led them to feel the way they do and to take the positions that they've taken? If you can help people communicate their needs and their underlying feelings -- if they are willing to do that -- there can begin a process of mutual understanding.

As a mediator, the criteria you consider are the issues and perspectives and positions of all the parties involved, whether they are two people fighting or a whole community with 20 different points of view. We want to know what the core issues are, but also what are the underlying issues? What do people really need? And the answer to that question could be very different. For example, they might not want the forest service to make decisions about land management, but the underlying interest really might be that they want more of a say in what happens to the land in their community.

The other thing that mediators can assess is, if you don't solve this problem through mediation, what are the alternatives? Do you let it fester? Are there alternatives?

POV: What advice would you give to people in terms of best practices for divisions or conflicts within their communities?

Smith: I think that the elected officials, heads of professional associations and the federal and natural resources managers could continue to exert collaborative leadership with members of the community to try to create some common principles for forest management that provide economic and environmental sustainability. I think "Flathead on the Move" is a good first step, but they need to make sure that all stakeholders are at the table. That's not an easy thing. Lots of communities are trying to do this.

POV: Do you think there is hope for the people of Kalispell? Will their conflict reach resolution?

Smith: There is always hope. We have the responsibility to bring people together to try and solve problems. Sometimes our legislative decision-making process isn't enough. Kalispell is a microcosm for everything that we face in this country. We have to learn to talk to eachother in meaningful ways. You can't mediate everything, but some of these issues are very important to resolve through dialogue and collaborative decision-making. I think that the community dialogue process can be very effective, because community dialogue humanizes an adversary. It allows people to understand the perspectives of others in a safe environment.

When you have a community that has a radio program that is boosting the decibel level of the conflict, it's really important to get people face to face. These communities are literally and figuratively tinderboxes. And talk radio can be an inciter, promoting dissention. Having a dialogue on the radio could be a great way to include the community. They did this in New York City around an Arab-Jewish dialogue process, and demonstrated how people could exchange perspectives without debating. The problem with media is that it can feed on conflict, and conflict can be exploited, so that's why media can be an important way to demonstrate dialogue communication and reconciliation of opposing views. That would be a useful thing for community leaders to try to do.