From Fighting to Solution: Redwoods

It is possible to achieve good and useful things with people you disagree with. Here is a real world example. 

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Between 1973 and 1975, in Mendocino County, California, loggers, environmentalists, and government officials came together to try to resolve a longstanding and ugly fight over private redwood forests.

The property tax on privately owned forest land was based on the number of standing trees. This policy created the perverse incentive to cut down all as many trees as possible, including ancient redwoods, whether or not the wood was in demand. Environmentalists proposed taxing all redwoods, regardless of age. Lumber companies opposed this proposal. They argued that it would discourage them from replanting. Further, it would pay them to cut down even more trees to save on taxes.

State and local officials supported the creation of a task force with representatives from all sides. Many people doubted that the group could succeed, especially since any proposal would need to be accepted by multiple state legislative committees.

The first several meetings went badly. The loggers insisted that the environmentalists’ proposal would wreak havoc on the local economy, which depended heavily on the viability of the lumber business. Environmentalists retorted that the lumber companies were mercenary and short-sighted, and that they failed to protect the needs of the local ecosystem.

Yet, the task force persevered, knowing the price of failure would be high.  Technical studies were conducted and lots of meetings were organized. Over time, with effort, they became more understanding of each other’s points of view. After several months, they found a solution: switch to a tax based on cut lumber (harvested trees). This would discourage lumber companies from logging more than they could immediately sell. By removing the tax on standing trees, forest owners were no longer penalized for preserving ancient redwoods. Since it was supported by all sides, the proposal sailed through each legislative committee. The bill became law in 1976, to the benefit of all concerned.

In summary: frustrated, angry people came to realize they shared a common future, they therefore agreed to commit to working with one another, they did a lot of hard work (organizational, technical, political) together, the hard work allowed them to understand each other’s needs and constraints, mutual understanding made it easier to “think outside the box,” and creativity allowed them to find a mutually agreeable solution.

Modified with permission from page 233 of Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, by Sam Kaner with Lenny Lind, Catherine Toldi, Sarah Fisk and Duane Berger, San Francisco, Jossey Bass, 2014 (3rd Edition)

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Want to Learn More?

The Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making contains good guidance on how to facilitate meetings between groups of people who do not understand or like each other.

You can learn more about California’s Timber Yield Tax from the Ecology Law Quarterly. (It’s dry but interesting reading.)

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