Legacy or Sham?

The Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution has been established in Mo Udall's name. Would he even like it?

I've been through legislation creating a dozen national parks, and there's always the same pattern. When you first propose a park, and you visit the area and present the case to the local people, they threaten to hang you. You go back in five years and they think it's the greatest thing that ever happened. You go back in twenty years and they'll probably name a mountain after you.

--late U.S. representative Morris K. Udall

Please, somebody, name a mountain after Mo Udall.

That would be a fitting tribute to a man who spent 30 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, where much of his toil went toward preserving the environment.

Instead, the late congressman's name is on concrete, at the Morris K. Udall Foundation in Tucson. A hallmark of the foundation is the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution, which Congress recently created in Udall's name and funded, this year, at $4.25 million.

Sounds good, right? After all, Udall will go down in history as a great environmentalist; but it was really his skill as a great compromiser that created laws to protect our water and air. Udall, who died December 12, will be remembered for championing legislation that saved millions of acres of Alaskan wilderness and preserved Arizona mountains like Four Peaks outside of Phoenix and the San Francisco Peaks near Flagstaff.

Even the environmentalists who loved the land as he did couldn't escape Mo Udall's gentle wit. He called them LOLITAS (Little Old Ladies in Tennis Shoes) and THUPPS (Tree-Hugging Posy Pickers), but the secret of Udall's success was his willingness to invite the old ladies and the posy pickers to the table, and seat them right alongside the bureaucrats and the big-business types, to hash out the environmental issues of the day.

Udall didn't always vote the environmentalists' way, and yet he won most everyone's respect by listening to all sides and forging compromise. That is the idea of the conflict-resolution institute--to avoid litigation by bringing federal agencies, industry and environmentalists to the table to talk through their problems. It will all be refereed by trained, neutral arbitrators.

But what if one side refuses to participate?

You might be surprised to learn that it's environmentalists, not industry barons, who are uneasy about playing along. The directors of the Tucson-based Southwest Center for Biodiversity, which files about 70 percent of the environment-related lawsuits in Arizona, have said they don't want anything to do with the institute. The Southwest Center is at the far end of the spectrum--industry types love to call them "eco-terrorists"--but other, more mainstream Arizona environmentalists are wary of the institute, too.

The environmentalists have many reservations about the institute. They ask, if the goal here is really cooperation, why weren't they consulted when the institute was being developed?

They say their groups don't have the staff to sit through long negotiations, and, that in any case, there are already federal mediation programs in place through the courts. They say they're wary of the institute's creator, Senator John McCain, who, unlike Udall, they do not consider an environmentalist. Some greens are uncomfortable with the institute's close ties to the University of Arizona, which convinced Udall--in one of his last monumental decisions in Congress--to vote to put telescopes atop Mt. Graham in southeastern Arizona.

The environmentalists' biggest reservation, however, is the simple fact that they are so successful in court; they don't see a reason to negotiate.

Institute director Kirk Emerson points out that her new organization is national in scope, and that the Southwest Center is just one of many, many stake holders in a process that won't always lend itself to negotiation.

"This [institute] is no panacea. This is in no way in opposition to the legal system," she says.

But that's how the environmentalists see it. And if this institute is to work, it will take someone who can cajole the competing interests into giving it a chance. John McCain is not the guy to do it.

Sadly, the U.S. Environmental Conflict Resolution Institute is missing a key, irreplaceable ingredient, and that's Mo Udall himself.

In the seven years since Udall left office, industry and environmentalists have become so polarized they might as well be on different planets.

Big business has used the Gingrichized Congress--and in Arizona, the right-leaning State Legislature--to get its way.

In response, environmentalists like Peter Galvin, Kieran Suckling and Robin Silver of the Southwest Center and David Baron of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest, have honed their legal skills, using the courts to enforce environmental laws.

Suckling, whose group just filed its hundredth lawsuit, puts his success rate at 82 percent. In recent years, the Southwest Center helped to secure a federal injunction halting logging in the Southwest while the U.S. Forest Service examined its impact on the threatened Mexican spotted owl. They've petitioned to get dozens of species of plants and animals listed as threatened or endangered, and successfully sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, forcing the agency to reconsider the Northern goshawk as a threatened species.

Those and other green victories have led to changes in the social dynamics of the opposing forces. The Tree-Hugging Posy Pickers of the past have been replaced by Law-Spewing Species Defenders who use the courts to force recalcitrant government bureaucrats to follow the rules. They are now tough, take-no-prisoners litigants.

And consequently, it's now the stuffed-shirt, hard-edged CEOs who are looking for group hugs.

One such example is Enlibra, which New Times' Michael Kiefer wrote about after attending the "Western Governors Association Environmental Summit on the West," held here in Phoenix. ("Balancing Act," December 10.) Enlibra might sound like a perfume, but it's not. It's a process. The brainchild of the governors of Utah and Oregon, Enlibra, like the Udall conflict-resolution institute, is designed to promote harmony and limit litigation. And, like the institute, it makes some environmentalists edgy.

Rob Smith, federal lobbyist for the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club, says, "There are a lot of voices out there that say we really need conflict-resolution on the environment, and a lot of them are polluters or government agencies that don't want to enforce the law.

"In my view, the problem is we have dirty air in the city and we have dirty water in too many places and our wildlands are being lost to development. The problem isn't that we're arguing about that. And some people seem to think that if you're arguing, there's a problem, whereas I think if you're arguing then you're in the public process, and welcome to democracy."

Suckling claims that the only reason the industry types want to make nice is because they're getting slaughtered in court. He notes that logging has declined by 84 percent on national forests since 1989, grazing is dwindling on public lands, and communities like Tucson are beginning to address urban sprawl.

It's not the mere notion of negotiation that raises Suckling's hackles. He says his group negotiates all the time, but only from a position of strength. And the way to get that strength is to file a lawsuit.

Suckling says industry doesn't just want to negotiate, it wants to win. He points to a recent settlement his group forged with the U.S. Forest Service, in which cattle will be removed from 300 miles of river habitat. The ranchers didn't like the agreement, so they urged U.S. Representative Don Young of Alaska, chair of the House Resources Committee, to hold hearings investigating the pact. Suckling says Young even went so far as to demand a list of Forest Service employees who were members of the Southwest Center.

"They want us to make these agreements. When we make an agreement and the agreement actually protects the environment, then we have congressional hearings into the agreement. It's absurd," Suckling says. "They're not after out-of-court agreements, 'cause we have those all the time. What they're after is preventing any reduction in logging, development and mining.

"We're finally making some serious headway on many issues," Suckling says. "Now they're saying, basically, stop kicking the loggers' butts and sit down and talk to them. Ridiculous. Why would we do that when we're winning?"

He continues, "The Udall Center was created as the happy face of environmental rape. But ultimately it doesn't matter, 'cause the Southwest Center doesn't have to use it. We're not going to use it. We're going to keep doing what we do as long as it's successful."

Suckling says his one encounter with the conflict-resolution institute only fueled his suspicions. Recently, Suckling's group asked NAFTA's Committee on Environmental Cooperation to do a study on the dewatering of the San Pedro River, the last undammed river in Arizona, near Sierra Vista.

When it came time to solicit public comment on the study, Arizona's congressional delegation suggested the Udall Center (the institute had not yet been created) run the process.

Suckling says he was horrified when Udall Center officials announced that only local comment would be allowed--thus throwing a wrench into the Southwest Center's plan.

"The local political scene is completely dominated by developers," Suckling says. "And therefore our strategy has been to nationalize this issue. . . . because we're certainly not going to get any help at all from local politicians."

When he complained, he was told that he could solicit outside comments independently, but that the Udall Center wouldn't. (Emerson tells me the center was assigned only the task of gathering local comments.)

"They are trying to bill themselves as a neutral party here--we're just collecting comments--but yet they bought the developers' line lock, stock and barrel," Suckling complains.

That is in sharp contrast to Mo Udall's strategy as a congressman, he says.

"When Mo stepped in and said we want to protect hundreds of millions of acres in Alaska [during the fight for a wilderness bill in the 1970s], he was blasted by the Alaska delegation. Their first response was, who the hell is this guy in Arizona to tell us how to protect land in Alaska? They opposed it. They bitterly opposed it. But Mo really saw that Alaska was the last frontier in North America and it needed to be protected, and it was only going to be protected by somebody outside of Alaskan politics.

" . . . If Mo had attempted to run all his environmental initiatives through a conflict-resolution center, I don't think Mo would be known today for the environmental legacy that he has, and Alaska would be just one more clear-cut instead of a vast, temperate rain forest."

I'm torn. I see Suckling's point. Now that his side is winning, why should he go soft? Big business would never do that. It's refreshing to see a nonprofit advocacy group that not only swims with the sharks but regularly devours them.

But would Suckling be wimping out by participating in this institute? I'm not so sure. If negotiations are fruitless, there is always the option of litigation.

While I am suspicious that pols like McCain--who resides at the bottom of the League of Conservation Voters' annual rankings--are hitching their wagons to Mo Udall's green star, we won't know whether the institute can be beneficial if nobody gives it a chance to work.

And we can only guess what Udall would say about the institute, if he were here today. He was debilitated by Parkinson's disease when the institute was founded, unaware of the legacy others were trying to create for him.

Suckling has a guess: "I think Mo would be very pleased to see the progress being made with Arizona's environment and would not at all be pleased that his name is being put on a group whose goal is to slow down and subvert the progress we're making."

Reached at his home in Santa Fe, Mo's brother, former Interior secretary Stewart Udall, says, "The Southwest Center has had considerable success in the courts, and you can't blame them for using the system that seems to have worked for them so well. But this new entity under my brother's name, I'm sure is going to try and do something that's fair and judicious and would actually help resolve disputes rather than go through long-winded court proceedings."

I believe, at the very least, that Mo Udall would be disappointed to know that federal environmental laws--some of which he helped to pass--are being so flouted as to necessitate the conflict-resolution institute. And at the same time, he'd likely be saddened to learn that in American politics today, it's not unusual for people to announce they have no intention of compromising.

We'll never know. But I'd feel much better if we could name a mountain after the guy, too, just for good measure.

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