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The World Needs More Civility: UW School, Institute Committed to Collaboration on Natural Resources

August 15, 2018
head portait of a woman
Melinda Harm Benson

By Melinda Harm Benson

In a state where 92 percent of its residents regularly hike, camp or enjoy other outdoor activities -- and where the economy is dependent on natural resources -- it should come as no surprise that Wyoming people have intense, often conflicting feelings about how those resources are managed.

Debates over environmental issues play out regularly in the Cowboy State, and solutions to those conflicts are often elusive -- as is the case across much of the American West.

But for a quarter of a century, the University of Wyoming’s Haub School and Ruckelshaus Institute of Environment and Natural Resources have been quietly working to find collaborative and science-based solutions to Wyoming’s and the region’s pressing environmental and natural resource challenges. Fittingly, the school and institute will celebrate their 25th anniversary Aug. 23 with a panel discussion and public reception, titled “Civility: The Case for Collaboration.”

The panelists -- former U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson, former Gov. Mike Sullivan and former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director John Turner, with former Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice and natural resources attorney Marilyn Kite serving as moderator -- will look back at the last 25 years and ahead to the next 25 years as they explore the role of civility in addressing challenges of the day. The discussion is set for 5:30 p.m. in UW’s Marian H. Rochelle Gateway Center, and it’s open to the public.

In an increasingly divisive and polarized world, it’s more important than ever to bring people with diverse perspectives together in fair and open forums. That’s because community-level, collaborative approaches lead to better, more productive and longer-lasting solutions to environmental challenges.

The university’s School and Institute of Environment and Natural Resources were established in 1993 with that philosophy at their core. As a result, much of their activity has been about ensuring that a range of representative voices comes to the table to build sound solutions. 

The results have been noteworthy. They include facilitation of collaborative processes that produced recommendations to reduce ground-level ozone pollution in Sublette County; forest and recreation management plans in conjunction with the governor’s office; prairie dog management strategies in the Thunder Basin National Grassland; and, recently, a proposal from the Western Governors Association to improve the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act.

One of the signature efforts of the school and institute, the Wyoming Open Spaces Initiative, brings together diverse partners -- including the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, the Wyoming Chapter of the Nature Conservancy and other UW units -- to inform efforts to maintain open spaces in Wyoming.

In general, the school and institute help make it possible for environmentalists, ranchers, land management agency representatives, energy industry representatives and other disparate groups to negotiate solutions to not only meet each of their needs, but also to provide real gains while averting the alternative outcome of expensive and time-consuming litigation.

At the same time, more than 500 undergraduate and graduate students have earned UW degrees through the Haub School and its interdisciplinary partners with majors or minors in environment and natural resources, sustainability, outdoor leadership or environmental systems science. Most recently, the Haub School has added a dedicated faculty to research the science, economics, law and policy of environmental and natural resource systems. The institute communicates this research to the public using multiple platforms.

It is only appropriate that the Haub School is marking its 25th anniversary with a panel discussion among these Wyoming characters -- because they are all prominent voices for civility and supporters of the school and institute.

Simpson helped establish the school and institute and invited William D. Ruckelshaus, former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, to chair the first advisory board in 1994. The institute was named in his honor in 2002.

Sullivan held a seat on the founding advisory board and later served as its chair.

Turner, who also served as CEO and president of the Conservation Fund, currently chairs the Haub School and Ruckelshaus Institute advisory board, of which Kite is a member.

These distinguished leaders know better than most just how difficult it can be to resolve conflicts and find solutions regarding Wyoming’s natural resources. So did German entrepreneurs, sustainability advocates and Wyoming ranchers Helga and Erivan Haub, who provided an endowment to the school’s academic programs in 2004.

They also know that collaboration, built upon the principle of civility, is most likely to produce results that serve the interests of all of the people in this wonderful state we call home.

Even though we don’t always agree on management details, Wyomingites are strongly connected to -- and care deeply about -- the land and the life it supports. With that common commitment, there’s no conflict that can’t benefit from civility and collaboration.

Melinda Harm Benson is the dean of the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming, a position she has held since Aug. 1, 2017.

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