In the 1980s, Steven Smutko attended several heated public meetings on toxic waste disposal. Stakeholders from the community fired away at their government "adversaries"—and each other. "I was pretty intrigued," Smutko recalls. "I couldn't understand why people were behaving that way. It just seemed like it wasn't working."
Those experiences changed the course of Smutko's career. For the past 20 years, he's worked with citizens, advocates, businesses,, and government agencies to craft win-win solutions to thorny natural resource issues. In 2009, he joined UW as the Wyoming Excellence Spicer Distinguished Chair in Environment and Natural Resources—the nation's first academic position dedicated to collaborative practice.
Along with his teaching, extension, and research duties, Smutko designs and facilitates decision-making processes for natural resource stakeholders around the Intermountain West. In 2009, he teamed up with Wyoming's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to develop a new permitting strategy for coal-bed methane production in the Powder River Basin.
About seven percent of the natural gas mined in the United States is extracted from water-saturated coal. To access this valuable resource, large amounts of poor-quality water must be pumped from the coal seam. Disposal of this wastewater had become a thorny issue in the Powder River Basin. "Many ranchers had significant problems with saltwater intrusion and sodic soils," Smutko says. Conservation groups were concerned about the water's impact on wetlands and riparian habitats.
The DEQ hoped to address these concerns by developing a new set of permitting guidelines. With the DEQ's help, Smutko convened a working group of 20 local stakeholders from business, industry, agriculture, government, and conservation organizations.
Their first task was to frame the issue. "The problem might be known, but it's usually identified differently by all parties," Smutko says. For the collaborative process to move forward, he also needed buy-in from the various participants. Stakeholders often assume that getting what they want requires denying the claims of other parties when in fact there is plenty for everyone, he explains.
Over the next 10 months, the group worked collaboratively to set goals, clarify the positions of various stakeholders, and propose solutions. "Ideally, we're trying to expand the pie, create value, and then divide the pie," Smutko says of the process.
In May 2010, the group presented eight draft recommendations to the DEQ. They included provisions for baseline measurement and monitoring and new permitting criteria based on drainage-specific factors. They also recommended that permittees work with landowners within their drainage to create a water management plan.
Encouraged by this outcome, Smutko will continue his outreach efforts. "I want to face the day when we have a hot issue and a number of people coming to the table, and they have skills and problem-solving abilities," he says. "Then I'll know we've gotten somewhere. That's a long-term goal, but I think it's doable."