Building Trust in an Environmental Conflict
By Public Disputes Network
This Article Summary written by: Mariya Yevsyukova, Conflict Research Consortium
Public Disputes Network. "Mediation Defuses Potentially Explosive Situation: Old Mistrusts Wilt in Minnesota as Ex-Foes Reach Pact on Herbicides", in Consensus, No. 1, November 1988. Published by the Public Disputes Network, p. 3.
In 1985 in Minnesota, a conflict arose between environmentalists and the forest products industry over aerial spraying of herbicides to control the growth of underbrush competing with pine trees. In 1985, environmentalists asked the Environmental Quality Board to prepare an Environmental Assessment Worksheet. After the Worksheet was prepared, they found several flaws in it, such as not proving the need for aerial spraying, not assessing the risks of herbicide use, etc. Environmentalists threatened to take the Department of Natural Resources to court. As less costly alternative, it was suggested that the parties try mediation.
The first task for the mediator was to establish the ground rules. The environmentalists wanted a fast process to be able to continue their battle in the court if the mediation failed. The Department of Natural Resources wanted to include the forest products, chemical manufacturing and agricultural industries as parties in the mediation process. An agreement on procedural issues was finally reached in January 1987: industries were included and a process duration of 5 months was established.
During the next stage, the parties educated each other about their interests. Environmentalists were concerned about public health, industry--about "the role herbicides play in the cycle of cutting and replacing timber land" (p. 3), and the Department of Natural Resources--about a balanced and diverse use of public forest lands.
In situations of impasse, mediator Leah Patton suggested that the parties shift their focus to other issues. She held caucuses with the parties, explaining that it was impossible to achieve what they wanted. When they reached stalemate, the mediator reminded the parties about the rule of thumb: "When another party can't accept something, then come up with still another alternative that will fulfill your needs" (p. 3). Another factor which helped this mediation to end with success was the use of a word processor, which allowed them to immediately create drafts of the agreement. This way the parties did not have a chance to say that they could not give their opinions on the proposals until they would see them in written form. The agreement was reached and mediation helped potentially violent adversaries to create positive relationships with each other.