Building Success in Ultra-Partisan times ~ An Interview with Scott Miller
This kind of work really takes time. We have to put more support into long-term power building and relationship building. Yes, we need to take advantage of opportunities that drop in front of us, but we really need to value building relationships and alliances that are based on trust, and that cross sectors and are much bigger than the deep green advocates.
We sat down with Scott Miller, one of our terrific board members and the Executive Director of Resource Media. We talked about the recently passed public lands federal legislation and how the lessons from that campaign can apply to accelerating forest restoration in the American West.
As Scott notes in his interview, the public lands bill didn’t just pass, it passed overwhelmingly. It was a non-issue in this ultra-partisan time. That is extremely powerful in terms of what’s possible. Passing the legislation didn’t happen because of work done just over the preceding year. It was work done over the preceding ten years.
Scott’s dogged focus on equity throughout the environmental space, and his abiding interest in “strange bedfellows” coalitions is becoming more helpful and relevant by the day.
We ended the interview looking at the western wildfire season about to erupt and effective ways to communicate the links between western water supply and catastrophic wildfire.
Are there lessons we in the Healthy Headwaters and western water world can draw from the overwhelming support for and passage of the recent public lands bill?
Well, first it’s worth noting that most headwaters forests are in public lands, so there’s a natural tie to strengthening the healthy headwaters work in that way. And really what the bill passage shows is that there is very strong bipartisan support for land conservation, especially in the West. Yes, that gets hijacked at times by the highly partisan nature of politics today. But what made it all possible is the hard work of relationship building with people that are not the same as you. These big victories happen because people decide they wanted to build a bigger tent. That bigger tent includes conservative folks, city dwellers, and people of color communities, and people who are often left out of these debates.
A great example of that is a group called Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. It’s literally taken more than a decade to get its own footing, but it’s truly inclusive and that really is powerful. You just can’t beat the kind of relationship building that comes from putting people in the same room, over time.
How can we replicate these kinds of successes?
Well to address that I’ll mention one of the real challenges in our environmental space, both among funders and advocates: our horizons are often too damn short. This kind of work really takes time. We have to put more support into long-term power building and relationship building. Yes we need to take advantage of opportunities that drop in front of us, but we really need to value building relationships and alliances that are based on trust, and that cross sectors and are much bigger than the deep green advocates.
This public lands bill didn’t just pass, it passed overwhelmingly. It was a non-issue in an ultra-partisan time. That is extremely powerful in terms of what’s possible, it was not possible because of work done over the preceding year. It was work done over the preceding ten years.
Speaking of that huge margin, what does that tell us about how this coalitional approach works for policymakers?
I’ll always remember a congressional staffer who spoke at a Carpe Diem West event many years ago. She said: nothing appeals to policymakers more than strange bedfellows. Why? You are solving problems for them. For policymakers, it’s a hassle for them to take stands on things. They know they will catch flak. So if there is an opportunity for a win/win, without as much blowback, that’s huge. There isn’t a politician in the world who won’t do backflips over that kind of support from diverse quarters. By the way, the same is true of reporters and media outlets. Strange bedfellows stories are always pitchable, if you’re doing it in a strategic way.
Is there even more power in those unlikely alliances now that the far-right has a very loud voice on conservation and public lands issues?
Absolutely. These highly polarized dynamics are popping up around land and water conservation everywhere! But there is always an opening to make it less partisan. Especially with water. For example, I was just a funder meeting discussing toxic algae, and stopping nutrient pollution. The only elected official speaking was a Republican from southwest Florida, which is a very conservative place. But toxic algae is ruining the places people love and live, and that is not a partisan concern. That is a human concern. So water issues really have the ability to cross the aisle. And in places where we can depoliticize it a little, we can make progress. The other side, especially big agribusiness, is trying to polarize it, but they have to work hard to do that.
Switching topics, it’s April. And that means wildfire season is right around the corner again. Do you have any fresh insights on how to communicate about catastrophic fire?
From a communications perspective, I’ll share an observation that fire in the West is a lot like toxic algae in the Midwest. It is predictable and unpredictable at the same time. It’s predictable because we know there will be huge fires. But we don’t know where. You just hope it doesn’t happen in places with a lot of people.
So there are two things to share. One, if we can prepare in advance, that’s always much much better. We have time to do so since it is April! But we have to connect the dots on climate change, changing water regimes, forest health, public health and wildfires in the way we want them connected. And that means getting clear on the recommended fixes now, not later. What do we want land managers and policymakers to do, specifically. What successes can we point to? We should have some ready-made stewardship success stories that show how much more protected communities can be when they engage in these kinds of restoration and protection.
But we can’t talk about that when the wildfires are burning and people are dying. We need to talk about it now, and after the flames have been doused. We need to have plans and materials for that.
We also need to be strategic about when to bring together for a conversation on solutions. How do you foster dialogue? Not right after a utility wire sets a wildfire. Not when a city can’t treat its water because of the volume of ash and toxins.
So in a way those conversations are a lot more about policy than about communications, and they need to happen both earlier and later. And they need to be focused on very specific calls to action.
Those of us in the environmental sector also need to be very aware of not talking about fire as a natural phenomenon that people must get used to. That has really hurt us in the past. And these fires are not “natural” in that they are happening because of a vortex of really unnatural causes piling up on each other.
So really planning ahead, creating the materials, having the policy solutions at the ready. Let’s do that now and be prepared.
You can find tools and tips on the Carpe Diem West website:
Scott Miller is the Executive Director of Resource Media and a Carpe Diem West Board Member.
Scott spent 23 years as a television reporter, 16 of them covering the environment. As the media changed, he felt a need to work towards a broader impact, which brought him to lead Resource Media in 2002. Here he has learned the value of working across issue silos and building real, non-transactional relationships with communities outside the deep green base. In 2009 Scott joined the Russell Family Foundation where he helped review and refocus environmental grantmaking. He rejoined Resource Media as President in 2012.