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Wildfire in the Watershed: The value that flows downstream – An interview with John Shepard

John Shepard WEB HSWhen it comes to conservation issues, there’s not much that John Shepard is afraid to take on. As senior advisor for the Sonoran Institute, he’s known for his ability to help people with vastly different viewpoints on land management issues find common ground. From a water perspective, that means working with communities “from the bottom up” to help them understand and protect the value of their watersheds.



How did you become involved in the Healthy Headwaters Alliance?

At Sonoran Institute, we see a value proposition where downstream users—the utilities and their customers—benefit significantly from water coming from headwaters that are primarily on state and federal lands. But the full suite of benefits, including flood control and water filtration, is not accounted for in the market right now. As members of the Alliance, we have been able to communicate that value proposition to a broader network of people. That’s key, because it’s how we get people to start thinking about new funding sources, finance mechanisms and land-use policies to ensure protection and restoration of those headwaters.

You attended the Healthy Headwaters Alliance leadership convening in Portland last November. What stood out to you?

By calling these convenings, Carpe Diem West is taking us on a tour around the American West. And when we go to each region, we are able to learn about really good work that’s being done in watersheds and headwaters there. In Portland, we heard from people directly involved in Pacific Northwest projects—utilities, conservationists and others. The lessons learned and the networking opportunities were invaluable.

What are the next steps for the Healthy Headwaters Alliance, and how do you see the Sonoran Institute playing a role?

A couple of things. Continuing to build and expand the alliance is important, although I think we already have a critical mass of people representing different interests from different parts of the West. The other is, taking members back to Washington, D.C., and having them meet with members of Congress, their staffs, members of the administration, and various agency staff. We have to elevate the profile of water in the West as the threatening effects of climate change become more pervasive and profound.

One defining element of the West is its aridity. Climate will have a large and an early impact on water resources in the Intermountain West that other areas may not experience. So it is essential to start getting people from the West to go back to Washington and convey the urgency and importance of dealing with water resource issues. Because strangely enough, there’s a lot of focus on land—public land management, federal land management, state lands—but there’s not been the same focus on water resources. Yet, water is the life blood of the land and of the communities who live there. If we’re not dealing with water issues, those problems will have a profound effect on all the other issues that conservation groups and other groups in the West care about.

What are the biggest challenges to headwaters health in Arizona?

Well, in Arizona we have, as an example, the Salt and Verde watersheds, which feed much of the water needs of the Greater Phoenix metro area. Those headwaters have been subject to fairly large and devastating forest fires resulting both from a combination of climate change effects and the way the forests have been managed for decades. So we need to make sure we have enough funding to do the kind of restoration that’s needed—like thinning the forests so we can minimize fire risks—so that these forests can continue to provide water for the Greater Phoenix metro area.

What are some of the political realities that present themselves when you talk about headwaters preservation?

The first is that you have to convince folks that the forests are not healthy—that they need some kind of treatment. You also have to get consensus around what that treatment is going to be. And then you’re going to need significant amounts of money to follow through. That means convincing people that investing tens of millions of dollars in treating those forests now is vastly preferable to waiting for them to go up in flames and then having to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to deal with that—both fighting the fires and then cleaning out clogged reservoirs or building new water treatment plants. But human nature being what it is, we often wait for disaster to strike before responding rather than taking a cheaper, preventive approach to addressing the problem.

You’re also dealing with the larger context of a long-term management strategy that’s hard to change within the land management agency, particularly the Forest Service. You have a range of viewpoints—from “Don’t do anything to the forest. This is a natural process, even with climate change. Just leave the forests alone,” to “Heck no, we need to get in there and log as much as we can.” These are very entrenched viewpoints on either side of the issue, and getting people to agree to an effective compromise can get exceptionally difficult.

Then there are the larger fiscal, budget, federal debt concerns that are pressing for smaller government—less federal funding for x, y and z. And that’s a significant issue to contend with, as well.

What are the most important tools in your backpack, as you’re negotiating with community leaders, business people and politicians?

There’s still a tremendous educational need: Explaining what the problem is, the cost of addressing the problem, the cost of not addressing the problem, and what the options are. And that gets back to the value proposition I was talking about.

Secondly, there is a need for forums, places where people can come together and be in conversation about constructive solutions. Public lands issues, particularly in the West, generate a lot of heat. Most of those issues play themselves out in either a legislative context or in a planning process such as the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process. Those aren’t necessarily places where people can come together to sound each other out and start to think about constructive solutions. It’s important to create places set apart from those highly charged political venues where people can come together to say, “Yes, we can all support this. This is a good thing.”

Finally, we need more stories—more case studies of communities and stakeholders successfully grappling with one aspect or another of the issues we’re talking about. So other communities or stakeholders can see what their peers are doing to successfully resolve difficult issues.

Those three tools are profoundly necessary in the West, and Carpe Diem West does a great job of offering different aspects of all of them.

What has been your contribution to the Healthy Headwaters Alliance?

You know, I am not an expert in any field, but as a generalist, sometimes I can help explain a complicated issue in a way that someone who’s not steeped in it can understand. I’m a good touchstone for just, “Ah—that makes sense. This is a good way to communicate it.” I can also think strategically about the implications of what is being done now, and help create a roadmap to get to successful action.

Because I’ve been with the Sonoran Institute for 17 years, I have learned a lot from my peers in that organization. For example, I’ve been advocating pretty strongly about this value proposition, using watershed studies to quantify the value of watershed services. But we’ve learned to make sure it’s not just purely an academic study—where someone comes to you and says, “Yep, we’ve calculated it, and here’s the report that shows what your watershed is worth.” You have to actually bring stakeholders in the affected watershed together and say, “We’re going to walk you through this. We’re going to explain how your watershed benefits you. Then we’re going to help quantify those benefits and explain how we got to those dollar figures. Then, depending on what your thoughts and reactions are to that information, we’ll sit down with you and help figure out how you can begin to invest in and protect the value that’s literally coming downstream to you.”

Then, whatever changes are needed—if it’s land-use policy, changes to federal land management practices, or local finance mechanisms—we have expertise in a lot of those areas and we can help think through the suite of policies or responses that a community might want to take.

How critical is public involvement in this process?

Absolutely critical. The journey is almost as important as the destination in terms of what the conclusions of a particular study or report are. Bringing people with you on that journey so they can have both an understanding and a sense of ownership of the study’s conclusions is tremendously important. Then they can more effectively and more passionately advocate for solutions, recommendations, and responses to those findings.

You’re very passionate about your work. How long have you been doing this, and what inspires you?

I’ve been doing conservation for 25 years. Before that, I did other kinds of consumer public interest work. I feel really good when I get up in the morning, knowing that I’m working on issues that have broader benefits to the community, the country, the world I live in.

I also like the challenges of collaboratively oriented conservation. There’s an important part of the conservation community that’s focused on defending against a lot of ill-conceived ideas, and that work sometimes involves litigation or pitched battles between different interest groups. And we still need people who are laser-focused on protecting our environment and defending it against a huge number of assaults.

But what I like is actually getting in front of people who don’t necessarily agree with everything I do, and figuring out where there’s common ground. It’s not that I’m going to convince them or they’re going to convince me—it’s that together we’re going to figure out where we can actually work together. That, to me, is extremely satisfying both intellectually and emotionally. Particularly in this era when almost any public policy issue gets turned into a partisan issue, we need more people breaking down the silos, the boundaries, the animosity, and turn down the political heat levels. And again, Carpe Diem West is all about that.

When it comes to conservation issues, there’s not much that John Shepard is afraid to take on. As senior advisor for the Sonoran Institute, he’s known for his ability to help people with vastly different viewpoints on land management issues find common ground. From a water perspective, that means working with communities “from the bottom up” to help them understand and protect the value of their watersheds.

3/7/14

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