“Foundations” is an occasional series of informal question-and-answer sessions with employees and others affiliated with The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to give them an opportunity to explain their work.

Michael Scott is an officer with the Foundation’s Environment Program, which makes grants to slow global climate change, to conserve the ecological integrity of the North American West, to ensure that energy is clean and affordable, and to address environmental problems that disproportionately affect disadvantaged communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. Scott leads the Foundation’s grantmaking in the western United States and Canada, with a particular focus on land and water conservation issues. From that vantage, Scott is ideally positioned to see broad changes in attitudes towards environmental issues. 

In this Q&A, he discusses the emergence of an unexpectedly broad coalition of supporters of conservation in the state of Montana as evidence of a move away from polarization on environmental issues. One recent example of that coalition’s breadth is support of proposed federal legislation to protect nearly 700,000 acres of land in the western part of that state. The legislation, now pending in the U.S. Senate, has earned the support of Montana sportsmen’s groups, timber mill owners, and other business leaders, as well as conservation organizations.

Before joining the Foundation, Scott was executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in Bozeman, Montana, a nonprofit organization that works to preserve the ecosystem of the Greater Yellowstone region. Scott has a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of California, Santa Barbara, and a master’s degree in public policy from Claremont Graduate School.

Is a broad coalition like this something new in the conservation movement? What’s allowed it to form?

I do think it’s something new. Twenty years ago, the timber industry, the ranching community, and the conservation community weren’t interested in talking about how to achieve mutual goals. The timber industry was interested in what it knew how to do – clear-cut harvest. Ranching was interested in what it knew how to do – graze on public land, divert water, make a living. And the conservation community was interested in what it knew how to do – designate wilderness. And each of them saw these activities as mutually exclusive.

That polarization lasted a long time. But each community has finally begun to learn that there is value in the others. The timber industry has learned that there are other ways to log that can achieve a number of goals they share with conservationists, like increasing diversity of species and bringing forests back to something like their natural state, which increases resistance to fire. The ranching industry has had similar realizations, and the conservationists see that these shared interests can help them reach their goals.

It’s taken some pretty brave souls to sit down and say, “Do you want to talk?” Some of the discussions started very privately and very carefully. And they’ve resulted, over time, in some innovative agreements, like the Montana one now under consideration in the Senate. In a way, it’s just been human nature. Each side has said, “If you’re going to acknowledge our values, we’re going to acknowledge yours.” People aren’t one-dimensional. They have multiple needs, and those needs have to be reflected in discussions.

How much of the change has come from simple fatigue with polarization and gridlock (something we’ve also seen in the electorate in the most recent presidential election), and how much from a deliberate shift in strategy on each side?

It’s partly both. When you’re blocked from achieving your goals, you need to ask yourself, “What can I do to change that will achieve them?” There’s some of that. But it’s also recognition by each constituency that the concerns and issues raised by the others have merit. It’s a maturation on all sides that’s led people to be willing to sit down and discuss where interests overlap.

How broadly based is this conciliatory attitude?

I don’t want to say that everyone in the conservation, timber, and ranching communities is embracing a new way of looking at the future. But there is a vanguard of people in each group who are sitting down and talking. And as with any new venture, you can get castigated from all sides. It’s probably the wave of the future. And it’s the way many of the intransigent issues that face us in the West – how to reconcile wildlands protection with timber harvesting and with ranching, and a host of other things – will begin to get solved. The challenges we face in the future, particularly when you consider those related to global warming, really demand that we find a new way for people to work together. Without it, the West will begin to unravel.

Is this a national precedent?

It may be the largest coalition of this type. The Idaho Conservation League, which is not one of our grantees, has struck a similar tone among a number of different interests concerned with wilderness issues in central Idaho. But this legislation in Montana may be the largest effort of this type on forestland to date.

It’s interesting: some argue that these changes are starting to put the U.S. Forest Service out of step with the constituencies it serves. It’s going to have to start evolving, too, because the solutions it needs to seek are becoming more complex. And the challenges are different. It’s not, “Do we clear cut here?” It’s, “What mix of policies will allow us to restore this area to its natural state?”

Do you think Montana’s example will be repeated elsewhere in the country?

I think it has broad applicability. Solutions that protect the 58 million acres of remaining roadless lands in the National Forests in the West, or the roughly 12.8 million acres of wilderness study areas, and deal with species, water, and forest health issues, those solutions aren’t going to come as directives from Washington. The broad policy work – the “Let’s do something about this” action – may come from there. But local people have to be willing to roll up their sleeves, set aside their ideological differences, and sit down and say, “We’ll compromise here.” You can’t do that with everything, but if you’re not willing to sit down with your neighbor and talk about what’s possible, then there is no beginning.

In some states, this kind of process is easier than in others, depending on the history and economics of a given region.

So it’s becoming less about ideology and more about the lives people lead in their communities?

Yes. As conservationists have reached out to talk to the hunting, fishing, and ranching communities, they’ve found, perhaps not surprisingly, that people share similar hopes and aspirations for the places they live. Everyone wants a clean and healthy environment, everyone wants a safe place to live and for children to thrive, and there are ways we can get there. Everyone wants to be able to go on family hikes in the mountains, go fishing, or watch wildlife. That realization is starting to bear fruit.

What does this more conciliatory attitude suggest about how the conservation movement might change in the next ten years?

We’re close to a broad-based new way of doing business regarding public lands in the West. Will that happen without obstacles or setbacks? No – some local solutions proposed for specific issues will create roadblocks for the entire system, and those will have to be addressed. And oil and gas issues will continue to be a challenge. But I’m much more hopeful than I was during the last twenty years, which were more about impasse than progress. Thanks to these new attitudes, that’s changing. In several negotiations about land preservation around the country, participants weren’t approaching the issues as Democrats or Republicans but in the way conservationists did late in the nineteenth century.

Learn more about Michael Scott in the Hewlett Foundation staff section.

Read “Foundations”: A Q&A with Michael Scott (February 2011)