Zoë McAlear (G)(Summer ’19)

Part 4: Final Reflections

This summer was a great opportunity to spend a few months somewhere very different from Boston, gain exposure to the world of collaborative natural resource management and dispute resolution, and get outside on many adventures. Most recently, I spent one of my last days here hiking Mt. Timpanogos, the second-highest peak in the Wasatch range (which borders Salt Lake City), with my supervisor, Danya Rumore (Executive Director of the EDR Program, and DUSP PhD ’15) and one of her friends. The first photo below is of me hiking just below the summit, and the second is of Danya and I on the hike back down. This challenging and stunning hike was a great way to wrap up my summer here, amidst tying up loose ends on all of my projects.

I have been able to contribute to many different aspects of the EDR Program’s work this summer, which has allowed me to learn about all of the ways they engage in this field and given me a diversity of professional experiences. One of my main projects was the facilitated dialogue on climate change adaptation to drought conditions in Moab, Utah, which I wrote about in the previous blog post. Another central project was working on the development of two case studies on ongoing collaboratives and partnerships – one here in Utah and one in northern Idaho – to be used as educational materials by the EDR Program. It can be really useful for other practitioners to learn from examples of collaboration, either to discover new techniques and strategies that may be of use, or just as a reminder of the successes that are possible. In addition to these two main projects, I worked on an AmeriCorps VISTA application for a regional collaborative in SW Utah, developed educational materials, and assisted in ongoing projects of the EDR Program related to their capacity building and public education activities.

Apart from the more tangible work that I’ve done this summer, I’ve also dedicated time to thinking about how I would potentially like to engage with these issues as a professional. I’ve done a lot of reading, ranging from experiences with mediation in environmental dispute resolution (check out Common Ground on Hostile Turf, by Lucy Moore) to how-to negotiation books (including Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations, by William Ury). I have also been able to talk to professionals in the field, including those working as mediators, for federal land management agencies, as public land advocates, and those engaged in community-based recreation planning. I don’t yet have all of the answers to the questions with which I started the summer (which I think is a good thing at this point); instead, my experience here has opened up so many new doors and exposed me to a lot of possibilities that I hadn’t considered before. I also think I’m more conscious of the ways in which I can incorporate a lot of the concepts that interest me – including collaborative planning and strategies of conflict resolution – into positions that may not inherently have that as their focus. The values that I’ve learned from exposure to this field over the past semester and this summer can carry through into whatever type of work I end up doing.  

I am excited to continue to think about all of these issues over the coming year back at MIT – and hopefully keep a close tie to them in the development of my thesis. I will also be reflecting back on everything that I’ve learned, and the things that I’ve discovered matter to me the most, as I apply for jobs next spring and decide how to dedicate my knowledge and skills to a career. I am extremely grateful to everyone who made this summer possible – including the PKG Center and the EDR Program – and am looking forward to seeing where it leads.

Part 3: Impact of my Work

As I wrote about in my last post, one of the projects that I have been most excited to work on this summer was a facilitated dialogue on climate change adaptation in the Moab, Utah area related to drought and reduced water supply. Participating in this project has been a great opportunity because I’ve been able to see it from beginning to end: preparing for the workshop by conducting interviews and writing up a summary, assisting in the running of the workshop, and now working on the final report that will go back to participants as a tool to support future actions.

The EDR Program facilitated this workshop alongside Western Water Assessment (WWA), which is an applied research program based at the University of Colorado Boulder. The workshop used the facilitation technique known as VCAPS, which stands for “Vulnerability, Consequences, and Adaptation Planning Scenarios.” The technique uses a participatory diagramming exercise that involves a facilitator leading participants through the process of mapping out the causal structure of the climate-related event, which in this case was primarily drought. Starting with an identified management concern (i.e., reduced water supply) and climate stressors (i.e., increased temperature, decreased precipitation, etc.) the participants work to identify the physical and social outcomes and consequences of those stressors. The idea is that participants think about the ways in which these stressors create loss or harm to things that their community values, such as people, assets, and ecosystems. The facilitator also identifies contextual factors (factors unique to the Moab region and its ability to respond to an outcome or consequence) and then leads the group in a discussion of actions that the region could take to address different outcomes and consequences.

Before the start of the diagramming exercise, participants listened to a presentation on climate-related information specific to their region that explored potential future scenarios for the area and were able to ask questions and raise concerns about the information. As such, this two-part workshop both offers participants specific information they feel they currently lack (as identified in pre-workshop interviews) and opens up a space that encourages increased dialogue, collaboration, and the identification of specific short- and long-term actions they can take. Participants used water supply management as the management concern to frame the discussion, but ultimately ended up focusing on issues that could be grouped into five general themes: groundwater depletion, extreme precipitation, wildfire risk, flora and wildlife risk, and extreme heat and water quality. They recognized that these risks all deserve a focus, but that they are also often intertwined and that actions or solutions may assist with more than one of them.

Coordination on water supply is really important in the Moab region as there are three major water suppliers – City of Moab, Grand County, and San Juan County – all with different water rights. There is uncertainty about the water supply available and patterns of future urban development, both in terms of where it will occur and on what scale. Additionally, annual precipitation fluctuates wildly, with 2018 bringing a severe drought and 2019 bringing large amounts of snow and rain through the winter and spring. With all of these complications in mind, it felt especially important to be in the region assisting in the facilitation of these conversations. It was rewarding to see participants reflect on how much talent and leadership there already is focused on this issue in the region, the importance of including all interested voices in the conversations, and potential actionable items as a group. They identified a number of immediate steps that they would like to see themselves take, both as individuals and as a group. It seems likely that conversations will continue in the coming months between participants as they move forward on some of the actions that they identified in the workshop.

It was a really informative and gratifying experience to be able to participate in the entire process related to this VCAPS workshop. I learned a lot from conducting interviews, observing the facilitation, and synthesizing information for the final report. This experience also opened up a lot of new questions for me, and I am curious to learn more about community dialogues around climate change adaptation and how to make them productive and actionable.

Part 2: Summer Learnings  

First, to start with the fun news, the photo above is of myself (on the left) and my classmate/friend, Hannah-Hunt, in Canyonlands National Park recently. She’s working in Colorado this summer on wildfire-related land use planning and we had a great weekend together enjoying beautiful hikes and time spent processing our summer experiences and how they connect to our world back at MIT. I’m looking forward to more time in the desert – and the mountains – in the coming weeks. Now, on to my reflections…

I am almost halfway through my time with the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program here in Utah and have been taking some time to reflect on what my expectations were for the summer and what I have learned so far. My main reason for pursuing this specific summer fellowship was to gain more direct exposure to the fields of collaborative planning and dispute resolution, and particularly learn more about the role played by a mediator in these situations. Most of my career-related ponderings since arriving at MIT have been about what type of role I want to play in my professional life. Since being introduced to the importance of mediators in environmental planning during my first year at DUSP, I’ve been intrigued by it as a possible path.

I feel drawn to the role of mediator for the promise it presents in helping to tackle seemingly intractable disagreements and create value for the different partners that is greater than that which they would have collectively gained through a more traditional dispute resolution process, such as litigation. In order to make this possible, there is an art to the profession that I find really captivating; as a practitioner, you must both develop specific skills and techniques, as well as a theory of practice that will guide all of the decisions that you make. I feel pulled toward this profession both for the personal challenge that it presents and the powerful ways in which I think it can make a significant difference.

Since the beginning of this new thought process, though, I’ve struggled with two different aspects of this potential role. One is that, as a mediator, you are a professional neutral, which is a big mindset switch after imagining myself for many years playing an advocacy role based in the passion that I feel for the importance of our natural environment. The second is that the processes of conflict resolution and collaborative planning can seem very gradual, with small changes made over time as the different parties work together to find common ground on which to move forward. In this time of many urgent crises, both ecological and human, it can feel challenging to decide to work on these issues in what feels like more of a piecemeal way. However, over time, my thinking on these two aspects continues to shift, especially with greater exposure to the field and the many positive examples of these practices at work. I find myself challenging personal preconceived notions of progress and success in terms of environmental planning, and think that the broader view I’m creating is a better starting point for defining a way forward for myself professionally.

Through this summer (and hopefully future opportunities), I am learning about the different ways in which I could operate as a professional mediator and am more fully considering the value that I could bring to the table in that role. In terms of specific projects this summer, one of the main ways in which I’ll be able to do this really explicitly is through the VCAPS (Vulnerability, Consequences, and Adaptation Planning Scenarios) workshop we will run next week in Moab related to climate change and its effect on regional water supply. To me, this project is a great example of a context in which mediated collaborative planning seems key: a regional issue with partners working on many scales, sometimes in parallel with each other and sometimes in opposition, that has potentially drastic consequences for local residents. It feels exciting to be a part of this process that has a chance to be significant for the region, by arming various stakeholders with the climate-related information they feel they currently lack and encouraging increased dialogue and collaboration between them. I’ve been interviewing participants over the past couple of weeks and writing up a summary of all of their thoughts to help guide us in preparing the workshop. It has been a great learning experience to think through all of the – sometimes disparate – accounts of the current situation and ideas about the future, and imagine how we can design and facilitate a process to open up new opportunities for mutual understanding and collaboration.

Beyond preparing for the VCAPS workshop, I have been working on many different projects for the EDR Program and really diving into the various aspects of their work. Most exciting right now are researching and writing case studies of collaboration, and developing educational materials for the program. I feel like I’m right where I should be at the midway point in my summer – really open to learning as much as I can, and still with many questions, particularly about what the different learnings mean for me in terms of future career decisions. I look forward to continuing to think about all of this over the next six weeks, and into the coming year back at MIT.

P.S. For some more thoughts I’ve been having this summer, check out the post I wrote recently for the EDR Program’s blog.

Part 1: An Introduction

Hello! My name is Zoë McAlear and in just a few short months I will be headed into my second – and final – year as a Master’s student in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, with a concentration in Environmental Policy and Planning. For now, though, thanks to the PKG Center, I am spending my summer in Salt Lake City, Utah working with the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program.

The EDR Program works to address environmental and natural resource conflicts in Utah and the Mountain West through collaboration, mediation, and other alternative dispute resolution processes. Program staff also work to build capacity in Utah and the Mountain West for expanded and improved collaboration and mediation by offering academic instruction at the University of Utah, public education opportunities for environmental and natural resource stakeholders, and research and analysis of collaborative efforts.

I will be working with the program through August on a variety of ongoing projects, with the opportunity to explore all of the different facets of their work. My first couple of weeks have mostly consisted of familiarizing myself with their work and defining how I fit into it. A couple of the projects I’m most excited about are:

  • Having the opportunity to see a climate change-focused community dialogue process from beginning to end. Working with staff at the Western Water Assessment, we will be facilitating a VCAPS (Vulnerability, Consequences, and Adaptation Planning Scenarios) process in Moab focused on drought and how the changing climate will impact future water supply. In my role, I will be able to conduct some of the pre-workshop interviews, participate in the running of the two-day workshop, and assist in the writing of the final report, which will support participants in their ongoing climate adaptation planning.
  • Exploring personal research interests in a variety of ways. I will work on formalizing the EDR Program’s case study development process by designing a template and protocol, and pilot this with a couple of specific case studies. Through this research, I will learn more about how collaborative forest and natural resource management is able to function effectively and successfully. Additionally, I will help develop tools and research related to the program’s Gateway and Natural Amenity Region (GNAR) Initiative, potentially diving into topics such as collaborative planning, natural & cultural amenity management, natural hazards, and more.

After learning about many of these topics in the classroom this past year, and particularly being exposed to strategies of negotiation and dispute resolution in the spring semester, I am glad to have the chance to see how collaborative work actually happens and the impact it has in the west. I am excited to learn about region-specific challenges, political dynamics, ongoing conflicts, and creative solutions. I also appreciate being in such a beautiful place, surrounded by mountains and outdoor adventure, with free time to explore it. Oftentimes, in environmental disputes, the common interest that really pushes the negotiation forward is the participants’ shared love for their local landscape and their collective desire to see it survive into the future. Being here in Utah, it is easy to be convinced by this viewpoint and I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to work that aims to collaboratively sustain and protect the environment here, both for the health of the landscape itself and the human communities who call it home.   

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