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Half-Hearted Fanatic: Common Ground
Sloan Shoemaker

This quote from Lincoln’s first inaugural address, in 1861, can’t be repeated oft enough these days. 

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

On the eve of civil war, Lincoln appealed to the nation to focus on what we have in common, not our differences. Tragically, his plea fell on deaf ears. 

Why am I, the token enviro columnist in this august journal, invoking this? Because I worry similar passions now threaten to rip asunder the fabric of our nation. And I feel helpless. As these forces play out on the national scale seemingly beyond reach, what are the options?

At the risk of cheapening this by indulging in a pop culture reference, Michael Jackson said it pretty succinctly. It starts with the man in the mirror. That man in the mirror is my biggest challenge. It is so easy for me to indulge in the polemic that strokes my reptilian brain’s clannism. The cheap points scored by zinging a barb tweak my endorphins and feel really good … for all of about three seconds. Because endorphin’s addictive, I want more, and off I go. Other than self-stimulation, what does this accomplish? Not a damn thing other than deepening the divide and further straining the bonds of affection that knit community together.

I’d do well keep to Abe’s plea foremost in mind.

I didn’t always feel this way. As intimated before in this column, my public lands conservation career started much more belligerently, characterized by militant language of warrior, battle, fighting, etc. While acknowledging that the combative approach sometimes has its place, time and experience proved to me that a more collaborative approach was more effective in achieving lasting conservation good. And the benefits extended well beyond public lands – to my own health, my family relationships, and, I dare say, to the larger community. 

To be fair to myself, I come from a warrior bloodstock. My great-grandfather was a sheriff in Montana. My grandfather retired as a rear-admiral after a heralded naval career that included Commander of the USS Franklin aircraft carrier that saw distinguished service in the Pacific Theater in WWII. My dad was a Marine Corps Major before transferring his combative skills to the courtroom in his career as a corporate attorney. 

Point being, I have fight in my blood. Stand my ground, never shy away from a good conflict and meet force with greater force. Character qualities that work well in zero sum, win-lose situations. But not so handy for a successful marriage or for untangling the Gordian Knot of public lands management in our polarized times. 

I had a few seminal experiences in my public lands conservation career that inform this. In one part of the state, I was pilloried with bumper stickers comparing me to the Iranian hardliner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. On the other, they hailed me for my consensus building leadership. In both venues, I was working to maximize conservation gains but the processes ended up being quite divergent. 

Locally, folks probably recall the Hidden Gems wilderness campaign. Without relitigating it, suffice to say that effort devolved into an acrimonious, community rending battle. While some progress has been made on the elements of the proposal in Summit, eastern Eagle, and Gunnison Counties, the western Eagle and Pitkin County pieces remain un-acted upon. 

In contrast, I was the enviro rep on the Colorado Bark Beetle Cooperative, a very diverse stakeholder group tasked with building consensus on how to best mitigate the negative impacts of the Mountain Pine Beetle epidemic that hit hard the lodgepole pine forests of north central Colorado. 

With a huge problem to address and very limited funds to do anything, our task was to build consensus on the highest priorities. Though initially reluctant to let the (perceived) bomb throwing tree hugger (me) into the room, they eventually came to elect me chair of the group. Our collaborative efforts brought $55-75 million (depending on how you count it) to protect our priorities of life, property and critical infrastructure. This success was directly attributable to heading Abe’s call, albeit in the public lands context of focusing on our common ground, the values we share and the zones of agreement rather than mining the disagreements. 

Because we are literally surrounded by common ground, our federal public lands, we public lands lovers can allow the spirit of our common ground to inspire us to model to the rest of the nation how to listen to the better angels of our nature. The alternative isn’t pretty.  

Arriving in 1984, Sloan has lived in communities throughout the valley, finally putting down roots and raising a family in Carbondale. Having recently stepped down as Wilderness Workshop’s Executive Director after 20-plus years, he’s still wondering what he’s going to be when he grows up. This column may be a start.