Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Day at the Office and a Rancher Called Pete

There is a small hydro project in California that X utility decided to decommission because relicensing said facility would simply not be cost effective. The decision was also informed by the fact that decommissioning the project would help create much needed habitat for anadromous fish (i.e. salmon). The decision to decommission the project will result in the loss of a small reservoir that is currently used as a fishing hole by a small population of folks living in the surrounding rural community. And these anglers are pissed.

I have facilitated several public meetings where the decommissioning decision and process has been explained…including the fact that the decision is legally irreversible. Utility X has given up their license and can no longer operate the project. They are mandated to develop a decommissioning plan and implement it. This has been repeatedly explained and public input for the plan has been solicited on several occasions.

Recently, utility X hosted yet another public meeting to present a draft of the plan to the public and provide an opportunity for additional comment. The community folks came to the meeting still pressing utility X to “save” the reservoir for recreational use. Antagonistically they challenged the utility on the logic of their decision, at times pleading for them to reconsider.

Part of my job is to manage the conversation and expectations…to act as a hinge and help clarify key points including the stated legal parameters of a given proceeding. In this case, NOT decommissioning was NOT a legal option. Representatives from utility X reiterated this fact again and again in straight forward language and then I repeatedly paraphrased things in an attempt to foster understanding. And, well, it just didn’t take. Many of the local folks, mostly ranchers and farmers, were not accepting reality.

At one point a woman aggressively interrupted me and stated, “Come on. This is the United States of America and we can do anything if we really want to.” Hmmm, I thought, this is interesting logic. This woman feels that “we” should violate the Code of Federal Regulations and the Federal Power Act to save an insignificant reservoir so a few folks can have a nice little fishing hole in rural California which is a ginormous state with an astonishing amount of recreational opportunities including prime fishing in the areas surrounding this community. “We” should do this even though it would cost millions and would thwart the habitat restoration for anadromous fish which over the past 100 years have loss 90+% of their habitat on the west coast. This same women went on to say the following (I am paraphrasing but I am pretty close here including the awkward syntax):

“When you take away the reservoir then the animals like the mountain lions and the bears will lose a source for getting water and then they will come down to the ranches and I used to have 11 cats and now I only have two and I have a young son. What are you going to do when you are liable when a mountain lion can’t get water from the reservoir and comes to my ranch and kills my son? What are you going to do about that?”

I am not kidding, this was her statement/question late in the meeting….a “when did you stop beating your wife?” question with such grossly faulty presuppositions I was amazed. This is one of the more creative bits of reasoning I have observed….and believe me, I have heard some crazy shit at public meetings. Mr. XX from the utility did an excellent job of handling the question, carefully explaining that the loss of the reservoir would not be a significant impact on animal habitat and there are innumerable water sources in the area for the thirsty mountain lions that she fears will eat her son as a snack while seeking to quench their thirst.

Again, when I facilitate public (key word here) meetings I often think of it more as playing referee…hopefully I help foster a little more understanding between parties but mostly I just set the tone and manage the meeting so no one starts throwing shit. Public meetings are not the most enjoyable part of my job…except when I get to meet men like Pete.

Pete is a quiet man, a rancher of maybe 60 years. His family has ranched on his land for generations and he and his wife and two daughters continue that tradition. I don’t get the sense that Pete or his family is formally educated beyond high school. Pete and his family have real concerns regarding the potential impacts that decommissioning the project may have on their water rights. There are some structural changes that will occur that may result in rerouting their water diversion. His concerns are neither fishing nor mountain lion attacks.

I remember the first public meeting over a year ago when I met Pete and his family. He wore his NRA hat and a pair of Wrangler jeans held up with suspenders. We shook hands and I felt the calluses of a working man. He smiled and looked me in the eye and told me I did a good job running the meeting. He introduced me to his family…earthy folks of few words. At each subsequent meeting Pete and I always greeted each other. We sought each other out through the crowd and said hi and he usually complimented me on my performance no matter how mellow the meeting may have been.

I have reflected that we come from such different worlds and I am sure our politics are mostly diametrically opposed. I am a butch queer city slicker (ok, not that slick) consultant contracted by the seemingly monolithic utility X. He is an NRA supporting rancher living in the California bible belt. Yet there is some sort of connection between this man and me…something that transcends the obvious differences in our worlds. We meet each other in some way.

The most recent meeting I facilitated was really tough. I worked hard for two and half hours straight dealing with irrational questions and borderline belligerence on the part of many of the community members (see above). My job is to manage the volatility enough so it does not erupt into more dramatic dysfunction. It is an art, not a science and it involves being hyper-present and attentive and relating in a way that can be exhausting. When we adjourned I plopped into a chair and just sat there for about five minutes barely talking to anyone. Finally, I got up and scanned the room for Pete. He was engaged in conversation with folks so, exhausted, I decided to leave without saying hello. I headed out the back door into the parking lot when suddenly I heard Pete’s voice, “Marie.” I turned to see he had chased me out the door and he had a big smile on his face. “You earned your money tonight. You did a good job. I just love watching you work.” I walked towards him, “Thank you Pete. I really appreciate your feedback.” Our conversation was brief and we shook hands…we both smiled big at each other and sincerely wished each other a good night.

I have often said that the less tangible benefit of my work is the personal and spiritual growth that results from interacting with folks I would probably never otherwise encounter in my life. This is a man that many would reduce to a cliché, some stereotypical Republican-NRA-supporting-idiot not deserving of consideration. He is someone that folks in San Francisco (myself included at times) might summarily dismiss because of the profound cultural differences. But I got to meet him, shake his hand, see his sweet smile and sparkly eyes, meet his wife and daughters, hear some of the history of his family’s ranching and his legitimate concerns regarding his water. I got see his gentle and respectful way of participating in the crazy public meetings. And he got to see me do my stuff at the front of the room and he appreciated me for it….this butch dyke from the city. There is something about this man that has touched me and I can say that I am truly grateful to know Pete the rancher…

There you have it. A little slice of my days at the “office” trying to keep the peace.

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