Good processes do not always produce results

Being a policy process nerd, things like collaborative, consensus-based efforts are, for me, unfailingly interesting. They offer several interrelated tracks of study that must align just about perfectly in order to yield results that bring about any change whatsoever. And if you are still awake after reading those sentences, congratulations: You’ve made it to the concrete example portion of the column.

The River Protection Workgroup process began in 2006 to consider management strategies for six rivers and streams on the San Juan National Forest found to be worthy of consideration for Wild and Scenic River status – a designation that can be divisive for those on various sides of water issues. The idea was to consider each stream individually, and then revisit the whole group at the end of the individual processes.

With each stream, a stakeholder group would convene to discuss its values, uses, priorities, possibilities for protection and management strategies. The participation net was widely cast – any and all have been welcome at each series of meetings, and all who participate can count on their voice being included in the discussion and outcome. For this reason, each process has been lengthy, thorough and careful.

Add to that the unique character, resources, and values associated with each of the six drainages and the mix of outcomes becomes a veritable grab bag.

Take Hermosa Creek, for example. The River Protection Workgroup process around that iconic area has been a bit of a poster child for how collaborative consensus processes can work. After 28 months of meetings and an extensive drafting and refining do-si-do, the group of miners, conservationists, water interests, mountain bikers, county commissioners, wildlife representatives, equestrians, anglers, foresters, business owners and average Joes who love the watershed presented a vision for protection that addressed and included the concerns and interests of all of the above.

That vision has been captured in pending legislation that has bipartisan support from Colorado’s Senate and House delegation – a rarity for any issue these days; even more so for conservation-related measures. That support is testament to the common ground found in the local process. It was a convergence of form and content that has produced actionable next steps that could very well result in permanent policy change.

Contrast that with the just-concluded forum for the Animas River drainage. While the process was structured identically to that addressing the Hermosa Creek watershed, the outcome is far from the same. Many stakeholders participated in both processes and many of the same values were at stake, but the variables on the stream segments in question in the Animas discussion were not. As a result, 23 months of meetings produced consensus that, while important, is not likely to yield federal legislation akin to that in the Hermosa watershed. The Animas group’s agreements reflect a slightly less actionable set of issues. Namely, the report found:

“The group does not desire major impoundments in the entire area of focus. There are some clarifications stated in the narrative relating to water rights for the Animas-La Plata project.

“The black swift birds and iron fens (a rare plant/bog community) received attention and ideas for further protection were noted and agreed to. These ideas could be explored for implementation by willing entities and groups or individuals.

“Private property rights are an important value and they should be protected.

“The group supports the work of the Animas River Stakeholders Group and the concept of passing, at the federal level, ‘good Samaritan’ legislation.

“Notably, there were several tools, by segment, the group agreed should not be explored or pursued for various reasons.

“There was not agreement on one tool that received a lot of ‘air time’ and that is Wild and Scenic River or ‘WSR’. However, the group did agree that there is a range of views and ideas about this tool.”

While these are all significant places of consensus, they do not necessarily give clear direction for next steps. That is just fine, of course. It is simply illustrative of how divergent the outcomes can be for each site-specific process given the unique nature of each site.

What is not unique to either the Animas or Hermosa processes – or those conducted around the Piedra, San Juan or Pine rivers – is the dedication shown by each individual involved. Regardless of those individuals’ position, they contributed many hours and much brain space to addressing issues of common interest around resources of shared value. That is commitment deserving recognition and the consensus reached, however actionable, is a significant achievement for all involved.

Megan Graham is a Herald editorial writer and policy analyst. Reach her at

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