Editor’s Letter: Learning to Listen

When I worked for the U.S. Forest Service building trails and fighting wildfires, I was lucky enough to attend a Wilderness Ranger Rendezvous, a gathering of the folks who managed and worked in places where no motorized travel (and not even chainsaws) were allowed. Wilderness in this form is something uniquely American, a concept that first took hold in the 19th century when these untamed places that defined something essential and unshackled in our national consciousness were quickly being chewed up by the engines of manifest destiny.

In the 20th century, legendary conservationists including Aldo Leopold and Bob Marshall would champion a legal designation that could stem the tide before the little that remained would also be gone. The notion of wilderness, of space and nature left simply to remain, always resonated with me, and I had become what I felt was a bold champion of conservation, so I was excited to be surrounded by so many others who felt called to speak for and defend wild places.

One of the first wilderness experts to address us was Ed Marston, the publisher of High Country News at the time. Now, I was doubly excited since I had, and still have, such a high regard for the work that HCN does. It provides a voice that is authentic to the West, that dares to prioritize conservation and environmental issues (which are often ignored by both the mainstream media and many local Western outlets for being un-sexy or politically dangerous), and, most of all, that approaches these stories with uncompromising journalistic integrity.

Marston’s message? He said that as conservationists and wilderness advocates, we needed to stop seeing so many ranchers and other conservative, conservation-wary locals as the enemy. He said we needed to respect their voices and viewpoints, that we needed to listen.

How I hated to hear this. He was selling out. He was going to let them destroy what we were fighting to save.

At the time, my passion for the cause of conservation, my sense of urgency around protecting what little remains in the natural world was so strong that I would kick down any cairn I found built by hikers in remote spots, I would preach the gospel of Ed Abbey to any who would listen. I would make the world do what was right or fight for stricter laws to make it all so. None of that jived with Marston’s message. He was weak, wrong.

Now, I know that he planted a seed on that day.

I went on to keep fighting for wilderness and conservation and what was right, but as I did, I learned that pliancy is often more powerful than pushiness. I found out that actaully getting things done in the world required those things I dreaded—compromise, taking new tacts, and, most of all, trying to at least listen to opposing views. I mellowed (though the radical still deep within winces to admit it), and, along the way, I worked on campaigns that collaborated with Republican lawmakers in crazy-conservative Idaho, built new trails and created long-lasting protection. I saw the world of people a bit more as I had always seen the natural world, as a complex ecosystem that requires all of its components to function properly.

With election year politics at a fever pitch on both the left and right, I hear so many demanding that we need to “fix our broken political system.” I agree, but I also think that the only way we can do that is by not demanding that our own way is the only way that is right.

We can only fix our broken dialog when we start to listen. Then, we can seek solutions that incorporate, rather than isolate, even if we want a more extreme outcome. In a world where polarization and relativism rule, it may be the most radical thing we can do.

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