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Stewardship of Public Lands Case Study: Unexpected Common Ground in the Controversy Over Coal Ash

Description of the ADP Stewardship of Public Lands (SOPL) Initiative

By Cecilia M. Orphan, National Manager, American Democracy Project

Throughout the United States, but especially in the West, the question of who will control public lands is a hotly debated topic. The public lands of the West including national parks, forests, grazing, and prairie lands are all sites of controversy. The major points of contention are over ownership and use of the land, federal and state-level interests in the land, and local citizen use of the lands. Timber, mining, oil and gas producers, developers, farmers, ranchers, hunters, business owners, recreational users, and environmentalists are all groups who assert claims to influence and use. Yet whose interests have primacy? And in a democracy, how do the interests of all of these groups get addressed and resolved?

Faculty members listen to rancher Martin Davis describe his challenges with wolf and bison management.

For the past six summers, faculty representatives from participating AASCU institutions have spent a week in Yellowstone National Park with our partner, the Yellowstone Association, studying controversies about wolves, bison, snowmobiles, and grizzlies. To date, more than 120 faculty members from more than 60 campuses have participated in the program. Each summer, the week-long program begins with study of the science and history of the controversies, listening to scientists and park rangers. Then at the end of the week, the faculty participants interview local citizens on both sides of the issues, including political activists, business people, ranchers, and ordinary citizens. Throughout the entire program, faculty are challenged to think about ways to build common ground between the various stakeholders in the local controversies of their own communities.Faculty then design programs for students, some focused on the controversies in the Yellowstone ecosystem, while others are focused on local public land and resource issues.

What follows is one faculty member’s story of how she implemented the lessons and strategies she learned during the Stewardship of Public Lands Seminar. We will have another seminar this summer. For more information about this seminar, please email me.

To purchase a copy of the Stewardship of Public Lands: A Handbook for Educators, please visit this website.

SOPL Case Study: Unexpected Common Ground in the Controversy Over Coal Ash

By Christina Jarvis, State University of New York, Fredonia

Like most people who have attended an ADP program, I know the value of listening to stakeholders when exploring an issue. Last spring after participating in the ADP Stewardship of Public Lands Seminar in Yellowstone National Park, I decided to bring together employees from our local coal-fired power plant and an activist fighting the use of coal ash as a traction agent on our county’s roads for a public discussion.

Although open to the public, the March 2, 2010 coal ash panel was part of my “Writing, Sustainability, and Social Change” course—a service-learning class focused on local environmental topics. The event was designed to give students and community members an opportunity to learn more about a very heated and well-publicized local issue. As you will find out if you keep reading, the panel did a lot more than raise public awareness. It helped inspire students to create a clean energy campaign on campus and also formalized a relationship between a clean energy advocacy organization and a power plant.

Diane Hofner, Founder of CROP Plus (Concerned Residents of Portland), spoke first, and in a moving speech shared her motivations for working to have coal ash classified as a hazardous waste and to have its use on roads discontinued. Carson Leikam, the General Manager for NRG Energy’s Dunkirk power plant, then discussed his plant’s operations, recent emissions reductions and the “bag house” technologies behind the reductions.

Things really got intense once the question-and-answer portion started. Ms. Hofner and audience members grilled Mr. Leikam and his colleague Robert Brombos (the plant’s Environmental Compliance Coordinator) for a solid twenty-five minutes about the composition, storage, testing, disposal, and distribution of bottom ash. I began to feel uncomfortable with the one-sided nature of the exchange, until Mr. Leikam skillfully created some common ground by noting that although his plant supplies area townships with coal ash, the company would stop if local villages decided to use other traction agents on icy roads.

This small moment of common ground turned into something larger. After the panel, I discovered that Ms. Hofner had never met these NRG employees in person. Mr. Brombos was able to share environmental compliance and testing information, and invited her to visit their coal ash storage sites. Excited by the panel, some of my students attended town board and CROP Plus meetings, while others went on a tour of the Dunkirk power plant.

Our solution as a class, though, was to promote energy conservation through a compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) giveaway during Earth Week. The students distributed 1350 free CFLs, which will collectively prevent 407 tons of CO2 emissions and save consumers $87,048.00 on their electric bills over the lifetime of the bulbs. Although we didn’t settle the coal ash debate, the students felt empowered by their collective action and community engagement.

Another exciting outcome occurred last September during our tour of NRG’s Dunkirk plant. My FACE Center colleague Sherri Mason and I began a dialogue, which ultimately resulted in a $15,300 EcoNRG grant for three community sustainability projects. The first of these projects—another CFL give-away—will take place on March 26, 2011 at SUNY Fredonia’s Green Expo. NRG employees and students (many of whom attended the panel and tour) will distribute 1800 free CFLs and promote energy conservation. CROP Plus will also be at the Expo. Let the dialogue continue!

To read more about the ADP Stewardship of Public Lands initiative, please visit this website.

To purchase a copy of the Stewardship of Public Lands: A Handbook for Educators, please visit this website.

To learn more about SUNY Fredonia’s SOPL project, please see below.

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