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Seeking transformation: better decision making in Washington state

by Peter Donovan

PULLMAN, WASHINGTON--In January of 1995, a four-year training project began in the state of Washington. The purpose of the project, which is funded by the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, is to enable the 158 participating people to develop sustainable agricultural/natural resource systems, become more effective decision makers and leaders, and improve collaborative relationships within the state of Washington through the use of holistic management and the consensus process.

The participants--mainly crop/livestock producers, natural resource managers, agency personnel, university faculty, extension agents, environmentalists, and tribal members--are taking ten courses over four years. The training courses are based on the work of Allan Savory, Stephen Covey, and Bob Chadwick.

Kellogg has granted $1.065 million through their Integrated Farming Systems initiative to the project, which is titled "A holistic decision making model for the development of sustainable crop/livestock and natural resource systems." Collaborating organizations include Washington State University and the Colville Tribe.

Project director Don Nelson of WSU Cooperative Extension says, "We are seeking to achieve a transformation, not merely a modification, of the decision-making process and how people interact with each other. This won't happen overnight." Without such a transformation, he says, we'll continue to get the outcomes we've been getting--continued biodiversity loss and conflict.

Phil Crawford, who directs Washington's Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources, says that the training effort is getting the right people together--farmers and ranchers, extension people, and community people--in ways that haven't happened before.

Bonnie Mager, an officer for the Washington Environmental Council who has been active in growth-management issues, says that the training effort "is pushing the boundaries for a lot of folks. The leadership skills training has made it possible for people to put aside their biases long enough to hear what others are saying. It's the most hopeful thing I've seen in a long time--and it sure beats what we've been doing."

Other project participants agree. Rancher Dave Duncan adds, "there's no doubt that with holistic management you make better decisions with your land, your family, and your business."

Tammy Yeakey, a participant in the project training and a land manager for the Department of Natural Resources, said that "the project has meant looking at a new perspective, a new way of looking at things."

"It's made me a lot more aware of what others are expecting, and what others are looking at, as opposed to what I am looking at. It's opened up the communication, it's really created--in my line of work especially--a lot more win-win situations. Every time I go to one of the classes, I'm able to take that right back and apply it my home life, in my job, in my dealings with people. It's really enhanced me as a person, and enhanced the job I do for Department of Natural Resources."

In addition to the responsibility to generate income from state lands, Tammy says that her department also has a stewardship responsibility for its lands. "We need to maintain those, not just for the next year--or two, or ten--we need to maintain those and enhance those into perpetuity, and we can't do that without looking at the land and the people as a whole. There's just no way you can do it."

Tammy also credits the training with improving her relationship with her husband. "We sat down and discussed long-term goals, such as where we want to be when we retire, and what sort of financial resources we would like to have. We also sat down and discussed likes and dislikes, and found out that a lot of what we were assuming about each other was not necessarily so."

She points out that direction is more important than speed when it comes to getting where you want to be. "Instead of floating through life without having any sort of a direction, we're setting down some directions, and that's kind of hard to do with an Ozark boy who doesn't want to be tied down to having to set goals and set a structured life, he'd rather not do that, but going through this stuff he can really see the sense in it, and it doesn't seem to bind him in any way, he's having fun with it. So that was a major shift in attitudes and paradigms utilizing what I had learned."

Creating relationships and interdependence is a major focus of the project. Management support groups, begun by project participants, are active in all areas of the state (see Happenings around the region, page 15).

Randy Baldree is an extension agent in Colfax. He asked his group, which calls itself Loose on the Palouse, what impact the project had on each of them personally. Among the answers:

I have changed the way I approach problems.

I feel there is hope that I can maintain some control over my life.

I do not feel so helpless.

I have become more results oriented.

I have developed new ideas for generating wealth.

I have gained new confidence in my ability to deal with adversity.

My quality of life has improved.

My power of observation has improved (monitoring).

I have hope for the future.

Change at the university

Nelson and Goebel are also attempting to create change in Washington State University itself. Says Jeff, "That was our biggest challenge on the Colville Reservation--the people that have been trained in the universities. The thinking is very linear, and it's difficult to make linkages, to see the whole picture."

The centralization of knowledge and expertise, by which the university system has largely defined itself, is losing public support. Don says, "We tend to focus on solving problems rather than looking at the underlying causes and the bigger picture."

Phil Crawford notes that the university has a highly competitive individual-centered culture--which is a deterrent to cooperation and consensus--yet the university is being called more and more to deal with relationships and systems. There is a strong public mandate for this, he says.

Don and Jeff began with their own spheres of influence, Animal Science and Cooperative Extension, and began to introduce the project curriculum--holistic management, leadership, and consensus--into the university.

Consensus building has been a powerful tool in building trust, and stimulating people to action, says Jeff. For the first time, program budgets within Animal Science are being discussed openly, and financial planning on Animal Science farmlands is now based on a holistic goal.

Cindy McGuire, a secretary who has worked on campus eight years, notes that the Animal Science department is increasingly concerned with what's going to serve the people as well as the institution. "These are attitudes that you won't find in many departments," she says.

Data technician Jennifer Bumgarner says that there is more awareness of people as people, and more respect. These positive changes have not gone unnoticed on campus.

One indication of the project's influence is a Consensus Institute. The Kellogg Foundation has committed to funding 12 days of consensus training for major organizations in the Northwest. The purpose of the Institute is to build capacity in individuals and organizations that are facilitating change, to confront and resolve some of the issues in the Northwest, and to create synergy between major organizations.

Says Don, "we won't end up where we started, that's for sure."