The key lesson I learned during my internship is that public engagement with the government is realistic and necessary in environmental politics. For example, I learned that I am capable of getting a meeting with the head of the forestry department. I am welcomed to sit at the table. I am encouraged to share my ideas and opinions on the current events and struggles the department is dealing with on a daily basis. In fact, I am not just encouraged to share my ideas at the table but I am asked to come back again. I would have never had the courage or the correct words on the tip of my tongue to do such a thing before my internship.
I was lucky to have a very dynamic role at the Sierra Club. Some days I would spend working on my computer at my office (in the garage of the Sierra Club); on weekends I could be found leading a group of Portlanders around the state forest, and about once a month I would meet face-to-face with government officials and enthusiastic constituents to talk about pertinent state forestry issues. The practice I got communicating my ideas, and the courage that slowly came along with it, was a priceless aspect of this job. Social movement theory and civil society engagement really went from theory into practice.
The State of Oregon has struggled with budgeting all of its programs since the 2007 financial crisis. The Oregon Department of Forestry (ODF) currently projects that they will run out of reserve money by the year 2017. In order to relieve themselves of this problem, ODF has decided to reopen the Forest Management Plan (FMP) to make it more financially viable for the department. Unfortunately, the most lucrative pathway is not the most environmentally savvy. More often than not, money quickly comes in through leasing state forest parcels to timber companies. My role was to help make sure this was not the only answer.
Finding a more balanced Solution
In June of 2013 an alternative financial viability subcommittee was formed within the ODF. For the first time in FMP revision history ODF has called for a stakeholder group to create an outline of a plan. For the first time in a while, there is a wildlife biologist and a fish biologist at the table (not to mention these individuals are women). These are conscious actions of Oregon’s governor and in my belief, actions that come from citizen pressure to create a more balanced forestry plan.
The whole process is overseen in a public forum, which is open for public comment as well as concerned stakeholders to join, quite in-depth, into the conversation. Democracy is in place; the announcement of the plan revision is in the newspaper, but who really shows up to the open forums? Usually, it is people who are there to oppose any new ideas. Usually, government forums continue on as status quo.
I, forever an optimist, have always believed that people have intentions for the greater good, especially the appointed officials writing and implementing plans for the sake of our natural resources. However, it is often that government board members are working out of a business or political pressure, and not for the sake of the biological sciences. As a mentor at my internship told me, “politics are Oh so political”. In short, if no one were there to oppose any suggestion made by the Board of Forestry, nothing would get done in the name of conservation.
My four months with the Sierra Club brought me together with an inspiring citizen stakeholder team responsible for representing the environmental voice at the state political table. I have seen first hand that stuff can get done in the name of conservation. It is as easy as a phone call to the head of a department—only easy once I came to realize that a title isn’t as intimating as it sounds. For I am just a student, why would they care what I have to say? Something important I learned was that we are all Oregonians.
Many people that I met throughout this experience held strong beliefs of citizen involvement and the effectiveness of government. It is a very comprehensive process and I am happy to know, even in just a short glimpse, that they are making decisions with the best intentions of Oregon, Oregonians, and our clean air, water and forest legacy.