Saturday, August 23, 2014

It Takes a Watershed to Clean a Lake: Trust and Relationship Building in Environmental Regulation

Poster presentations at the Raw Deal (Photo taken by Chris Ferguson)
Trust forms the backbone of all relationships—between family members, friends and…policy actors and the community? Over the last few months I have been interviewing and observing policy actors (practitioners, policy makers, officials, and organization members) who have influence over the creation, implementation, and enforcement of environmental regulations in the Red Cedar Watershed. This research is a part of the research conducted by the Linking Applied Knowledge in Environmental Sustainability Research Experience for Undergraduates (LAKES REU) at UW-Stout. My goal was to gain an understanding of the ways that policy actors view land use and water pollution in the watershed, their opinions on the effectiveness of current policies, programs, as well as the decision-making process behind those environmental policies.

I attended public meetings, such as County Board committee meetings, City Council meetings and strategic planning sessions so that I could observe the ways that the people involved in policy and planning communicated to one another and the community. Nineteen interviews were conducted with policy actors at different agencies, levels of government, and NGOs, including actors from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR); Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP); Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRSC); Dunn County Land Conservation Division (County LCD); Dunn County Board; City of Menomonie; University of Wisconsin-Extension (UW-Extension); and Tainter/Menomin Lake Improvement Association (TMLIA) over the span of 8 weeks. 

Me and Dan Prestebak, my favorite County Conservationist :)
While some of these interviews took place at agencies and officials’ offices, most of my interviews took place while sitting in a booth at Legacy Chocolates over cups of coffee. During these conversations, it occurred to me how deep-rooted a value trust is in relationships of any capacity—even with me, an undergraduate student from Philadelphia, PA. By the end of the interviews, many of my interviewees and I had moved past awkward first introductions and questions to chatting casually about Menomonie, politics, our lives, and our families. We bonded, and it showed in our smiles, handshakes and hugs exchanged every time I saw them again after our interviews.

This relationship building, created by spending time and getting to know others also spilled over into my interviewees’ professional life.  Overwhelmingly, the people that I spoke to told me that one of the most important parts of their jobs—whether it be in an organization, city office, or state or local agency—is building and maintaining relationships with the community and the people they work with. And these relationships are especially important when dealing with the algae blooms polluting Tainter Lake and Lake Menomin. One state agency official told me, “…we’re polluting the water, so it’s something that we’re doing that we need to do differently to stop that from happening. So anytime you want to change human behavior, the only way you can do that is by getting to know people…building the trust, building the community, and somehow moving people in that direction of change.”

Sounds simple enough, right? However, trust is built over time, and time is money. Many respondents voiced a concern over a lack of funding for staff positions and activities to enforce environmental regulations. This is largely caused by a lack of political support from the federal and state government, which is demonstrated by a transition of state and local agency staff mostly doing groundwork talking to homeowners and farmers, to now writing grants and overseeing programs directed toward changing behavior. This has led to a large shift away from traditional enforcement mechanisms (such as cost-sharing) toward agencies providing incentives for voluntary compliance with environmental regulations (such as grants and programs).

Unfortunately, relationship and trust-building is still at the crux of any successful environmental regulation. More funding from the federal and state government toward staffing positions to do the one-on-one consultations is needed to spread awareness of the available incentives and convince landowners and farmers of the economic and environmental benefits afforded from them. “And that’s not something you can do in a short amount of time with variable resources,” my interviewee continued. “… So I think if we had more money to spend on those people hours on working to build trust and working to build relationships, I think we’d be a lot more successful…The problem is getting people to do that kind of stuff. And that’s where the money comes in, that’s where you need to have somebody out there doing the foot work, meeting with those people, building their trust, building their community and making it happen. More money would help, but more money properly directed more than anything else.”

Breaking through the financial and political barriers to more successful environmental regulation will likely take time, but change is already on the horizon. The Tainter/Menomin Lake Association, along with Dunn County Board and Dunn County Environmental Services has been discussing changing the County Land Conservation Division to the Land and Water Conservation Division with the inclusion of a Water Conservationist to more directly help landowners and farmers better protect the watershed. The addition of new staff and more opportunities for relationship and trust-building is definitely a step in the right direction. 

1 comment:

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