Monday, August 14, 2017

Diving In: Conservation Conversations north of Highway 64

We spend a lot of time talking about “the environment.”
We talk a lot about what can we do to protect the environment, to improve it- as if we could somehow take a step back and see the planet as separate from ourselves.  The academic and mainstream discourse surrounding our natural resources often tends to be from an outside perspective: eager plans to shape and defend and save the world... plans made from a calculated distance.  In this summer’s anthropology project, I had to strive to hit the sweet spot of ethnographic research: become a part of the community I wanted to comprehend while maintaining a clear and focused role in data collection and analysis.  The comforts of graphs and charts and correlations disappeared as I tried to grasp how a society realizes its relationship with the lakes and waterways that surround it.

I spent the last eight weeks researching a small northern portion of the watershed, centered around the city of Chetek. The predominant goal of this project is understanding: an understanding of the relationships within a community, and an understanding of the stakeholders’ views about environmental issues and the impact of water resources on their lives. In previous years, LAKES REU studies have been heavily focused on Menomonie and Dunn County as a launching point. My research was deliberately targeted towards Chetek and the northern portion of the watershed in an effort to expand the qualitative database and provide a more holistic image of the watershed’s potential for positive change.   By using participant observation, formal and semi-formal interviews, and focus groups, ethnographic methods of gathering information have the potential to reframe the conservation conversation by positioning the act of listening in an active role, not just a passive one.  As I listened to the community members, I started to piece together some common themes.  Some of the conversations that came up again and again focused on the viability of establishing a Lake District, the importance of fishing as an economic motivator and in building a sense of place, and the dynamics of a rural community with a prevailing tourist population. 

Unlike Menomonie, people flood to Chetek to use their waterways, making summer the busy season.  Existing literature suggests a natural resentment between the people who come seasonally to use the water and the people who remain year-round and bear the burden of maintaining it, but this isn’t what I heard in Chetek.  Over and over again, I saw a respect on both sides- tourists who return year after year and consider this area a kind of home, their summer identity.  I saw local people who understand that ebb and flow and appreciated the social and economic boom for three months of the year- enough to get over the increased waiting time at a stop light in July.  This sort of dialogue points to a greater potential to work together to protect common resources and underscores the importance of addressing a community as unique, without relying on only demography and literature review.

Locals and tourists alike talked about fishing- what was biting, where, and on what.  That ethos is already established, so it is a natural stepping stone to go from the care and curation of a healthy fish population to considering how water quality factors in.  In this way, anthropological research can act as a guiding principle, by understanding what matters to people and building from that to implement relevant and sustainable policy.

There has been enormous effort put forth to preserve and improve water quality in Barron County, but that energy is often being expended by a small group of dedicated individuals.  The prospect of establishing a Lake District in the Chetek area didn’t get a whole lot of traction when it was proposed, which was disheartening for many.  But this summer, people talked to me about the debate in bait shops and at bars and on beaches- and overwhelmingly, they were in favor of establishing some sort of special taxation district.  They talked about being willing to pay to protect water, but they also voiced their hesitation.  They told me they wouldn’t vote for a tax that they didn’t fully understand the potential parameters of, that they couldn’t support it without knowing the logistics of administration, or the projects that it would be used for.  Identifying these roadblocks is critical, and the divergent narratives in Menomonie and Chetek underline the importance of listening to stakeholders across the watershed in order to work together for meaningful change.  

Going into this research project, I was careful.  I set up interviews and attended meetings, made list after list of the people I wanted to talk to that I trusted would have valuable insight.  I wanted to do justice to this area, I wanted so badly to add something to the ongoing project that mattered- and I thought that I could do that with enough planning and pestering and by asking just the right questions. Luckily, my mentor, Dr. Tina Lee, was prepared for how this really works... 

What I didn’t factor in were the conversations I had by chance. In order to do this project well, I couldn’t just charge into the fray.  I was unprepared for the amount of control I would have to give up-  no matter how much I wanted to, I couldn’t simply schedule a window of time and then expect people to open up to me on cue.  To get a real look into the heart of a community, I had to scrap some of my carefully crafted questions and ask more about the family dog who fell in the lake and came out looking like he was dipped in green paint.  I had to risk not feeling research-y enough, not like a Super-Cool Academic.  I had to fully embrace participant observation and give time for the discrepancies between what people say- and believe- and what happens in real life to come to light. I had to sit at coffee shops and become a familiar face. I had to have my prudent and efficient schedule knocked on its side in order to end up, sweaty and frustrated, at the public beach and realize: I was researching this water and this was the first time I was standing in the green waves. 

In order to understand a community, I had to spend time in it.
If I want to see how people feel about their lake, well- I had to get in the lake. 

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