Using Deliberation to Address the Challenges Faced by Our Nation’s Rivers

Jessy and her father, Mike Stevenson, on the banks of the South Fork of the Flathead River - April 1995.
By Jessy Stevenson, Wild Rose Education Intern, Spring 2019

When I was 18 months old, my parents snowshoed 32 miles into the heart of the Bob Marshall Wilderness where we spent the months of January through April living next to the South Fork of the Flathead River. I made the journey in a backpack on my mom’s back and spent that winter in a tipi with my parents and our two canine companions. Before I knew that rivers had names, I learned what it was like to fall asleep to the sound of rushing water. Before I understood how rivers shape our landscapes, they shaped experiences that would instill in me a deep love for wild places and eventually form my land ethic.
A photo from the winter of 1995 held where it was taken 23 years earlier at the Big Prairie Ranger Station in the Bob Marshall Wilderness - July 2018.

I spent the rest of my youth on a small homestead in rural, northwest Montana. Growing up surrounded by an abundance of natural resources meant that conflict was also abundant in our small community. My parents worked hard to protect the places they valued, but above all they taught my sister and I to listen. Listen to the land and listen to the people. Seek to understand the things we each value and how they drive us to act the way we do. They taught us that listening is a form of respect and that solving complex problems starts with learning about and developing respect for the things we might not understand. Besides ingraining a love for telling and listening to stories, this lesson has influenced my education and passion for working in conflict resolution and place-based education.

Over the past two years, opportunities to learn about and work in place-based education and conflict resolution have become entwined with my interest in rivers and the unique challenges they face. In the summer of 2018 I was part of the 4th Biennial Student Congress on Public Policy for Land Management, a group of young people tasked with addressing and providing action-based recommendations for issues faced by our nation’s rivers and trail systems. From there, I received a scholarship to attend the 2018 River Management Society Symposium, a gathering of educators, policy-makers, managers, advocates, guides, recreationists, and people from across the nation with wide-ranging connections to rivers. River stories were traded in place of business cards at the symposium, filling the spaces between forums and presentations. I met Sarah Johnson, founder of Wild Rose Education, after a presentation on the River Studies & Leadership Certificate, quickly striking up a conversation on the value of place-based education before heading off to our afternoon workshops. A few weeks later, in the process of crafting an internship for my last semester as an undergrad, Sarah and I got in touch through the River Management Society. I wanted to work on a meaningful project that combined rivers and either education or conflict resolution, and Sarah had an idea that combined all three. We set up an internship through the University of Montana and created a plan to work virtually on a project - Sarah from her office in Colorado and I from Montana.

Over the next five months Sarah and I worked together to create a deliberative forum guide that focuses on addressing the challenges faced by our nation’s rivers. Deliberation is a method of communication that involves thoughtfully identifying and considering options from multiple perspectives. Recently, a number of frameworks or ‘guides’ have been created to help facilitate deliberative forums, in which interest groups gather to discuss options for addressing challenging issues. The role of deliberation in working to address environmental issues focuses on ensuring that all interest groups contribute to the creation of and can identify with at least one of the options discussed in the forum. In a world where education is growing more specialized and societies are growing more individualized, deliberation can provide an interdisciplinary approach to solving complex problems and building connections between otherwise divided groups of people. 

The process of building our own deliberative forum guide began with an anonymous survey that was sent to an array of people across the nation, asking them to discuss their own relationships with rivers as well as their concerns for the future of those rivers. Responses from the survey helped us to shape a working draft of the deliberative forum guide, named Let’s Talk Rivers. The guide introduces the challenges of increasing demands on our nation’s rivers and lists three potential options for addressing those demands, each with a set of possible focus areas and trade-offs. While this guide takes the idea of an open framework one step further by addressing specific issues identified by real people across the nation, it is meant to be adapted.

After developing a comprehensive first draft of the guide and making edits based on comments and suggestions from a number of people throughout the process, we held a practice forum to test the framework. Sarah organized the forum, inviting an array of people with various connections to rivers as well as a trained facilitator with experience moderating deliberative forums. Unable to make the trip to Colorado, I joined the forum virtually. Sarah and I observed, taking detailed notes on parts of the framework that seemed to work well and those that needed improvement. Without a specific, local issue to tackle, the practice forum remained broad and didn’t fully encapsulate the diversity of perspectives usually present in this type of deliberation. Even so, observing the framework in action made it clear that inherent biases are almost always present and can exist in ways that are impossible to see until pointed out by someone else. Overall, participants in practice forum provided crucial feedback and were invaluable to the development of this project. We are honored to have worked with so many incredible people along the way and hope that this tool will be valuable to communities of all types; changed, adapted and shaped to help address the complex challenges faced by their rivers.
Jessy Stevenson on a peak below Old Baldy Mountain in the northern Bob Marshall Wilderness - September 2017.

Rivers are dynamic systems. They create change and shape the places and people who depend upon them. The same should be true of education and the ways in which we approach solving complex challenges in a changing world. Collaboratively creating Let’s Talk Rivers has been both challenging and inspiring. The process has reminded me that approaching the unknown with humility and listening are still the most valuable steps in solving any problem. I am now a graduate of the University of Montana, having earned a B.S. in Resource Conservation with a double major in Environmental Studies and a minor in Wilderness Studies. I look forward to continuing to learn and work in the fields of education and conflict resolution, using the tools developed during this internship along the way. Rivers and wild places have shaped who I am and will continue to play crucial roles in my work and education.

There is a place, in the rhythmic wildness of rushing water, where there seems to be some balance. There's a clarity there, a constant stillness among the rumble, a quiet as the rest of the world is drowned out. And so, to rivers is where I return, letting opaque green fingers wrap around doubts, fears, stress and uncertainty, listening to the water and, for a few minutes, ceasing to search for truth in the world.

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