Category Archives: Glenn Curtis

Glenn Curtis retired in 2009 after 28 years as a research analyst with the Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress. He has an MA in Environmental and Resource Policy from George Washington University and a PhD from Indiana University in Russian Literature. He is the editor of eight volumes in the Library of Congress Country Studies series, including studies of Russia, Poland, Iran, and Greece.

Thoughts on environmental conflict resolution

By Glenn Curtis

Environmental issues are a seemingly ideal field for conflict resolution strategies: on most questions there are identifiable sides with strongly founded viewpoints, based on philosophical differences or purely economic interests. This disparity, which is often implicit in the give-and-take of commercial interests vs. conservationist interests, has become an accepted part of a variety of land-use “deals,” ranging from coal extraction in West Virginia to townhouse development anywhere in rural/suburban America. In such transactions, both sides come to the table prepared to give up part of their initial position in order to achieve a final goal: either to preserve a piece of habitat or to gain the legal right to utilize a part for commercial or extraction purposes. However, in reality this procedure may merely be a form of negotiation or bargaining if the fundamental principles of conflict resolution are not applied.

Thus, for example, conservation interests in a community may seek to block entirely the expansion of a commercial mall into adjacent land that is valued by the community for its natural qualities, while commercially oriented community members may advocate for the surrender of an entire parcel for immediate or later expansion. Most often the outcome of this conflict is a compromise in which a part of the parcel is preserved in the expansion process.

A question in such cases is whether in this process one side or the other has compromised something vital that cannot be regained, something considered expendable in the short run but against the public interest in the longer term. In most instances, the achievement of a final settlement containing elements satisfactory to each side is considered to override any such loss. Thus the conservationists can be satisfied at having retained perhaps two-thirds of a parcel while ceding the remainder to stores or parking lots, and the commercial interests can commence development and anticipate a new compromise in the next round of negotiations.

Environmental issues that are addressed in this approach do not utilize the principles of conflict resolution because they do not address the core issues underlying disagreements over environmental conservation. The “salami tactics” that slice away pieces of habitat in the negotiation process fail to compensate for two fundamental points: first, environmental resources are fundamentally non-renewable, hence non-retrievable once ceded; and second, habitat changes fundamentally as it is subdivided. A land parcel cut in half loses more than the arithmetical 50 percent of its environmental value, and in some instances may lose virtually all of that value. The degree of such loss may depend on utilization of the “lost” portion: coal mining would constitute a complete loss while residential development with mitigation by enlightened plantings might constitute a somewhat lesser loss. For environmental conflict resolution to occur, however, the essence of what is negotiated away must be central to any discussion, rather than being relegated to the background. This is because the value of potential loss is what is really in dispute in each such issue.