Strictly business: Listening can bridge differences

By Gordon Oliver, Columbian Business Editor



As we move away from our community shout-fest over the Columbia River Crossing, we clearly have a thing or two to learn about the art of listening.

Building a highway and public transit is not the most contentious issue we face, after all. We’ve fought for generations over environmental protection-versus-land rights-versus jobs, without listening much to each other. Increasingly, urban and rural residents view each other with resentment and anger based on misunderstandings from that endless debate.

So it’s refreshing when a few people find a way to break through those walls of mistrust. Vancouver-based Columbia Land Trust is a good place to look for an example on how to listen and then adapt to issues and emotions coming from across the divide.

An organization that sets out to buy and preserve land in its undeveloped state would seem about as out of place in rural communities as an REI-outfitted Californian who thinks he knows the ways of the woods. Glenn Lamb, the Columbia Land Trust’s executive director, recalls the snarling greeting he once received from a Klickitat County commissioner:

“It must feel good for you to tell us how to live our lives,” the commissioner offered.

From an economic standpoint, such hostility is well-grounded. As The Columbian’s Eric Florip reported recently, about 88 percent of Skamania County’s land is in public ownership. Timber harvests, once a large source of revenue to the county, have been reduced to a trickle compared to two decades ago. When private land is set aside for environmental protection, the county loses property tax revenue and the tax money that flows in when houses are built.

The land trust does not come in uninvited — it works only with landowners who want to work with it — and it invests time in trying to meet the community’s needs and interests. It pays property taxes in rural counties even though it’s not required to do so, and it often keeps its land in active farm or forestry use. Sustainable farms and working forests tap into a broadly defined conservation ethic that has deep roots in the rural American West, Lamb says.

Over time, that angry Klickitat County commissioner eventually came to respect the land trust, Lamb says. And in Skamania County, Commissioner Chris Brong says his initial fear about the land trust’s acquisition plans have also given way to respect for the organization’s willingness to work cooperatively with the county commission and the community.

Which brings us back to the bridge fiasco. The reasons behind the project’s collapse, after a decade of costly planning and marketing, will be debated for years. But, as The Columbian reported in the spring’s “Great Divide” series by Florip and business reporter Aaron Corvin, Clark County has suffered immensely as the incivility of the bridge fight permeated other areas of the county’s public life.

As Brong points out, we don’t need to look to Congress for examples of political dysfunction: we can find it right here on the bridge, on planning for forests, and on countless other community squabbles.

Lamb sees a more productive path. “It’s so rewarding to be part of group that takes the approach that you start by asking questions and listening,” Lamb says. “I think there is remarkable opportunity when rational people sit down at the table with a collaborative spirit.”