Q&A w/ the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program: Creating a culture of environmental collaboration

Learn how collaboration is used to engage broader conversations surrounding Utah's incredible natural resources in the Q&A below.

Learn how collaboration is used to engage broader conversations surrounding Utah’s incredible natural resources in the Q&A below.

By Nicole Cox, Communications Fellow 

Environmental conflict hits home for me. The state of Alaska is in constant battle over natural resource protection, coastal village displacement, and the price of oil. Stakeholders can often be overlooked, excluded from conversations surrounding their interests and opportunities to be involved in the decision-making process.

And while the term conflict can have many meanings, I notice that it usually arises out of misunderstanding. So in these contested environmental scenarios, how do we ensure that we’re communicating effectively? How do we manage for personal heuristics? Is it even possible to meet everyone’s interests?

I joined the Environmental Humanities Masters program thinking that there’s a more effective way of managing natural resources, of protecting the environment. It would be more inclusive, more collaborative, ultimately — more holistic. So you can imagine my excitement when I discovered that the University has its own Environmental Dispute Resolution Program (EDRP). I was able to reach out to the EDRP faculty to get answers to some of my questions; read what Michele Straube, EDRP Founding Director, and Danya Rumore, Associate Director, had to say.

Danya Rumore joined the EDRP last summer after completing her PhD in Environmental Policy and Planning at MIT.

Danya Rumore joined the EDRP last summer after completing her PhD in Environmental Policy and Planning at MIT.

How would you describe the Environmental Dispute Resolution Program to students?
Rumore: The Environmental Dispute Resolution Program is a program based in the Wallace Stegner Center in the S.J. Quinney College of Law that promotes alternative dispute resolution (ADR) and collaborative processes as a means to address environmental and public policy conflicts in Utah and the mountain west. We do so through providing collaborative process design, facilitation, mediation, stakeholder engagement, public education, and capacity building services, as well as through academic instruction and research. The EDRP approach redefines the meaning of ADR to mean “additional dialogue required.” In line with this philosophy, we emphasize creating opportunities for dialogue, mutual understanding, and collaborative problem-solving around environmental and natural resource issues. Our aim is to build long-term relationships that produce enduring and creative on-the-ground results to address critical environmental and public policy problems.

What kind of work does it do? How is this accomplished?
Rumore: The EDRP focuses on creating a culture of environmental and natural resources collaboration through four main areas of work: 1) Academic instruction; 2) Public education and capacity building; 3) Research and analysis; and 4) Process design, facilitation, mediation, and stakeholder engagement services.

In terms of academic instruction, Michele and I both teach courses in dispute resolution, conflict management, and environmental conflict resolution. We also provide mentorship for students interested in this line of work and engage students in on-the-ground EDRP efforts, such as helping us facilitate grazing collaborations or assisting communities in working through contentious issues.

Our public engagement and capacity building work includes large initiatives such as the Utah Forum on Collaboration we hosted for high level state and federal agency leaders last fall and the Short Course on Effective Natural Resources Collaboration training program we will be launching later this year. We also try to “proselytize” about collaboration whenever we get a good opportunity, such as by speaking at conferences, workshops, and other events.

Being an academic program, we value research and analysis, and aim to advance the theory and practice of environmental dispute resolution and collaborative problem-solving through testing new approaches and studying examples of collaboration. We work with students to prepare case studies of collaborative efforts, which are published on our website. We are also working with partners throughout the University of Utah and from other institutions on research projects. For example, we are currently collaborating with the U’s Ecological Planning Center on a project looking at planning challenges in the Zion National Park region and opportunities for collaborative regional planning.

Finally, we provide facilitation, mediation, stakeholder engagement, and collaboration support for communities and stakeholder groups in Utah and the greater mountain west. We particularly focus on piloting new approaches and developing models that can be used elsewhere, as well as using these experiences to train students. We are currently involved in efforts ranging from facilitating watershed partnerships and grazing collaborations to helping small communities, such as the Town of Rockville outside of Zion National Park, have more transparent and productive dialogue about contentious local planning issues. More information about our current projects is available on our website.

Michele Straube has spent the last twenty years focusing on alternative dispute resolution, and joined EDRP in 2012 as the Founding Director.

Michele Straube has spent the last twenty years focusing on alternative dispute resolution, and joined EDRP in 2012 as the Founding Director.

Does EDRP’s work relate to the campus community’s sustainability?
Straube: I had the privilege of working with the U’s Air Quality Task Force to help the co-chairs design a process that encouraged collaborative learning and constructive dialogue, and facilitated discussions about the more contentious issues. After a year’s worth of hard work, the Air Quality Task Force issued consensus recommendations to the U’s administration with specific suggestions for improving the air quality impacts of the institution’s operations, recommendations that are in the process of being implemented.

Danya and I are excited to be working with 14 U students (from four different academic programs) who have volunteered to facilitate small group discussions about fossil fuel divestment and reinvestment in renewable energy, sponsored by the U Academic Senate Ad Hoc Reinvestment Dialogue Committee. Readers are encouraged to attend the small group discussions on Friday, March 25, 2016, 12:30-2:00PM, in the Gould Auditorium, Marriott Library.

Can you tell us about the projects that EDRP is working on in Salt Lake?
Straube: EDRP staff and students were asked by Salt Lake City Mayor Becker in Fall 2013 to do a situation assessment about homeless issues in the downtown area. We conducted nearly 60 confidential interviews across stakeholder groups including downtown residents and businesses, developers, homeless service providers, all levels of government, law enforcement, as well as currently and formerly homeless individuals. Our Situation Assessment Report identified the significant issues, existing efforts, opportunities for collaboration and consensus, and potential challenges to addressing homeless issues in downtown SLC, and informed the City’s development of a collaborative long-term approach to making Salt Lake City’s downtown a welcoming place for all. Since that assessment, the EDRP has worked with the City and County to design and facilitate dialogues about how to implement the City’s Homeless Services Strategy. The most recent was the Homeless Services Site Evaluation Commission to explore where homeless services would best be located, which resulted in consensus recommendations for a “scattered site” approach.

What is most rewarding about being involved with environmental dispute resolution?
Rumore: To be honest, this is my dream job. I love helping public officials, land managers, resources users, community members, and other stakeholders work together to address their environmental and natural resource issues. Our work takes us to some pretty amazing places (such as Zion National Park) and allows us to work with some wonderful people and communities. And I can clearly see the beneficial impact we are having on communities, stakeholder groups, and in Utah more broadly. Our work is by no means always easy – in fact, it is often quite challenging! – but it is almost always rewarding.

Straube: I have been doing this work for about 20 years and never cease being amazed at the humanity and creativity of the stakeholders I work with. It is especially rewarding to have participants in a consensus-building process come up to me and say that they appreciate learning a whole new way of dealing with conflict, an approach that has changed how they handle disagreements in every aspect of their life.

What changes would you like to see on campus as a result of EDRP’s efforts?
Rumore: A key goal of ours is to train students (and faculty, for that matter) to do this kind of work and to be collaborative problem solvers. We also hope to cultivate as much meaningful dialogue and collaborative problem-solving on campus as possible.

How can students get involved?
Rumore: We are passionate about training students to be collaborative problem-solvers, to effectively manage and respond to conflict, and to (as we like to say) “act facilitatively.” We’re a small program with only two full-time staff, but we do our best to reach as many students as possible and to create valuable student training opportunities. I encourage students who are interested in environmental dispute resolution, collaboration, and consensus building to take one of our classes. Students interested in our line of work can also reach out to us – we welcome motivated student interns and often have opportunities for students to get involved in our collaborations and capacity building efforts. Additionally, whenever possible, we seize opportunities to expose students to facilitation, mediation, and collaborative problem-solving, like the small group dialogues on fossil fuel divestment Michele mentioned previously.

What resources are available to students through the EDRP?
Straube: The EDRP offers several helpful resources (in addition to the various opportunities we’ve talked about in answers to other questions):

  • Students can take our courses to learn and practice the skills of collaborative problem-solving (Environmental Conflict Resolution and Conflict Management taught by me at the law school; Negotiation and Dispute Resolution taught by Danya in the planning department).
  • We publish EDR Blog posts every two weeks, covering examples of collaboration best practices and lessons learned, collaborative opportunities for current controversial issues, and the unique human capacity for collaboration and dialogue. Students can read the blog (sign up for email notices of new blog posts), and also contact us to be a guest blog author.
  • Our website has a variety of collaborative problem-solving resources, including case studies, links to relevant websites, and an EDR booklist starting with my favorite book (A is for A**hole: The Grownups’ ABCs of Conflict Resolution).

How is EDR related to the law school?
Straube: When I went to law school eons ago, the curriculum was primarily focused on litigation. In the past 10+ years, law students are increasingly exposed to different conflict management approaches including collaborative problem-solving, mediation, arbitration, and litigation. EDR encompasses the full range of approaches to handling disagreement around environmental and natural resource issues — conflict prevention, conflict management and dispute resolution. In addition, learning EDR processes gives law (and other) students the realistic experience of working across disciplines to co-create effective solutions with different stakeholder interests.

How does being affiliated with the EDRP positively impact your lives?
Rumore: I find my work really energizing and uplifting (even when it’s tough). I really enjoy working with Michele and our colleagues in the Wallace Stegner Center. I love engaging students in our work. And I find it enormously rewarding to help communities and stakeholders work collaboratively to tackle their tricky environmental and natural resource issues. So, I’d say being affiliated with the EDRP is an all around positive experience – even though it can be challenging.

Straube: Thanks to the pilot project funding of the Alternative Visions Fund, we’ve had a platform to help people in Utah and the mountain west learn the benefits of the collaborative problem-solving approach to environmental and natural resource issues. It’s also rewarding to work with staff in the EDR Program, the Stegner Center, the law school, and the environmental mediation community nationwide to demonstrate and document best practices for constructive dialogue. When all is said and done, we have the opportunity to make change one person, one student at a time. Life doesn’t get much better than that!


My discovery of the EDRP opened up a door of curiosity. I first heard Rumore give a lecture last semester for the GCSC seminar series and enrolled in her Negotiation and Dispute Resolution course this Spring. In this course, students from City and Metropolitan Planning, Real Estate Development, Urban Ecology, and Public Administration surround me – each week we take on new roles to ruffle feathers and to hone our skills maintaining composure under pressure. It has taught me significantly more about myself than I thought I could learn in a negotiation course. And more importantly, it has taught me how to be more inclusive and collaborative, critical steps towards a more holistic system.

We’re in a unique position here at the University of Utah, and we have an incredibly valuable resource at our disposal. Utah is currently facing concern over environmental issues such as public land use, tar sand mining, and endangered species protection, to name just a few. If these are causes you care about, and you’re interested in understanding how environmental dispute resolution can influence environmental decisions, I hope you take advantage of the EDR program.

My experience at the University wouldn’t be the same without it.

Nicole Cox is a graduate student in Environmental Humanities and a graduate assistant in the Sustainability Office.

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