Tuesday, November 11, 2014
Following up on my introductory post, I was fortunate to get to help facilitate the biannual summit of the Lower Platte River Corridor Alliance (LPRCA) last week. The Alliance is a unique organization composed of three Natural Resource Districts and six state agencies in Nebraska. It aims to work “with people to protect the long-term vitality of the Lower Platte River Corridor” (an area that includes “the Lower Platte River, the bluffs, and adjoining public and private lands located within the floodplain” for approximately 100 miles along the river from Columbus to Plattsmouth). The Lower Platte faces both supply and water quality issues. The river traverses unique rural landscapes and also bisects the expanding Omaha-Lincoln metropolitan areas. It provides water for important agricultural and mining uses in the region, and it is also supplies drinking water for over half of Nebraska’s population. (For more information, look here.)
For me, one of the most unique and important aspects of the Alliance is its focus on supporting locally drawn solutions and strategies to protect the river and the surrounding landscape, especially in the face of great demographic changes. My experience at the summit has me thinking more about my ongoing interest in the role of public participation in complex land use and resource management issues, like planning for the long-term sustainability of this important watershed.
Getting out of the office and elbow deep into some of the real-world debates about the future of the Corridor (where I not only work but also live) was invaluable to me. In many respects, I learned more in one day discussing shelter belts, crop insurance, trail development, Main Street facade improvements, property tax systems, and various potential models for valuing ecosystem services with such a diverse group of landowners, agricultural producers, conservationists, advocates, and government officials, than I probably could have from many days in a library. Somewhat unexpectedly, the primary takeaway for me was some renewed perspective about the role of legal solutions in what are often really ecosystem-level social problems. Although I spend most of my days analyzing and trying to craft legal solutions to real-world problems, back on the ground things looked a little different.
For example, Chuck Schroeder, Executive Director of the Rural Futures Institute (RFI), started the day with a keynote about the resiliency of rural communities within the Corridor and beyond. At one point, he told a story about a small town community working hard on some marketing and revitalization efforts that had struggled to address a blighted property located right at the entrance to the downtown area. The mayor, according to Chuck, complained to two undergraduate students interns (there for the summer as part of an RFI-funded teaching grant for service learning) about this eyesore house and how all their town’s marketing efforts might be undercut if a visitor’s first impression was this dilapidated house and junk-filled yard. Chuck said the mayor and town had tried “everything” to address the house to no avail, but my ever-legal lawyer mind immediately started ticking off other possible legal solutions to the problem: nuisance claims, aesthetic zoning regulations, condemnation, code enforcement, tax enforcement, etc. My issue-spotting lawyer brain was so occupied checking off possible legal procedures that I almost missed the punchline of Chuck’s story. Although the mayor and the town had not had success communicating with the home’s owner about the issue in the past, Chuck said the two student interns took it upon themselves to walk up to the landowner’s door and offer to help him sell the stacks of tires on his lawn and recover some cash for them…. The homeowner, pleased with the result and liking the student interns who helped put some money in his pocket, then proceeded to let the interns and some other community volunteers engage in additional clean up work around the house. Problem almost immediately solved.
It’s a simple story, but for me an important reminder. In my rush to legal analysis, my instinct was not to consider first what might motivate the landowner to fix the problem himself or what may be standing in the way of him doing so. Or how public engagement in the clean up process might be the most efficient and simple solution, while also likely creating a host of other intangible community benefits.
I was also struck at the summit by how many examples there were from stakeholders actively working on land use challenges within the Corridor of the law working more as an obstacle to progress than as an opportunity or useful tool. These people who do the daily work of trying to make the Corridor a better place seemed incredibly competent and intelligent, but in many cases, they described to me very specific instances where well intentioned laws were getting in the way of actually achieving the desired results (e.g, too much bureaucracy, cumbersome procedures, agency rules that didn't make sense). I heard complaints of the persistent problem of top-down policies and priorities being implemented in ways that are not fully matched up on the ground or that create unintended inefficiencies or obstacles.
This isn’t universally the case. For example, we visited a family farm along the river outside of Omaha where an innovative conservation easement has been created in coordination with the Nebraska Land Trust. The family, at least, said they felt very satisfied that the legal tool of the easement had satisfactorily addressed their concerns in the face of “houses coming over the hills.”
(Photo: Dave Sands, Executive Director of the Nebraska Land Trust, discusses his organization’s conservation easement work within the Corridor at the site of one of these easements.)
However, the theme that there are limits on the ability of the law to respond perfectly or exclusively to the complex land use challenges in the Corridor--including how we will value and protect a range of ecosystem services in the face of growing populations and a changing climate--lingers. Of course, these watershed issues are more complex than one junked property with too many tires in the lawn and more difficult to respond to than the threat of new development around a historic farm that an entire family agrees should be preserved. However, after this summit experience, I look forward to more thinking and engagement around the issues of (1) how law and policy can be better designed with real feedback from, and attention to, the on-the-ground realities of the people working in the trenches and (2) the proper mix of legal and non-legal responses to challenges like the longterm vitality a fragile ecosystem, and especially the role of public participation in designing and implementing these varied solutions.
- Jessica A. Shoemaker