By Randy Swaty, TNC LANDFIRE Ecologist
My friends, at left is a snapshot of life on the road for this conservationist: I’m in Billings, Montana for the 64th annual meeting of The Society for Range Management. It’s February, 2011. It’s freezing. A Cracker Barrel and a greasy casino restaurant as my only two nearby food sources. And in that humble choice lays an oft-unspoken key to good conservation. I say the hell with Cracker Barrel and the casino, and decide to brave a walk to an Italian restaurant that I heard was respectable, about two miles away on an interstate access road. Moments later I’m in a cab with Susan, a faculty member from Humboldt State University.
Before we knew it, we were racing around a Costco to buy food for a party of the CalPac division of the Society, while the cabbie (named “Mush”) was waiting for us, and charging for the pleasure. I’m not particularly good at making high pressure food decisions especially in a warehouse where you pick your food directly from the pallet. Mission accomplished smoothly, though, and as a result of my assistance, I was invited to spend the evening partying and networking with Cal Polytechnic, Humboldt State and Cal- Davis faculty and Cal-State extension folks. It probably didn’t look like a strategic move from the outside. Perhaps I should have sat in my room and worked on my PowerPoint or worked through e-mails. However, I engaged in some high-intensity intentional grazing (I think they called it) where wine was accompanied by a little bit of advice about grazing my sheep next year. (I have sheep on my farmstead in Michigan.)
Here’s the thing: I often meet budding scientists that want to get away from it all by radio-collaring grizzly bears, sheltering away in a lab or sauntering around pristine forests like the John Muir. I’d love to do that stuff, too. But sometimes, strategic conservation happens when one helps potential partners shop at Costco. Sometimes it means eating bad food with them. As TNC (Totally Non-Confrontational) employees, we work lots of different people — some ranchers, some loggers, some environmentalists, some ecologists. Some wear business suits, heels and hose. Some are a combo of all of the above. Bottom line: many times the only way to bridge gaps is to drink coffee and/or beer together.
What do you think – are such occasions eligible as “billable hours”? I say yes. For instance, I recently saw an insightful presentation by Scott Simon, director of The Nature Conservancy in Arkansas, in which Scott said that successful collaboration takes three things: 1) shared interests, 2) demonstrated results of all parties, and 3) liking each other. That third point is where the beer and the coffee and the helping out come in.
Now, drinking beer or coffee or the like is hardly a problem; my boss likes Diet Coke with a lime, and I’m happy to make sure he’s accommodated. However, downing a beer in a hotel room with a bunch of strangers in Billings wasn’t easy for me. I was definitely outside of my comfort zone, and I reckon that many people may have been too until they had a beer or two, some store-bought cheese and crackers, and the mainly ignored vegetable tray. The challenge is to follow up with the aforementioned people while they still remember the stranger from Michigan.
I’ve heard many TNC staffers say things like “we can’t achieve our mission without [insert crucial strategic/tactic/way to address monstrous threat]” here, which I believe. But I also know — from my many Billings-like experiences as a conservation road tripper — that we cancan also achieve our mission when sharing beer and coffee with partners, co-workers, potential donors, and stakeholders. My premise: we need performance objectives that recognize that collaboration takes more than e-mails and phone calls. It is critical that we spend time together with our partners in casual settings. This is especially true with difficult projects that have many moving pieces, risks of failure are high, level of innovation is significant, and potential for philosophical disagreements is real. Those discussions promote mutual understanding, if not agreement. At any rate, a bridge has been formed.
It’s all about what works in the long run, and getting out of what can be a rut in the office setting. Remember that you often “have to go slow to go fast.” Challenge yourself to build coffee/beer time into your project timeline. Help a logger change a hydraulic hose on his/her processor, and follow the work with a celebratory beverage. Walk a farmer’s fields with him, and then have coffee in the kitchen -- even if it’s weak and without a foam floater. Even sit in a colleague’s chair so you can imagine that person in his or her workspace the next time you call. Plan to share time together — the outcomes can be far better and richer and you might imagine.
It doesn’t seem like it’s our job, but it is our job. More than ever, and NOW more than ever.
By Randy Swaty, ecologist, North America Region, The LANDFIRE Team at The Nature Conservancy