Gallatin Community Collaborative hires facilitator

By Emily Wolfe Explore Big Sky Managing Editor

Jeff Goebel began facilitating a conflict between warring ethnic groups in Djenne, Mali in 1998. Within 15 months of his second workshop on food scarcity, the seven tribes began working together, nearly doubling their food production, Goebel says.

He returned five times over the next four years, and by the time his work was finished, violent conflict had completely ended between the 10 villages. “Instead of coming into a conflict as adversaries and staying adversaries, [the tribes] came in as adversaries and built friendship and trust,” he said.

Based in Portland, Ore., Goebel has facilitated conflicts around the Western U.S., and from Hawaii to Palestine, he says, working with individuals, families, businesses, communities and tribes. And the Gallatin Community Collaborative Exploratory Committee just hired him to work on the 30-year land use conflict in the Gallatin Range.

“He’s a little bit more outside the box, but I think that’s what we need,” said Gallatin District Ranger Lisa Stoeffler, also a committee member.

Through his business, About Listening, Goebel focuses on conflict resolution through consensus building, as well as strategic planning “from a holistic point of view – that means helping people meet their basic quality of life values, their economic needs and their ecologic needs.”

The GCC Exploratory Committee spent the last two years bringing together opposing user groups to find a solution for the 155,000-acre Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area.

Congress designated the WSA in 1977 to “preserve its existing wilderness character” until a long-term decision about management and protection could be made. Managed by the Gallatin National Forest, it’s been a point of contention between user groups ever since.

Led by Dan Clark, director of the Montana State University Local Government Center, the GCC Exploratory Committee represented motorized and non-motorized interest groups, outfitters, landowners, conservation, educators and agency managers. With the National Forest considering revisions to its management plan and no litigation pending, the committee built guidelines and operating protocols for a future collaborative group to create a “broad, adaptive and durable” resolution it can present to the Gallatin National Forest and federal elected officials.

GCC Exploratory Committee celebratory barbecue. Photo courtesy of GCC

After her time with the committee, Stoeffler thinks the public is ready to find this solution. “It feels really stalled out to people. People see a better way. They were tired and unhappy with the long term conflict and wanted to overcome that.”

Goebel’s approach aims for “100 percent agreement.” Instead of looking for common ground, he plans to help the community find new ground: “stuff people don’t even know exists at the moment.”

Goebel has already spoken with more than 20 people from a range of interest groups, from Livingston to West Yellowstone.

“I learned that people would like to have this resolved,” he said. “Most important was that there was an intention of whatever comes of this, is that the community stops being polarized and divided. There is a sense of goodwill.”

Committee member Steve Caldwell, a Livingston city commissioner, says Goebel has “potential for taking people off the defensive. I think his approach in terms of trying to develop a blank slate and use that starting point to build trust [could be] very effective.”

Eventually, Caldwell says, the committee members realized “the protocols weren’t as important as how we actually got there.” He hopes that if the GCC’s work is successful, it could be applied to future conflicts.

Goebel plans to hold a series of community meetings in mid-October, and he says they will be different, and very structured.

“My process works with how we function physiologically as humans, by addressing our fear and concerns. Unless you can address those, it’s really difficult to move to what your hopes are.” This, Goebel says, begins by creating “a respectful listening environment, so everyone leaves feeling like they are heard,” he said. “I do things differently. I get change, big change and unexpected change.”

Because Goebel is only contracted for six months to start, he says he’ll work to transfer his skill set and knowledge to others involved locally. “I want [the GCC] members to go back to their interest groups or communities they’re from, wherever the opportunities are for them to resolve big or small issues.”

Caldwell pointed out that many successful collaborative efforts in southwest Montana have been related to physical resources like water, timber or grazing rights – things you can allocate and partition.

“But recreation is something that people have more of an emotional bond to – being able to ride, hike or ski in a given place with your own set of expectations,” he said. “Those intangibles are tough, in terms of compromising.”

The key, Goebel says, is for everyone to learn. “What’s important in our life is not only where we end up, it’s also what we learn as we’re going there. Nothing will change if nobody learns.”