Watershed Councils East and West: Advocacy, Consensus and Environmental Progress

By Lavigne, Peter M. | UCLA Journal of Environmental Law & Policy, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Watershed Councils East and West: Advocacy, Consensus and Environmental Progress


Lavigne, Peter M., UCLA Journal of Environmental Law & Policy


I.

INTRODUCTION

The views in this article originate from an experience I had at a national rivers conference in 1993, replicated dozens of times in the subsequent ten years, where conference participants were using the term "watershed councils" in ways that assumed everyone was talking about the same thing. Few in the audience then (and it still is true today) knew the distinctive regional differences in structure, law and culture in organizations often called watershed councils from coast to coast in the United States. The broad scope of watershed institutional history in the United States includes the analysis of the effects of forests on water supplies by George Perkins Marsh in Vermont in the 1860s, (2) the efforts to create the Adirondack Park in New York in the 1880s and 1890s, (3) and the seminal work of John Wesley Powell and his report on the arid lands of the great American West in 1878. (4) These are all antecedents of regional differences in governance and activism which endure to this day. More importantly, the nascent emergence of ecosystem law and policy in the twenty-first century (5) is best served by a clear understanding of common terminology and conceptual approaches.

In the spirit of cross-fertilization and further development of ecosystem law and policy, the views in this article are based on a twenty-year history of work in watershed ecosystem protection and restoration. Because of positions in local watershed organizations in New England and moving to regional work for American Rivers in the Northeastern United States and Canada, For the Sake of the Salmon in the Pacific Northwest, along with national and international work at River Network, as a private consultant, university professor, and at the Rivers Foundation of the Americas, I cannot address these issues as a disinterested academic. It is, however, the knowledge acquired through this diversity of experience and involvement that makes the analysis possible. (6)

II.

WATERSHED: THE BUZZ WORD OF THE 1990s

"Watershed protection and restoration" was the "new" environmental buzz phrase of the 1990s, and watershed ecosystem restoration will continue to be a focus far into the future. The enthusiasm for characterizing the newness of the watershed approach to ecosystem management and restoration is best represented by the important 1993 book from the Pacific Rivers Council entitled Entering the Watershed: A New Approach to Save America's River Ecosystems (1993). (7) Partly in response to the ideas in Entering the Watershed, conservation techniques shifted dramatically over the decade to more comprehensive watershed ecosystem approaches. The emphasis in the West (and in federal agencies nationally and some state agencies in other regions of the United States) moved towards comprehensive restoration and away from single focus efforts on water, air, and land pollution and degradation issues.

Following the lead of the national organization River Network (whose work changed between 1988 and 1993 from "helping local people protect rivers," to "helping people organize to conserve their river watershed"), masses of agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) began the same shift during the mid-1990s. That shift had previously occurred within the Pacific Rivers Council as it evolved from the wild and scenic river oriented Oregon Rivers Council at its founding in 1987 to its more comprehensive regional (and occasionally national) watershed approaches to ecosystem restoration and protection in the early 1990s. At that time it seemed, for many people working on environmental issues in the West, that "watershed councils," "alliances," and "associations" in various forms and with various purposes sprang instantaneously, from nowhere, all over the West. (8)

Of course, watershed advocacy of one sort existed in the West from the early decades of the United States federal government's dominion over the region. …

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