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Public Participation in Environmental Assessment and Decision Making
divisive issue in public participation processes. It is important to diagnose the extent of such disagreement at the outset of the process, to select practices to address them, and to reconsider value issues as the process nears completion. Such practices can reveal paths toward finding common ground among parties with different values as they consider alternatives.
The degree of polarization among participants is an important diagnostic factor for determining the need for using specific techniques to help parties deal with different perspectives or conflicting interests as they attempt to achieve the principle of good-faith communication. Some participatory processes begin with participants not being particularly vested in certain desired outcomes, either because positions have not yet formed or because existing positions are relatively flexible and participants acknowledge the need for trade-offs and compromise. However, it is quite common for participation processes to begin with many groups already having strongly held and strongly opposed views. In some cases, participants may be in litigation or engaged in active dispute in other ways. This may not preclude participation, but it does affect it.
Clearly, policy decisions and the public participation process may be divisive when the effects of an environmental problem and the costs and benefits of potential policy responses affect different groups in different ways. A special and critically important challenge arises when some parties believe that they have interests that cannot be met if the interests of another party are served. Sometimes this is the case, but the perception of mutually exclusive interests on the part of some participants may be incorrect. The diagnostic task can be difficult because sometimes the question is initially posed as a choice between mutually exclusive positions. For example, a panel member pointed out that in the first mediated environmental dispute, some participants disagreed in absolute terms about whether to support a specific flood control dam in Washington State. However, the question could have been restated in terms of reconciling opposing groups’ interests, that is, as how to reduce flooding while still preserving the whitewater recreational values of that particular reach of river. Thus, initial statements that indicate diametrically opposed interests should not be interpreted as an insurmountable challenge.
Mediators or facilitators often speak to stakeholders in confidence to learn more about the issues of concern and the interests that underlie the positions being articulated, particularly in circumstances in which trust is a barrier but also when parties are not particularly skilled at collaborative problem solving. Other practices for generating solutions when positions appear polarized include brainstorming (also described as “separating in-