In 1979, I was hired, fresh out of graduate school with an MS degree in Systems Ecology, by the Mined Land Reclamation Division of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. I was a “Reclamation Specialist”. Over the next eight years, I advanced to the level of a “Senior Reclamation Specialist” in charge of a small staff of other similar professionals who oversaw the permitting and regulation of all of the known non-coal mines in the south half of Colorado. I reported to a chain of command that included a Division Director and a Mined Land Reclamation Board (as appointed by the Governor), which had a public meeting on a monthly basis. My duties included supervision of my staff of three specialists who reviewed reclamation permit applications from mining companies; visited mines in the field to check for compliance with their permit requirements, finding unpermitted mining operations and consulting with miners on the best way to comply with their permits and making presentations to the monthly meetings of the Board, whose members had to rule on all of our activities. I not only supervised these activities, I engaged in all of them myself. We were always busy. In short, I was an environmental regulator.
In the culture in which I worked, the “regulator’s regulator” was someone who was diligent in finding those who did not comply with the detailed regulations (whether by total non-compliance – mining without a permit – or by falling short of the standards defined by regulation and their permit) and making sure the miscreants were found, cited, fined and perhaps even closed down under a cease and desist order issued by the Board. Suffice to say that regulators who lived strictly by that code were not especially popular among the mining operators. The miners’ cooperation level with these regulators was low, and they did their best to hide any mistakes. In my opinion, then and now, this made for poorer compliance by the miners and more work (and stress) for the regulators.
So, I did my job in a different way. I decided to cultivate a cooperative relationship with the miners whom I regulated (and encouraged the same among my subordinates). I worked with them to craft permit conditions which fit within the somewhat wide range of our regulations and tried my best to help them correct less than major violations when I was in the field, without recommending the issuance of a violation (which typically was accompanied by at least a fine). One result was that the miners did not typically try to hide things from me, and I was not forced to simply tell people what to do. We worked together protect the environment, while allowing the mining of sand and gravel, gold, silver, uranium, molybdenum, etc. to proceed. I realized that I wasn’t exactly a regulator – I was someone else. Not surprisingly, my rise in the hierarchy of Mined Land Reclamation stopped at the Senior Specialist level.
Then, in 1987, Jefferson County, Colorado offered me the chance to use my collaboration skills to actually be that facilitator in the middle! I was offered (and accepted) the position of “Aggregate Coordinator” – a person who would facilitate discussions among existing and potential mining operators in the County, the County planners who would regulate them through zoning regulations and the citizens opposing (or , at least, interested in) those mining operations. The County paid for my environmental mediation training and put me to work helping its citizens find their own solutions to critical land use issues (or, if no consensus solutions were found, clarify the vital issues surrounding these mines so that the Board of County Commissioners could make informed decisions). People liked the process, even when win-win solutions did not emerge from it. Participants were empowered, and no one felt like he/she was simply being told what to do.
The career change for me was profound – and I never looked back! I have now spent 28 years helping people find their own way, not telling them what to do and threatening them with sanctions. This is a better way to do business for land use proposals, and every other area of human interaction where conflict is endemic. This experience has allowed me to expand my conflict resolution work to group facilitation (non-profit Board retreats, public policy committees, etc.), workplace mediation (discrimination mediation for the U.S. Postal Service’s REDRESS program, workgroup mediation for the Bureau of Land Management, etc.), contract dispute mediation (attorneys often bring me in to help clients settle out of court) real estate disputes (e.g., earnest money disputes) and many other areas of human interaction – while still working, whenever I can, in the environmental and public policy arena.
So, in the end, my philosophy I developed as a “Reclamation Specialist” – a regulator, allowed me to find the career to which I was most suited. I have spent a fulfilling new career as that person who helps people find their own paths forward, not someone who limits their choices by regulations, threats and sanctions. This is truly a better way!