A Word from the Watershed: Introduction to the UNWC and Why They Matter
By Corrie Aiuto
23 years ago, in 1996, six people grew concerned for the health of the local rivers. They saw that Rock Creek and the Nehalem River were too low in the summer and stream temperatures were too high. They saw salmon runs dwindling and developments chipping away at river resources. They saw a need for local coordinated environmental efforts. With the help of state and local organizations, including the Nehalem Valley Chapter of the Izaac Walton League, they founded the Upper Nehalem Watershed Council. These six were William DeJager, Dennis Nelson, James Buxton, Dale Webb, Lauren Jacobsen, and Maggie Peyton.
From the onset, their purpose was to gather all interested parties to solve watershed management issues. The idea was this: if everyone with a vested interest in the watershed’s health (e.g., landowners, environmental groups, private companies, your friendly neighborhood Fishing Enthusiast) came together to discuss issues, the UNWC would act as the advisory body and facilitator. They would help ensure that everyone had access to the same information, that projects were not duplicated, and when the time came for hard decisions, they would be made with coordination, collaboration, and consensus.
A Google search for “consensus” renders the definition as “a general agreement.” When reading the UNWC bylaws or its original charter, the word “consensus” appears often and that idea, of generally coming to agree upon a plan, is a major organizational theme. It’s the kind of theme that seems in short supply these days; finding solutions with people across the aisle is not en vogue.
Yet despite the trend to ignore the dissimilar, we know, and the founding members of the UNWC knew, that reaching consensus is key to problem-solving. To find the best solutions you need different voices and perspectives, and although beneficial, the consensus-building process can be painful. You will notice Google’s definition of consensus does not say “enthusiastic agreement” or “unanimous agreement.” This means we will disagree during the process. We might have to lay aside our ideal solution for the compromise and give our “aye” vote begrudgingly after fierce debate.
But the toil of consensus-building does not diminish its importance. This is particularly true for the Watershed Council. The people and entities working with the Council have different perspectives and goals. And it’s no wonder, the UNWC deals with not only the Nehalem river and its tributaries, but also the river basin, which includes land in Clatsop, Columbia, Tillamook, and Washington counties. The work can be highly technical: they conduct research, collect data, and analyze said data. It can be fraught with controversy, like when environmental groups and timber companies are at odds about the impacts of logging and forestry practices. Theirs is a balancing act, one that requires trust and communication. It is hard to overstate the importance of consensus to the UNWC. It is a vital component to the work they do and they take it seriously.
You can see this in their mission statement. It says: “To foster stewardship and understanding of the natural resources of the Upper Nehalem Watershed among the stakeholders of the watershed communities in order to protect, conserve, restore, and sustain the health and functions of the watershed.” Likewise, the organization’s vision is “A balanced ecosystem that supports a healthy watershed which provides for an economic base and viable watershed communities.”
If you are like me, you may sometimes get lost in the thick language of most mission and vision statements. So when I recently spoke with the UNWC’s Executive Director, Maggie Peyton, about the vision statement, she brought clarity.
“The vision statement works because it has three tiers,” she said. “We want healthy ecology (tier one), and if you have healthy ecology then you can support a healthy economy (tier two), which then helps support the community (tier three). We care about all three tiers.”
The UNWC is special, mainly because of this ability to care about all three tiers. In an age when we struggle to speak with those who disagree with us, they are actively working to bring everyone to the table. And with the environmental threats we now face, we need everyone at the table now more than ever.
Consider this: a new United Nations report released in early May found that around 1 million plant and animal species face extinction due to human influence. From carbon emissions heating our planet and acidifying our oceans, to over-fishing and deforestation, to pesticide use and plastic waste, our activity is destroying biodiversity. Without biodiversity, the report warns, the human species will struggle to survive. This confirms findings from earlier reports that warn we are in a sixth mass extinction event.
These findings are hard to hear, and for some, hard to swallow. But they are the honest findings of our scientific community. To the UNWC, such reports are vital information to its stakeholders and must be discussed if we are to find solutions and a path forward.
In this new column from the Upper Nehalem Watershed Council, we aim to share such information. Here, every month, we will present findings, work to increase awareness about the health of our watershed, and honestly discuss the challenges we face. We will reach out, in the hope of not only starting these urgent conversations, but in reaching consensus.
 Summary for policymakers of the global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) distributed May 6, 2019
Article originally published in the Vernonia’s Voice issue on 6/6/19.