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Cooperation for sustainable development in the lower Columbia River Basin

(Local Agenda 21 Processes A)


ISSUES: Urbanization, Agricultural and Forest Practices, Fisheries Practices, Economic Development and Navigation


GOALS: Create a community-based political counterpoint to a proposal from United States Corps of Engineers to dredge the Columbia River channel from the Pacific Ocean to the Port of Portland, Oregon.

Build upon this issue specific coalition to create an ongoing bi-State local community involvement strategy toward sustainable development of the lower Columbia River basin.


PARTICIPATING STAKEHOLDERS: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Sustainable Communities through the consultancy Sustainable Strategies & Solutions, Inc., the City of Astoria, Oregon, Port of Astoria, Astoria News, a variety of local governments from both Washington State and Oregon, including port districts, cities, counties, water districts, forestry districts, etc., regional environmental NGO’s, chambers of commerce, and the Governors offices from both Washington and Oregon.


TIME FRAME: Ongoing, beginning in mid-1999.


MSP CONTACT DETAILS; PUBLICATIONS; URL: Gary Lawrence, Sustainable Strategies and Solutions, Inc. Email: jgarylawrence1@home.com



Type: Informing, defining processes

Level: Involved national, state, regional (counties) and local; coastal communities on both shores of the final 150 miles of the Columbia River. Needed to bring together a variety of data centres and plans.


Procedural Aspects:

Designing the MSP

Process in which broader outreach was to be accomplished was designed by team representing City of Astoria, representatives of local economic development organizations, and regional environmental NGO’s with assistance from NOAA provided consultant.

Advice was solicited from media, League of Women Voters, and political party organizations.


Identifying the issues to be addressed in an MSP

The catalysing issue, dredging of the Columbia River channel, was proposed by the Port of Portland, agricultural interests in eastern Washington & Oregon, Idaho and Montana in conjunction with the US Corps of Engineers.

A great oversimplification of the core issue was that it was a fight for survival pitting fisheries interests against agricultural interests.


Identifying relevant stakeholders

Some of the relevant stakeholders—local and state governments—were obvious. Many of the environmental and business stakeholders were identified through their participation in litigation and public information campaigns. Community organizations such as churches, welfare organizations and social clubs were identified through consultation local newspaper and radio reporters.

There is a continuing attempt to broaden the stakeholders to include urban constituencies in major media markets.


Identifying MSP participants

It was left to each organization to choose their representative. Smaller organizations were offered assistance in organizing local meetings in case they wanted to appoint shared representatives. When particular participants, by personality or history, were perceived by other organizations to be barriers to progress, the consultant was asked to work with the organization to find a different representative.

It was important that stakeholders points of view would be objectively considered, and some representatives had histories that made hearing their points of view difficult.


Setting the goals of an MSP

Goals were proposed by the instigating group (NOAA, Astoria, Columbia River Watershed Alliance) and changed or adjusted at the first and second organizing meeting. The group tried to function as a consensus organization, though “mission creep”, a gradual broadening of goals, was resisted in order to keep scarce resources and limited energy focused on initial priorities.

Participants were encouraged to check back with their constituents regularly.

Some participants did not work well with their own constituents, and this was a problem. Also, some attempted to exercise veto power at critical junctures by declaring a need to check back even after there had been ample opportunity to get direction earlier.


Setting the agenda

For the initial issue, proposals to dredge, the agenda and timelines were determined by the Corps of Engineers submission of an application for review under the US National Environmental Policy Act. There is ample time under the review calendar of NEPA for those who follow the processes closely to check back if communications channels and communication coordination is established within the organization up front. A loosely run system in which reviewers feel no time pressure will not work.

After failure to agree upon clear, outcome related goals, poor information management that does not establish personal responsibility or take into account different learning styles, is a fundamental barrier to success.


Setting the time-table

The timetable was established by the initiating partners — Astoria, et al., to insure compliance with the legislatively established project review and comment requirements. Even the timeline for legal appeals is covered in NEPA.

It is often the case that stakeholder processes must be compressed in order to comply with legislatively mandated time limits, as frustrating as that can sometimes be.


Preparatory process

The more formal dialogue (newsletters, etc.) was prepared by a consultant that listened to the informal dialogue within and among stakeholder groups and then fed back to the groups, in non-jargon form, what it was that he thought he heard were the important issues. The stakeholders group did some editing and then approved the effort.

Comment: To my knowledge, there is no program to monitor for either faithfulness to the agreed dialogue or the effectiveness of the dialogue in educating the public.

It is always a struggle when specific interests are trying to act like a group. Priorities, language, the need to satisfy constituencies, etc., result in a lot of “word-smithing” and, if one is not careful, render the dialogue meaningless.


Communication process

Within the smaller communities involved, communication is mostly face-to-face or through small, informal meetings.  In the larger communities, and in the larger interest groups, the communication takes place through meetings, newsletters, and telephone.

There are significant differences in power. Federal and State governments have information, access, and staying power unavailable to community organizations. The private sector has the ability to take their decisions more quickly and in private contrary to the public meeting requirements of local government. The community organizations have the advantage of a “presumption of good intentions” that makes it easy to put in question the statements and findings of government. In this case, the local governments, community organizations and local media are all in attune so that the can present forceful arguments through public media to individuals who count upon the local constituency for re-election. The local communities, in this case, also have an advantage of federal and local law and regulation that gives them standing in court when the legal process starts.

Populism is the predominant political ethic in the Pacific Northwest part of the US. Laws codify the rights of individuals to participate in governmental decision-making, and the public almost always brings the power of public media to their side. This tends to reduce the willingness of elected officials to over-use their statutory authority.  Community organizations, especially through environmental laws, can often stop or modify projects through their power to slow things down while, with the support of media, taking the “moral high-ground.”


Decision-making process: procedures of agreement

The efforts started by Astoria, et al., are intended, first, to reach agreement among other compatible stakeholders so that no agreement is possible with the proposal to dredge the river channel. A steering committee of stakeholders is responsible for this area.


Implementation process

Not applicable at this time


Closing the MSP

It is likely that, as a result of lawsuits and legal appeals, elections, etc., a final decision to dredge or not-dredge based upon the current application will take a few years. Then, if the decision is to not dredge, the issue will come up again in a decade or so and the entire process will start over.  Decisions to not do something are almost always revisited.

Ultimately, the advantage goes to those organizations that have staying-power.


Structural Aspects:

Structures / institutions of the MSP

The stakeholders group has not formulated as a legal organization. This effort is ad hoc and built upon a fragile trust rather than bi-laws.



Two members of the Astoria City Council facilitate the process. City Council-members are elected to serve part-time on the assumption that their income will come from full-time jobs in the community.  One member is Director of an environmental stakeholder and another is involved with a local economic development organization. The use City of Astoria staff for meeting arrangement, mailings, etc.

A very common practice in the Pacific Northwest of the US.



The minutes from meeting are taken by different stakeholders on a rotating basis. Publications are produced by one of the local governments on a rotating basis.

Comment: I think it important that every stakeholder has an opportunity to be the recorder of decisions-taken.


 Relating to not-participating stakeholders

Other stakeholder know about the process. The stakeholders are all trying to extend their constituencies through this process. Most of the formal outreach comes through the editorial page of the regional newspaper and through solicitation of comments at public meetings. A more formal outreach process in a time-limited process with ad hoc stakeholder collaborations is difficult. In this particular case, the applicants for permission to dredge are required by law to have public meetings and public written comment periods. They are also required to record public comments and their responses. Ultimately, all of this is included as information for review if and when the project review moves to the Courts.

Comment: As always, the right to be heard does not result in any obligation to be heeded. The comments need to expose flaws in the environmental findings and proposed mitigation.


Relating to the general public

Only what the newspaper and radio chooses to cover, statements recorded in public meetings, reports from meetings and word of mouth, is available to the public. Information is being provided by all of the stakeholders working off of an agreed upon focus document. There is no controlled comment requirement.


Linkage into official decision-making process

This entire MSP is driven by the notion that there is strength in collaboration when providing opposing views in a formal National Environmental Policy Act process. The US Army Corp of Engineers is the project applicant along with freight, aluminium and agricultural interests who see the river as means transport that gives the products a competitive cost advantage. Law prescribes formal input mechanisms. Informal mechanisms, designed to affect the weighting that decision-makers give environmental considerations vs. economic interests. The formal mechanisms are completely transparent. Informal mechanisms are as transparent as either party cares to make them or as transparent as the media can make them.



Funding comes from each stakeholder in support of that stakeholder’s participation. In this case, local governments are subsidizing the participation of community-based organizations by paying for meeting rooms, supplying facilitators, and producing publications.

Comment: Unless there is some cost loading on organizations with taxing power and resources in place, most small NGO’s will get left-out.


[ information gathered as of 16 February 2001 ]


Contact Minu Hemmati and Felix Dodds for further information.