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Tables for Solutions We Wood Build

February 26th, 2012 by dk

The current flap between the Creswell airport and a skydiving company reminded me of a much smaller struggle I observed up close.

I was serving on a particularly active and visible volunteer committee. The group met twice a month, but had vigorous “reply-all” email conversations between meetings. When a younger man whose real name was not Joe joined the group, we all celebrated the extra diversity he would bring, but soon a problem emerged. He didn’t own a computer.

One of the group’s leaders proposed a new rule. Membership on this committee should be limited to computer owners. Ideals we held about age and economic diversity aside, the rule seemed reasonable. But then somebody asked, “Has anyone talked to Joe?”

Nope. That might be uncomfortable. Joe might take it personally.

Of course the rule was designed to forbid Joe and all the future Joes from joining the group. Why? Well, we wanted diversity, so long as it didn’t require anything from us.

Thank goodness somebody volunteered to go talk to Joe. Joe was told that half our work was being done between meetings and that his lack of an Internet connection was leaving him perpetually behind in every discussion.

But it turned out he did have an Internet connection. He just didn’t have a computer or an email account. Joe agreed to get a free email account and log onto a library computer a couple of times each week. The problem was easily solved, but only after we learned that we had been asking the wrong questions.

We learned we were wrong by sitting down with Joe and explaining our problem. Sitting was the hard part. Solving then came easily.

As this newspaper editorialized last weekend, the Federal Aviation Agency must broker a conversation between the opposing parties over the Creswell controversy. Once they are sitting together, the solution could be surprisingly simple.

The same lesson applies to an even bigger controversy — managing Oregon’s forestland.

Conservationists and timber harvesters don’t agree on much, but both sides complain that the current checkerboard of oversight agencies and allowable uses makes managing Oregon’s forestland especially difficult.

That’s why I especially like Section 216 of the O&C Trust, Conservation, and Jobs Act introduced to Congress last week by Reps. Peter DeFazio, Greg Walden, and Kurt Schraeder. That section explicitly allows — you could say even encourages — land swaps.

The swaps would help each side achieve its goals. Wider swaths of land will be easier to manage, whether it’s for economic or environmental purposes. Governmental oversight will be less costly too.

Those advantages will be overshadowed in the long run by the truly heroic innovation that Section 216 proposes. It’s not the solving. It’s the sitting.

We all want a government that solves problems. Whether it’s making room for skydivers, saving rural counties from bankruptcy, or getting a building permit for a heated workshop, we ought to be able to sit down and discuss the problem.

But that’s not the government we’ve got. It’s as if a clerk took all the agency directives that were marked “Impartial” and mistakenly filed them under “Impervious.” The worst government workers can blithely dismiss any discussion by hiding behind the rules, often adding the gratuitous, “I don’t make the rules. I just enforce ‘em.”

I’ll bet DeFazio, Walden and Schraeder were sitting down when they crafted their proposed legislation. The two Democrats and one Republican have plenty they disagree about, but they found and forged common ground and came up with a solution.

People are especially good at solving problems. Most people sit pretty well too.

Rules happen to be poorly suited to doing either. Rules create as many problems as they solve. And allowing rules to sit around leads to one of two things and neither is good. They either get larger, or they get forgotten.

Section 216 is only 139 words out of a bill that is over 3,200 words long, but it conveys the solution of solutions: bring the interests to the table to talk it through.

We need fewer tabled discussions and more discussion tables. If government finds itself short on tables, I know where they can find the best wood in the world.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.

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