From the July 2006 Idaho Observer:

Lessons learned from 11th hour failure to protect lake

Last month we described how a diverse group of locals came together in an attempt to prevent Bonner county from beginning the process of dumping $1.6 million (400,000 gallons) of toxic chemicals into Lake Pend Oreille to control Eurasian watermilfoil (EWM).

This month we must sadly report that the dumping began July 10. The excellent work of an impromptu research committee, which formed under a hurriedly-organized group that named itself "Citizens for Sustainable Solutions (CSS)," presented viable mechanical and biological (nontoxic) EWM control options that were completely ignored by the county and poisoning began on schedule July 10, 2006.

The lessons learned in this failed effort are many and can be applied to other efforts to avert a wide variety of local disasters.

Public notice

Plans to develop an EWM "eradication" program were announced in 2002. Since 2002, many meetings have been held. They are public and notices were posted at the courthouse and published in the local newspaper. That we did not hear about the planned poisoning until February, 2006, and act on it until June is not the fault of the county. The fault lies with us for not taking notice and then expanding awareness of that notice so that a more diverse representation of the community would attend to ensure that a full-spectrum of issues, concerns and alternatives would be discussed. As it stands, in this instance and thousands of instances across the nation, those who make a living feasting at the public trough never miss a meeting and, therefore, their interests are well-represented. It is our responsibility to receive notice, communicate notice to others and attend meetings so that our interests are also represented and discussed. When our voices are heard in public meetings, reporters covering the meetings for the local newspaper will quote us in their articles, helping the reading public to become aware of issues that would otherwise be unreported in our absence.

Public awareness

Most people are completely unaware when their city or county is planning some ill-advised program. Further, if they are aware of controversial local issues because they read the local newspaper, they are not provided with ample data to arrive at qualified opinions on the subjects in question. This dynamic, coupled with the great American pastime of forming strong armchair opinions without actually participating in civil process, causes the majority to believe whatever they are told—which is commonly not in their best interests. Since officials quoted in the local newspaper generally misinform the public, we must take it upon ourselves to educate our neighbors. Every group that forms to oppose a bad plan or contribute to the development of a good plan must develop and implement a creative public awareness campaign. We know that "they" do not want "us" at their meetings and that they WILL ignore our input—unless we are able to generate considerable public awareness and support. Sponsoring public meetings with interesting and qualified guest speakers, organizing letter writing campaigns, passing out quality literature, posting flyers on community bulletin boards, reporting events as they develop through phone trees or email lists and always (ALWAYS) being polite and respectful in our interactions with the public and public officials will all work in concert to raise public awareness. If you can get the local newspaper editor interested in the cause and convince him personally that yours is the right position can be a helpful, albeit difficult mission to accomplish in many cases.

Functionaries in government

Most ill-advised programs are lobbied for by private parties who know how to manipulate public officials into using the authority of their offices so everyone involved can profit personally at the public’s expense. Part of their "charm" is to fill the minds of public officers with beliefs that their way is the right way and alternatives are the wrong way. In this manner, public officials are encouraged to remain ignorant of the big picture. In the case of poisoning Lake Pend Oreille, Bonner County Public Works Director Leslie Marshall was able to publicly deny that 2,4-D (one of the chemicals to be dumped in the lake) was half the chemical compound known as "Agent Orange." The other product to be dumped into the lake is Sonar, which is 5 percent active ingredient fluridone and 95 percent "inert ingredients." When asked, Marshall had no idea what comprised the unidentified 95 percent of Sonar being dumped into the lake. The county commissioners were equally ignorant and passed the buck to Marshall. It was apparent that her office was used to sign off on poisoning the lake and that the decision disturbs her greatly because, now that it had become too late to change direction, she is being shown the likely repercussions of chemically-treating the EWM problem and the viability of nontoxic alternatives. On the rainy, windy, thunder and lightening morning of July 10, 2006, Marshall was genuine when she encouraged us to be heard at meetings and educate the public as to the broader range of issues associated with poisoning the lake to control EWM. By the way, it is against the manufacturer’s recommendations to apply these chemicals in wind or rain.

Frustrated activism

Lobbyists and their politicians/public officials (the bureaucracy) are faster to recognize the likelihood that an organization will arise to threaten their interests in an issue than an organization itself. With that in mind, an organization must recognize that it’s ranks may be infiltrated and its mission derailed. Experience has taught the bureaucracy (and it should also teach us) that a few disappointments and a couple months time is all that is needed to effectively frustrate and silence organized opposition. The math is simple: The bureaucracy is well-paid and budgeted to promote its interests and those who oppose them are almost always volunteers who must take up collections amongst themselves to finance their activities. While wages, salaries and agency budgets indefinitely sustain the efforts of the bureaucracy, volunteers find it very difficult to sustain their opposition over the months, even years, that may be necessary to successfully oppose bad plans. By frustrating volunteer efforts with infiltrators, a few defeats, a few negative articles in local newspapers and long, patient bureaucratic/legal processes, the bureaucracy almost always manages to neutralize volunteers who organize to oppose them.

Effective activism

To be effective, we must, at the onset, recognize comments made above—that all volunteer, community service organizations will likely be infiltrated and that the bureaucracy will endeavor to wear them down physically, emotionally and financially. In the case of our failure to prevent the poisoning of our lake—this year—we must begin looking to next year. That means we will have to sustain ourselves through to next spring. So, for the next several months we will be attending meetings, raising public awareness through educational literature and sponsoring our own public meetings, raising money, expanding our ranks with informed members and being "at the table" next year—with considerably more public support behind us—when decisions to control the EWM problem are made.

Never lose sight of your goals

In the 1980s, Paddy Doherty of Derry, Ireland, decided to take the guns, explosives, rocks and sticks out of the hands of the Catholic children fighting the British alongside the IRA and replaced them with saws and hammers. He put them to work bringing the bombed out buildings of their town "back to life." The project is ongoing to this day and Paddy, at 80 years old with a true twinkle in his eye, has learned many lessons from his experiences. A central lesson he stated, emphatically, several times at a conference in Austria: "As a group, identify your goals and never, never lose sight of them." This is, perhaps, the most important point for all groups that form to right something that is wrong. It is often easier to compromise than to stay the course of your goals. But, the moment you compromise, you exit the arena of activism and enter the arena of politics. When volunteer citizen activists enter the arena of politics believing their group goals will eventually be reached, it is like believing your town’s high school baseball team can win in the major leagues.

How to organize and win every time

Most citizen opposition in contemporary America results from public policies of the various levels of governments (or government support and/or participation in unpopular private/business/industrial activities). Government agencies rarely find fault with other government agencies. Government courts rarely rule against government agencies in civil or criminal court proceedings. Local newspapers’ editorial "objectivity" generally favors governments on most issues (unless public pressure from the public and advertisers compel them otherwise). The only avenue remaining for dedicated, well-intended, corporate-neutral volunteer activists is to earn popular support. If we are right about our cause, then our energies are most appropriately spent educating those affected by whatever we are trying to change. Without popular support, politicians, courts and the media can ignore us; with popular support everything becomes possible.

Note: A couple of activists in our ranks have just spared at least two areas scheduled to be poisoned with 2,4-D. Persistence paid off and now we have federal agencies telling the county not to poison federally-protected areas.

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