Bypassing Rhetoric and Piercing the Heart

By Katherine Pioli

by Katherine Pioli

Terri Martin tells her story of a shift from fierce environmental defender to advocate for conversations on wilderness.

martinWhen I met Terri Martin at her downtown office, she opened our conversation by asserting that she would not speak for the environmental movement in Utah. Martin is a long-time Utah environmental activist, and although I had been assigned to write a story of Utah environmentalism “then and now,” I felt no desire to argue with this wiry, steely-eyed woman standing before me. There would be no guesstimate, she told me, as to how the number of groups had expanded since her early work in the ’80s. She would not divine how the hot environmental issues would shift in years to come. “I can only speak to my personal story,” she added, with finality.

When I met Terri Martin at her downtown office, she opened our conversation by asserting that she would not speak for the environmental movement in Utah. Martin is a long-time Utah environmental activist, and although I had been assigned to write a story of Utah environmentalism “then and now,” I felt no desire to argue with this wiry, steely-eyed woman standing before me. There would be no guesstimate, she told me, as to how the number of groups had expanded since her early work in the ’80s. She would not divine how the hot environmental issues would shift in years to come. “I can only speak to my personal story,” she added, with finality.

Luckily, Terri Martin’s personal story is inextricably linked with the story of environmentalism in the West. Following the beginnings of her work gives a strong sense of the environmental movement in the ’80s. As her story continues, the challenges faced by that small group of early wilderness defenders, and also the mistakes that they made, come into focus. Finally, following Martin into the present reveals a path of individual discovery through a significant shift in relationship with people and environmental work. Martin’s experience and revelation lead us to one possible future for a sustainable environmental movement, and it all begins with a little girl watching with wonder the wild deer around her California family home.

An environmentalist is born: the journey to Lake Powell

“Growing up in the 1950s in the suburbs of San Francisco, my childhood haunts were acres of apricot orchards filled with deer and rabbit,” she recalls. “To me, they were wild spaces—and from a very young age I always felt most safe, most connected to my imagination and my own potential, in those spaces. I felt the presence of some kind of mystery and something larger than myself.” Martin’s early love for these wild spaces also taught her of the pain created by their loss as, one by one, the trees fell to the bulldozers and to “progress.” “The loss of those places is part of what shaped my life,” says Terri—a life as a passionate activist once reputed as “the best-known, most respected and most feared and despised environmentalist in [the state].”

In 1989, freelance writer Barbara Bannon introduced this “feared and despised environmentalist” to the readers of “Network,” a monthly newsprint magazine for and about Utah women that was popular in the 1980s. In her article, Bannon presented young Martin as a hard, unyielding, intelligent woman—well represented by the accompanying photograph of Terri standing arms folded, eyes and hips squared solid and unflinching towards the camera. “Terri Martin,” Bannon wrote, “not only survives but thrives on constant confrontation.”

This tough girl image wasn’t purely a creation of Bannon’s imagination. Back then, Martin recalls, “You fought for these places with everything you could find. It was a hard scramble to figure out what you could get a hold of. The movement was young and the network much more skeletal.” Environmentalists like Martin went head-on into their work knowing that the fight would be difficult and maybe even a little dirty. Utah in the 1970s and ’80s was not an easy place to defend the environment. Its mountains and deserts were not nearly as well-known as they are today. Places such as Canyonlands had been national parks for little more than a decade, and had far fewer than a million visitors each year. Mining and oil interests, energy development and other corporate interests had their way with the desert, and environmentalists found few friends in Washington.

The strongest card for people like Martin turned out to be the law. If a protection law didn’t exist, they fought to create it. Speaking with Bannon in 1989, Martin said, “The only way to enforce [conservation laws] sometimes or create an avenue [for conservation] is to litigate or threaten to litigate. To solve a problem you have to come in with power.”

These are serious words that would strike fear in the hearts of wilderness opponents. But, as a woman who watched her wild orchards disappear under the bulldozer’s treads, these were sentiments borne out of a fear of loss. “I was a fierce environmentalist,” explains Martin, “driven by a love of this place I had discovered. I wanted to be a voice for its protection.”

When Martin first came to Utah in the summer of 1973, the forces working towards its environmental destruction were staring her in the face. She came as a college student, and took a three-month position as a lifeguard on Lake Powell. Before that summer, Martin knew nothing of the natural landscape of Southern Utah and nothing about Lake Powell’s controversial history. But, a woman of inquisitive mind, Martin quickly found the story of Glen Canyon in her personal research as she prepared for her trip into the desert.

“Before I left Berkeley I found the book ‘Glen Canyon: The place no one knew.’ It was a big picture book of landscape photographs showing Glen Canyon before the river was dammed. I sat on the floor of the bookstore and I was stunned by the exquisite beauty of the place and the story of its loss.

martin“We all enter the landscape in a certain moment and consider it wild and then over time see that wildness diminish. Then another generation comes in and sees it as wild and then sees it even further diminished. I arrived to be a lifeguard on Lake Powell at a time when the lake was still rising at a foot a day and devouring the land. The sage was being drowned and every day we would have to pull our lifeguard chairs back into the desert. It was bizarre. So it was always an interesting relationship with the lake. It is a stunning lake and what it symbolizes was and still is devastating to me.”

The swelling lake was not the only act of destruction that Terri Martin saw that summer. Even as she daily readjusted the placement of her lifeguard chair, she watched on the horizon the steady growth of the Navajo Generating Station. The power station created yet another blight on the pristine desert panorama, and what upset her even more, it contributed nothing to the area’s own needs. All the power, she knew, was California-bound, to the homes of people with no idea of what their consumption was compromising.

“I watched that plant become completed,” Martin recalls, “and belch out sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide and create these plumes across southern Utah I developed in that moment a great sense that someone had to wage a battle against the projects that were being proposed—coal mines, power plants, nuclear waste dumps, road paving projects.”

The wisdom of age: a shift in approach

Martin’s journey continued through various federal agencies—BLM, Forest, Park—and just as many projects. At the time of her interview with Barbara Bannon, Martin was the Rocky Mountain regional representative for the National Parks and Conservation Association (NPCA). She was in the middle of a three-year fight to prevent the paving of the Burr Trail in Utah’s Garfield County. She had just finished fighting a power plant near Hurricane, Utah, and preventing nuclear waste from being dumped just outside the gates of Canyonlands National Park. As she continued her fight for wilderness, however, Martin became gradually less satisfied with her work and less sure of the righteousness of her path.

Meditating on her eventual break from the environmental community and her shifting approach regarding environmental work, Martin recounts an interview she once heard. A woman, a writer in her later 70s, was asked to speak of the wisdom that she had gained during her many years of life. The woman responded, not with a story of her infinite knowledge, but by saying that in her 20s she thought that she knew the truth about certain things. She had found as she progressed in life, however, that she became much less certain of the truth.

For Terri, a similar shift took place as she approached her fourth decade and entered motherhood. In 1996, her daughter four years old, Martin left her job and devoted herself to her child. “I felt burned out playing in those fields of political power. I no longer felt the need to have power over someone,” she says.

So Martin left her work in the environmental community and focused on motherhood. In this period, Martin found her life far less focused on being on the right, true and noble side of a fight, but rather focused on forging bonds of love, respect and a space for open communication. “Becoming a mother,” she says, “changed how I stood in the world.” It was a big wake-up call.

More than just the power of relationship, Martin discovered the power of listening. “I grew up in a family where if you were mad at somebody you fell out of relationship with them, you gave them the old silent treatment. When I had a kid, I realized the abusiveness of that action.” In becoming a mother, Martin was exposed to an element that had always been lacking in her dealings with people on the opposite side of environmental issues. By treating them as a faceless enemy, she had invariably stopped listening to them. “Only after becoming a mother did I realize the power of relationship and the importance of tending to those relationships even through our differences.”

This newfound willingness and ability to listen found application in her adult world when Martin recognized that a dispute among parents in her daughter’s elementary school was growing increasingly divisive. Martin recruited a professional mediator and, with a little guidance, the parents in the class were able to resolve the issue at hand. Martin was so completely blown away by the experience that she began training as a mediator herself, and entered a masters program in communication with an emphasis on conflict resolution.

Her first significant project as a mediator came in 2003 in the midst of the controversy surrounding the sale of a block of Salt Lake’s Main Street to the LDS Church. “I decided if I was going to look at how we hold and work with difference,” says Martin, “that I would start in my own community.” Martin came to the situation after the land had already been sold. The ALCU had already sued the church and won, over an issue of first amendment rights. The church had subsequently won an appeal. The city split down the middle, Mormon against non-Mormon.

In an attempt to solve the divide, then-mayor Rocky Anderson asked his staff to come up with a way to move the community toward more understanding across the religious divide. The final idea proposed a series of dialogues; intimate gatherings between LDS and non-LDS neighbors. Without a set of expectations or a list of guiding questions to work through, the purpose of the dialogues was simply to encourage communication across the divide.

Reflecting on the experience, Martin found that the dialogues, in a friendly home setting, actually worked. “I would say that the process was transformative for a lot of the people involved.”

Moving on from this experience, armed with the tools of empathy, mediation and a listening ear, Martin found herself slowly becoming involved once again with Utah’s environmental community. Two projects in particular—Women Protecting Wilderness and Faith and the Land—led Martin to her current work on behalf of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. Neither project is related to any single environmental issue or campaign. Instead, the goal behind each is to bring diverse and otherwise unconnected groups of Utahns to a space in which they can speak with each other.

“It certainly is idealistic, but what we are attempting to begin is a conversation among people primarily regarding wilderness protection in the state,” Martin says. “When we first gathered to organize these conversations we came to realize that a lot of environmental work is based on the rhetoric of fear and looking at what we are at risk of losing. This negative perspective automatically creates an atmosphere of divisiveness, an ‘us verses them’ mentality. We needed to find a place to begin that was more neutral.”

The Faith and the Land initiative was organized much like the conversation groups created during the Bridges pro
ject in Salt Lake, a series of gatherings organized to attempt to span the religious divide. Martin approached various faith communities and found people willing to host small dialogue groups. The conversation was focused by two questions: “Why is wilderness important to you from a spiritual perspective?” and, “How does your faith tradition call on you to protect the natural world?”

One such meeting in Vernal, Utah, revealed to Martin the true potential of such a project. At this particular meeting a woman came already prepared to defend her rights to the land against the “environmentalists.” Martin remembers, “She made it very clear from the beginning that she did not trust what I was doing and was very against my being there at all.” Martin, however, responded by asking the woman to stay as an observer. She encouraged the woman to listen to the other people’s testimonies of their relationships with the natural world. She also added that if the woman felt moved, she was more than welcome to share her own story.

“When we had gone around the whole circle, we finally got to her she opened up. She talked about the forests near her home in Utah. For generations her family had gone there to hike and camp, so these places became for her a source of serenity, of deep grounding and renewal. She allowed us to hear her fears, that there were too many people in the forest, and that soon there would be too many rules imposed, restricting her access to the place she loved so much. For me, it was such an interesting moment. I told this woman that although we might disagree on the placement of a road or campground, I completely shared with her that passion for the forest.”

It’s moments like these that allow Martin to envision a positive and much more productive future for environmental work. To some extent, the clash of opposing interests and opinions will never end. The democratic process, she assures, will remain very much an active part of deciding how our lands will be used or protected. “It is necessary and inevitable that we will work through our political processes and debate and use legal means to organize and be the most powerful side.” But, she adds that if environmental groups continue to work as she did 30 years ago, with a blinding passion that completely forsakes the opinions of the opposition, then progress will come more slowly and at a greater cost.

As Martin sees it, the point at which a conversation between two sides will become productive is not at the point of compromise, but in finding overlapping interests. “It reminds me of an interview with Obama,” she says, “when he was labeled as a centrist. He quickly corrected that notion, saying that instead of working towards the middle of an issue, he preferred exploring what really mattered to people and then looked for overlapping ground.”

Finding an overlap of opinions seems a good idea in theory. But take the example of the oil and gas leases proposed for Southern Utah. For many people living in small rural towns, these new leases mean work and money for their families. For others, often who only visit the southern desert, it means another industrial footprint on an increasingly smaller piece of Utah wilderness. So how does one begin to find an overlap between these two groups? How does one create a space safe enough to allow each to share their needs and fears?

For Martin, there is one woman who understands this conundrum and offers a viable solution. Martin pulls out a book by Utahn Terry Tempest Williams and reads, “‘How are we to find our way towards conversation? How are we to find ways to speak that opens minds instead of closes them? Story bypasses the rhetoric and pierces the heart.'”

“I find myself rereading Williams a lot these days,” says Martin. Wil­liams’ words, after all, mirror Martin’s own quest and hint at a space in which to find the solution to her questions. “You can disagree with someone’s opinion,” Martin interprets Williams’ words, “but not with their story. Story allows us to meet as human beings instead of enemies.”

When Martin found herself confronted by the woman in Vernal, she had to take a step back from her position as an environmentalist. Martin understood that the woman felt threatened. This woman perceived her very identity to be at stake by the presence of Martin, whom she saw as an outsider, an environmentalist there to impose her values on the town and the surrounding land. Martin’s challenge was to put the woman at ease and invite her personal story into the conversation.

“I was trying to say to her, let’s not fast-forward to a debate about how to manage these lands. Let’s start instead by listening to each other. Why did she love this place? How does she interact with the land? I needed to understand her, and conversely, have her hear my story. After creating that new relationship we might find some overlapping ground. Clearly we are going to have places that we disagree on, but maybe the battle won’t be so ideological.”

Building new relationships, telling new stories

It is an interesting concept for the forward growth of environmentalism. At first it seems to be regressive, or at the very least unproductive. But sharing stories across ideological and political divides, finding that common ground, is a method that is actually taking root in many environmental circles. In southern Utah, two traditional opponents, the Nature Conservancy and multi-generation ranching families, are now working together to save the land that they both value. By talking and discovering their overlapping interest, namely maintaining healthy open space in Utah, these previously uncompromising opponents are finding ways to work together.

In 2005, the Conservancy reported an agreement with five ranchers in southwestern Utah that would allow the Conservancy to purchase conservations easements on their land. The easements would protect the land from development, permit traditional uses of the land to continue, and allow the Conservancy to alter the land management practices to support the wildlife found naturally on the land. The agreement, thus, would allow the rural ranching economy to exist hand-in-hand with long-term protection of the natural environment.

These new partnerships are positive proof that the shift in relationship that Martin advocates, and lives, actually works.

Looking back to 1989, it is surprising to see exactly how much has changed for Martin in reaching this point. One of the sharpest examples of Martin’s personal transformation comes from an interview with her colleague and fellow environmental activist Dick Carter. Carter, founder and coordinator for Utah Wilderness Association, was at the time working alongside Martin to protect the existing Utah wilderness, yet when asked to give his opinion on Martin’s approach to the cause he sounded more like her conservative critics.

“Her tough stand on issues may alienate people,” Carter told Bannon in the 1989 interview. “Sometimes she makes her opponents feel that she is challenging their value systems and causes them to feel threatened.”

Thirty years later, after tiring of the political power struggle, after becoming a mother, learning the power of listening and realizing the value of everyone’s experience, everyone’s story, Martin finally realizes that her critics had a valid point. “I find [Barbara’s article] so interesting now,” she says with a surprised little laugh. “Some people were very critical of me and I can finally see where they were coming from—I was missing some things.”

What she was missing might have just been a little bit of maternal instinct in an often testosterone fueled environmental war. “I see now that my work overlaps with an ethic of care. And much of what I am doing comes out of a woman’s experience. Suddenly from the role that women traditionally play as mothers springs this idea that you have to heed relationships and take care of them if you are going to take care of the things that you love, even when those relationships involve people you disagree with.”

So with these words of hard-won wisdom in mind, let’s move forward with open hearts and open ears. Let’s strive to protect our wild and open spaces but allow space for everyone in the conversation.

Katherine Pioli is a CATALYST staff writer and U.S. Forest Service fire fighter.

This article was originally published on November 30, 2009.