Orton, Mary Oral History Interview
Mary, please start by telling us your name, the positions that you have held in the adaptive management program, and the years in which you participated.
My name is Mary Orton. I started out being connected with the program by supervising the AMWG [Adaptive Management Work Group] and TWG [Technical Work Group] member from–when I was the Southwest Regional Director of American Rivers. So we were one of two environmental organizations that was [sic] representing the entirety of the environmental community on the adaptive management program, both on the Adaptive Management Work Group and the Technical Work Group, the AMWG and the TWG. Yeah. So, we had one person who served as the AMWG and the TWG member, so the policy person and the technical person. And I was her supervisor when I became Southwest Regional Director, so that, that was in 1997. And so I–began then, twenty years ago, how about that? And then, eventually, that woman, Pam Hyde, left our employ and I became the AMWG member.
And that was probably in late 1998, early 1999 that I actually became the AMWG member, and then another one of our employees became the Technical Work Group, the TWG, member. So, by the end of 1999, I had left American Rivers and had been, so–I had no technical background when I arrived at American Rivers, and the adaptive management program is a highly technical program. And I knew nothing when I arrived at American Rivers. I had been running a homeless shelter for twelve years. So, you know, I knew how to raise money, I knew how to run an organization, but I did not know much about how rivers worked. And, I love the Grand Canyon. I had hiked and floated and done all kinds of things, but you know, really didn’t know the science side. So, it was a huge learning curve for me. And when I became the AMWG member, I actually be–my first AMWG meeting was a river trip through the Grand Canyon because, so if you think back in the early history, the group had been formed really just a few years before, and had done a big artificial flood through the Grand Canyon.
I think that back then they called it a Beach Habitat Building Flow and–or BHBF–so they had done that. And remember that on this group you have all the folks who have been managing the river and managing the dam traditionally for decades since the sixties, and then you have the folks who are newly to the idea of running–being part of the policy of running this, this dam and managing this ecosystem. So you have the tribes and the environmental organizations and the recreational representatives and, and so on. So you have the states and the hydropower folks who had been around forever doing it the way they thought best, right? And then you have these new people coming in thinking they had some better ideas. And under–this was under the Clinton administration, Bruce Babbitt was Secretary of the Interior, and under the Grand Canyon Protection Act, which was a John McCain bill that became law, uh, the Bureau of Reclamation is to consult with all these different communities now in the running of the dam.
And so Babbitt put together this Federal Advisory Committee. He was interested in: what can all of these different people agree to? You know, is there anything that what you’d call, you know, water buffaloes, you know, the folks who had been around forever, really knew their stuff and knew how to run the system in the way that was going to benefit their constituents, and then all these new constituents coming in, can they agree to something? So it was consensus-based even back then. And so by the time I came around, they had had the one big flood, and at that point it seemed like the folks who had been around a long time said, were saying, “Okay, that’s enough. We’ve had this experiment. Right? And that’s good.” And, but other folks were saying, “Wait a minute, no, we’re not done. We want to do more.”
And so by the time I got there, there was quite a bit of conflict in the group. And the Bureau of Reclamation put everyone on the river. This is really quite smart, I thought, um, first of all, putting people on the river so you can actually see what you’re talking about. And secondly, the goal of this river trip, which was about a week long as I recall, the goal was to come up with a shared vision–a shared vision. What are we looking for here? What are we, what can we all agree that we want as a result of this program? No facilitator, the group had never had a facilitator. This was my first meeting. I really couldn’t contribute much because, although I had been the supervisor of the AMWG and TWG member for a while, I didn’t know the details so well. So, and the other complication was I couldn’t make the first part of the trip, because I was actually on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
So, so I come in, hike down, meet the group at Phantom, and, or Pipe Creek, wherever it was, and–get introduced to people. I mean, I didn’t know anyone. I, maybe I knew one person from, you know, just previous life, not from this program. I mean, I’m even shaking hands with the other environmental person because I just didn’t know anyone. And–so they had been on the river by that time for maybe three days, and they had spent the first couple of days getting acclimated, learning about the program. You know, the scientists were pointing things out. And then–that day, so there were three big J-boats, three big motorized boats. One of the boats was designated the Vision Boat, and the people on that boat, that day, were going to start writing the vision together. And so I hike down, I get, you know, midday, I’m not on the Vision Boat of course, because they, you know, they’ve been working all day, and I get on the other one and we truck down the river a little bit longer, and then set up camp. And then that night the Vision Boat is going to present us with what they had come up with.
So, in addition to representatives from most, if not all, of the AMWG organizations, the adaptive management program organizations, and the, and the scientists and so on, there’s also a–I think he was an Assistant Secretary of the Interior at the time. Forgotten his name–but, he was the big, the big Kahuna, you know, this is someone who’s appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, and so this is, he’s a big deal. Everyone’s deferring to him. And, so we sit around after dinner, got the tiki lamps going, they’ve got big pieces of plywood stuck in the sand with flip chart paper taped to them, and they’ve got their language that they’re proposing. And they, you know, share their language, and then they asked for feedback and everyone’s kind of quiet. And, you know, again, I don’t know anyone, nobody knows me.
I raised my hand and I said, “You know, that’s really great language, but that’s not a vision. That’s a mission. That’s a mission statement.” So remember, I had been running a nonprofit for over a decade, you know, vision, mission, goals, objectives, this was all very familiar to me. Not so familiar to most of the other people. So everybody’s looking at me very quizzically. And so I explained, you know, a vision is what you want to see, vision, what do you want to see in the future? What’s the result of your work? What, what do you want to have at the end of the day? Mission is what you do. It’s all about what you do, and then from that flows goals and objectives. And for me, this is like elementary school, but everybody’s going, “Ooh!” You know, so it just wasn’t part of their experience. But what really made the difference at that point was the Assistant Secretary turned to me and said, “She’s right.”
So all of a sudden, here’s this person who nobody knows, no one has any reason to trust, but the Assistant Secretary says, “She’s right.” I had instant credibility (laughter). I told him later that if he hadn’t been there, he hadn’t said that, my whole life might’ve turned out differently, but–so they–we talked about that and discussed it, because it really was great mission, it was great mission language, but it wasn’t really great vision language. So by the end of that evening, they asked me to facilitate the Vision Boat the next day. And I knew a little bit about facilitation. I had one technique that my mentor had taught me and I had used it quite a bit. I was chair of the program committee of the board of the homeless shelter before I became the Executive Director, so I had led them through the vision and mission and goals and objectives development process.
So I knew a little bit about how to do that. So I was, and I was happy to have that role because I couldn’t really contribute too much on the substantive side. So it worked out really well. By the end of the trip, there was a consensus combined vision and mission statement on the part of everyone who was on the river. And–however, because this is a Federal Advisory Committee, the group couldn’t take action away from the public, so all of us had to come back. And so then they asked me to run that part of the meeting. And, thanks to Larry Stevens, who took excellent notes on every, every aspect of that first trip, and he shared–which he then shared with me, I developed a presentation for that meeting that showed how every single person on that river trip actually contributed to the consensus language.
And they had set aside four hours for the discussion and they approved it, without changing a comma, in forty-five minutes. So that was amazing. I mean, that was probably the–you know–well, of course I hadn’t been around so much before, but that was an–for that group at that time, which was in conflict, it was, it was a pretty amazing feat to have that level of congruity and consensus.
Has the vision and mission statement changed since then?
It’s still the same. Wow.
It has not changed. I’m not saying it shouldn’t have changed, just saying it hasn’t changed. This is not a group that really likes process. So, you know, once they’re done with it, they’re done with it and, you know, so that’s been one of my challenges over the years. So anyway, to make what’s turned into somewhat a long story a little bit shorter, the–they asked me, after that, which was viewed as quite a success, they asked me to chair the strategic planning committee as a member of the AMWG. And so I asked that the other environmental person be on the committee so that I could really–because I didn’t really know, again, I wasn’t that familiar with all the details, so it allowed me to be more of a facilitator. Over the course of that year, then, I would facilitate parts of the meeting that would come up with the–the AMWG meetings, that, where the strategic plan was addressed. Anyway, so they’re beginning to see me as a facilitator, right? This group never had had one. And then when I left American Rivers at the end of the year, the Secretary’s designee at the time offered me a contract to continue as a facilitator.
What year was that?
That was the end of 1999. So my contract, I think, started on–November 15 or something. So I went out and got some facilitation training (laughs) since I, you know, I knew a little bit, but not a whole lot. And then about six months later, I realized that the group really was in conflict, and what I was doing was probably closer to mediation than facilitation. So I went and got some mediation training and eventually ended up with a master’s degree in conflict resolution with an emphasis on environmental conflict resolution, and ever since the end of 1999, this is what I’ve been doing for a living. So–I knew nothing back then, including how, in some ways, it was a little inappropriate for a stakeholder, who had a point of view, presumably, to become the neutral facilitator. I mean, that would be a little hard to take if–for folks who didn’t agree with whatever that point of view was at the beginning, right?13
So that’s been a bit of a challenge for the group, and I can understand that, but I think over the years–of course, I still disclose to clients, prospective clients, that I worked for American Rivers for a couple of years, but it was two, you know, two years. So it wasn’t very long. But, it seems to have worked out pretty well. So that’s how I became the facilitator, mediator, and–I will also say, interestingly enough, this was the first river trip that the group took, the first time this whole group was on the river and there are quite a few tribes who participate in this group. And on the second day, I wasn’t on the river yet, but apparently on the second day, the tribes approached the trip leader and said, “This is a very sacred place for us, and we really need to be asking permission to be here every morning, and we’d like to be able to pray if we could.”
And so the–the trip leader was the then-head of the Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center, who is a devout Jew. And he agreed, even though this was a government sponsored trip. So every morning a different tribal member led the full group, as much as they wanted to, in a prayer. So it was fascinating to me, because it’s always, that place has always been a very spiritual place for me as well. And remember, I had just come from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. So it was, it was like a continuation of this pilgrimage. And in fact, part of the–the word “spiritual” actually ended up in the vision-mission statement, which is pretty unusual, again, for a government group.
Has your position as facilitator-mediator, changed over the years since 1999 when you first got that position?
I’m not sure that it’s changed in terms of–expectations from me. (Long pause.) It has certainly changed in the execution, as I learned more about what it was I was supposed to be doing as a facilitator and mediator. And the name has changed on my contract. Originally, I think it was “facilitator-slash-mediator” and now it’s “facilitator.” But I’m, I don’t think there’s any significance to that. I think it’s just the contracting vehicle.
Can you tell us a little bit about what you do as facilitator? What does the job entail?
So probably the least interesting part is that I help create the–I pull together the planning team, which involves the TWG leadership–the Technical Work Group leadership–the AMWG leadership, Bureau of Reclamation, whoever’s in Washington who cares about this, and I, I’m the one who sends out the Doodle poll to set a date to start planning this. We–we send out, we make sure that that someone has sent out a request to the entire group for agenda items, we look at everything that comes in, we put together an agenda, we make sure the Secretary’s designee is okay with the agenda. And then, I work with everyone who’s on the agenda to develop some kind of paperwork for each agenda item that gets sent out in advance to everyone, so that they can be prepared for the meeting.
What are you going to say? How are, you know, what’s the name of the agenda item? What’s been, what do you want, is this just an information sharing, do you want feedback, is there an action item? You know, and then, here’s the back, here’s what you need to know about this agenda item so you’re prepared to do whatever you need to do at the meeting. All that goes out a couple of weeks before the meeting. That’s a huge job and it needs to be done well, and it–and so, I think we do a pretty good job on that. And then, as issues arise that look like they might be contentious at the meeting–which happens–then, I work with–say someone’s, let’s say someone has proposed a motion that is going to be difficult for some people to agree to. So this is a consensus-based collaborative pro–uh, program, by their, if you look at their operating procedures, they are expected to try to come to consensus.
They do have a voting mechanism if possible, but the consensus is first. So what a consensus process means is that, I may want x, but if other people can’t live with x, could I live with x minus y? Maybe I could. You know, so there’s a little bit of give and take. What do you need to be able to support this concept? What’s really important to me as the proposer of the motion? Of course, I’m–I would never propose a motion, obviously, I’m not a member, but, you know, I work with the folks who propose the motion, I encourage them to reach out to other people. I even sometimes, if they want me to, I will shop the, their language around and see what, um, what changes might need to be made in order for it to be a consensus decision. But it’s really better if they do it themselves, because then they really learn how to do that.
We’ve got the–coming up actually this week, there’s a meeting, someone proposed a motion at, kind of at the last minute, right near the deadline for proposing motions. It had some language in it that wasn’t going to be supported by some of the stakeholders. They shopped it around, they’re, they’re going to make changes to it and maybe it’ll turn out to be something that everyone can support. So, I do that kind of thing before the meeting, if I know what’s coming, if I know that something’s coming. I can also do it during the meeting. We have a habit now, because these are two-day meetings, we have a habit now of putting all the action items on the first day so that if they, if there is a problem, then the chair can say, “Okay, well you made the mo–you proposed the motion, so you and you and you and you–all the people who seem to really care–you get together over lunch or over dinner or overnight and come back to us with something that you think everyone can agree to.”
So tasking a small group to, to work together on language, and then often, whether I’m invited or not, I will often show up and say, “Do you need some help?” Right? Because those kinds of things are not always easy to do. So, um, so that is a lot of what I do. I also, over the years, have been able to institute certain–hmm, protocols, or norms, that make that easier. For example, when we first started, we didn’t have that packet of information in advance. And in fact, I remember one day, the number two person at the science center finished his presentation, we’re moving onto the next item, and he comes up to me and he says, “I needed action! I needed them to say yes, no, or, you know, or something.” And I had, I had no idea. So if I didn’t have any idea, you know, no one had any idea. So then I thought, wait a minute, that’s–we need to fix this. So now, that’s when I created what we call the agenda item form, which includes at the very top, right under the title, what’s expected: do you want, do you have–is it an action item, do you just want feedback? Is it just, you know, information and then Q and A? So, so those kinds of things. And then now, we have a deadline for submitting a motion. If you–you can submit a motion at the meeting, but the whole group has to vote to take up that motion.
If you send it in in advance, then almost by default it is on the agenda, unless there is some real problem with it and you can get talked out of putting it on the agenda. But, so those kinds of things make it easier to, I would say, have less contentiousness at the meeting and more productivity at the meeting. So those–so you had asked, “What do I do?” Those are a couple of the things I do. After the meeting, I don’t write the minutes, but I review them and make sure that they’re written well, which they, they are. Um, so that’s not a problem. But that’s pretty typical for a mediator-facilitator to have the last word on the, on the minutes, so that they’re written in a neutral way. And then anything that comes up between meetings, if there’s some contentiousness. I’ve even mediated one-on-one between people like, you know, say two people in the program who just couldn’t stand even to be in the same room together. I’ve said, “Let’s try and work this out. Neither of you is going away, you know, let–what, what can we do about this?” You know, and just, it–of course, mediation is always a voluntary process. So it has–they have to agree. But that’s, that’s over the last, what is it now, seventeen years? A little bit of everything.
So Mary, you’ve been involved since at least 1999. That’s about seventeen years. And you’ve probably seen the program evolve through some stages or significant changes. Can you talk a little bit about which changes that you think are significant in that period that you’ve been involved?
When I first got involved deeply in 1999–as I recounted earlier, there were valid policy and management differences among group members. And for some reason, since I wasn’t there to see it evolve and I can’t really say why, for some reason that had devolved into some really (pause) negative personal interactions, particularly on the Technical Work Group, on the TWG. Almost name-calling. Ad hominem attacks. Really unproductive kinds of communication. And over the years, that has re–and, and even, there were some periods of time on the AMWG, the policy group, the Adaptive Management Work Group, there had been times when there were very, very difficult interpersonal conflicts there. People who seemed to sometimes, uh, enjoy (pause) stirring things up, or saying things that would be seen as pretty controversial. And not, not just to say, “Hey, we need to talk about this and work this through.” But it seemed, to me, that sometimes it was just to rile other people up. So that has really changed over the years, and I think part of it has been that people, some people moved on.
Part of it has been a change in leadership. I know that there was a Bush appointee who really, who talked very (pause) frankly to the Interior agencies about infighting among them. And then we had a, an Obama appointee, Anne Castle, who was the chair of the group for almost eight years, who had been the managing partner at a law firm, which has some similarities (laughs) where you have to, you know, acknowledge everyone’s point of view, and also encourage people to move together in a direction. And she was, she was masterful, and really helped people acknowledge differences. Not, not gloss over them, because that’s not the point. But to acknowledge them, bring them out in the open, be able to talk about them well, agree to disagree sometimes, but also find ways to agree. So, I’d say that’s one of the big changes.
Over the years too, when I first started, I think probably because the Secretary’s designee, um, was often in the early years, not an Assistant Secretary of the Interior, but a senior person within Bureau of Reclamation, which almost always meant an engineer, who are not always the best people when it comes to process. It’s just not part of their training, often. Not always, of course. But, so even though the operating procedures, as far as I know, always said this is a consensus based group, but if you can’t reach consensus, then you can go to a vote and then it’s a supermajority vote of some kind. That number, the percent has changed over the years. But what, what would happen in practice is that the issue would come up, discussion would start, there’d be disagreement, they’d go to a vote (laughter). So–because they didn’t really know how, as a group or as the leadership, they didn’t really know how to help a group move toward consensus. It’s not necessarily something any of us is taught.
So over the years, even though it’s very hard when a group has a history of several years and then somebody new comes in and says, “Wait a minute, you’re, it says consensus here, shall we? Do you want to try to get–well that’s, wait a minute, that sounds kind of scary. I don’t know what that looks like.” So, over the years, eventually there was a Secretary’s designee–and again, at this point we are at the Secretary’s de–with the Secretary’s designee being the Assistant Secretary–eventually there was one who understood the value of consensus, because you remember–back, Bruce Babbitt, at the very beginning, he wanted to know what everyone could agree to. Is there something,–maybe there’s nothing–on a particular issue? That’s okay, that’s information for the Secretary, right? That’s very good information. They don’t agree on this. But if everyone in this incredibly diverse group, if everyone can agree, then that’s really important information for the Secretary too, right? So eventually, we got a Secretary’s designee who, I think, understood a little bit about the value of consensus and was willing to, to try it. And so now–
Who was that?
That was Limbaugh, I’ve forgotten his first name [Mark]. This was a Bush appointee. And, if you look back, at one point I was–look, I was going to write a paper about this for my master’s program, but if you look at the number of votes versus consensus items over the years under his leadership, then you start seeing many, many, many more consensus. And these days, I wouldn’t say it’s 100%, nor should it be. You know, there are times when it’s important not to agree. Right? And we, I never in any group, I would never say, I would never promise consensus to my client and I would never really push people to consensus when they had honest disagreements. But maybe you can, you can disagree. You know, if you have a motion that’s this big, maybe you disagree on that part, so let’s get that out of the motion and let’s say, “This is it.” And then the minutes can reflect that that piece people didn’t agree to, but this piece they did. So that–again, what’s useful information for the Secretary? The point of this program is to give recommendations to the Secretary on the management of the dam and other–dam operations and non-dam operations suggestions for the purpose of the Grand Canyon Protection Act. So what can people agree to? So that’s been a, that was a major change, moving from voting to (pause) to consensus. Also extremely contentious to much more collegial.
And then I would say the third thing that, at least from the process standpoint, obviously there’s many more policy and science changes that happen, but I’m going to focus on the process since that’s my area. I would say from really disorganized to much more organized. Being organized is one of my superpowers, so when I start working with a group, that’s something that I really work on. You know, can–do we have consistent protocols? Do we have consistent norms? Do people know what to expect? Are people always asked in advance what agenda items they want on the agenda? Because that’s part of your operating procedures, so you’ve got to make sure that happens, that kind of thing. So those would be three main areas, I would say, of changes.
Great. Were there any external events that happened during your tenure that had a significant impact on the functioning or the direction of AMWG and the issues that it addressed?
Sure. Every time there’s a change in administration, we have a change in Secretary of the Interior and we have a change in the Assistant Secretary. And then close to the end of every administration, at least, that person leaves, then you can have a kind of a revolving door over the last six or eight months, pretty normal in any administration. So anytime this–from my standpoint on the process side, I’m working with the chair of the group. When the chair of the group changes, my job can change quite considerably, and of course it has a huge impact on the rest of the group as well. So that’s an external event that has regular changes, and now we’ve had a pretty monumental change in terms of politics, from the Obama administration to the Trump administration just now.
So as an example–and of course that happened from Clinton to Bush and so on–so it, it happens. And then you have people with, frankly, varying levels of interest in the program. There have been times when this group has had a hard time getting the attention of the Secretary of the Interior. Various levels, so the interest level can vary, and the, certainly the policies would vary, what they might agree to or not agree to do is going to vary. So that’s, that’s huge.
Other external events? When things happen in the ecosystem. So there was a time when–the humpback chub is a native fish in the system that is probably the one native fish that has the best chance of–they’re all either endangered or they’re gone. And the humpback chub is the one that most people believe it has the best chance of, of recovery. So we focus a lot on the humpback chub. What are the numbers? And there was a time when the numbers were really going down and the whole program—just, all they would focus on for a couple of years were, what, what can we do? What, what should we do? We don’t want to do too much, don’t want to do too little, what can we do to try and help those numbers come back? So that’s certainly an external event.
We recently had an external event of a non-native, dangerous kind of fish, a green sunfish, that was found in the upper reaches of the river, that precluded a high flow experiment because if a whole bunch of water came through, then these green sunfish would be dispersed throughout the system, for example. So yeah, there’s always, I mean, we’re in the pr–we’re in the ecosystem management business, which is to my mind the height of hubris that we think we can do it in the first place, but–you know, there’s always things happening in the ecosystem that are going to change what, what we’re looking at and what we–what they are looking at and what they think they ought to be doing.
So you said you’re in the ecosystem management business, which is certainly true. AMWG is also in the dam management business, to a certain extent, in that your recommendations to the Secretary are primarily about how the dam should be managed to help recover ecosystems. When you came on board in 1999, that was the beginning of an extensive seventeen-year drought. Essentially, the Southwest has been in an extended drought the entire time that you’ve been on AMWG, and the lake level behind Glen Canyon Dam has been dropping steadily until the point where now it’s, it’s below half full, and there’s even people talking about whether, maybe, we should drain it and put all that water in Lake Mead. Do you think that the drought and the falling lake levels have had any impact on AMWG and its evolution over the last seventeen years?
Sure. It’s a huge external event that’s had an impact on the program. And also, just, what–not only what’s happening now, but what do we anticipate in the future with the climate apparently changing, and that we can maybe expect more drought, rather than less, in the Southwest. (Pause.) The Interim Guidelines [2007 Colorado River Interim Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and Coordinated Operation for Lake Powell and Lake Mead] that were negotiated between the Upper and Lower Basin states, for example. There’s a–so this is an interesting program, because there’s a lot that happens that–you correctly said that this group’s job, to a large extent, is making recommendations to the Secretary on how to operate Glen Canyon Dam. However, the amount of leeway that there is to change operations in Glen Canyon Dam is pretty small, because there are lots of other processes outside of the adaptive management program that prescribe how that dam is run. And a lot of that is through court cases and laws and negoti–compacts among the states with–and of course, the Secretary is the water master of the Colorado.
So, equalization between Lake Mead and Lake Powell, for example, that’s part of, I believe, a compact among the states. So if somebody wants to fill Mead first, which is a rallying cry that I’ve heard, that would have to be a change in that negotiated compact, for example. So there’s a lot–so this drought and–has, of course, generated a lot of consternation among the states who rely on the water. All of the states are represented on the AMWG primarily because they want to protect their allocation from the river. And because so much of their state’s future is tied up with that water that they get from the Colorado River. So, they are there, among other reasons, to protect those interests. I mean, a lot of people are at the table to protect their interests, of course, and to advance their interests. So, yes, anything like a drought is going to have a huge impact on all of, on the entire program.
Has representation on the AMWG changed since 1999? Not individuals, but the categories of people who are represented. Has that been stable?
No–yes, it has been stable. It has not changed. There was some effort, a couple of years ago, because the Grand Canyon Protection Act names all of the categories that shall be repre–that the, that Reclamation shall consult with. And there were a couple of–almost all the categories are represented on the Adaptive Management Work Group, and also on the Technical Work Group, with the exception of the scientific and academic communities. And there was some effort to enlarge the AMWG to include–not the scientific community, because they really, there is a US Geological Survey entity that provides science for the program, so I think everybody feels that that’s adequately represented. But there was an effort to, some folks who thought that the academic world should be represented with a permanent seat on the AMWG. And other folks disagreed, so the compromise that was made at that point was to make a real effort to bring in different voices to present to the group, that wouldn’t be the same old same old. So we’ve seen some different people on the agenda to present as a result of that, but the actual seats have not changed.
So you’ve mentioned a particular Secretary of the Interior’s designee who made a big difference in the program. I’m wondering if you can think back over the last seventeen years about any other individuals who you feel had a significant impact on the program, and what was it?
(Pause) Well, being a student of group dynamics, every individual around the table has an impact on the process. And everyone who leaves and is replaced by someone else completely changes that entire system. So I would have to say that every stakeholder that has sat at the table has had an impact on the program. Of course, some more than others—(pause).
I would say the–in addition to the stakeholders, the person who’s held the role of the Chief of the science center [Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center] also is a very key role. And I would say maybe the most difficult role in the entire group, because here’s a person who needs to be able to lead a science center that’s, that meets the–the criteria of good science of the US Geological Survey, which at least under Secretary Babbitt, I don’t know how it’s changed since then, but at least under Secretary Babbitt, USGS was being, was—the science provider for the Department of the Interior. So this is, it’s huge. And they have extremely well-thought-out protocols for good science, right? So, you have to have someone who’s a very good scientist and can lead scientists, and can lead a department of five or six very different, but hopefully integrated, fields of study, from economics to riparian vegetation to fish to sediment, all of that.
Plus the person has to be able to talk to, and be understood by, these policymakers on the adaptive management program, on the Adaptive Management Work Group, I would say, the AMWG. Polic–they’re all policy makers in their own world, and in this instance, they’re not making policy. They’re simply making recommendations to the Secretary. But of course, we’re dealing with people who have very different worldviews, very different hopes and wishes about what’s going to happen, in a lot of cases, with the dam and with the river, with the ecosystem. There’s a lot of conflict, sometimes–sometimes not so obvious, but it’s always there. And it should be, I mean, that was the point of this program was to bring together people who don’t agree with each other, to see what they could agree to.
And I will say that scientists aren’t always super well-trained in group dynamics or in conflict. It’s not what they signed up for, right? I mean, now, I’m–certainly, there are some who are very good at that, but to find a person who can run this program that, who has to be really good on the science side and also has to be pretty good on the conflict management side, just to be able to talk to folks in a good way, to help them understand, that’s a big job. That’s a very big job to fill, so I think those folks have also been key people.
Who do you admire who’s been able to balance those two different skills really well, in your experience?
Well, I think our current fellow, Scott VanderKooi is doing a really good job at that. He–of course, I, you know, I’m not part of his organization, so I can’t tell what a good job he’s doing managing his program, but he seems to do a very good job of managing the adaptive management personnel when he’s in the meetings.
So, you’ve touched on this a little bit already, but I’m wondering what you think you’ve been able to accomplish in a kind of, sort of summative way over your seventeen years. What do you think have been your most significant accomplishments?
Well, nothing by myself, first of all, because I am–you know, a facilitator and mediator can only do what she’s allowed to do by the group. Right? I mean, I cannot go in and say, “Thou shalt do x, y, z.” Can’t do it. But certainly, into a world that really didn’t understand process and, even to this day, probably doesn’t care too much about process, it does benefit a group to have somebody who’s paying attention to process and who, every once in a while, says, “You know, you guys really need to talk a little bit about how you’re working together, not just what you’re doing, the substantive stuff, but how are you working together?” So I think I brought a little bit of that. As I mentioned earlier–(long pause) there are a lot of venues for at least some of the members of the Adaptive Management Work Group to get done what they need to get done outside of the AMWG. Outside of this group.
So like the states and the hydropower advocates, they have long-standing relationships with Interior, with each other, that did not go away, nor should they, um, when AMWG was formed. So, so there’s a lot that gets done outside of the AMWG that–but I think one of the real benefits of the program is that all of those processes have become a lot less opaque to the other stakeholders around the table. The environmental folks, the recreational representatives, the tribes and so on. They now can see at least a little bit behind the curtain as to how these things work, and they can be part of some of that, some of that discussion and recommendation. (Pause.) You asked me what I have accomplished, so just maybe a little bit of better process, better organization, but only because the group allowed me to do that.
And more transparency?
How about, is there anything that you wish you could have accomplished and haven’t been able to yet? Any regrets about–
I don’t have any regrets. I think that the–we are moving toward (pause) maybe getting to know each other better personally, which is good. We have now a Deputy or Assistant Regional Director of Reclamation who’s very good at social events, and so we have a social event at every AMWG meeting now, which I think is very important for people to get to know each other a little bit better. It helps when, if I really disagree with you, I can–I can put you into a little box of bad. You’re bad. I’m good. So why should I even bother? Right? Because you’re so bad, and you just, you’re so wrong. But if I sit down and have a drink with you or have a meal with you or, you know, socialize with you a little bit and I get to know you a little bit better, then maybe my mind is a little bit more open to saying, “Okay, well I still think you’re really wrong, but let me try and understand how you got to where you are so wrong.” (Laughter.) If I can understand that, and maybe help you understand where I got where I am, then maybe down the road we can find a way to agree. Maybe not on everything, but we can find ways that I can help, I can say, “Well, if we did it this way, then I get what I need and you get what you need.” We’re moving toward that now. I don’t think we’ve had a lot of that in the past. So I think that’s very good.
Unlike a lot of groups that I work with, many of the people at the table are not free to make any agreement that they think makes sense to them personally.
Because they represent an interest group.
They are appointed by a governor of a state. One individual is not going to change state policy just because they’ve had an “aha” moment at the table, right? Same with, maybe, an environmental group. Maybe they’ve got strict orders that, you know, you don’t go beyond here. Same–the tribe–the tribal members, you know, many of the tribes (pause) are, have a very collaborative decision-making process, and there may be someone who is sitting at the table from a tribe, but in order to really talk ab–make a decision, they’d have to go back and check with tribal council, for example. So it makes it really hard. I know when I do two-person mediations, which I sometimes do for, pro bono for small claims court or something like that, it’s very important to have the decision-maker in the room because, otherwise, you can waste hours. So in this instance, people aren’t so free to say, “Okay, now that I understand, I really understand where you’re coming from, then we can make a deal in this way. You know, I can give this up because it’s not that important to me and I can see it’s really important to you, and we can move forward together.” That kind of thing now might take years or decades instead of hours, just because people aren’t so free there. Now that’s, this is not a regret I have. It’s just an understanding of how this program works and how it, how it will work in the future, almost certainly.
It’s kind of the nature of democratic processes, especially if you’re seeking consensus rather than just majority rule?
It can be, depending on who’s in the room. Now, if you had all the governors in the room, that would, might be a different story.
Because they can make decisions.
Right. Right. If you have the deci–or if the–or if the decision-making authority were delegated. But when you’re talking about the Colorado River, frankly, Colorado Ri–you know, there’s this, there’s this box called the Law of the River that contains all of the major laws that have been passed by Congress, all of the Supreme Court, uh, decisions that impact the river, multi-state compacts. You know, there’s–a lot of what we’re dealing with is prescribed. So it’s very hard to be nimble and to change things on the fly even if, maybe, an individual at the table believes it should be changed.
That tension between being collaborative and following the rules and the laws, tension between that and being nimble, and adapting quickly, and having a kind of a top down command structure that can make decisions fast: do you–do you think that the model of decision-making for the AMWG is the appropriate one for the resources and the challenges that we face? Or is it inadequate because of its slowness?
Well, I would also throw in the whole adaptive management process, which says that you do experiments and you see what happens, and then you change management based on what you see what happens. That’s–there are people who say this isn’t a true adaptive management program for that reason, because it cannot adopt management actions so easily, even if an experiment put, you know, seems to say that that’s a management action that should be, that should happen. But you asked whether the–whether the decision-making or the management regime of the AMWG is appropriate, and I would say absolutely it is. But remember, the AMWG is not the only entity that has an impact on how the Colorado River ecosystem is managed. And also, this is only one stretch of that–of that river, right? So–so in some ways it’s completely inadequate. So, but for what it is, the AMWG–remember, AMWG is a Federal Advisory Committee designed to advise the Secretary of the Interior on how to reach the goals of the Grand Canyon Protection Act: protect, mitigate adverse impacts to and maintain–I’m missing a word–the values for which the two national parks downstream of the dam were created, right? And, I keep going back to Bruce Babbitt’s speech where he said, “I want to know what everybody agrees to”–for those purposes, yes, I think it’s adequate.
Some of the people that we are interviewing have talked about things that surprised them during their experience in the program, and I’m wondering if anything has happened in the last seventeen years in your experience that surprised you?
Hm. I’m sure there has been something. I know I have said from time to time that things that I didn’t think would be controversial turned out to be controversial, and vice versa. I can’t think of anything specifically off the top of my head. Probably some of the ad hominem attacks at the very beginning really surprised me, just because I wasn’t used to seeing that in a, in a professional setting. But (pause) I can’t think of anything else.
You have mentioned a few times controversies that crop up now and then. Can you mention a few of the controversies that you’ve been through that you thought resulted in some significant resolution, or didn’t?
One that I–that’s , that’s extant now is, um, the whole idea of equalization–
Between the two dams?
Between the two reservoirs.
And I, I can’t say I even fully understand equalization, but it’s an important concept for the states. They rely on it. Remember, Lake Powell is like the savings account for the Upper Basin. If there’s a drought, they can still meet their, their obligation to push water downstream toward the Lower Basin states. That’s part of their, part of the deal, part the Law of the River. The Upper Basin states has [sic] to give water to the Lower, make sure that the Lower Basin states gets [sic] a certain amount of water, and then also, then, down to Mexico. And as you–with the drought, there’s not enough water anyway, so–and even if, from year to year, you can have more or less water. So Mead was developed to be kind of the savings account for the Upper Basin states. Even if it was a dry year, they could still give the water that need–they could push through the dam the water that needed to go down to the Lower Basin states. So, equal–so then there’s this concept of equalization, which as I said, I don’t fully understand, but if there’s a problem with equalization, then–and there’s too, there’s–and more water than normal needs to be pushed down to the Lower Basin, to Mead, then it’s called equalization flows. In other words, there might be some higher flows that go through the dam that, that accomplish that goal of equalization. Those flows are not so good for the ecosystem in some very specific ways that I’m not the right person to, to explain. So how do you reconcile those two things?
You know, they’re both required by law, protecting the ecosystem and protecting the water supply for all the states. That’s, that’s a big one. And–I think it’s something that needs to be talked about some more, it needs to be better understood by everyone. So that’s a big issue. I think when (pause) I think the biggest issues that come up, come up when some of the stakeholders want to see some really significant changes in how the dam works. And this can be very threatening to folks who, um, who rely on specific dam operations in order to either generate hydropower at a certain cost that’s not too high, and also to make sure that water storage and delivery occurs in the way that they need it to occur. So I think that’s the major tension.
Big picture. What do you think has been the fundamental value of this program, and should it be continued?
Should it be continued? I would say as long as the Secretary of the Interior is getting information that he or she finds valuable from the program, then yes, it should be continued. If not, then no. I mean, it’s pretty costly. And, uh, certainly the science part of it that is studying how the dam operations affect the downstream resources and the, um–is, you know, probably should continue because otherwise how do you make decisions? But AMWG itself, I think it really depends on if the Secretary is finding it useful. And the other question was–
The fundamental value of the program.
Oh, well (pause) So being the process person, I know there have been a lot of good science and policy recommendations–science discoveries and policy recommendations made. I think also, there’s value in simply involving more people who care about that ecosystem in the decision-making, or at least in discussions about decision-making. Because this group doesn’t, as I say, this group is not a management group. It doesn’t manage anything. It just makes recommendations to the Secretary. But to pull the curtain back a little bit (cough) from how those decisions get made for folks who wouldn’t normally see it, like the tribes, the environmental organizations, the recreational organizations, I think that’s very valuable. (Pause.) Being a student of public policy and an advocate for good public policy, I have a bias that the more people who are in–who are listened to by the decision-makers, by governmental decision-makers, the better decision is going to be made. More durable, better for all folks and all critters. And so I think this, this really helps with that. If listened to, it can be a conduit for better public policy.
Are you hopeful about the future of the program? Do you think it’s a resilient and adaptable, because we’re going into a period of significant change, I think. Climatic change, political change, economic change–
I am always optimistic. It’s–it’s actually, you know, part of my job description. So, yeah. I think this group can survive, I think it’ll be really interesting to see who the next Secretary’s designee is under the Trump administration and what kind of, what level of interest he or she has. I think level of interest is the first question. How much do they care, you know? And then, and then what do they care about? And, you know, how are they going to guide the program? I think we, we recently had a, just a few months ago, a new Environmental Impact Statement signed, the Long-Term Experimental and Management Plan, LTEMP EIS and ROD, the Record of Decision, was signed. And that will make–that has made significant change–that will have significant impact on how this program is run, because certain things that the AMWG always felt that it was in charge of, like what are the goals and objectives of the program, that’s now laid out in the EIS and in the ROD.
Certain things, certain recommendations, that have been made every year to the Secretary, such as the hydrograph, what should the hydrograph look like? What, the levels of water in different days, weeks and months and, for a full year, coming out of the dam, what should that look like? That’s now pretty much prescribed through this EIS. So, things are changing. I, and uh, I’m not sure anyone quite knows what that’s going to look like. So we’ve got the LTEMP Record of Decision that will change things, we’ve got the new administration that’ll change things and, I don’t know, I’ve worked under maybe a dozen different Secretary’s designees. So everyone’s different and it’s just a question of wait and see and, in my role, hewing hard to good process on the one hand, which means transparent and neutral and making sure everyone has the same opportunities to participate, which is a challenge.
And so that’s my job on the one hand, and then on the other hand, serving the chair in the way he or she wants to be served. So like, for example, some chairs wanted me to run the meeting, and they just stepped in when they saw a need. And other chairs, in recent years, they’ve run the meeting. They’ve had the skill level and I’m just sitting next to them, providing whatever support I can. So on the one hand, so with the new Secretary’s designee, hewing hard to good process, making sure that person understands what the values are that are, in my view, incontrovertible, have to happen, at least for me to be involved. Then on the other hand, how can I support you best? What do you need from me to help this program move forward? It’s a learning process with every new Secretary’s designee, so.
One of the purposes of doing this administrative history is to help the next generation of participants on AMWG to be as effective as possible, to understand how we got to where we are today, how the process works. Can you think of any other ways in which a historical perspective on this program could help new members of AMWG to be more effective participants? What advice would you give a new person coming on that you would like them to hear from somebody with deep experience like you?
I’d say, due to my experience, both as an new AMWG member and also, then, from the process standpoint, the technical da–if you, if you’re not coming from the Colorado River water world already, the level, the amount of data that you’re expected to understand and assimilate is huge. So you’ll–so don’t worry about understanding everything all at once. That’s number one. But, you know, take your time, and use the Wiki site, use this administrative history website, learn as much as you can. And number two, start developing relationships with people that you are not normally aligned with. So if you’re on the environmental side, you might know the other environmental person, but reach out to the states and the hydropower people, and develop personal relationships. Ask them what they want and why.
You know, I had the great joy of doing an assessment, about a year ago, of this program in which I called up every AMWG member, plus half a dozen of other people, and said, “How do you think the program is going, and what do you want out of the program, and why do you want that?” And it was a marvelous opportunity to learn about each individual stakeholder, and I think–a new stakeholder would do well by doing that, trying not to come in with preconceived ideas and simply developing those relationships where you can say, “Well, so, so that sounds like a really important point for you. Can you help me understand what’s behind that a little bit more? Because I don’t really get it.” That’ll go far.
Who else do you think we should interview for this administrative history project? Anybody you recommend that–
Who are you interviewing?
Well, we have a list right now of about twelve people. I can’t–I don’t have it in front of me.
Well, if you want to show it to me, I’d be happy to–happy to add to it. But, uh–Anne Castle–
Anne Castle is on the list.
How about Jack Schmidt?
I don’t–know if Jack Schmidt is on here.
Jack is the immediate past Chief of the GCMRC, Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center, and—
We do have him…
But he’s also been a researcher in the Canyon for many, many, many years, so he has a good perspective. And then, of course, you’ll definitely want to talk to stakeholders, and maybe some of the previous Secretary’s designees. I don’t know if you want, if you want to show me the list, I’d be happy to–add to it. (Pause.)
Maybe somebody from the Wash—from the Washington world too, besides Anne, like Lori Caramanian, who was Anne’s counsel and then deputy, for a while.
Do you know how to spell Caramanian?
C-a-r-a-m-a-n-i-a-n. And maybe reaching back to, maybe a prior administration before the Obama Administration. (Pause).
All right, Mary. You’ve been very patient and generous with us. We greatly appreciate your time.
End of interview
No results found
- Tempe, Arizona
Interview conducted by: Dr. Paul Hirt, Arizona State University and Jennifer Sweeney, Four East Historical Research, LLC. Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program Administrative History Project. Administered by Arizona State University Supported by a grant from the US Bureau of Reclamation.
Mary Orton acted as facilitator and mediator of the multi-stakeholder Adaptive Management Work Group (AMWG) from 1997 to 2019. Her specialty is environmental conflict resolution. Before her involvement with the Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program (GCDAMP), she worked in non-profit management. Orton is famous among longtime GCDAMP members for her involvement in the memorable genesis of the AMWG's vision and mission statements, and for her significant contributions to the success of the group's collaborative process.
Suggested Bibliographic Citation
Orton, Mary. ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW. Transcript of recorded Interview conducted by Paul Hirt, Arizona State University, and Jennifer Sweeney, Four East Historical Research, LLC, on 14 February 2017, in Tempe, Arizona. Edited by Paul Hirt and Jennifer Sweeney.