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Watersheds Messenger     Summer 2007     Vol. XVI, No. 2     PDF ISSUE

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Burn Bandwidth Not Oil

By Brian Ertz

The internet has transformed the way that people interact and communicate. With a few clicks, anyone in the world can access information pertinent to almost any question they have. Blogging has brought a more responsive and interactive form of media that has enticed people to discuss, argue, and contribute to stories in a way that has profoundly influenced the mainstream media and thus public-opinion at large. One result of these online forums has been the congregation of like-minded virtual communities of people. Most of these people, for any number of reasons, find the main-stream media unresponsive to their concerns and lets be honest, who wouldnt?

Conservationists are no exception. Internet technology has revolutionized the ability of conservationists to communicate amongst each-other and amongst their members. RangeNet, Western Watersheds Project The Blog, Ralph Maughans Wildlife News, Wild Again!! - Sinapus weblog - and so many more are all examples of how conservationists are able to ensure their members, and members of the community at large, have a uniquely responsive media outlet and forum for communication. RangeNets Myspace profile has grown a network of over 5,600 friends who are now within the conscientious network of RangeNets Larry Walker. Weblogs, listservers, and other online forums have been very successful at generating loyal networks of people who are motivated to learn and excited to toss their ideas into the fray.

Western Watersheds Project is well known for its vital contribution to public-oversight. Frequently, agencies will think twice about undertaking actions without the public-interest in mind knowing that Western Watersheds Project is looking over their shoulder. What if we could wield the cohesion and organization we already practice online more directly toward that end?

Now imagine for a moment a nearly empty public hearing in Wells, Nevada; a couple of cowboys are sitting up front as some college kid walks through the door, pulls out a camera, a laptop, and a cord. Within ten minutes the agency personnel are sitting back in their chairs watching a live projected image of Jon Marvel warning against an ill-advised chaining of hundreds/thousands of acres of Pinyon Pines all for the almighty cow. A few minutes later John Carter is in real-time giving one of his acclaimed power-point presentations citing real science. Whereas before agency folk might have been able to close up shop early, now they will be forced to burn every last minute watching and listening to a sophisticated demonstration of conservationists who care.

Or think of another FWS public-hearing to delist an iconic species such as wolves in the Rocky Mountains. There are innumerable supporters of wolves who have signed the online petitions, written public comments, and perhaps posted beautiful pictures of wolves on their Myspace profiles. Unable for one reason or another to fly to Boise, Idaho to demonstrate their solidarity, these folks are geographically disenfranchised. The internet can give anyone who cares the opportunity to become participant activists to have the decision makers listen to what they value. With a couple of clicks these activists will find themselves on a blog encouraging them to post a comment to be potentially read at the hearing or if they have a webcam, projected. Every comment on the blog is rated by the very participants who visit the site. Those with the highest ratings will be read as a public comment at the hearing and webcast live. Tune-in to see if your comment will be read!

Sound like a bundle of bells & whistles, like its too complicated or expensive? Consider this: On March 6, at the FWS public hearing to delist wolves, Western Watersheds Project took its first step toward adding to its list of pioneering accomplishments. With nothing more than a handicam, a laptop, and a wireless internet connection, Western Watersheds webcasted the hearing live. This first test-run over-came nearly all of the logistical hurdles to bringing anyone with a computer and a high-speed internet connection into a public hearing, and in effect, forcing Ed Bangs et al to more generally confront a sophisticated and organized public whos interests they are supposed to preserve and represent.

If the conservation community is to project organized public-oversight, if it is to break down the excuse that participation is geographically inaccessible, stay one step ahead of its adversaries, or attempt to grab hold and lead emerging, sympathetic online communities; it is time to more dynamically utilize the unprecedented democratizing force of the internet. This forum has far more potential than to serve as a billboard, an e-mail, or a petition. We can build online portals which will give concerned citizens/activists actionable access to the few remaining open forums of government left.

Thanks to the participation, support, and encouragement of Jon Marvel, Katie Fite, Ralph Maughan, Rick Hobson, Larry Walker etc. Western Watersheds Project continues to pursue innovative strategies which enhance public-oversight and keep agencies and public-lands abusers scrambling for cover.

Brian Ertz attends Boise State University He lives in Boise, Idaho.

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