Institute to put mediator resources online

The federal government is sponsoring the development of a World Wide Web site that will help find common ground for people who disagree over what should - or should not - be done with natural resources.

The U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution, an executive branch agency created by the 1998 Environmental Policy and Conflict Resolution Act, plans to put online a roster of up to 500 practitioners of alternative dispute resolution nationwide who specialize in mediating divisive environmental conflicts.

Doug Thompson, program manager for the roster project and a mediator with the institute, said the site, which should be running by year's end, will contain profiles of alternative dispute resolution practitioners, who will apply to be included. Their applications will be reviewed by institute staff members before being placed on the roster, he said.

Using mediators is a way for people on opposite sides of a dispute to reach an agreement, such as a dispute between a cattle rancher leasing federal land for grazing and an environmental organization that claims the rancher's herd is destroying a stream on the land and threatening an endangered fish.

A mediator can help both parties avoid the cost and time of a court trial. The Web site was designed to make information on mediators as readily available as possible, so organizations are willing to take that route.

"This should provide a more complete, orderly and hopefully easier way to get an idea of who is out there," Thompson said.

The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, "is often trying to quickly access people for regional disputes," he said. "We're hoping this will help with that."

Developing the Web site and roster will cost between $25,000 and $100,000, Thompson said, depending upon what kind of bids the institute receives. At first, it will be accessible only to federal agencies, he said.

Eventually, state governments and the general public will be able to click into the site and find mediators.

He said the roster will include descriptions of past cases the mediators have tackled to allow parties involved in a Superfund-related dispute, for example, to have the option of choosing a mediator who already has dealt with those types of arguments.

Thompson said finding a mediator with "the right chemistry" is critical to the process.

J. Richard Forester, a Portland, Ore., mediator who specializes in land-use issues, applauded the project. He said many alternative dispute resolution rosters already exist on the Internet, but the federal roster may be the first one focused entirely on U.S. environmental disputes.

Forester would apply for acceptance to the roster, "because I like people to find me, and it's a big country," he said. "It's hard to know who is who around the country unless you have a national reputation, and not everybody has a national reputation."

A roster of natural resources specialists could prove particularly helpful because, in many cases, residents of entire towns and cities stand divided over environmental issues, Forester said. The rhetoric can get heated, and trust can be a rare commodity, he said.

He said those involved in environmental disputes often want a mediator from out of state because state residents often have formed an opinion on the issue before even hearing the arguments.

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