Neal Milner: Forget About The Elections. This Endangered Butterfly Is A Much Better Story - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

I am only barely relieved by the 2022 election.

But I am inspired by the recovery of the Fender’s blue butterfly, which will soon be only the second insect to graduate from the endangered species list.

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The 2022 election was too much about politics as usual. The butterfly sustainability project is about politics as it should be. It is a model of the way political work can get things done, lots of things at all levels.

Looking at the butterfly project’s success, Cheryl Schultz, the scientist who got the project started said, “Recovery takes three things. Science, time, and partnerships.”

Here’s why science, time and partnerships are crucial for our own, human political recovery. The first step is to get your head straight. It’s about the limits of elections. We are obsessed by them, which warps our understanding by exaggerating their importance.

The second step is to demonstrate what made the butterfly project successful. It shows why science, time and partnerships were so important as a general guide to getting things done.

Getting Rid Of Election Obsession

All the post-election media yakkety-yak about waves, surprises, winners, losers, Nancy Pelosi, Kevin McCarthy, and 2024 may be exciting for you. It’s good theater maybe, but really, that talking falls somewhere between speculation and gossip.

It’s a game of political trivia.

Elections are about “This is what we’re going to do.” Or “this is what’s going to happen.” The verbs in that sentence, you’ll notice, are future tense and conditional. Often, they are expressed with supreme confidence when in fact those statements are full of maybes. Really, it’s all maybes all the way down.

There may be a link down the road between those plans and what ultimately happens, but that link is a to-be-or-not-to-be work in progress.

We are not talking about human frailty here — well, maybe we are, but just a little bit. We are talking about how hard and uncertain the processes are for making policies and making those policies work.

It’s graphically easy to imagine this with the new Congress where there is a good chance that no major legislation will get passed, but the fuzzy link between elections and policy applies everywhere, including Hawaii, of course.

That’s how the process works — a potent combination of the separation of powers and man planning but God laughing along with the chortles of powerful interest groups, NIMBYs, and other pissed-off citizens who resist.

Any dread or euphoria you feel about elections will be mitigated by the hard work of government getting, or not getting, things done.

Living here, do I even have to remind you that there is often a huge difference between a policy on paper and the policy as it turns out?

In short, get over it. Elections elect. That’s all they do. Then comes the real substance, the real work.

So, now let’s look at how the butterfly model produced real work.

How The Butterfly Model Worked To Save The Butterfly And Could Work To Save Ourselves

The Fender’s blue butterfly lives in a relatively small area of meadows and prairies on the western side of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, roughly south and west of Portland.

Almost all that land is privately owned with farms and ranches scattered among the meadows and former prairies. The land used to belong to the Kalapuya Native American tribe.

Oregon had been the site of the fierce battle between environmentalists and the timber industry over preserving the spotted owl. It was framed as good versus evil and jobs versus owls. (You can probably still find some “Eat Spotted Owls” bumper stickers on old Ford F150 pickups.).

That’s a miniature version of U.S. polarization today.

The Fender’s blue butterfly lives in Central Oregon. US Fish & Wildlife Service

The butterfly strategy was based on what needed to be done to avoid that destructive schism.

Let’s consider the success in terms of science plus time plus partnership.

Science: Scientists who initially worked on the project were very careful to establish a solid amount of information. They developed a clear set of facts that were easy to understand for all the parties involved. They discovered some surprising, counterintuitive facts that piqued a lot of interest.

The data itself never became a political issue. There was a consensus on the facts. This happened not just because the data was good. What’s key was the process that fostered shared understanding and collective commitment.

That’s where partnership came in, but before we consider how that worked, it’s necessary to understand the encompassing time commitment that the stakeholders needed to make.

Time: Time played a key role in two ways. One way was straightforward. The work moved efficiently — swiftly by political standard time.

There is another more subtle way that time worked here — the need to see broad horizons rather than instant gratifications. There was a clear understanding that adopting the plan was just the first step in a long-term effort. It took many years simply to clear the prairie.

From the get-go, it became clear that the time clock would not expire when the plan was adopted. The plan requires long-term commitment with constant monitoring and frequent repair and re-clearing of the habitat as the area again becomes overgrown.

That involved a commitment to a great deal of deferred gratification rather than immediate results.

Partnership: This is the heart of the success. There was a great deal of consultation but also more. The plan adopted the traditional Kalapuya prairie-clearing methods that had kept the Fender’s habitat prairies and meadows open. Inmates in an Oregon prison propagate the plants needed to replenish the Fender’s food source.

If nothing else, it is so refreshing to hear about a bunch of people, the likes of which MSNBC or Fox will never talk about, doing really smart things in a remarkably productive way.

The plan’s developers convinced landowners not only to grant access but also to be part of the ongoing monitoring and recovery process. That is so not spotted owl.

“A lot of landowners have a fear of government interference,” a tree farmer who is involved in maintaining and conserving the Fender’s habitat on his land said. “But we’ve had no conflicts.”

Keep in mind that this is not simply about getting folks to shake their heads affirmatively. The project has gotten people to do things and keep doing them indefinitely.

And in the spirit of cooperation and persuasion, civil servants, in this case the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, acted as facilitators rather than as gatekeepers.

What’s the power of the Fender’s blue project?

If nothing else, it is so refreshing to hear about a bunch of people, the likes of which MSNBC or Fox will never talk about, doing really smart things in a remarkably productive way.

I could talk more about lessons learned and other nuts and bolts, but that takes away from the story’s ultimate power, which at its base is not instructional. It is inspirational.

Jaclyn Moyer, the author of the butterfly piece, ends it this way: “So while Fender’s owes its recovery to the prairie community, one could also argue that the butterfly, by recruiting the assistance of humans, has saved the prairie.”

Small things can lead to big things, which means that those small things are often not very small at all.

For me that is a golden nugget of inspiration in a pile of political muck. The muck sucks you in while the nugget shines light on your face and encourages you to rise up and move forward.


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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

Threatened by man. Saved by man.

Sally · 1 week ago

It's good to see someone here acknowledge the insanity that is MSNBC.

elrod · 1 week ago

It's basic sanity, which is in short supply these days, on both the right and the left. America's always been the most successful when the ball's in the middle of the fairway and people work together for something larger than themselves and their petty prejudices.

SleepyandDopey · 1 week ago

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