environment and natural resources

Nitrogen study may improve accuracy of ecological predictions

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The pattern of nitrogen release from decaying plant material is remarkably similar and predictable across the planet, researchers have concluded in a new study, which should make it easier to understand nutrient dynamics, vegetation growth, estimate carbon release and sequestration, and better predict the impacts of climate change.

The findings, to be published Friday in the journal Science, are the results of one of the largest and longest studies ever done on nitrogen release during plant decomposition, involving dozens of researchers working for 10 years in 27 sites, ranging from Arctic tundra to tropical forests of North and Central America.

“The availability of nitrogen is one of the key factors limiting vegetation growth around the world, but its release from plant litter can be very slow,” said Mark Harmon, a professor of forest science at Oregon State University and the coordinator of the study. “For the first time, we studied this process at enough sites and over a long enough time period to really understand what’s happening.”

The surprise, researchers said, is that the basic pattern of nitrogen release is pretty much the same wherever it occurs, and is driven primarily by the initial concentration of nitrogen present in the decaying plant material. It has little to do with location, soil types, microbes present, or other factors.

The speed of the process is affected by climate, particularly temperature and precipitation, the study concluded. But the overall pattern, or “trajectory” of nitrogen release remains much the same regardless of the site.

There is significant interest in the way that nitrogen recycles in the ecosystem, scientists say, because it plays such a critical role in the growth of almost all vegetation – grasses, shrubs, trees and agricultural crops. The presence or absence of adequate amounts of nitrogen can often dictate what types of vegetation are able to survive in a certain area, and how quickly it grows. Very little of this nutrient is made available from geological sources.

Plant growth, in turn, is one of the main factors that affects the input or removal of carbon from the atmosphere – an issue of growing importance during an era of global warming. Plant decomposition releases more carbon each year than all of the fossil fuel combustion produced by humans, the researchers note in their study.

“If we hope to better predict carbon dynamics, climate change and other issues, we first must understand these basic ecological processes,” Harmon said.

In plant decomposition, it’s not unusual for the microbes which are decomposing the plant matter to first retain nitrogen from the dying plants and other sources, until they have all they need for the decomposition process, Harmon said. This “immobilization” of nitrogen can actually cause a reduction in available soil nitrogen for an extended period of years, until at some point the plant material is sufficiently broken down that nitrogen in excess of decomposer needs becomes available.

It had been thought that this process might be highly variable, depending on several interacting factors. In fact, the study found that it is pretty predictable, affected primarily just by the initial nitrogen concentration in the plant material which is decaying.

“It was really surprising to see how similar these processes were across wide geographic and climatic scales,” Harmon said. “The basic trajectory is much the same regardless of many variables. A fairly simple model can accurately predict it.”

The overall decomposition process, he said, does speed up in warmer or wetter conditions, which many anticipate as a result of climate change and global warming. In that event, nitrogen should more rapidly be made available to plants, at least initially spurring increased vegetation growth and offsetting carbon losses from increased decomposition.

Less clear is the overall long-term impact on carbon sequestration and storage, Harmon said. That may depend on whether the growth that occurs is in the form of vegetation parts that quickly die, such as leaves, or in wood that lives much longer. So whether increased vegetation growth on a global basis will increase enough to offset global warming is still uncertain, he said, and requires further study.

This research, called the Long-Term Inter-site Decomposition Experiment, or LIDET study, was funded by the Long Term Ecological Studies program of the National Science Foundation. Participants included OSU, Colorado State University, University of California/Berkeley, LSI Logic, University of Michigan, University of Minnesota, Northern Arizona University, and 23 other institutions that conducted the field work.

A wide range of “biomes,” or general types of ecosystems, were included in the research to increase its applicability on a global scale. Among the sites was the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the Cascade Range of Oregon, one of the state’s leading programs of long term ecological research.

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Mark Harmon,

Fish and Game Association Creates OSU Scholarship Fund

CORVALLIS, Ore. — The disbanding Santiam Fish and Game Association of Albany will live on through its creation of a new scholarship fund at Oregon State University. The nonprofit group recently gave $100,000 from the sale of its property at Clear Lake to assist students enrolled in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.

Through the Santiam Fish and Game Association Endowed Scholarship, the organization will promote care of the natural world in perpetuity, said board chair Dale Wollam of Lebanon.

“A lot of older people have good memories about the association and want to see others benefit from what we’ve put so many years into,” he said. “We’ve had great joy in it.”

Established in 1929, the Santiam Fish and Game Association managed cabins and boats at Clear Lake on the Santiam Pass. Once numbering as many as 800 families from Corvallis, Albany and Lebanon, the group decided to disband last year amidst declining membership. They sold the resort to Linn County Parks and Recreation, and their charter directed that assets would fund scholarships at OSU.

Supporting young people who want to enter careers in fish and wildlife fields is a natural extension of the association’s history, Wollam said. The group promoted wise use of natural resources and encouraged community residents to get outside and enjoy the region’s wild places.

“Without good management, generations to come won’t be able to experience what we’ve had,” Wollam said.

Because the principal will never be spent, scholarships will be awarded on an ongoing basis. “People are welcome to add to the endowment, perhaps as a memorial to those who have been active in the association,” Wollam said.

Three scholarships will be awarded annually: to an upperclass undergraduate, a graduate student, and a student participating in a fisheries and wildlife public education internship. All recipients must have completed one year of the fisheries and wildlife major in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences. First preference will be given to Linn or Benton county residents.

“We wanted to help students who are seriously committed to the fisheries and wildlife program,” said Tamara Hamilton of Albany, association board secretary. “Our hope is that the recipients will choose to go and be a part of the Linn County team and work within the community, educating future generations of people who come to the lake.”

The association board was greatly pleased that the county was able to buy the resort, Hamilton added. “They’ve already done things we could only dream about,” she said. “It’s in good hands.”

College leaders noted that scholarships are part of the reason OSU’s wildlife program has been ranked as number one in the nation. Its fisheries program is ranked second.

“These scholarships create an educational legacy in an area where the Santiam Fish and Game Association has already made a significant impact on conservation,” said Dan Edge, head of the OSU fisheries and wildlife department. “We are very grateful to the association for making this assistance available to our students.”

Oregon State University officially launched “The Campaign for OSU” on Oct. 26. Guided by OSU’s strategic plan, the campaign seeks $625 million to provide opportunities for students, strengthen Oregon, and conduct research that changes the world. Approximately $386 million has been committed to date, including more than $60 million toward a $100 million goal for scholarship and fellowship support for students.


Dan Edge,

Novelist to Speak on Mountaintop Removal Mining

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The author of a new novel set in West Virginia’s coal-mining country will visit Oregon State University on Friday, Feb. 15, at 7:30 p.m.

Ann Pancake, author of “Strange as This Weather Has Been,” will read from her work and answer questions in OSU’s Valley Library. The event is free and open to the public.

Pancake grew up in Appalachia where, she says, the mountains and their communities are under threat of destruction by mountain-top removal mining practices. In her book, Pancake evokes the powerful floods and disfigurement of the landscape, as well as the humanity of local families struggling to hold on to their traditions and a sense of place.

At the center of the story is a courageous 15-year-old girl named Bant, whose private quest to discover the disaster looming above her impoverished community gives the novel its suspense as well as its heart.

The novel, which took seven years to research and write, is based on interviews and real life events from individuals and communities who have directly experienced – and fought against – the devastating impact of this form of coal-mining. Pancake describes its toxic waste pools and heaps of slurry, and the constant threat of a “black flood” that might sweep away a whole town.

Published this fall by Shoemaker and Hoard, the novel received rave reviews in the New York Times Book Review, and O Magazine, among others. The author and environmentalist Wendell Berry says that it “brings at last within reach of imagination the almost unimaginable description of land and people in the Appalachian coalfields. Its completeness is made possible by its full acceptance of the heartbreak of its subject…it is one of the bravest novels I have ever read.”

Pancake’s previous work, the short story collection “Given Ground,” won the 2000 Katherine Bakeless Prize, as well as the prestigious Whiting Award for a new young talent. She lives in Seattle and teaches fiction writing at Pacific Lutheran University.

The author’s visit to OSU is co-sponsored by the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word and the OSU Center for the Humanities. Books will be available for sale and signing.

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Nobel Peace Prize Winner Esquivel to Meet With Students, Give Talk at OSU for PeaceJam

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Nobel Peace Prize laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel will visit the Oregon State University campus on Feb. 22-24, where he will call on Pacific Northwest high school students, teachers and OSU students to step forward to create a better world through community service and global action.

He also will present a free public lecture on Friday, Feb. 22, beginning at 8 p.m. in the Memorial Union Ballroom titled “Human Rights and Justice for All.”

His appearance is part of PeaceJam, an international education program that works with Nobel Prize laureates to engage youth in volunteerism and encourages them to work to transform themselves, their local communities and, ultimately, the world.

“This is the fourth year that Oregon State University has had the honor to host PeaceJam, which is an extraordinary opportunity for high school and college students to personally interact with a Nobel Prize recipient,” said Frank Ragulsky, OSU’s student media adviser and a campus coordinator of PeaceJam.

“It is a memorable experience for students and the benefit continues as they return home and become more actively involved in their own communities,” he added.

Esquivel received the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership and advocacy for human rights and democracy in Latin America.

More than 200 high school students and teachers from Oregon, Washington and California will attend the two-day PeaceJam conference Feb. 23-24 at OSU. A number of OSU students will serve as mentors during the conference. PeaceJam co-founder, Dawn Engle will kick-off the conference.

The students will work in groups of about a dozen on a variety of community service projects in the Corvallis area, attend workshops, and have the opportunity to present individual or school plans for furthering peace to Esquivel.

This year’s community service projects will focus on the Global Call to Action, a movement inspired by the 12 Nobel Peace laureates, who sit on the PeaceJam International board of directors. They are asking youth to take leadership in eradicating world hunger, preserving the environment and leading us to a time of peace.

For more information, go online to oregonstate.edu/peacejam or www.peacejam.org.

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OSU Professor Recognized for Work in Weed Science

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A weed science professor at Oregon State University has received the Weed Science Society of America's highest honor for her contributions to the profession.

Carol Mallory-Smith, an associate department head at OSU's Department of Crop and Soil Science, was named a fellow of the society at the nonprofit professional organization’s annual meeting.

"It's a very select group that receives this award each year – available to only 0.25 percent of the membership," said Jill Schroeder, 2007-08 president of the society. There were three recipients this year who joined the roughly 200 people who have been named fellows since the award was created in 1964.

Schroeder said Mallory-Smith is “best known for her work on gene flow and herbicide resistance. She continues to do some unique research about gene movement out of weeds and into crops or vice versa."

Mallory-Smith is studying how genes from canola contaminate vegetable crops. She's also looking at how substances from juniper trees might be able to inhibit the germination of weeds. In the past, she has studied Orobanche minor, a parasitic weed that attaches to clover and snuffs the life out of it. Found in Oregon in 1998, it could destroy the state's clover industry if not controlled, said Mallory-Smith, who helped identify other plants that attract the weed as well as herbicides that kill it.

Additionally, her work with Italian ryegrass gave growers additional options for controlling the plant with herbicides. She and other OSU researchers also found that crop rotations can be used to reduce California brome in wheat production because California brome seed lasts only two years in the soil.

Mallory-Smith, who was born in Troy, Ore., began teaching at OSU in 1994 after earning a doctorate in plant science at the University of Idaho in 1990.

She said she enjoys the variety of work that her job offers.

"On any day I can be working with five or six different crops and all of the weeds that accompany them,” she said. “I am never bored. The best part of my job is working with graduate students and growers."

Respected by students in her department, they named her an Outstanding Teacher in Crop and Soil Science in 1997 and again in 2007.

Mallory-Smith has been a member of the Weed Science Society of America since 1987 and was its president in 2005-06.



Carol Mallory-Smith,

OSU Research Could Lead To Bio-fuels Processed From Algae

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University are working to find an efficient method of processing bio-diesel fuel and ethanol from one of the world’s most plentiful organisms – algae – which could lead to breakthroughs in reducing the world's dependency on petroleum.

Applying the findings to mass-produce algae and extract its oils could be five to 10 years in the future, but the advantages are worth the wait, according to Ganti Murthy, assistant professor of biological and ecological engineering at OSU.

Algae are versatile organisms that are "plant-like" but do not have a root system or leaves. Plants pull water and nutrients through their roots and release vapor through their leaves in a process called transpiration. The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that an acre of corn transpires about 4,000 gallons of water a day. Because algae do not have such a vascular system, they use water only as a medium for growing.

"In a closed growing system,” Murthy said, “algae require 99 percent less water than any other crop.”

Another advantage to growing algae is that varieties of the organism have been found flourishing in all kinds of environments – from the Arctic to tropical areas – and in both fresh and salt water. Therefore, Murthy said, growing algae "is not a food-versus-fuel issue; algae can be grown using waste-water and in areas that cannot support agriculture."

Algae also are highly productive compared to conventional crops. For example, a productivity model estimates that 48 gallons of bio-diesel can be produced from an acre of soybeans, whereas algae could produce 819 gallons – and theoretically as much as 5,000 gallons – from a single acre.

One of algae's most remarkable qualities is that it can grow using carbon dioxide generated from fossil-fuel combustion, according to Murthy. Greenhouse gases from industry and coal-fired electrical-generating plants can be piped to algae ponds, where carbon dioxide is a necessary ingredient for growth. In fact, research has shown that algae can grow 30 percent faster than normal when fed carbon dioxide emissions from fossil-fuel combustion.

At the OSU Sustainable Technologies Laboratory, Murthy has built two small photobioreactors to grow microscopic algae in a closed system. They are simple, plastic cylinders that have advantages over an open-pond system in greater productivity, reduced contamination and better control of growth. It takes about three weeks for the algae—combined with light, water, carbon dioxide and mineral nutrients—to multiply and turn the water green.

The primary focus of the OSU lab is to discover efficient ways to extract the oils (also called lipids) and process them into bio-diesel fuel and ethanol, with fertilizer and animal feed as co-products. The biggest challenge, according to Murthy, is separating water from the micro algae he is testing (Chlorella and Dunaliella), which must continually be mixed with carbon dioxide and light as they grow. A combination of straining and centrifuging is the current method of extraction.

Of the more than 3,000 known strains of algae, Murthy grows both fresh water and salt water varieties. The photobioreactors hold about six gallons of water and produce about .17 pounds of algae with each batch.

"Depending on the algae growth conditions, we can usually extract 20 to 30 percent oil from it, and up to 60 percent is possible," he said.

Commercialization of algal bio-fuel and ethanol is a long way off. Yet, with many questions to answer and challenges to overcome, Murthy is undaunted. "A lot of people are working on it," he said, "It's just a matter of putting it together, making it work."

Murthy's work at OSU has been funded by a grant from the Agriculture Research Foundation.



Ganti Murthy,

OSU Researcher Documents Rare Wolverine in California

TRUCKEE, Calif. – A rare wolverine has been documented in the Tahoe National Forest by a researcher from Oregon State University working with colleagues at the U.S. Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest Research Station – the first confirmed sighting of the animal in nearly three-quarters of a century.

Katie Moriarty, a graduate student in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, has been conducting research in the forest on the effects of landscape change on American martens. The project, funded primarily by the Pacific Southwest Research Station, uses a large array of cameras that remotely capture images of martens and other animals through the use of motion sensors or heat detectors.

However, one of the cameras captured an image from behind of a larger animal with telltale black and brown markings that experts say is a wolverine.

William J. Zielinski, a research ecologist with the Pacific Southwest Research Station, sent the image to Jeff Copeland, a noted wolverine expert with the Rocky Mountain Research Station. Copeland said he “couldn’t convert it into anything else” other than a wolverine.

“It looks like the real deal,” Copeland added.

Zielinski said reports of wolverine sightings occur occasionally in California, but none of those sightings have been confirmed. The last documented occurrence of a wolverine in the state dates back to the 1920s, he said.

The North American wolverine is the largest member of the weasel family and adults can weigh as much as 40 pounds. With its bushy tail and broad head, it resembles a small bear and has a similar diet – insects, berries, small animals, birds and carrion.

Wolverines are more common in the north-central United States, including Minnesota, Michigan and North Dakota, and also can be found in Idaho, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming.

Moriarty, who is pursuing a master’s degree in wildlife science at Oregon State, said the sighting on camera of a wolverine was “hugely unexpected.”

“This may be an important scientific ‘stumble,’” she said. “Wolverines are, at the least, extremely rare and some people consider then to have been extirpated in California. I had hoped to get marten detections with the cameras, and I have captured a couple, but getting a wolverine was quite a surprise.

“This season, I’ve obtained images of black bear, bobcat, many coyotes, spotted skunk, Stellar’s jay, common ravens, mice, and long- and short-tailed weasels,” Moriarty added. “It’s a fantastic wildlife assemblage.”

Moriarty has been working in the Tahoe National Forest under the tutelage of Zielinski, a wildlife ecologist, and Eric Forsman, a wildlife ecologist at OSU and the U.S. Geological Survey. Both are members of Moriarty’s graduate committee.

Zielinski, who is an expert at detecting rare mammals including wolverines, lynx, marten and fishers, said the U.S. Forest Service will begin seeking more evidence of wolverines in the region. In addition to the camera array, researchers will try to collect hair and scat samples and compare them to an existing DNA database that may tell them from where the wolverine originated.


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Bill Zielinski,

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A California wolverine

A California wolverine

Social Critic David Korten to Speak

CORVALLIS, Ore. – An examination of the global corporate economy and how it can shift into a human-scale community is the focus of a speech by social critic David Korten on Thursday, March 13, at Oregon State University.

The lecture, “Navigating the Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community,” will begin at 7 p.m. in OSU’s Gilfillan Auditorium. It is free and open to the public.

The speech is the final event in OSU’s Ideas Matter series, “Who Owns the Sky? The Tragedy or Triumph of the Commons.”

Korten’s classic bestseller, “When Corporations Rule the World,” was one of the first books to articulate what he calls the destructive and oppressive nature of the global corporate economy. In his new book, “The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community,” Korten demonstrates that corporate power is a contemporary manifestation of what he calls “empire” – the organization of society by hierarchies of domination grounded in violent chauvinisms of race, gender, religion, nationality, language, and class.

Advocating for an earth community, Korten will talk about how humans can choose to turn this moment of “planetary crisis” into a new era, grounded in the life-affirming values of community, caring and cooperation that are shared by most of the world’s people and reflected throughout human history.

The series is sponsored by the Spring Creek Project for Ideas, Nature, and the Written Word, and the OSU Department of Philosophy. For information, go to http://springcreek.oregonstate.edu.


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Charles Goodrich,

New OSU Program Designs With Nature

CORVALLIS, Ore. – This year, students at Oregon State University are learning to design with nature through a new undergraduate program in Ecological Engineering.

Combining the tools of engineering design with an understanding of how complex natural systems interact, the new program is part of both the College of Agricultural Sciences and the College of Engineering.

"Agriculture is where ecological engineers can contribute in many ways to a sustainable system that integrates human values with natural structures and functions," said John Bolte, head of OSU's Department of Biological and Ecological Engineering.

Citing examples of using plants to clean water, air and soil, Bolte said ecological engineering "is a new and rapidly growing industry that needs professionals who understand agriculture, plant systems and engineering design."

The program is taking education out of the laboratory and into the field, where large-scale, interconnected systems interact in unpredictable and sometimes unruly ways. Students study river systems, wetlands, agricultural lands and other places in nature to learn how to design functioning ecological systems to meet human needs.

"There is no other institution teaching this approach, and no better place to do it than Oregon State," said Lou Licht, president and founder of Ecolotree, Inc., the nation's oldest phyto-remediation business. "For the past 17 years, we have had to train 'conventional engineers' ourselves through internships. OSU's new program of ecological engineering has the potential to provide industry, communities and government agencies with off-the-shelf, work-ready ecological engineers."

In his business, Licht, a 1978 OSU graduate in agricultural engineering, uses poplar and willow trees with other plants to accomplish the remediation required by law in places such as landfills, brown fields, chemical spills, contaminated soil and groundwater sites, and municipal and industrial wastewater treatment sites.

Bolte sees other opportunities for ecological engineers, including the burgeoning field of biofuels, which requires an understanding of processing engineering, agricultural production and ecological systems impact. He sees innovative industries emerging that will use new technologies, such as high-speed fiber optics, to probe the natural systems that humans depend on.

"Society has been very good at breaking down the individual parts of a system to understand how each part works," said Thayne Dutson, dean of OSU's College of Agricultural Sciences. "But, as Albert Einstein said, we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. We have seen the unintended consequences of looking at the parts without considering the larger whole. Global warming, endangered species, contaminated water supply are a few of the hard problems of society that will require new, integrated thinking to solve."

"This new degree sets Oregon State apart from other schools in the country," said Ron Adams, dean of the College of Engineering at OSU. "Many students study engineering because they want to solve complex problems that move the world toward a healthier, more sustainable place. This new degree is a major step in offering our engineering students another option that will impact the future in a positive way."

For more information on the OSU undergraduate program of ecological engineering, see http://bee.oregonstate.edu/undergrad/undergrad.htm.


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John Bolte,

A Spiritual Approach to Conflict Resolution

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A method of conflict resolution that taps into human spirituality, as opposed to the rational tools of legal, economic or territorial give-and-take negotiation, may help address some of the world’s most persistent and seemingly hopeless conflicts, a new study suggests.

In a simplistic sense, the idea is to see spirituality, universal human themes, religion and God as part of the solution to conflicts, as opposed to part of the problem. The tools and mechanisms that emerge from centuries of spiritual quests may provide a basis for communication, understanding and ultimate agreement where legal haggles, arguments over “rights” and purely rational debates are clearly failing, experts say.

“A marriage of traditional conflict resolution approaches, along with the tools of our spiritual and religious heritage, could offer a whole new avenue to address very serious disputes,” said Aaron Wolf, (http://www.geo.oregonstate.edu/people/faculty/wolfa.htm) a professor of geosciences at Oregon State University, and expert in both water resource issues and conflict resolution.

“This approach would be quite different than what we usually try now, and it may not always work,” Wolf said. “But given the severity of some of the conflicts and cultural clashes facing the world, if this approach does not work, I’m not sure what, if anything, will.”

Wolf outlines these concepts in an upcoming publication in the Journal of International Affairs, based on a study of conflicts all over the world and through thousands of years of history.

Wolf specializes in the study of water conflicts, but new approaches to conflict resolution could just as readily be applied to multiple other types of disputes, he said. The question is not so much what the dispute is about, as to how you can effectively get the opposing sides discussing it in terms of fairness, shared values, genuine needs and social equity – instead of historical rights, conflicting world views, legal positions, political demands or religious alienation.

That’s not easy to do.

“You look at some of the world’s most significant conflicts today, and what you really see are different worlds and cultures colliding,” Wolf said. “If we approach this with the attitude that we will show people where they are wrong and why they should adapt our world view, we’re going to fail. That’s what we too often have tried to do, and most of the traditional tools of negotiation don’t provide us with much help.”

Alternatively, Wolf said, answers might be found in the positive nature of human spirituality and the best parts of many world religions – what Abraham Lincoln once appealed to as common “bonds of affection” and “the better angels of our nature.”

Having conceded the difficulty of the task, Wolf outlines a number of approaches in his new study that provide usable tools, and most of them are based in the spiritual or religious teachings of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Taoism, Buddhism, Native American lore and others.

“Every spiritual tradition in the world is devoted to a very similar process, that is to guide individuals to move from thinking about their needs as individuals to addressing more of their obligations to society, humanity and other issues larger than themselves,” Wolf said in his journal article. “In this setting, conflict can be seen less as a displacement between rational sets of interests, and more as a rift in the fabric of community, with the attendant obligation for healing.”

There are references in many spiritual systems to “Four Worlds,” or planes of existence that view the way humans look at things – physical, emotional, knowing, and spiritual. Traditional conflict resolution approaches emphasize the physical and intellectual realities, while largely ignoring the emotional and spiritual realms, as if they are part of the problem.

In reality, Wolf said, tapping into the totality of human understanding can often form the basis for improved communication, a sense of shared life experiences, and an understanding of other values that ultimately can move opposing sides towards compassion, compromise, and a desire for equity, not victory. And this is more than just embracing philosophy, he says – there’s something about the spiritual nature of human consciousness that is more profound than mere morality or ethics.

If this all sounds a little mystical for the real world, Wolf points to a thick text on his desk – the “U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and Western Water Institutional Solutions Project.” It’s a water management and conflict resolution manual that is being adapted for use across the West, co-authored by Wolf, and it’s based on tools and principles largely borrowed from Jewish, Christian, Islamic or Asian spiritual traditions. Similar concepts also form most of the basis for a new “World Bank International Water Course,” published jointly by the World Bank and UNESCO.

“Truth be told, people don’t even have to know that the conflict resolution techniques they are using are based in our spiritual or religious heritage,” Wolf said. “All they care about is that it works.”

Wolf recently spent a sabbatical year learning more about the various spiritual tools available – the Jewish Kabbalah balance between justice and mercy, the Buddhist understanding of self and other, the Islamic processes for institutionalizing mercy and compassion in social interaction, and tools such as “transformative listening.”

“I think part of the global concern here is a divide between West and North, versus South and East,” Wolf said. “That may be a reflection of the choice the West and North made towards separation of church and state in the Enlightenment of the 1700s. A focus on rationality clearly was felt needed at the time in order to achieve religious tolerance. But in the process we may have lost touch with the mechanisms that spirituality offers us to understand others, to bridge social divides and see beyond our own needs.”

Part of the problem is also economic, Wolf said. So long as every issue is broken down as a dollars-and-cents equation, it will be more difficult to achieve working solutions that both sides can live with.

“I really think there are some huge steps forward we can make with dispute resolution,” Wolf said. “But we need a new and more holistic tool kit to work with, and we may have to learn ways of talking to people that we’re unfamiliar with.”

The Hindus have a rich tradition of narrative, Wolf said, that’s an example of what can be tapped in formal negotiation settings. By having everyone introduce themselves by telling a story about their personal background, perhaps including a personal story about their relationship to a river, they set aside for the moment their titles, educational degrees and non-negotiable demands, and talk to each other in a context of shared human experience.

Only then does the dialogue begin.


Story By: 

Aaron Wolf,