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The Perils of Collaboration Environmentalists Out on a Limb

Environmentalists Out on a Limb

by ERICA ROSENBERG

There’s nothing wrong with a group of people historically at odds sitting down to find common ground. Or is there?

For decades, our public lands have been a battleground: Timber, wildlife, recreation, wilderness — which interests and uses should dominate? But now, "collaboration" is all the rage. In collaboration, diverse stakeholders (as they invariably tag themselves) — environmentalists, developers, off-roaders, timber companies, county officials — hash out an agreement on how to manage their local public lands and then submit it to Congress for approval.

A few deals already have been enacted, and another half a dozen are in the works across the U.S. Collaboration has been touted as the solution to "gridlock" on our national forests. Timber companies and their allies gripe that the normal process — extensive analysis, citizen involvement and the right to challenge agency decisions — has ground all "management activity" (read: logging) to a halt. Western counties surrounded by public land argue that they need room to expand. Others believe lands worthy of protection are still threatened. The new paradigm means everyone sits down with their adversaries.

But these collaborations are troublesome, particularly for environmentalists, who risk undermining their mission as well as the very laws that are the basis of their power, effectiveness and legitimacy.

For example, a bill poised for introduction in Congress would turn into law an agreement reached by one collaborative group on how to manage Montana’s 3.3-million-acre Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. The stakeholders — Montana Wilderness Assn., National Wildlife Federation, Trout Unlimited and timber companies — had one thing in common: They hated the management plan proposed by the Forest Service. So they came up with their own plan specifying which areas can be logged, which can be opened up to off-roaders and which should be recommended to Congress for wilderness designation.

Sounds reasonable enough. So what’s wrong? To start, as owners of the public lands, all Americans have a stake in their management, and they have not designated these representatives. Even the most inclusive collaboration can go bad: Outliers who pose a threat to consensus are either not invited or made to feel unwelcome. And ultimately, decisions are being made behind closed doors. But Congress loves a done deal. With a local sponsor, Congress is inclined to rubber-stamp these initiatives, overlooking the fact that they are an end-run around the suite of laws that safeguard public lands and keep land-management decisions an open process.

The Beaverhead bill, for example, triples the acreage where logging can take place from what was in the Forest Service’s plan. It requires an environmental analysis only for individual logging projects rather than the plan as a whole, thereby waiving the bedrock U.S. environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act. It also allows logging in roadless areas — a radical departure from the Roadless Area Conservation Rule that environmentalists championed during the Clinton era. Other deals have sold off vast acreage of public lands in exchange for wilderness designations.

The collaboration prototype — the 1998 Quincy Library Group legislation — illustrates the problem. That group, named for the California town library where it met, came up with a plan for three national forests in the Sierra affected by endangered-species listings. The proposal increased logging while protecting pristine areas. When it landed in Congress, California Rep. George Miller insisted on adding one provision: All environmental laws would apply. That meant the Quincy Library logging plan had to go through the same environmental analysis a Forest Service plan would.

The Quincy Library proposal, held up at the time as a model of local, consensus-based decision-making, has never been fully implemented. Why? Primarily because it didn’t jibe with Endangered Species Act guidelines protecting the California spotted owl. In other words, it did not pass scientific or legal muster.

That environmentalist "stakeholders" signed on to the Quincy Library agreement in the first place highlights the danger of the collaboration fad. After years of being tarred as obstructionist ideologues, some environmental groups now have a seat at the negotiating table — indeed, are seen as crucial to legitimizing any deal. Enjoying their newfound popularity, these self-appointed decision-makers become heavily invested in reaching an accord, regardless of the science, the law or the long-term effect on the land.

For decades, environmentalists fought to get a more level playing field and establish transparency and accountability in public-lands policy; they continue to fight the Bush administration’s relentless efforts to dismantle these policies. How ironic it would be, then, if in their eagerness to embrace the new paradigm, they craft and push through Congress deals that undercut the very laws that got them to the table in the first place.

ERICA ROSENBERG directs the program on public policy at Arizona State University’s law school and served as counsel to the House Resources Committee from 1999-2004. Rosenberg is also a board member of the Western Land Exchange Project.