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The Chainsaw Collaboratives

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Collaboratives have been initiated on many national forests across the West. The stated goal is to resolve controversial resource issues through cooperative discussions between various interests, Thus collaboratives typically include representatives of industry such as timber companies, ranchers, local tourist promotion, county commissioners, Forest Service, BLM, FWS, state and county government, and state wildlife agency representatives, recreational interests like horseman, mountain bikers, ORV interests and what are variously termed “environmentalists” which typically includes one or two paid staff of national or regional environmental groups like the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society and so forth.

I have participated to one degree or another in five collaboratives and I can attest that there are institutional biases inherent in all collaborative that makes them unlikely to promote policies that are in the best interest of the public in general, much less the integrity of the land. Indeed, some critics argue their purpose is to reduce public participation in public lands management decisions.

BIASED PARTICIPATION

First is the fact that participation in collaborative is voluntary. Meetings are typically scheduled during week days during “work” hours which is one way that overall public participation is significantly reduced.  What happens is that most involvement is from those with a vested economic interest in the outcome– paid lobbyists of the timber industry, ranchers/grazing industry, ORV industry, and other groups.

One timber company representative acknowledged when asked why we were at the meeting said quite unabashedly that he was paid to be there to lobby for more logging.

One can question the ethics of allowing individuals with a direct financial stake in the outcome to participate in decision-making and recommendations that will benefit themselves or their employers.

While it’s true that occasionally there are one or two paid representative of environmental groups or other members who do not represent exploitative interests (nor have a financial stake in the outcome), they are completely overwhelmed by resource extractive interests.

Even beyond the obvious representatives of industry who often dominate these collaborative, other agency and public employees in attendance also have a philosophical and indirect vested interest in continued resource exploitation. For instance, many of the collaboratives I’ve attended include county extension foresters, state foresters, representatives of the state forestry schools, and Forest Service foresters in attendance. If you are a forester your job depends on continued logging of public lands, and most take it for granted that logging is overall a public good.

Occasionally you might get a Forest Service or Fish and Game biologist attending who might have a slightly different outlook on what is the “public good”, but even these folks know their marching orders—which are not to interfere ultimately with the general demand for some logging, grazing, or other resource exploitation.

Beyond even these obvious conflicts of interest, others in attendance like county commissioners, extension agents, and other public employees also generally see resource extraction like logging and grazing as a “good” for local economic interests.

Given the membership of the typical collaborative it is hardly surprising that most support greater logging/grazing of our public lands.

To make an analogy, imagine there was a collaborative that was put together to determine whether a nuclear power plant should be build adjacent to your city and the majority of participants were representatives of the nuclear power industry, nuclear engineers, and members of the local power company with maybe one or two environmentalists—would you trust their recommendations to the federal nuclear regulatory agency?

PARADIGMS SUPPORT EXTRACTION

Beyond these obvious conflicts of interest, there are starting assumptions that serve to limit participation as well. Basically those who agree with the basic premise that our forests need to be “managed” and are “improved” by logging are those who self-select to be on collaboratives. Those who may question such starting assumptions have limited opportunities to voice their objections and disagreements and if they attend at all, often become frustrated and leave. This self selection process guarantees certain outcomes and recommendations.

There is also a lot of group pressure to “get along”, so even when environmentalists are paid to attend the meetings and may have some different ideals than the overall group philosophical values, it is difficult for anyone to make any substantial differences except along the margins. It takes real courage to attend such meetings and continuously voice objections, or concerns that run counter to the dominant paradigm. Most environmentalists I’ve encountered at collaborative meetings are subtly pressured to agree to actions that they are uncomfortable supporting, but resisting the social pressure to “cooperate” is difficult.

GROUP THINK

Because of this group think, there is little opportunity or support for alternative interpretations of science, economics, and policy paradigms. For instance, all collaboratives I’ve attended believe our forests are “unhealthy” even though forest health is largely defined in terms of timber management goals. Most believe that wildfires, beetles, and other natural selective processes are detrimental to forest ecosystems, despite a growing body of literature that questions such assumptions.

Most believe that wildfires “damage” the land, again despite a lot of science that shows that wildfires are largely beneficial to the long term health of forest ecosystems.

Most believe that logging is good for the economy, ignoring the fact that nearly all federal timber sales are money losing affairs subsidized by taxpayers.  And most of the economic analysis used to justify logging/grazing do not consider the inherent collateral damage caused by resource extraction as a cost. Thus sedimentation from logging roads, weeds spread by livestock, trampled riparian areas that harm fish, loss of biomass from the forest ecosystem, and other impacts are simply ignored or downplayed.

Most start out with the assumption that thinning/logging can preclude or stop wildfires (again because wildfires are viewed as “bad”), even though there is abundant evidence that under severe fire conditions, wildfires burn through, over, and around thinned forests.

Because most are dominated by pro-logging/grazing interests, they ignore other alternatives that might achieve many of the same goals but with less environmental impacts and less direct subsidies to the industries. For instance, one will hear that logging will reduce forest density which is presumed to improve forest health, but it’s not considered a viable option when it is pointed out that beetles will selectively reduce forest density for free, and do a better job of picking the trees that are genetically or otherwise most vulnerable to drought.

KEEPING UP WITH SCIENCE

In addition, due to the technical nature of some of the issues, in particular the science on fire ecology, thinning effectiveness, grazing practices, fire management, logging impacts, wildlife impacts, and even what constitutes a healthy forest that are used to justify resource exploitation, participates are really not scientifically equipped to debate or disagree with the dominant paradigms.

To give one example of how new science can change assumptions, in Oregon many logging proposals are now justified on the belief that wildfire is detrimental to spotted owl survival due to the owl’s need for old growth forests. If the forests burn up, so it is thought, owls are harmed. While it’s true that owls require old growth forests for nest and roosting habitat, it turns out that recent studies demonstrate that owl preferentially forage for prey in burned forests due to the increase in rodent populations created by wildfire regrowth. But most agency personnel, much less the average collaborative participant, have never heard of these studies, and thus support  logging and thinning on the presumption that they are protecting spotted owls.

Unfortunately even the agency personnel do not have the time to keep up with the vast amount of new scientific information generated annually, and it is beyond the ability and time constraints for anyone else involved in these collaboratives to monitor the latest scientific literature except in the most cursory manner.  No matter how dedicated one may be to keeping up with the latest science, one can’t know everything and there will always be debate about what constitutes the “best” science.  So nearly all collaboratives are operating under flawed assumptions, outdated ecological science, and of course, the inherent bias to find science that supports resource extraction while minimizing and/or ignoring science that questions such assumptions.

WHY COLLABORATIVES ARE PROMOTED

We all want to be liked and respected and the social pressure to agree with collaborative decisions is exceedingly strong—which is why collaboratives are so universally endorsed. Those in power know that getting the approval of a collaborative with “representatives” of environmental interests certifies and legitimizes the outcomes.

Participation in collaboratives also silences environmental groups on many other issues that are not necessarily discussed as part of any particular collaborative. There is a tendency to avoid vigorous advocacy for environmental protection in other areas if it might offend other stakeholders (read industry representatives and rural politicians).  Thus environmental representatives that may be promoting wilderness designation may avoid criticism of livestock grazing or logging proposals if they believe they must remain “friends” with the timber, ranching and others collaborative members.

They also know that all those meetings are a huge time commitment, and since most environmental groups have limited funds, paying an employee to attend meetings usually comes at the expense of other activities like reviewing and commenting upon environmental impact statements, visiting timber sale sites and grazing allotments, and most importantly organizing community resistance to additional resource extraction and/or promoting wilderness designation and other protective measures.

IS THERE ANY REASON TO PARTICIPATE IN COLLABORATIVES?

Given all the drawbacks is there any reason why anyone with environmental concerns should participate in a collaborative? I think yes, but with qualifications. This should not be done In the absence of good organizing, advocacy in other ways or coop your group or you from voicing objections to nebulous and destructive projects.

Be clear from the start that you are like the Lorax—there to speak for the forests.  People are more likely to respect you if they know you are speaking from heart-felt and honest feelings.

Participation does guarantee that collaborative members will hear alternative perspectives that they might not otherwise be exposed to in their daily encounters.  I am certain, for instance, when I repeatedly voice the opinion that wildfires, beetles, mistletoe, and other natural agents are “RESTORING” the forest, it is counter intuitive and contrary to what most collaborative members ever hear otherwise. Or when I point out that some scientists question the validity of fire scar studies for determining past wildfire history due to inherent biases in how the data is collected and analyzed, I know this is news to many in the group. Now, of course, many may dismiss my ideas as heretical to “good forest management” but at least they are exposed to the ideas.

In addition, there are some agency people who regularly attend these meetings who are sympathetic to the concerns of environmentalists.  When someone questions the dominant paradigm or introduces some new scientific perspective, it gives them the political cover to raise these same issues in their own internal discussions and decision-making process.

Finally there are some members of the collaborative who are truly open to new ways of viewing forest management and concepts. Voicing a different perspective may be the only exposure they may have to these ideas and it can change opinions and perspectives.

Nevertheless, I think it’s important for the media, politicians, agency personnel, and the general public to recognize the inherent conflicts and limitations of collaborative efforts. No one should automatically assume that collaborative are reaching the best outcomes in terms of public interest , much less the best interest of our forests.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy.

George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy. He serves on the board of the Western Watersheds Project.

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