Collaboration is touted as the latest solution to pubic land conflicts. Senator Crapo (R-ID) recently announced a new “collaborative” had been formed to address public land issues in Idaho’s Clearwater Basin. Ironically, this public announcement came a few months after the collaborative group had formed, largely out of the public eye.
The public lands in the Clearwater Basin–centered mainly on the Clearwater and Nez Perce National Forests–form the northern half of the largest intact wildland ecosystem left in the lower 48. Salmon and steelhead spawn in the Selway and Lochsa Rivers. Lower elevation habitat with ancient cedar groves and other mesic plants makes the area a unique blend of the Rockies and coastal forests. Wolves, fishers, wolverines, and a few grizz call this area home. A study done for World Wildlife Fund Canada by three prominent biologists found that the Clearwater Basin was the most important area in the entire Rockies for large carnivores.
Serious questions surround collaboratives. They may effectively replace the legitimate public process. For example, the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires that federal agencies objectively evaluate a range of options and seek public input on those options before making a decision. Collaborative processes make decisions couched as “recommendations” before this analysis occurs. As such, NEPA becomes a pro forma exercise. An excerpt from an article about Crapo’s new Clearwater collaborative, written by The Lewiston Morning Tribune’s Eric Barker on May 30 2008, makes this clear:
Tom Tidwell, regional forester in charge of national forests in northern Idaho and western Montana, pledged to work to implement whatever the groups come up with. He said anything done on Forest Service land will still have to go through the agency’s public process. But he said having broad agreement up front will make the process smoother. “What ever comes out of this effort we are going to be supportive of it,” he said.
This is a tacit admission there won’t be an objective analysis of alternatives before a decision is made as required by NEPA.
It also isn’t clear whether this process is currently open to citizens or closed with no more room. While someone from Rhode Island can participate in the normal public processes, it is almost certain such a person couldn’t participate in a series of meetings in Idaho to decide the fate of land that belong to all Americans.
There seem to be preconditions as well. The Lewiston Morning Tribune quoted Senator Crapo as saying, “Each participant must be as committed to helping others reach their goals and objectives as that participant is committed to advancing their own interests.” At best, this is a vague and meaningless statement, at worst it could be used as a club to bully participants who hold a minority view to acquiesce by accusing them of operating in bad faith.
It also isn’t clear whether this group will limit itself to “recommendations” for the Forest Service. Conservation groups involved in the collaborative, including the Idaho Conservation League and the Wilderness Society, want to push for wilderness legislation. The problem is other interests could ask the environmentalists to agree to weaken and amend existing environmental laws in exchange for an agreement to designate some wilderness. Indeed, “quid pro quo” legislation is a recent trend. Public land disposal, weakening amendments to the Wilderness Act, and other precedential efforts reneging on past commitments have been folded into so-called wilderness legislation in the past few years.
Collaboratives are often proposed to circumvent compliance with environmental laws. Special interests and the government want to overturn court decisions where citizens prevailed in convincing the judiciary to force the federal agencies to follow environmental laws governing how or whether commercial logging, mining, livestock grazing, or developed recreation takes place.
The Clearwater collaborative may be related to a past effort to wrest control of public land from US citizens. The State of Idaho formed a federal land task force a few years ago which produced a recomemdnation for a local collaborative to make decisions on the Nez Perce and Clearwater National Forests. This dove-tailed with Bush’s plan to turn over national forests to local entities on a pilot basis, the first step to privatization. Environmental groups and other citizens successfully opposed this effort, a fact apparently forgotten by the environmental groups who are now backing Crapo’s collaborative.
Furthermore, some time ago special interests came up with a ploy to increase logging and log roadless areas ostensibly to create more forage for elk herds which had declined in the Clearwater after the severe winter of 95-96. Two separate “elk” collaborative efforts ensued; the second came from Senator Crapo. Interestingly, this second collaborative resulted in a general agreement to focus logging on roaded areas and mainly use fire in roadless areas. Whether this current collaborative will reverse this recommendation is not known.
The Clearwater collaborative could pose problems for the integrity of Clearwater wildlands. Groups like the local Friends of the Clearwater have led the charge for keeping the public lands in the Clearwater Basin wild. That organization has also pushed the visionary Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act, the science-based ecosystem bill developed by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies. This bill has been moving through the House and is the best way to ensure long-term viability of rare species in the region. The Clearwater collaborative could undercut congressional support for that legislation.
The dilemma is those who can’t or won’t participate may have their concerns ignored. Those who do participate risk undercutting the public interest and existing legitimate processes. Collaborative processes are touted as democratic and open yet only a few can participate. They are also bare-knuckle political affairs with winners and losers which have more to do with coercion and less with real consensus. Though touted to end controversy, they are controversial themselves and deserve much more scrutiny.
Gary Macfarlane is the Ecosystem Defense Director for Friends of the Clearwater and board president for the Alliance for the Wild Rockies.