The Perils of Collaboration

“Polite conservationists leave no mark upon the Earth except scars that could have been prevented had they stood their ground.”

— David Brower

There is a real difference between negotiation and collaboration. In negotication one tries to get the best deal for one’s position or goal. In collaboration, those participating generally adopt the least controversial and least disruptive policies. In collboration all points of views are considered to be equally valid. But that is not the case in conservation. The goal of the timber industry to expand profits is not necessarily in the public interest, and/or have the same value as fighting to prevent the extinction of a grizzly or loss of a wild roadless land to development. When dealing with public resources, collaboration almost always means private industry gets to keep or increase access to public resources. And that is exactly what we have seen as the outcome of the collaborative process that has led to Senator Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation bill.

Collaboration is not a level playing field. Membership in such cooperative committees always includes individuals with a direct financial conflict of interest and those who have already indicated that they are willing to compromise away public resources for a positive outcome. Such collaborative processes are corrupting, not only to those who have a direct financial stake in the outcome, but also any other members of the collaborative group. We can see this corruption in the “collaborative” process that created the legislation being promoted by Senator Tester. Well-meaning and dedicated environmental groups participated in this collaboration adopted a bill that has a direct financial benefit to private businesses interests, degrades public forests, and compromises/ and restricts public participation in the management of public forests.

I do not want to imply that those who supported this legislation are unethical or had malicious intent. Rather they are caught up in a process that had a predictable outcome.

The corrupting effect was even more apparent in the past few weeks when it was revealed that a discussion draft conference committee revision of Senator Jon Testers’ Forest Jobs and Recreation bill provided better protection for Montana’s forest lands.

The draft legislation eliminates many of the worse aspects of Senator Tester’s bill including a mandated logging of 10,000 acres a year. The draft proposal would provide greater protection to old growth and large trees, eliminated a shortened time frame for NEPA documentation, as well as things that are in direct conflict with the Wilderness Act like allowing ranchers to use motorized access in the proposed Snowcrest Wilderness and helicopter landings in the Highlands proposed wilderness. What pro-wilderness and public interest group would not support such changes?

Well, the answer is abundantly clear-not the MWA, TU or NWF. In newspaper articles across the state, these organizations said they wanted mandated logging of Montana’s forests, and they would not support a bill that did not include the timber giveaways and subsidies to the timber industry. Is this what one expects from organizations that profess to work in the public interest and for wildlands?

Hearing these organizations continued misguided support for logging and taxpayer subsidies for a few private corporations, I can’t help but think that they are suffering from the Stockholm syndrome. Like Patty Hearst, these environmental organizations have been captured by their former foes.

Such an outcome is not an uncommon result of “collaborative” efforts. A good example of this corruption of the public interest to benefit private industry is the Quincy Library Group in California. Here local environmental activists joined with timber industry to craft a plan that called for logging up to 60,000 acres of the Plumas National Forest annually in exchange for protection of some old growth trees and small roadless areas. Like the Tester legislation, the Quincy proposal was hailed as an example of how collaboration had achieved a resolution to a long-standing stalemate.

However, other environmentalists, including the Wilderness Society, Sierra Nevada Forest Protection Campaign, and Sierra Club among others did not support more logging on the Plumas NF and they railed against the Quincy Library Group proposal. Environmental members of the Quincy group soon joined the timber industry in denouncing the anti-corporate giveaway activists.

We don’t know whether Senator Tester’s bill will pass Congress, or whether the logging mandates will remain. One thing is certain, had the environmental organizations involved used negotiation rather than collaboration they might have received more support from many hard core wilderness supporters, and perhaps even some grudging respect from the timber industry as well without jeopardizing their ability to further wilderness protection in Montana. Because they have adopted the timber industry’s position and propaganda, these groups feel compelled to support Tester’s logging legislation or risk their credibility with the timber industry. I think, given the circumstances, these are legitimate concerns, however one of their own making.

What happens in collaborative efforts is that everyone has a stake in declaring victory-to make attending all those meetings worthwhile-so one is willing to accept the lowest common denominator. So they are reluctant to walk away from an agreement-and we see this with Tester’s legislation.

What these groups failed to understand is that one doesn’t have to give up one’s core values to negotiate with other interest groups. A good example of this is the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA) who obtained protective legislation for Steens Mountain in eastern Oregon.

When the proposal to create a Steens Mountain National Monument in eastern Oregon was being negotiated by Oregon Natural Desert Association, there was a lot of discussion between ranchers, county commissioners, and ONDA. ONDA was working with Greg Walden, a conservative Republican Congressman who had no love for wilderness. How did they get wilderness with a Republican especially when ONDA has always opposed grazing on public lands?

First, ONDA remained very up front that their goal was to end grazing–and they were not afraid to tell the ranchers, the Congressman, or anyone else that if they had an opportunity to eliminate grazing, they would go for it. Indeed, one of the things they negotiated successfully in the Steen Mountain legislation was the first legislated cow-free wilderness. Since they were clear in expressing that their chief goal was to protect wilderness and eliminate grazing, no one, including the local ranchers had any misgivings about their motives.

The ranchers went into the negotiations with their eyes wide open. They knew where ONDA stood on matters. They did not think ONDA lied or deceived them when they continue to lobby to remove cows from public lands, not only on Steens, but also throughout Eastern Oregon.

However, ONDA’s goal of livestock removal didn’t keep them from working with the ranchers either. By negotiation ranchers got some things they wanted too. They were able to consolidate their private lands by land exchanges with the BLM. Some received permit buyouts, and left the business altogether, but with a golden parachute. With these negotiations, the ranchers had some control over where wilderness designations occurred.

ONDA never let the fact that they were negotiating with the ranchers keep them from continuing to file law suits to thwart grazing, While the ranchers involved understood this because ONDA was very clear from the beginning that they were always opposed to grazing on public lands.

So for the purposes of Steens Mountain legislation, both parties worked to get legislation that was mutually beneficial. However, negotiation did not mean ONDA had to become a ranching industry advocate.

ONDA never diluted their message. They continued to educate the public about the damage done by livestock grazing to the public lands and wildlife. They never compromised their message to appease the ranchers they were working with to garner legislation. You won’t hear ONDA suggesting that a economically marginal industry like ranching is critical to the economies of rural Oregon like MWA, TU, and NWF misinformed claims about the economic role of a dying timber industry in Montana. You won’t hear ONDA parroting the livestock industry propaganda that grazing will reduce fires or improve the health of rangelands like the MWA, TU and NWF have asserted that logging will do for forests in Montana.

In the case of the Steens Mountain legislation, ONDA and the ranchers were being practical. ONDA worked with the ranchers because it furthered their goal of getting a cow free wilderness as well as other things like wild and scenic river designation, a mineral withdrawal and other conservation benefits.

Since the Steens legislation, ONDA has negotiated with ranchers in the eastern Republican House District for two more cow-free BLM wilderness areas. In fact, they have yet another bill introduced into Congress this session that will establish two more new wildernesses. They have done this without compromising their position on livestock grazing on public lands.

Had the MWA, NWF, and TU clearly stated from the beginning that their goal was to garner the best outcome for Montana’s public forests (as opposed to the best outcome for private industry) they would not now have to feel like they were betraying their partners if they openly supported this draft bill and/or any other legislation that may come out of the legislative process that eliminated the mandated logging quota and other subsidies to the timber industry.

GEORGE WUERTHNER is a hunter, former hunting guide and ecologist. He divides his time between Montana, Oregon and Vermont.




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