What Now Collaborators?

For more than 20 years the timber industry, joined by federal and state government agencies and elected officials from both parties, has instigated and nurtured the use of collaboration to supposedly solve public lands resource extraction issues. They have been aided and abetted in this effort by any number of so-called “conservation” groups generously funded by foundations such as the PEW Trust to be collaborators. But now, how can these same groups claim a shred of legitimacy by collaborating with Donald Trump’s “make America raped again” agenda?

Those with good memories will recall when Montana’s Republican Gov. Marc Racicot initiated his Consensus Council in the mid-90s. Appointing hand-picked individuals from a very limited number of groups and business interests, the supposed goal was to find agreement on the thorny natural resource issues of the day. The results were predictably mixed, but the foundation for collaboration had been laid in Montana and from there it expanded primarily toward resource extraction on federal lands, where it grew into a bizarre monster of backroom deal-cutting, largely closed to full public participation and draped in the political cover offered by Democrat elected officials.

One of the first of the very bad ideas to rise to the top was Democrat Sen. Jon Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. Unbelievably, the measure was rolled out at a lumber mill in Townsend and here was Tester, along with the collaborator “conservation” groups and their “timber partners,” all lauding the bill and the collaborative process that had spawned it.

But lo and behold, despite the fact that national forests are owned by all Americans, this small handful of people came to the agreement that Tester’s bill should contain an unprecedented congressional mandate to log a large number of forested acres every year whether forest professionals thought they should be logged or not.

Sending shock waves through Washington at the horrific precedent such a law would set, despite Tester’s best efforts to tag the measure on as a rider on unrelated bills, the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act thankfully never made it into law. But the Republican dream of always getting most of what their corporate backers wanted via collaboration had morphed far beyond their expectations and was now not just embraced but championed by Democrats and their collaborator pals.

Simply put, partisan politics then assumed a huge role – as the last thing the “conservation” groups wanted to do was bad-mouth their Democrat politicians pals. Gov. Brian Schweitzer, President Obama, and Gov. Steve Bullock all joined in Tester’s choir of supportive collaborators. Incredibly, they didn’t foresee that in lamenting federal management of public lands they were playing right into the hands of the federal land divestiture movement.

Rising like a zombie from the latent Sagebrush Rebellion movement of the ’80s, we now have the latest incarnation of the effort to turn even more federal lands and resources over to profit-driven entities with little or no concern for future generations. And with the election of Donald Trump, the outcome of collaboration and clueless politicians has blossomed into a nightmare scenario where rapacious corporations are unleashed once again to mercilessly pillage America’s dwindling public lands resources.

Montanans are no strangers to the consequences of such thoughtless and short-sighted policies. We are home to the largest Superfund site in the nation thanks to the unregulated destruction of the environment by the copper mining and smelting industry. Our forest streams are filled with sediment from tens of thousands of miles of poorly constructed logging roads that treated living forest ecosystems as nothing more than log yards to be savagely clearcut, leaving species such as bull trout, grizzly bears and lynx so devastated they required Endangered Species Act protections or face extinction.

Make no mistake, our nation is facing an all-out attack on public lands and our environment, not just through federal lands divestiture, but through federal agencies cloistered, silenced and shivering in fear of the open threat from Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, that federal employees “either get with the program or they can go.” And no, the collaborators’ “timber partners” won’t be coming to the rescue.

The options left to those who reaped great financial rewards through collaborating with resource extraction interests are now few indeed. They either stand up and fight to preserve what’s left of America’s public lands legacy for future generations or live with the outcome of their past collaboration and the destructive policies and actions it has spawned. The choice seems clear. So what now, collaborators?

George Ochenski is a columnist for the Daily Montanan, where this essay originally appeared.