Seduced by Greed: the Perils of Environmental Collaboration

Back in the mid-’90s, Republican Gov. Marc Racicot and the natural resource extraction industries came up with a dandy strategy to divide and conquer environmentalists and conservationists. It was called “collaboration” and began with Racicot’s hand-picked Consensus Council. The concept was simple: put some malleable representatives of a few organizations in the room with industry representatives/lobbyists and find “consensus” on natural resource issues.

The goal was always to enable more, not less, exploitation of Montana’s natural resources, whether it was logging, grazing, mining, road-building, coal or oil and gas development. For more than 20 years now the collaborators have openly undercut and insulted those who were actually fighting for the critical maintenance, restoration and preservation of Montana’s incredible array of fish, wildlife and the habitats they require to exist.

Driven by millions of dollars from foundations such as the PEW Charitable Trusts, which derived its money from Sunoco Oil, money-hungry conservation organizations flocked to the foundation handouts while masquerading as “grassroots” non-profits. The Wilderness Society has nearly $60 million in assets and owns a large office building in downtown Washington, D.C., while the Montana Wilderness Association bought a 24,238-square-foot, half-million-dollar stone mansion in Helena. Lubed by fossil fuel money, these former conservation organizations were on a roll. And they were not alone.

In a stunning lack of conviction, Democrat politicians jumped on the collaboration bandwagon, too. Montana’s U.S. Sen. Jon Tester tossed his environmentalist supporters who had worked hard to put him in office in favor of collaborators. Buying into the Bush-era “healthy forests” propaganda formulated by former timber lobbyist Mark Rey, Tester went so far as to introduce his ill-fated Forest Jobs and Recreation Act that contained unprecedented congressionally mandated logging levels on national forests.

The measure, which overrode the Forest Service, was nonetheless supported by collaborator organizations led by the Montana Wilderness Association, but including Montana Trout Unlimited, The Wilderness Society and the National Wildlife Federation, among others.

Since then collaborators have continued to back measures that primarily benefit resource extraction industries in hopes that by doing so they’ll get a little something out of the deal. But that false narrative has now been dashed by the no-holds-barred Trump administration’s wild rush to exploit every possible resource on public lands.

Recent examples include the collaboration on sage grouse led by Gov. Steve Bullock, which was lauded for keeping the bird off the Endangered Species List, but just got tossed in favor of increased oil and gas development. Or how about losing four already-protected wilderness study areas to get a sliver of new wilderness on the Rocky Mountain Front? That backroom deal ensconced perpetual grazing rights with no environmental analysis in law and opened up a couple hundred thousand acres of roadless lands to logging.

From gutting the Environmental Protection Agency, dumping the Clean Power Plan, and kow-towing to a Canadian mining corporation to develop a 13-square-mile gold mine in the headwaters of the most productive wild salmon fishery on the planet in Bristol Bay, Alaska, the Trump administration is brutalizing what’s left of nature in favor of resource extraction.

That these now-wealthy so-called “conservation” organizations didn’t see this coming is simply a testament to their greed and political naiveté. That they sold out and undercut those with more vision and political savvy for a handful of silver is unforgivable. But now, with the runaway Trump administration bulldozing their agreements as well as the public resources owned by all Americans, it’s no wonder that the collaborators are strangely silent as their failed strategy chickens come home to roost.

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