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The Collaboration Trap

Most of environmental/conservation groups in the West are participants in various public land collaboratives. The majority are forest-oriented like the Northwest Forestry Collaborative  or the Deschutes Forest Collaborative in Oregon   or the Southwest Crown Collaborative in Montana . Though there are others like the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative which focuses primarily on BLM and Forest Service Wilderness Study Areas.

Groups participating in collaboratives include the Western Environmental Law Council (WELC), Northwest Conservation, Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC), Montana Wilderness Association (MWA), Oregon Wild, Wyoming Outdoor Council, The Lands Council, The Wilderness Society (TWS), the Nature Conservancy (TNC), and sometimes local Sierra Club chapters, among others.

Most participating collaborative members are made up of people who generally believe in exploiting natural landscapes for human benefit. As a generalization, there is overwhelming representation in such collaboratives by people who speak for the resource extraction industry or their sympathizers like rural county commissioners, ORV enthusiasts, and so forth. Those advocating for Nature are seldom present or only weakly represented by the larger environmental groups.

As a generalization, these environmental organizations have been captured or compromised by those whose intent is for greater access to and greater resource exploitation. They participate they argue because without their input the results would be more skewed and biased towards resource extraction.

But in my experience, the best outcome we often see is a bit of tweaking around the edges, not a substantial acknowledgment and acceptance of the value of ecological processes, wildlands, and natural ecosystems.

Nevertheless, participation blurs the lines for the public. When environmental groups participate in these collaborations, they provide “green cover” and legitimize the destruction of natural landscapes, wildlands, and wildlife habitat.

The above list is not exhaustive, and not all these groups, and certainly not all the employees in these groups, are “captured” by their adversaries.

Nevertheless, there is one commonality to all of them. For the most part, they believe spending months and years going to the meeting to change the minds of opponents is a productive and fruitful use of time and money.

I want to acknowledge that many of the people working for conservation groups are doing what they believe will yield the best outcomes.  However, I would suggest they reevaluate their methods and goals.

Though ostensibly all these groups profess to be wildlands advocates–and most are surely to some degree–they have bought into the prevailing myths promoted by the timber industry and forest service that manipulation of our landscape is necessary to “restore” ecological integrity and stability.

Exacerbating the situation is that most of the environmentalists participating in these collaboratives have limited ecological training. With backgrounds as lawyers, journalists, political advisors and so on, they are intelligent, and often well versed in policy, and other areas, but they don’t know the intricacies of ecology, and, the nuances of wildfire/forest ecology, range ecology, and wildlife ecology.

As a result, they are not prepared to go toe to toe with industry and agency specialists if there is any debate about management policy. And due to their limited scientific training, they are more easily beguiled by the “experts” that the agencies and industry use to promote their agenda.

One of the standard assumptions of many of the environmental organizations involved in collaboratives is they can somehow convince the many collaborative participants that protecting wildlands is a good thing.

This is the collaborative trap. You spend your time and money trying to convince people who generally believe natural resources (I dislike that term, but will use for now) are there for human consumption and enjoyment. And that humans have a right, and indeed, even a duty to manage, manipulate, and otherwise exploit the natural world for their direct benefit.

Within this paradigm, the intrinsic value of wildlands has no place.

There are many structural problems with collaboratives that defines the scope of questions, the science that can be reviewed, who gets to play the dominant role in these discussions and by default who has the time and money to attend countless meetings that go for years.

Many people participating in collaboratives have a financial interest in the outcome. If you are a timber company or even a forester with the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management, or a rural county commissioner you see logging as a good economic stimulant or directly affecting your employment. Certainly, without logging, there would be no reason for foresters, timber companies and so forth, so that biases most collaboratives from the start.

It seems unethical to me to allow anyone with a direct financial stake in the outcome to participate.  Yet it is very common for a good proportion of the collaborative membership to consist of timber company owners, mill workers, loggers, ranchers, miners, outfitters, and others who might enjoy a financial windfall from collaborative recommendations.

Second, when environmentalists join collaboratives, it guarantees to sink to the lowest common denominator. As a rule, the other people participating in collaboratives are usually hostile to more wildlands protection, so right up front, one acknowledges that there will be fewer wildlands protected.

Third, the people who work for environmental groups on collaboratives sometimes come to identify more with the other collaborative members than with the wildlands proponents of the region. In other words, collaborative representatives from the conservation movement will tend to be more inclined to accept and internalize the collaborative’s values and “science” that suggests active intervention is the way to “cure” the problem—which of course everyone in the collaborative recognizes is that our forests are “sick” or need “active management” to “save” them.

They suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome where the environmental participants in these collaboratives come to identify more with the alleged aggrievances held by rural communities than identifying with promoting the ecological values of the land and wildlife they presumably represent.

Over and over in news accounts of these collaboratives, the environmental participants tend to emphasize how they are “getting along” with former antagonists. How wonderful it is that they can have a “beer” with a timber worker or a rancher-as if that is the measure of true success, rather than whether we get more wildlands protected.

Fourth, and related to the previous problem, is that many of these groups so identify with the people involved in collaboratives that they avoid any conflicts or even speaking out about environmental damage for fear of jeopardizing the “relationship” with resource exploiters.

So, to my knowledge groups like the Montana Wilderness Association has not filed a single lawsuit to protect roadless lands threatened by logging for decades.  Indeed, it supports logging, even in roadless areas.

The contrast between collaborative members from conservation groups and non-paid wilderness advocates is clearly seen in the discussion over the future of the 230,000 acre Gallatin Range Proposed Wilderness by Bozeman. The grassroots Montanans for a Gallatin Wilderness (all non-paid but passionate wilderness supporters) is lobbying for wilderness protection for the entire roadless area.

By contrast, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, The Wilderness Society and Montana Wilderness Association working as an outgrowth of a collaborative are supporting a 100,000 acre mostly rocks and ice proposal.

Do not misunderstand me. I recognize that one may not get the full acreage of any proposal, but one should start any discussions with the proposal that protects the most land. One has to remember it is not the job of wilderness advocates to compromise their proposal from the on-set. It is the job of Congress to do the compromising. That is what they are paid to do. Wilderness advocates are paid to be advocates for wildlands.

To use another example, currently, domestic sheep grazing in the Gravelly Range of Montana threatens the recovery of wild bighorns as well as expanding grizzly bear populations. But when asked to join a lawsuit to remove the domestic sheep, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition refused.  GYC is participating in a Gravelly Range collaborative that includes many ranchers, so I assume they are unwilling to antagonize the livestock industry, despite the fact, there is well-grounded science showing that domestic sheep can transmit disease to wild bighorn.    (I have written them twice to ask why they aren’t in favor of grizzlies and bighorns over domestic sheep with no response).

The fifth and perhaps most insidious aspect of collaboratives there is always the assertion of “win-win” where “everyone” gets something. But the “everyone” usually does not include the wildlife, forest ecosystems, and wildlands. In the end, the “winners” are the collaborative membership not the public and most importantly the land and its diversity of life.

A new twist in the collaborative effort is the Wyoming Public Lands Imitative that is determining which Wilderness Study Areas in that state will remain roadless and wild and which could be developed.

One must wonder why anyone would believe that participating in a collaborative makes any sense at all. For the most part, collaboratives are composed of people who have a resource extraction bias, and as mentioned previously, often have a direct financial stake in the outcome of decisions. Why would you waste your time trying to convince a logging company to stop logging to save spotted owls or a rancher to close an allotment to protect wolves, bighorn sheep or grizzly bears?

As a gay friend of mine said, it’s like a gay person spending their time trying to convince Evangelical Christians that homosexually is acceptable.

This gets to the central part of the problem. All these groups involved in collaboratives are spending huge amounts of staff time and money attending meetings with people who, with few exceptions, have diametrically opposed views on the value wilderness and wildlands. Is this really a productive use of time?

To give one example, the late Tim Lilebo of Oregon Wild spent the greater part of a decade attending collaborative meetings in eastern Oregon. Before collaboratives, Lilebo spent his time (successfully I might add) trying to convince citizens that we needed more wilderness. But once Lilebo became involved in collaboratives, he had no time for any other activities other than attending meetings.

Since his death two years ago, Oregon Wild has continued to participate in these collaboratives. What has been the outcome of all those meetings? Are there any new wilderness proposals on the table? Has Oregon Wild convinced collaborative members that we should protect large portions of Eastern Oregon as designated wilderness? Nope. As far as I tell, there is less support for wilderness in the region than ten years ago.  And all the while there has been significant logging-mostly without objection from Oregon Wild.

Now imagine if Oregon Wild had instead of attending collaborative meetings trying to convince people who have a financial interest in more logging, the group had spent the last ten or twelve years promoting wilderness in eastern Oregon as well as in urban centers like Portland. There are many people in these communities who might not have designating new wilderness as their number one priority, but they might still be supportive.

Instead of trying to convince mill workers, miners, ranchers, and timber company owners to support wilderness, would not a better strategy be to convince all the other people across the country from the teachers to post office workers or the clerks at Safeway or whomever that protecting wilderness is a good idea? Instead of attending collaborative meetings,  if Tim Lilebo and his successors gave numerous powerpoint presentations to sympathetic crowds, field trips, written numerous commentaries and letters to the editor promoting wilderness protection in the region. I believe we might have already gotten new wilderness designated, or at the last acceptance of it.

The trap of collaboratives is that it saps organizational time and money. It’s designed to silence oppositional groups and make them spend their limited time in meetings with people who hold diametrically opposed values instead of advancing the wildlands agenda with the public. And because member organizations are trying to “get along” they are frequently unwilling to actively oppose resource exploitation.

As David Brower once quipped, “I am not opposed to compromise, but I want to be the last in the room to do so.”

I often regret that Bob Marshall’s admonishment at the founding of the Wilderness Society is not more widely observed in today’s conservation movement. Marshall wrote: “We want no stragglers. For in the past far too much good wilderness has been lost by those whose first instinct is to compromise”.

More articles by:

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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