Environmental Collaborators, Hang Your Heads in Shame

Clearcut, Coast Range. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

The so-called “collaborative” movement in Montana was launched as the Consensus Council about 25 years ago during the administration of Republican Gov. Marc Racicot. Its task, supposedly, was to find solutions to thorny natural resource issues. Its members were hand-picked by Racicot to represent industry and other “stakeholders,” and of course the outcomes were predictably that industry always got most of what it wanted at the cost of Montana’s natural environment.

Not much has changed since then and those so-called conservationists and environmentalists who have collaborated with industry — while hauling in enormous sums of money from collaboration-friendly foundations — should hang their heads in shame over their sell-out of the very natural assets they claimed to protect.

Leading the long list of incredible failures by the collaborators would be their efforts to prevent the sage grouse from being placed on the endangered species list just a few short years ago. After many months of collaborative meetings, the committee appointed by Gov. Steve Bullock finally came up with their plan to save the sage grouse from extinction while simultaneously allowing road-building, oil and gas drilling, coal mining, ranching and development to continue without undue disruption.

When the plan was forwarded to Bullock, the first thing he did was cut the recommended distance of industrial activities from sage grouse mating grounds, called “leks,” nearly in half — from one mile to six-tenths of a mile — after pressure from industry groups and in a move consistent with Bullock’s “moderate and pragmatic” political image.

Yet, even after basically having their feet cut out from under them, the collaborators tried to paint keeping the sage grouse from receiving the protections of the Endangered Species Act as a victory, with many claiming they could “always make changes later.”

Well, it’s later. And no, there aren’t going to be any changes to the sage grouse plan that will be even remotely positive for the birds. In fact, as with many species teetering on the brink of non-existence, it’s just the opposite. In a continuing denial of on-the-ground reality, the Trump administration not only opened even more public lands to drilling, mining and destruction, it went directly after the Endangered Species Act itself to make it even harder for any species, no matter its potential extinction, to be listed and protected by the act.

Add to Trump’s disastrous environmental policies the faster-than-expected impacts from an ever-hotter planet and the collaborators can look back on their pitiful record of non-accomplishment and realize, as so many others are now doing, that they got snookered.

Streams in Alaska are so hot they’re killing hundreds of thousands of salmon before they can even spawn as rivers that have supported millions of salmon are now registering water temperatures of 82 degrees — a heat level more amenable to tropical fish and fatal to cold water salmonids.

Nor is Alaska alone in heat-caused salmon deaths. The Snake and Columbia River basin lost 250,000 adult salmon in 2015 to heat stress and, with no help forthcoming from Trump’s benighted administration, environmentalists are going to court — not the collaborative table — to attempt to save the dwindling salmon.

As environmental calamities stack up it’s evident that pushing off urgently needed corrections while collaborators conduct endless meetings is a dead-end road, literally, for the growing list of endangered species.

It’s time to put the collaboration movement back in the industry-designed box from which it came — and for the collaborators to admit their failures and get on with either fighting for the environment or give up their sorry charade of doing so.

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