Reaping the Bitter Fruits of Collaboration

Clearcut. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

For more than 20 years the American public has been inundated with local, state and federal governments lauding “collaboration” as a means of dealing with natural resource, environmental, wilderness and endangered species issues. It was an easy, albeit false, premise to sell to the public — namely that local “stakeholders” would sit down and come up with “bottom up, not top down” solutions that would become policy. But we now see the truth and, unfortunately, are reaping the bitter fruits collaboration has sown.

Make no mistake, collaboration strategy was devised by economic sectors primarily dependent upon the utilization of public resources for their profits. And while Republican governors and presidents initiated that strategy, it was willingly embraced by Democrat politicians as a means of dodging the tough decisions for the political expediency of kicking the can down the road to “collaboratives.”

The classic example is the Healthy Forests Initiative devised by former timber lobbyist Mark Rey, who was appointed by President Bush to oversee our national forests. The timber industry knew it would be tough for conservationists to argue against “healthy forests,” since who doesn’t want a healthy forest?

But here’s the rub. In Montana, the timber industry cut itself out of a future by over-harvesting private forest lands. In the late ’80s, Plum Creek’s board of directors decided to “liquidate” their timber resources and despite warnings from employees, conservationists and economists, that’s just what happened. A quick trip up Gold Creek off the Blackfoot River reveals what’s left behind — a lunar landscape infested with knapweed among the stumps.

As the ever-greedy corporate eyes turned to public forests, fierce advocates opposed the clearcuts and put up determined fights to spare public resources from the stumpfields, silted in spawning streams, loss of hiding cover for elk and the intact forest habitat vitally necessary to the continued existence of threatened and endangered species.

The problem for extractive industries was that the arguments conservation advocates made were very persuasive to much of the population that had seen formerly functioning ecosystems with healthy populations of fish and wildlife left in ruins from logging, mining, over-grazing and road-building. As “the once burnt child fears the fire,” so did many fear runaway exploitation of the nation’s dwindling natural resources.

Thus was born “collaboration” where, thanks to painting conservation advocates as “radicals” and “extremists” — and praising those who “came to the table” — the extractors were assured to get at least half of what they wanted. But you can only “cut the baby in half” so many times.

And then there’s the harsh reality of how policy decisions actually get made. Due to their political naivete’ some conservationists believed their “collaborative solutions” would be enacted according to their “kitchen table” agreements. But Congress doesn’t accept being told to implement legislation drafted by some Montanans when they have the power to make law as they wish.

The result? After a past agreement on a “sustainable yield” level for state forest logging, Gov. Greg Gianforte just decided to unilaterally double it. When former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus passed the “collaborative” Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, Congress decided to designate minimal new wilderness, but only by dumping certain Wilderness Study Areas. As one mill manager noted on another collaboration, “we got the logs, but they didn’t get the wilderness.”

The actual results, in short, are much different than the fairy tale collaborators tell. It’s too late to reverse those bad decisions, but it’s not too late to “fear the fire” in the future and return to straight up advocacy — leaving collaboration on the corporate table from which it came.

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