The Problem With Partnerships and Roundtables

 When the laws regulating forest practices, endangered species, clean air, and water were put on the books, it was well before the 1990s when our society became enthralled with neoliberalism. It elevated economic utility and job creation above all in matters of public policy. Public resource managers now face local political pressure to base every decision on its financial impact to the local economy. During the last 25 years, public land managers have developed a “creative” new approach to administering laws which give local communities a voice and even quasi-control over land-use decisions through an array of public-private partnerships, roundtables and stewardship agreements. In all these partnerships, agencies seek to find local environmental representatives to represent the public view in these processes.

Unfortunately, in practical terms, local involvement and “reaching out” really means placing the most financially conflicted boosters and predevelopment local interests at the decision-making table. To achieve a pseudo “balance” to these consensus processes, agencies “reach out” to enlist local environmentalists—preferably cooperative ones. But few activists have any training in negotiating. They also lack experience with the consensus-management processes bureaucrats use to achieve agreements. Local participation has become the magic wand which can simply make federal and state laws disappear, to be replaced with good old boys always anxious to open up the “free store.”

I am not opposed to local consensus processes per se; for certain kinds of problems where public assets are not on the table—and the parties do not have large financial interests—they can be extremely productive. But I am concerned that land management agencies are adopting “partnership” processes which bring people with financial conflicts of interest directly into agency decision-making when the sale, rent, or gift of public assets are involved. It is only common sense to involve a whole community to design a skate park or develop a plan to control noxious weeds. But it is not OK for a consensus or partnership process to decide if a particular forest should be logged or whether a specific grazing allotment should be leased.

We are moving headlong into adopting unproven new processes for making long-term decisions about the future of our public assets without thinking them through and before thoroughly testing them. I am especially concerned that activists are not well prepared to take on the role of public interest protector by serving as the advocate for the environment. Adopting a role as a decision maker over specific local applications of federal land policy regulations is just not a local activist’s role. Whistle blowing and detecting improper agency acts are one thing. Becoming a policeman, administrator or actual decision maker is altogether different. The proper historical role of the grassroots activist is like a citizen patrol that tries to keep drug dealers out of a neighborhood. These patrols have no authority to, say, shoot drug dealers or arrest them, and neither are they authorized to permit dealers to work in one area in order to keep another area drug-free.

We wouldn’t abandon local police departments and turn law enforcement responsibilities over to local neighborhood watch programs. A forest activist, for example, has no right or authority to give anyone permission to cut down public forests because public land does not “belong” to local activists any more than it belongs to the timber industry. Activists are best thought of like the volunteer policemen often found in rural police departments; they can give you a ticket for speeding, but they are not authorized to give you permission to speed. Federal judges have repeatedly said in their decisions that agencies have systematically refused to enforce the laws. To expose these gaps, grassroots activists have been forced to step in with lawsuits, lobbying, and adverse publicity to compel agencies to do what they should have done by themselves. But that is really all activists are able to do.

This is an excerpt from my book Organize to Win Vol 3.

Jim Britell is a native of Utica, New York and a retired federal manager who served as a long range planner, Management analyst, Chief of Management Information Systems and Chief of Systems Operations. He was a leader in the West Coast ancient forest campaign, has organized on behalf of wilderness in 30 states, and is author of the handbook on grassroots organizing, Organize to Win. He was formerly President of the Malone Public Library and board member of the NYS Library Trustees Association. He maintains a web site for grassroots organizers at