The Utter Failure of Wilderness Collaborators

Clearcut, western Montana. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

recently published column by the Blackfoot-Clearwater Stewardship Project clearly illustrates the abject failure of the “collaborative” approach to crafting successful wilderness legislation.

As the “Steering Committee” wrote: “For nearly twenty years, we’ve been regulars at each other’s kitchen tables, fence posts, and truck tailgates. For those twenty years we’ve been at the table … crafting a road map to passage of the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act.”

The column goes on to pat themselves on the back, lauding their measure and calling for Montana’s entire congressional delegation to support its passage.

But here’s the grim truth: The act has not even been introduced in this session of Congress. And even if Sen. Jon Tester did introduce the bill, its chances of passage are about like the proverbial “snowball in Hell.”

These are well-meaning people, but the “kitchen table” is a very long ways from Washington, D.C., where legislation is actually hammered out – and a vast army of industry lobbyists flood the halls and watering holes of Congress day in and day out.

The PEW Research Center defines a generation as “groups of people born over a 15-20 year span.” That means an entire generation has been born while the kitchen table talks went on — a generation that can reasonably ask “why didn’t you fight for our future?”

The sad answer to that question is that the collaborators were duped by a strategy developed and successfully employed by extractive industries. Moreover, it was specifically designed to divide and conquer environmental and conservation advocacy in favor of a “we get half, you get half” collaborative process.

In Montana, collaboration first appeared nearly 30 years ago when Gov. Marc Racicot appointed his Consensus Council to “solve thorny natural resource issues.” Racicot’s hand-picked, professionally “facilitated,” council was based on the premise that “consensus” was attainable. But in reality, the degradation of the public’s remaining pristine landscapes, waterways and forests continued to suffer at the hands of rapacious extractive industries.

Again, the truth is that extractive industries were frustrated by continually losing court battles in their efforts to pull as much profit from public lands in as short a time as possible. They lost because they were in violation of the nation’s bedrock environmental protection laws, including the National Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, Clean Water and Clean Air Acts. Consensus was supposed to “end the timber wars” — and the public land grazing wars, the oil and gas development wars and the road-building wars.

At the time, Racicot was friends with Texas Gov. George W. Bush. He even moved to Washington after his last Montana term to head the Republican National Committee and advise newly-elected President Bush. And suddenly, “collaboration” was embraced by a host of federal land management agencies and started showing up everywhere in government literature, statements and goals.

Foundations then decided collaboration should take precedence over litigation— and the organizations that were once fierce advocates “followed the money” and embraced collaboration. Even worse, they divided the environmental and conservation movement, brazenly going so far as to dub non-collaborative advocacy groups as “environmental extremists.”

These same collaborators are so politically naive they’re now imploring Sen. Daines to support their nonexistent bill. But Daines is spearheading the Republican effort to defeat Tester — and the last thing he’ll do is give him a victory to flaunt on the campaign trail.

And so the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act follows their former effort, Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, into the dustbin of failed collaborative legislation. But what’s really tragic is they betrayed an entire new generation while they were duped by industry and its political puppets to hang out around “the kitchen table” collaborating.

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