Collaboration? Nice idea, but it does little to save species
Nevada County is quintessential California. We eschew conflict. We don’t like our chi to be upset. We prefer Pilates to politics, drum circles to debates. It is no surprise, then, that many county residents have embraced collaborative efforts to save forests and imperiled species. There is much talk here about building partnerships between environmentalists and development interests. In January, for example, a forum was held ostensibly to foster dialogue about forest management. Talks continue about consolidating the Yuba watershed through a land exchange between the federal government and Sierra Pacific Industries. President Bush scrapped a Clinton Administration plan to protect roadless areas on national forests in favor of giving local communities, including Nevada County, control of management decisions.
On the surface, bringing together diverse voices to facilitate communication and hash out principles for conserving biological diversity sounds laudable. But more often than not those involved in the consensus process let their desire to further good will overshadow the needs of forests, fish and wildlife. As a result, the very parties responsible for the demise of species and ecosystems are often charged with developing conservation recommendations. Putting Sierra Pacific Industries in charge of forest protection is like putting Enron in charge of Social Security. In short, collaborative processes usually devolve into big group hugs where participants leave the negotiating room looking as bubbly as Britney Spears while species and forests get the cold shoulder.
The stark truth is that protecting forests and recovering species is a messy, rough and tumble business. It is naive to think that if we just channel positive energy to SPI and sing “Kumbaya” around a camp fire with them species will be saved. That may make us feel loved. However, a desire for approval should not drive environmental decisions. History has shown that, more often than not, collaboration has failed to effectively deal with natural resource conflicts. Most environmental controversies have been resolved successfully in the courts. Sure, suing your neighbor may not engender harmony. But if one’s goal is to recover biological diversity, litigation, not collaboration, is a better bet. As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.”
Collaboration has routinely failed to protect natural resources for a number of reasons. First, collaboration requires compromise. In many cases, though, endangered species and ecosystems have already been too compromised. Species in the Sierra Nevada, including the California spotted owl, Pacific fisher, and wolverine simply can not afford any more concessions. They are literally on the brink of extinction.
Second, collaborative efforts shift the ultimate goal away from reaching a quality decision and move it toward reaching a merely agreeable one. Such a process can lead to policies that are based on cumbersome compromises of principles, the lowest common denominator, and on the most tractable but least important issues. In essence, collaboration can actually inhibit genuine innovation. The Quincy Library Group, a local consensus-building group charged with developing a management plan for three national forests in the Sierra, is a case in point. While the QLG purported to represent a broad coalition of interests, the group was dominated by SPI, the timber company that would be awarded logging contracts on the Lassen, Plumas, and Tahoe National Forests. Consequently, the QLG recommended a plan that would double the logging in those forests, push imperiled species closer to extinction, and create a fuels management program that would increase fire severity and risk to nearby communities. According to the General Accounting Office, the federal land exchange program, which often involves collaboration, has suffered from similar problems. A GAO analysis of land exchanges found that the swaps have resulted in a significant loss of habitat critical to endangered species and a waste of millions of dollars in taxpayer dollars.
Third, collaboration fails because the balance of power is often tipped in favor of industry. Development interests muscle their way into negotiations then bully other participants while environmentalists tend to cower at the first hint of conflict. In addition, representatives of big timber, mining, ranching, and real estate are often highly skilled in the art of deal making. Environmentalists, on the other hand, look like deer in headlights at the bargaining table.
Fourth, environmentalists are codependent. Industry is motivated by profits. Environmentalists are driven by a complex array of psychological factors, not the least of which is our need to be liked. However, the steps required to protect forests may be vastly different than those needed to nurture relationships. Science, not collaboration, should guide policy decisions. Science may determine that to save the California spotted owl, for instance, SPI should halt all logging on public lands and some of its own holdings in the region. It is doubtful that any collaborative body would embrace such a determination. If the goal of cooperation in Nevada County is to put a smiley face on everyone, then fine, let’s admit that. But let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that getting kissy face with industry will result in the best decisions for the environment.
The Bush Administration has argued that management decisions for federal lands are best made at the local level through collaboration. Moving away from the democratic process, however, to one which empowers a few at the local level is a bad idea. It is important to remember that national forests are owned by the citizens of the United States. Residents of New York City, Tampa and Spokane have an equal stake in how their public lands are managed. Rural residents, simply by their close proximity to public lands, do not have a special claim on those lands nor do they necessarily have more expertise than urban dwellers. While Alaskans may want drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the American people overwhelmingly support protecting the refuge’s coastal plain. The Endangered Species Act, responsible for rescuing a host of species including the bald eagle, grizzly bear and salmon, has long been a target of rural property rights groups. Last summer’s uproar in the Klamath Basin is illustrative of how a few belligerent individuals can undermine the will of the people and the intent of the law aimed at protecting wildlife refuges, endangered species and water quality.
Instead of issues of national concern being decided by majorities or pluralities in a nation-wide citizenry, the Forest Service is proposing to make decisions in the context of small, dispersed constituencies through consensus processes. This shift in power would have an acute affect on urbanites who use and appreciate resources in roadless areas. They would be effectively disenfranchised. In the process, economic interests of citizens near roadless areas would be given weight in preference to the non-economic interests of more distant, urban citizens. This is a prescription for frustrating the national will of the majority. It subverts the basic tenets of democracy and nationhood.
I do not participate in collaborative processes because, quite frankly, I am not interested in compromise. I make no apologies for my positions on conservation issues. The web of life on Earth is unraveling. Tough measures and personal sacrifice may be necessary to stop species decline.
Brian Vincent is the California Organizer for the American Lands Alliance He can be reached at
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