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The dangers of collaboration

Environmentalists risk undercutting their mission.

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There's nothing wrong with a group of people historically at odds sitting down to find common ground. Or is there?

For decades, America's public lands have been a battleground: Timber, wildlife, recreation, wilderness – which interests and uses should dominate? But now, "collaboration" is all the rage. In collaboration, diverse stakeholders – environmentalists, developers, off-roaders, timber companies, county officials – hash out an agreement on how to manage their local public lands and then submit it to Congress for approval.

A few deals already have been enacted, and another halfdozen are in the works. Collaboration has been touted as the solution to "gridlock" on our national forests. Timber companies and their allies gripe that the normal process – extensive analysis, citizen involvement, and the right to challenge agency decisions – has ground all "management activity" (read: logging) to a halt. Western counties surrounded by public land argue that they need room to expand. Others believe lands worthy of protection are still threatened. The new paradigm means everyone sits down with their adversaries.

But these collaborations are troublesome, particularly for environmentalists, who risk undermining their mission as well as the very laws that are the basis of their power, effectiveness, and legitimacy.

For example, a bill poised for introduction in Congress would turn into law an agreement reached by one collaborative group on how to manage Montana's 3.3-million-acre Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.

The stakeholders had one thing in common: They hated the management plan proposed by the Forest Service. So they came up with their own plan specifying which areas can be logged, which can be opened to off-roaders, and which should be recommended to Congress for wilderness designation.

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