The federal government owns so much of Custer County, Idaho, that one could call it common ground. More than 95 percent lies in public hands. But for years, Idaho has failed to find much, if any, common ground on what to do with the region's pristine backwoods.
Environmentalists wanted to protect the roadless forestland as federal wilderness, ranchers hoped to maintain the land for their cattle, and weekend warriors pushed for access for their dirt bikes and off-road vehicles. Local government officials, starved for revenue, looked to privatize some government land to generate more property taxes.
Exhausted after three decades of lawsuits, failed legislation, and ill will, these groups are backing a compromise bill that would designate some 300,000 acres as wilderness, privatize another 6,000, and keep the rest open for multiple uses. Some observers call the legislation, submitted last year by US Rep. Mike Simpson (R) of Idaho, an example of "collaborative process," an evolving concept that could define the future of conservation.
"The environmental movement has gotten very good at fighting and we've lost touch with a lot of people," says Rick Johnson, executive director of The Idaho Conservation League and a key figure in the Custer County compromise.
"Collaboration, in the big sense, means getting things done instead of simply fighting. People are hungry for that."
While definitions of the process vary, the basic idea has existed for decades. Most often it's used to describe a coming together of stakeholders intimately connected to a particular problem. The use of such cooperative approaches has surged in recent years. Now, the movement seems to be presenting itself as a viable alternative to mainstream environmentalism.
The trend is particularly evident here in the West, where public landholdings are vast and debate has sharpened over what to do with them. For example:
• In southern Oregon, a group of environmentalists, government agents, logging representatives, and concerned citizens came to an amicable agreement this past fall regarding a long-disputed timber sale. According to the agreement, loggers will bypass the forest's largest and oldest trees while a local committee will help to mediate any future conflicts.
• Last year in south-central Utah, a collaborative collection of state agencies, university professors, residents, and ranchers got a $350,000 federal grant to aid their effort to boost sage grouse populations. In return for help in keeping the sage grouse off the endangered species list, conservationists got help restoring the bird's habitat.
• After witnessing what happened to timber towns when the spotted owl made the endangered species list, farmers in Washington state joined environmentalists in a similar effort to protect sage grouse.
• In southwestern Idaho, ranchers, environmentalists, government officials, native Americans, and local residents are working together to protect the long- disputed Owyhee Canyonlands. The group is crafting a compromise similar to Custer County's, which will then be introduced as legislation by US Sen. Michael Crapo (R) of Idaho.
Some experts attribute the movement's increased momentum to the rise of the Republican Party. Indeed, collaboration has quietly become a priority for the Bush White House. In August, the administration sponsored the first White House Conference on Cooperative Conservation, dedicated to promoting the "appropriate inclusion of local participation in Federal decision making."
Collaboration has found another champion in Senator Crapo. In December, he proposed amending the Endangered Species Act to encourage broad-based local groups to find collaborative solutions to wildlife decline.
Other experts attribute the impetus to a rising dissatisfaction with the strict gospel of conservation and the resulting stalemates. In its place, a more temperate approach, the so-called "wise-use" ideology, is gaining ground, says Kirk Emerson, director of the US Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution in Tucson, Ariz. That ideology, in turn, has given birth to a number of well-funded organizations dedicated to advancing collaborative process. These include The Quivira Coalition in New Mexico, the Sonoran Institute in Arizona, and the Montana-based Red Lodge Clearinghouse.
Not everyone is thrilled by this expansion. The collaborative movement has mostly produced "a lot of talk and little follow-through," says environmentalist Michael McCloskey, who in 1995 wrote a now-famous memo. It warned environmentalists: "A new dogma is emerging as a challenge to us. It embodies the proposition that the best way for the public to determine how to manage its interest in the environment is through collaboration among stakeholders."
Ten years later, he remains unimpressed. He argues that the main reason conservationists increasingly turn to compromise is that the federal government is failing to do its job protecting the environment. Also, many collaborative groups set the bar so low that they declare success if they can get all the stakeholders to the table, he says.
Indeed, there remains little hard evidence that collaboration works in the long term, experts agree. This is partly because few researchers follow the trend, partly because the collaborations frequently span so many years that they're hard for researchers to track.
For proponents, however, anecdotes have long filled in for proof. "In almost every case you find people who have fought those old wars over and over again," says Daniel Kemmis, senior fellow at the Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Missoula, Mont. "These old warriors have agreed to lay down their arms and see if there is an alternative answer."