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.
Sounds reasonable enough. So what's wrong? To start, as owners of the public lands, all Americans have a stake in their management and they have not designated these representatives. Even the most inclusive collaboration can go bad: Outliers who pose a threat to consensus are either not invited or made to feel unwelcome. And, ultimately, decisions are being made behind closed doors. But Congress loves a done deal. With a local sponsor, Congress is inclined to rubber-stamp these initiatives, overlooking that they are an end run around the suite of laws that safeguard public lands and keep land-management decisions an open process.
The Beaverhead bill, for example, triples the acreage where logging can take place from what was in the Forest Service's plan. It requires an environmental analysis only for individual logging projects rather than the plan as a whole, thereby waiving the bedrock US environmental law, the National Environmental Policy Act. It also allows logging in roadless areas – a radical departure from the Roadless Area Conservation Rule that environmentalists championed during the Clinton era. Other deals have sold off vast acreage of public lands in exchange for wilderness designations.
After years of being tarred as obstructionist ideologues, some environmental groups now have a seat at the negotiating table. Enjoying their newfound popularity, these self-appointed decisionmakers become heavily invested in reaching an accord, regardless of the science, the law, or the long-term effect on the land.
For decades, environmentalists fought to get a more level playing field and establish transparency and accountability in public-lands policy; they continue to fight the Bush administration's relentless efforts to dismantle these policies. How ironic it would be, then, if in their eagerness to embrace the new paradigm, they craft and push through Congress deals that undercut the very laws that got them to the table in the first place.