Collaboration? Not Now, Thanks

The collaboration deck is inherently stacked against participation by ordinary people

By Dave Skinner

The Beacon opinion section has spilled barrels of ink lately regarding National Forest policy, mainly on two separate yet intimately intertwined issues, collaboration and litigation.

Collaboration proponents hope to leave an impression that Kumbayaing together will make America’s forests spring up renewed. But I’ve been around since the days of the Seventh American Forest Congress (a mid-1990s “consensus” effort that accomplished nothing), up to the Flathead National Forest’s latest forest plan revision. Over the years, I’ve seen all these battles over U.S. Forest Service policy inevitably boil down to “Industry Versus Greens.” Everyone else gets the butt cut, every time.

For example, for the new forest plan, the Flathead National Forest hired a fancy consultant and tried hard to actively recruit what was initially a broad base of participants. However, the dropout rate for “regular people” was disturbingly high. Why?

The collaboration deck is inherently stacked against participation by ordinary people. Usually, the sawmills send their employees, the environmentalists send their employees, and the Forest Service sends agency staff. Who sends Ordinary Joe or Jane, you know, typical weekend-warrior forest users who simply want well managed, accessible forests? Nobody. And who pays Ordinary Joe and Jane? Nobody, and that’s a real problem.

Ordinary people have busy lives – day jobs, bosses, families needing food and shelter. When if we have time off from those obligations – well, it’s nice just to hop in the rig and go – or at least it used to be nice, right?

Go to a weekday or weeknight meeting? How about multiple meetings? Want to wade through a 1,000-page Environmental Impact Statement, draft and final, plus appendices? Heck, I’d rather watch Survivor re-runs than volunteer what is, in reality, real work – overtime work at that.

So, for economic reasons alone (time, even wasted, is money – period), the collaboration arena defaults to those paid to play. The needs, much less any wants or hopes, of the average people who own these forests, don’t count much.

Nonetheless, even volunteer collaboration could work if the end results matched the efforts expended, which leads us to the related matter of litigation.

On that topic, Beacon readers have been treated to warring opinion pieces regarding the latest legal “success” by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies (AWR), which tied up the Kootenai National Forest’s East Reservoir Project (a “collaboration”) in the Ninth Circuit Court just two days before work was to begin.

A Beacon story by Tristan Scott on AWR’s bombshell spurred a defensive item about “following the law” from AWR executive director Mike Garrity. Responding to Garrity was one Nick Smith of Oregon, who is pro-collaboration, and sure enough, a collaboration “pro” who runs a pro-forestry/collaboration nonprofit called Healthy Forests, Healthy Communities.

Smith savaged AWR as a “poster child for serial litigation.” True enough – since 1988, AWR has been engaged in 216 lawsuits, with 192 coming since 1996 (about the time the grizzly bear was listed under the Endangered Species Act, giving AWR a heck of a useful legal hook).

Smith further declared that AWR’s “obstructionism is based in ideology, not science” and that AWR and other “extremists will not be satisfied until Montana has lost its mills and loggers, leaving no one left to make forest restoration possible.”

Mr. Smith’s spade-calling generated irate responses from two well-known environmentalists, George Wuerthner, a former, first-wave Earth Firster and AWR board member; and Steve Kelly, a “co-founder” of AWR and board director of another reliable Montana litigant, Friends of the Wild Swan. Both are also well-known as adherents of “deep ecology,” which is basically Earth worship.

After reading their responses, such as Mr. Kelly’s reference to the “corporatist, collaborative agenda,” it appears AWR and its defenders would rather our national forests burn flat rather than have any capitalist ever “exploit” the forest (or “nature” in general) ever again. And it’s for darn certain that through the court system, the inmates are, in fact, running the forest policy asylum.

So forgive me if I can’t get excited about any Forest Service policy, especially collaboration, until Congress changes the laws governing litigation.

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