Historical Lessons of Successful Conservation Efforts

Some conservationists have forgotten how to be successful-

We do not want those whose first impulse is to compromise. We want no straddlers for in the past they have surrendered too much good wilderness and primeval areas which should never have been lost. -Bob Marshall on founding of the Wilderness Society



There is an unfortunate tendency on the part of conservationists to forget or ignore history. A greater appreciation of past conservation victories as well as defeats can inform current efforts. In far too many cases, there is a tendency to believe that it is necessary to appease local interests typically by agreeing to weakened protections or resource giveaways in order to garner the necessary political support for a successful conservation effort. However, this fails to consider that in nearly all cases where there have been effective protective measures enacted, it has been done over almost uniform local opposition.

In those instances where local opposition to a conservation measure is mild or does not exist, it probably means the proposal will be ineffective or worse—even set real conservation backwards.

Nevertheless, many environmentalists now believe–due to regional parochialism and lack of historic context—that significant compromises are necessary to win approval for new conservation initiatives.

This simply demonstrates a failure to learn the lessons from conservation history. In particular, it is striking that in today’s era of greater environmental awareness, many environmentalists are willing to propose compromises that offer far weaker protection for our public lands heritage than what was accomplished decades ago, when resource extraction industries had a much greater influence over local and regional economies.

LESSON ONE; Nearly all worthwhile conservation successes were established over strong local objections. This is not surprising. Current land users have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Though environmental protection has been shown time and again to provide long term economic and social benefits to regions, those who benefit are often different than those who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. We nearly always hear that protection will ruin the local economy.

Thus Yellowstone National Park was created by Congress largely over the opposition of locals in Montana Territory who wanted the park to remain open to homesteading, logging, and ranching. Indeed, annually for twenty years after the establishment of the park, Montana’s Congressional representatives introduced bills into Congress to undesignated the park. Fortunately due to strong support for the park from the “dreaded eastern establishment” these efforts did not succeed.

Similarly when Grand Teton National Monument was established by Franklin Roosevelt in 1943, the local leaders of Jackson declared that Jackson would become a “ghost town” and Wyoming’s Congressional delegation introduced a bill to eliminate the park. The bill successfully passed both branches of Congress. The monument only survived because Franklin Roosevelt vetoed the bill.

There were early efforts to create a park in the Olympic Mountains with the first park bill introduced in 1904—a bill that was vigorously opposed by local timber interests. Teddy Roosevelt responded and established Olympic National Monument in 1907 and put huge tracts of virgin timber off limits to logging at a time when logging was king.

Nevertheless, opposition from logging interests continued, however, in 1938 outside interests lead to the establishment of Olympic National Park. In the long run the creation of the park has been shown to have huge long term benefits to the residents of the Olympic Peninsula. However, those who made their living by cutting down the trees of the Olympic Peninsula are not necessarily the same people who are now making a living from the park’s scenic, ecological, and tourism values.

LESSON TWO: Don’t assume all locals are opposed. Typically the most vocal opponents are those with the largest vested interest in maintaining the status quo. There may even be a “silent majority” that is at least neutral or mildly supportive of  your proposal, but they are not the ones who control the local politics. However, whether one or many local supporters, nearly all successful conservation efforts rely upon outside leadership that makes the issue a state or national concern. And there is usually some visionary (or group of visionaries) that led this national campaign ala John Muir (Yosemite), David Brower (Dinosaur), Bob Marshall (Gates of the Arctic), Olaus Murie (Arctic Wildlife Refuge), Willard Van Name, Roselie Edge, and Iving Brant (Olympic),  George Dorr (Acadia) etc.

LESSON THREE. Creating and generating the political case for strong conservation protection, as opposed to more limited or weak gains, often takes a while, sometimes a long time. For instance, in the 1930s Bob Marshall publicly called for protecting all of the Brooks Range north of the Yukon River as a national park. It took until the 1980s for his vision to become reality— if you look at a map of northern Alaska you will see that between national wildlife refuges, national preserves, and  national parks, nearly the entire Brooks Range is now in some kind of protected status.

LESSON FOUR;  Pragmatists in the end leave messes for future generations to clean up.  Capitulating to local interests with half baked compromises in the interest of expediency  typically produces uneven results that either does not adequately protect the land or creates huge headaches for future conservationists to undue often at great political and economic expense.

For instance, when the national forest system was first established, the lands were largely protected from commercial uses much like our current national parks. However, in 1905 when Gifford Pinchot proposed expansion of this system of national forest reserves into a national forests, opposition to the forest system from mining companies who wished to use timber from national forests for mining timbers and other mine construction lead to a compromise that permitted commercial logging. Some conservationists like John Muir were opposed to this compromise, but they lost in their efforts because others felt that a compromise was needed, and besides it was reasoned such a compromise would be harmless because most of the best timber was outside of the forest preserves and on private lands. No one could imagine there would be much demand for logging on national forest lands.

A similar compromise was also made regarding commercial livestock grazing to win over western ranchers. So commercial logging and ranching was put in place to neutralize western opposition to the forests—but we are still paying the price for that decision today.

Another example is Lake Tahoe—gem of the Sierras. Initially there was a movement to protect the lake as a national park. But in the interest of expediency, and due to local opposition that wanted to log the great pine forests surrounding the lake, the park proposal was dropped in favor of national forest status. Today many of the problems that plague the Tahoe basin including water quality delcine are a consequence of this decision, including the abundance of private lands (which could be settled within national forests but not parks).

We’ll never know whether these compromises were necessary. One could argue that we would not have any national forests today if we had not made such compromises, but again this mostly conjecture. National support for parks and other preserves was very high, and it is likely national forests without logging and grazing would have won Congressional support.

LESSON FIVE: Over time most locals come to view conservation areas as an asset and source of pride. This change typically takes a couple of decades, but I know of no exceptions. Despite this realization that any particular park, wilderness, etc. is overall a benefit to the local and regional society does not typically result in local support for new conservation proposals as they come along. In other words, though people in Montana have grown to love Yellowstone National Park, there was still stiff local opposition to new wilderness areas adjacent to Yellowstone National Park like the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness when it was created in 1978.

To illustrate one example, I will highlight the chief milestones along the way towards today’s Grand Canyon National Park.


1.1882. Senator Harrison (later president) introduces 3 proposals for a Grand Canyon National Park into Congress without success.


2. Harrison elected president in 1893 creates 15 forest preserves including one surrounding the Grand Canyon.


3. 1898. Coconino County Board of Supervisors  passes resolution opposing new forest preserve—and attempts to have protections lifted.


4. 1903. Teddy Roosevelt visits the canyon.


5. 1906. Roosevelt signs a bill to create a large game range at canyon again over local opposition.


6. 1908. Roosevelt asks his attoney general whether there was any limit on the size of areas that could be protected using recently passed Antiquities Act (1906). The Act was created to protect “small” sites like Indian ruins. However, according to the attoney general no size limit exists—so Roosevelt uses Antiquities Act to create a million acre Grand Canyon National Monument.


7. Residents in Arizona were outraged. Arizona’s congressional delegation succeeded in blocking all funding for implementation of monument protection. They sued the federal government and  went all the way to the Supreme Court. They argued that Roosevelt exceeded his powers and the original intention of the Antiquities Act. Supreme Court upholds use of Antiquities Act and Grand Canyon National Monument remains.


8. Failing to eliminate the monument, opponents took a new tact—like Healthy Forests Initiative—they used the language of the conservationists to hide their real intent—to undercut protection. Knowing the national popular support for parks, in 1917 Arizona Senator Henry Ashurst introduced a bill to make the Grand Canyon a national park.


9. 1919. Grand Canyon NP was signed into law—but freed up much of the valuable mining, timber and grazing lands to satisfy local interests. The bill removed monument and park protection to key grazing and timberlands, reducing the overall acreage protected by the national monument by 2/3!


10. 1927. Growing popular support for parks and the Grand Canyon lead to expansion of  Park boundaries to 646,000 acres.


11. 1932  Herbert Hoover declared a new Grand Canyon NM to protect an additional 273,000 more acres surrounding the existing national park.


12. 1969. Marble Canyon NM  created.


13. 1975. Grand Canyon Enlargement Act adds both Marble Canyon and Grand Canyon NM to the existing Grand Canyon National Park. Creating a park of 1.1 million acres that finally equals in size the original national monument that Roosevelt had protected in 1908.


14. 1979. UNESCO declares Grand Canyon official World Heritage Site.


15. In 1990s when federal budget issues threatened to close the park to visitor, the state of Arizona offered to pay rangers salaries to keep the park open—illustrating the complete change in attitude that now prevails.


16. 2000 President Clinton designates just over 1 million acres as the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument to protect much of the North Rim region of the canyon over objection of locals. I predict that someday these lands will be added to Grand Canyon National Park.




The most important lesson is to not be discouraged because your idea for conservation protection is not widely held by local people. This should not prompt an immediate compromise to whatever legislation or goal you are pursuing. Rather stick to the goal, and in many instances, you will prevail. Try to neutralize local opposition, but generate outside support—if at all possible make the issue a state or national issue.

For instance, it was down state supporters in New York City that provided the political muscle to create the Adirondack State Park over the objections of local residents. This park now 6 million acres in size has a clause that prohibits all logging on state lands.  If early park advocates had tried to mollify locals just to get acceptance of park establishment, there would have undoubtedly been logging permitted in the new park. Instead park supporters successfully rallied people from outside of the region to help create the wilderness park we have today.

All legislation is compromise, but don’t be the one to do the compromising—that’s the job of Congress. Make your best case for the best protection. If you don’t achieve that goal in any particular legislation you can decide to oppose it and attempt to stop it or accept it with the compromises. For instance, if you want all the roadless country in a particular area designated as wilderness—than propose it all as wilderness and make your best case for saving it all. If Congress cuts that in half, you have still successfully made the case that all the roadless lands are qualified for wilderness, and you can always try to enact more protective legislation in the future for these lands. However, in attempting to secure local support, you automatically say or accept the notion that some of these roadless lands are ecologically unimportant or are throw away lands that can be developed, you have lost your moral authority to fight for protection later.

When and where you compromise affects the outcome not only current issues, but shaped future expectations. Thus a long term vision should always be kept in mind.



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  1. Barb Rupers Avatar
    Barb Rupers

    Thanks, George, for your perspective on two important issues today – sustainable forestry and lessons in conservation.

    Since one of the early Oregon High Desert Conferences I have followed and appreciated your efforts for natural resource conservation.

  2. Ken Watts Avatar
    Ken Watts

    George, do you have a bio you could share?

  3. JB Avatar

    I am by no means a champion of compromise. However, one need only look to our current Congress (a Congress with the lowest approval rating of all time) for a taste of what the ‘no compromise’ doctrine brings. Is that what folks really want? Collaborative processes, which are much maligned on this blog, are meant to sidestep the very problems that folks here continuously and vociferously complain about–i.e., too much ‘politics’ in natural resources decision-making. How? By turning over part of the process of decision-making (usually administrative decisions) to stakeholders –thereby taking it out of the politicians hands, and putting it in the hands of the people who care. The general idea is that people are more supportive of actions when they feel that they have had a say in the process–and local support can be (though isn’t always) critical to the success of some conservation efforts. If shared governance sounds like a bad thing to you, than by all means, demand that politicians make the decisions (but please don’t turn around and bitch about ‘politics’ when things don’t go your way).

    I’m also not a fan of the way this issue is framed in the essay. Citing a few examples of where failure to compromise worked is relatively easy, because the examples are now obvious. What we don’t know is how many times efforts to bring about parks, wildlife refuges, or other conservation efforts failed because opponents refused to compromise–those efforts are relatively opaque to us, being hidden in historical records. Moreover, with a bit of thought we can cite examples of great conservation initiatives that succeeded because of (George, I’m sure, would say in spite of) compromise–the Boundary Waters comes to mind.

    Finally, ‘no compromise’ solutions often hamstring management. George cites the protection of Adirondack park from timber harvest as a success; yet, timber harvest can and is being used to bring about conservation goals, and losing the ability to harvest timber puts these goals in jeopardy. Here in Ohio, for example, environmentalists have also been successful at locking up state and federal lands to timber harvest. The result has been 30+ years of reforestation, which, on the surface seems great. However, reforestation combined with increasing exurbanization and increased agricultural intensity (plowing up fence rows, and cutting woodlots) has led to a dramatic loss in early successional habitat and the species that depend upon it. So yeah, the ‘no compromise’ doctrine may mean more forest, but forest-dependent aren’t really lacking for habitat in the eastern US–early successional dependent species are. (And yes, we use controlled burns, but they aren’t a panacea, and their use is limited because of human population densities.) The point is, just like pragmatism, failure to compromise can “leave messes for future generations to clean up.”

    1. Jon Way Avatar

      These are very important points you make, JB. Thanks for pointing them out.

    2. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      Yes, thank you!

    3. Ken Watts Avatar
      Ken Watts

      Very well written JB and you make excellent points.

      The Henry’s Fork Watershed Council in Idaho has used compromise very successfully to improve the Henry’s Fork fishery while still meeting the needs of the Madison/Fremont County Irrigation District. The result is excellent fishing and food for our tables.

      When I read George’s post I thought it was the most arrogant, self-centered post that I had ever read in Wildlife News. His approach will gain little to no support. He tries to clarify his position in a latter post but the damage is done.

  4. Jon Way Avatar

    Nice piece, George!
    It would be great for groups to advocate for some of the national forests to now become national parks. That would be one way to rectify some of the past compromises. A sort of “upgrade” to the protection status of those lands, if you will. In addition to George’s examples, why not increase Yellowstone park’s size in key winter range grazing lands north and west of the park, including already federal lands as well as willing sellers for private lands?
    Also, we are seeing this supposed vocal local opposition in Maine with the proposed Maine Woods National Park. The notoriously private property right type of local people don’t want a lady, Roxanne Quimby, donating her private property to create a national park. How hypocritical! It seems like a no brainer for the federal government to designate MWNP… At the very least start it as a national monument with no compromises to the national park mission (preserve and protect resources unimpaired)…

  5. rork Avatar

    In MI we often have battles with the residents of the upper peninsula, where they don’t want any new restrictions on land use or animal killing methods. They will point to the outsiders as meddling in stuff that is not their business. I get to remind people that the locals almost always oppose protections. I read an Adirondack’s history a while back where that was perhaps the main lesson of the book. Having ready examples of the locals complaining in the past is good.
    I’m not sure it is a lesson about compromising.

  6. Immer Treue Avatar
    Immer Treue

    The BWCA in MN was not without controversy, and the self appointed locals continue to look at it as an affront by “foreigners” to take away their playground.

    Current controversy centers around copper sulfide mining at the headwaters of the BWCA. There has never been documentation of copper mining that did not pollute. Locals look at the potential of jobs for the next 20-30 years or so, and are irate over MN’s who don’t live in the area voicing opinions in the matter. With the potential of pollution for multiple hundreds of years, the taxpayers of MN, all of MN will be held responsible.

    Looks like an area where any sort of compromise is lose-lose for the land and water, ultimately the entire area.

  7. George Wuerthner Avatar


    You are misinterpreting what my essay says. It does not say don’t accept compromise rather it says advocate for what you want, do not self censure. You will likely have to accept a compromise because that is the way of all politics. But do not do your compromising before you even begin. I’ve seen that done over and over again. And I have seen surprising results when that wasn’t done.

    I’m going to give a number of examples. About ten years ago a number of corporations and the government of Chile started the process of constructing dams on southern Chile wild rivers. Many locals were for the dam because they saw jobs. The government was for the dam because it was a large public project. And of course, the corporations behind it expected to make money. With big government, big money and local support, one would think opposing the dams was hopeless. Some suggested that there was no point in opposing these dams, rather groups should fight to get the reduce the dam’s impacts, and so forth.

    But some refused to accept that. They did not want any dams. Against all odds, they launched a major campaign against the dams. I won’t go into all the details, but this past spring the company behind the dam decided to pull the plug on the project.

    Had the groups opposed to the dam accepted the idea that there was local opposition, support from the government and big money behind it, so why bother, there would be dams on those rivers today.

    To give one more example when the California Desert bill was being proposed in the early 1990s. wilderness groups listed dozens of wilderness areas. According to my sources, they put all the areas they thought should be protected their draft of the bill. They fully expected to have some areas dropped. In the end, the bill sailed through with all the areas intact because they were not afraid to ask for what they really wanted.

    Another example. In the 1980s Oregon wilderness supporters were drafting legislation to protect a lot of the larger roadless areas in the state. Again the bill contained a lot of the areas that are today wilderness. However, in the political process some areas were dropped. Did that mean environmentalists fought the bill? No they worked to improve it, but in the end, they did get 90% of the areas they recommended. They had to accept the compromise. They just didn’t accept it as the starting point.

    1. JB Avatar

      George, it is not my intent to misrepresent your essay. However, you begin with the following declaration:

      “Nevertheless, many environmentalists now believe–due to regional parochialism and lack of historic context—that significant compromises are necessary to win approval for new conservation initiatives.”

      Your essay then goes on to deride this belief. This, of course, gives the impression that you believe that significant compromises are NOT necessary. If what you really meant was that environmentalists should hold their cards closer to their chests and not be so quick to compromise; well, those are sentiments I mostly agree with. I appreciate your clarification.

    2. Brian Ertz Avatar
      Brian Ertz

      another example is browns bench in southern idaho.

      enviros take principled stand against an energy project that has the wind at its back (literally).
      <blockquote="“I can assure you there will be a protracted legal fight using all legal means available to stop the project”

      Project dies.

      Approaching the table with concessions in fist under the auspice of fear associated with the public relations nightmare promised in response to an environmental advocacy group challenging Big Wind would have played to the energy developers hands and agency would NOT have had the spinal fortitude to do the right thing.

      Had there not been an environmental advocacy that made a credible pronouncement of conviction/willingness to go to the mat on behalf of the wildlife values on browns bench, one of the last, best sage-steppe habitats in Idaho would be lost for all time.

  8. Randy Fischer Avatar
    Randy Fischer

    Bob Marshall’s original Wilderness Society was one myself and many others had supported – until it became a cohort of the enemy, whose actions were clothed as a compromise.

    By definition wilderness does not include cattle, sheep, atvs, and jeeps. A juxtaposed coalition of ranchers, motorized access, and conservationists will not coexist on the same acre for long. Referring to the land encompassed by one of those agreements as wilderness is an error in itself.

  9. LM Avatar

    Ralph, wasn’t sure where to post this, nor was there a link, but it is a short post.

    BLM Seeks Input on Refining Planning Process
    WASHINGTON, D.C. – As part of its continuing commitment to improve management of the nation’s public lands, the Bureau of Land Management is beginning a review aimed at creating a more dynamic and durable way of developing the Resource Management Plans (RMPs) that guide its efforts.  Congress has directed the BLM to develop RMPs for the public lands it manages in consultation with the public and with its partners from tribal, state, and local governments and other federal agencies.

    “As I’ve met with elected leaders and citizens from across the West on BLM issues, I’ve consistently heard two things:  first, the BLM needs to more effectively address landscape-level management challenges; and second, planning takes too long.” BLM Director Neil Kornze said.  “We’re listening to you and we are stepping forward to improve the way we work so we can make our process more flexible in planning across landscapes, more dynamic and responsive to change and less time consuming.”

    Based on an initial review, the BLM intends to target changes in its existing planning regulations and handbook that will allow us to:
    • Conduct effective planning across landscapes at multiple scales and clearly define the boundaries for different types of decisions.
    • Create a dynamic and durable planning process that is responsive to change, allowing BLM to keep plans current through amendments.
    • Create an efficient planning process that reduces the amount of time it takes to complete RMPs.

    The initiative complements BLM’s landscape approach to managing public lands.  The effort is also consistent with Secretary’s Order 3330, “Improving Mitigation Policies and Practices of the Department of the Interior,” including its charge to use a landscape-scale approach to identify and facilitate investment in key conservation and development priorities in a region.

    While this marks the beginning of the process, we anticipate additional opportunities for public involvement. We anticipate proposing targeted changes to our planning regulations and these changes will be open for formal public review and comment.   We also will be revising our current planning handbook to incorporate new guidance and the concepts needed to effectively plan across landscapes.

    In addition to the formal review period associated with the rule-making process, the BLM is seeking input on how we can achieve the goal of a more effective, efficient and durable planning process. Individuals can learn more www.blm.gov/plan2 and can provide feedback to us at blm_wo_plan2@blm.gov.

    The BLM manages more than 245 million acres of public land, the most of any Federal agency. This land, known as the National System of Public Lands, is primarily located in 12 Western states, including Alaska. The BLM also administers 700 million acres of sub-surface mineral estate throughout the nation. The BLM’s mission is to manage and conserve the public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations under our mandate of multiple-use and sustained yield. In Fiscal Year 2013, the BLM generated $4.7 billion in receipts from public lands.

    1. Barb Rupers Avatar
      Barb Rupers

      Interesting reading and reference material, thanks.

  10. Brian Ertz Avatar
    Brian Ertz

    It’s easy to compromise to avoid controversy and criticism. But when it comes to the wild, enough has been lost already – and for all of the ingenuity of men, we do not have a great ability to undo the damage that those of us with a permissive posture might find palatable in the short-term.

    The values that enviros seek to protect are finite. Once we trade away half, we’re not ever gunna see it again – in our lifetime at least. It’s diminishing fast. Then, when the next destructive use comes along, and we trade away half again to aid political expediency, the piece of the pie diminishes even further. Then again, and again.

    The problem with so many collaborative processes that seek compromise is that there is no apple for apple, orange for orange metric by which to assess whether or not a net benefit to conservation value is achieved. Instead, we cast the scales into an ambiguous realm – protections on a map, particularized values without factoring in the interrelated/dependency relationships involved in the whole system/landscape – and declare victory for x, y, or z (say: recreation, or a certain big game species, or a certain fishery) even where the amount and diversity of wild and life in the greater ecosystem continues to diminish. The things we traded away for that particular usually impacting the vigor of the general. There will always be particular conservation values that we can inflate and emphasize with the self-imposed myopia accompanying rose-colored shades. The question is whether saving a single tree is worth trading away x, y, z impacts that tend to diminish the vigor of the forest.

    Take for example the proposed Boulder White Cloud National Monument proclamation. The proposed monument overlaps the Sawtooth National Recreation Area – an area that enjoys a great deal of statutory protections hard-won in previous generation. Will the new designation effect the protections that already exist on the SNRA ? Will the proposed NM effect any of the Wilderness Study lands that currently enjoy that heightened degree of administrative protection ? How will they affect existing protections associated with motorized use ? The proponents of the NM have been alleged to have struck a deal (or are working on it) with motorized users, bikers, and other recreational users – interest groups that promote uses that have significant impact on the landscape. A victory for collaborative process. People getting along. Will it be a victory for the land itself ? or just the maps ? It’s been reported that proponents are celebrating the victory of user-group buy-in. Those user-groups are pushing hard to ensure that an NM designation would be crafted without impacting their use(s) of the landscape. They’re smart – they won’t sign on unless they see a net benefit.

    What sort of deal would continue to allow some of the greatest impact to the landscapes ? What sort of a deal would gain the endorsement of the Blue Ribbon Coalition ? Of what conservation benefit would be achieved ? If recreation is a value in itself, will there be increased management to mitigate impacts associated with increased use which accompanies increased prominence given the designation ? How will it be paid for ?

    How do you gauge the relative value of whatever conservation value is better protected against those that are traded away ?

    These questions are central to any number of collaborative accomplishments – but because the focus invariably shifts to accomplishing something, rather than nothing (assumed failure) it becomes easy to water down the language with vaguaries that are easy to champion in newsletters and the press, but that often don’t get executed in the same way, or to anywhere near the degree, as promised.

    JB, we’ve had this debate years ago. The West is governed by ideological zealots whose natural resource paradigm recognizes but a single value to public lands: that of the locality’s supreme entitlement to commercial-use. They have been whittling away at the administrative mechanisms to such a degree that federal managers are piss-pants afraid to interpret federal statutes in a way that extends meaningful protections for conservation values on public lands despite pretty explicit language hard-won in the 70s and even on. If a law is to be passed, it needs to be so clear that a court will be able to enforce it against the significant judicial deference that managers enjoy. That is not likely to happen at the bargaining table with the extractive interests at issue unless it is insisted upon – advanced with conviction up front.

    What is more likely to be the product, and what we have seen, coming out of collaborative processes and processes that involve coming to the table with a timid self-compromising posture is language that’s sorta ambiguous as it relates to preservation of the conservation interest. Language that doesn’t offend. Such vague and/or ambiguous language – language/agreements scripted not to offend extractive user-groups – rests the discretion of administration wholly in the hands of agencies that have been captured by the very user groups such language is supposed to protect the wild from in the first place. But remember, we dulled the language so as not to offend, to ensure the table was full.

    Another consequence of such a self-tempered posture is the aggregation of policy-making responsibilities into a narrow and privileged class of professional conservationists who keep the ball hidden. The collaborative process does not inspire groundswell support. It’s hard to highlight the intrinsic and inspirational character of a wild value in particular (enviros’ political strength is in the capacity for the subjects of our advocacy to inspire) to your membership if you think you might have to justify selling it away on down the road. Similarly, it’s difficult to identify a problem, an impact or menacing use, in an effective way that galvanizes public outcry if you’re concerned about not alienating an interest that you may need to establish trust with later. These factors contribute to a marked alienation of involvement from memberships – as those members most likely to be involved are those most passionate about the issues. They become liabilities to the collaborative-minded professional conservationist. That’s a sad trend in the conservation community, the marked and increasing alienation of membership from involvement in the processes which inform administrative and even legislative initiatives and policy-making. That’s a menacing trend, one that the collaborative model is substantively contributing to.

    The bottom line is that we’re not dealing with an objective, science-based process. The management of public lands and development of policy is not an objective, science-based endeavor. It is an inherently political pursuit. We may not like that fact, but we’d better be willing to understand it and understand what works all the way to how it’s rolled out on the land. I argue that more involvement of individuals and members that are better informed, galvanized and inspired by the wild character of our lands and an honest account of the threat thereto (something that doesn’t accompany collaborative/adversarial-averse processes) will contribute positively to policy and ought be actively encouraged.

    This change to a hyper-professionalized, consultant-led conservation strategy is not working.

    1. JB Avatar


      There is much in your post that I agree with, but there are a few points where we differ. I’ll try and very briefly outline those:

      (1) The values that environmentalists are interested in are not ALL finite. Often we’re discussing renewable resources, sometimes we’re discussing habitat types or ecological processes–many of which could benefit from management and may be resilient to other forms of human use.

      (2) You paint collaborative processes and compromise with a pretty broad brush in your post. I would point out that there are a variety of collaborative processes that seek different types of outcomes. Also, and importantly, the process is only is good as the intent of those who implement it. We both know of examples where collaborative processes have been used as political cover for administrative agencies to work toward a pre-ordained outcome. No one I know who advocates for these processes would accept this as a reasonable implementation of collaboration (nor should they). One point of these processes is to SHARE GOVERNANCE with stakeholders, thereby avoiding policy by dictate and the ideological approach you bemoan.

      (3) Compromise and collaboration are different things, but I don’t know anyone who would characterize either as easy. Compromise involves tradeoffs–giving up something we value to get something else we value more; while you describe compromise as “easy” the remainder of your post suggests you don’t agree with your own assessment. Personally, I find compromising quite hard. 😉 Collaboration does not necessitate compromise, but it does require people to work with people with whom they may have political and ideological differences (and may have even gone a few rounds with before); that ain’t easy either. Collaboration certainly does not mean coming to the table ‘hat-in-hand’ and processes SHOULD (though don’t always) favor those who can back up their positions with scientific data.

      Finally, consider that the Forest Service, BLM and to a lesser extent FWS have EXPLICIT multiple-use mandates. Their organic acts don’t say ‘preserve X over Y at all costs’, but rather, require tradeoffs to be made. The question is: who do you want making those tradeoffs? Would you rather the agency professionals close the door and come out with a decision, or would you rather be at the table and share in the decision process? That’s the real choice here: bitch (and litigate) from the sidelines, or sit at the table.

      1. DB Avatar

        Sharing governance is key but it’s not possible. Decisions are made “around the table” but implementation of collaborative/compromised direction often requires litigation. Unless stakeholders have governing authority collaboration is seen as a shell game.

        1. JB Avatar


          That’s on overgeneralization. There are times when sharing governance is impossible (e.g., endangered species listing status determinations); however, many administrative decisions by the BLM and FS require public input in the planning process. Collaborative processes are another way to involve the public while sharing some [though not all] of the decision authority. They’ve also been used by state agencies with varied success.

      2. jburnham Avatar

        I’m suspicious of so called collaborative processes not because I’m opposed to collaboration or cooperation and compromise. My criticism is that (in Montana at least) “collaboration” is mostly a PR tactic. The word gets applied to nearly everything in an attempt to narrow the scope of the debate and inoculate these projects from criticism. After all, who could be against collaboration or opponents working together? From there it’s an easy step to marginalize any criticism as the ranting of “extremists”. Now you don’t even have to address the concerns of anyone outside the “collaborative” because they’re just bomb throwers who “bitch (and litigate) from the sidelines.

        “Would you rather the agency professionals close the door and come out with a decision, or would you rather be at the table and share in the decision process? That’s the real choice here”

        I disagree that this is the choice. One of the “collaborative” processes that’s being pushed hard as a new model for forest management in Montana is the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act. It was written by a “collaborative” group of big green and small timber mill owners, plus ranchers. They were a self-selected group that got together to narrow the scope of the discussion. If you didn’t agree to quid pro quo logging for wilderness, mandated logging levels, and local control of nearby public lands you couldn’t be involved in the collaboration. If you thought all of Montana’s roadless lands should remain roadless, you couldn’t have a seat at the table. Once they had written a bill, they found a willing sponsor in the Senate (Jon Tester). They held “listening sessions” where the public got to listen to them talk about the plan; but before the listening sessions even began they declared mandated logging levels and Wilderness designation off the table for discussion. After the bill was killed in committee, Sen. Tester promised to protect it from amendments and attach it to an unrelated must-pass bill as a rider. There’s really no room in this process for the public to give input and have a seat at the table. I believe this is the point. You might say that this isn’t a true collaborative process, but this is what they’re selling as collaborative in these parts.

        Finally, one minor quibble. “and processes SHOULD (though don’t always) favor those who can back up their positions with scientific data.”

        What if my position is that a small group of locals shouldn’t have control of public land planning? Science can’t weigh in on my belief that public input about National Forest planning should include the voices of Americans living in other states. What if I believe that having timber mill owners write forest planning documents represents a conflict of interest? What if I believe that public lands are best used to generate income for locals rather than as elk habitat? These are value judgements and we can’t talk meaningfully about land management without addressing them. Science is important, but it won’t bridge the ideological divide between groups with vastly different world views and goals.

        1. Brian Ertz Avatar
          Brian Ertz

          The same thing happened in Owyhee where the founding document of that “collaborative” process precluded involvement of Jon Marvel or any of “his supporters.” It’s a procedural shell-game. Now, in order to retain support for the procedural operating ideology, extractive user members of the collaborative have pulled their contacts with conservation members to criticize BLM’s proposal to reduce grazing on allotments in Owyhee. Conservation members of that collaborative have publicly cautioned against BLM’s call to reduce cattle, which is ecologically/scientifically indefensible for them to do, as a threat to the collaborative process, or their future ability to establish similar collaboratives.

          Perhaps Ken Cole would weigh in with a link to his account of that bastardization of science and conservation in Owyhee.

          This is how collaboratives have rolled out in Livestock country. Science and environmental-advocacy undermined by well-meaning attempts to preserve good-faith, to the detriment of environmental values, among extractive-interests who have none.

        2. JB Avatar

          jburnham: The processes that I’m familiar with would not proceed without ALL interested ‘stakes’ present. Doing so is, in my mind, asking for litigation. There is also some confusion between collaborative interest groups that form on their own, and collaborative processes that are implemented by administrative agencies. The former (which I believe describes your experience) exists outside of any specific process, and isn’t subject to any rules, regs, etc.–it’s essentially an ad hoc interest group comprised of other groups. One cannot generalize back to collaborative processes from such ‘meetings’.

          “What if my position is that a small group of locals shouldn’t have control of public land planning? Science can’t weigh in on my belief that public input about National Forest planning…”

          Certainly not. If you believe that a small group of locals’ interests are being given undue weight in a particular decision, and you have standing, you can always challenge the decision in the courts. As I said, collaboration is not a panacea, and it isn’t useful in every scenario.

          “…it’s an easy step to marginalize any criticism as the ranting of ‘extremists’. Now you don’t even have to address the concerns of anyone outside the ‘collaborative’ because they’re just bomb throwers who ‘bitch (and litigate) from the sidelines.’”

          Again, I don’t know of anyone who uses collaborative processes that would recommend keeping stakeholders out. Daniels and Walker (2001) are pretty specific about this. However, if your groups views are on the periphery and you can’t make a compelling case (to others) for your concerns, then you may indeed find your group is relegated to ‘bitching from the sidelines’. Note: You and Brian seem to miss that this cuts both ways. So imagine a scenario where ALL of the groups interested in wolf management get invited to the table. The outcome of such a process may not be exactly what Western Watersheds wants, but it also isn’t going to be what Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife wants either. In fact, this actually happened in Utah, and Don Peay found himself sitting on the sidelines of a collaborative process. Unfortunately, his pull with the legislature meant he had the power to do an end-around and get the policy he wanted (wolf eradication/minimization). Which is why you don’t enter into a collaborative process without knowing each groups ‘BATNA’ –their Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement. When their best alternative is to litigate, then the process is doomed from the start.

          As I said to begin with, collaboration is much maligned on this forum, in part because people have bad experiences with poorly-implemented processes, but also because folks haven’t taken the time to understand what can be accomplished. One group that does it right is the Human-Wildlife Conflict Collaboration: http://www.humanwildlifeconflict.org/.

          And if you think it’s all about making compromises that ultimately negatively impact conservation, you should take a look at their leadership:

          Steering Committee

          Charles Brown USDA – Wildlife Services
          Renee Bumpus Houston Zoo
          Kyle Burks Denver Zoo
          Nancy Gloman Defenders of Wildlife
          Kym Gopp Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
          Stephanie Boyles-Griffin The Humane Society of the United States
          Kirsten Leong US National Park Service
          Francine Madden Human-Wildlife Conflict Collaboration
          Rebecca Rose Columbus Zoo
          Advisory Committee

          Ed Clark Wildlife Center of Virginia
          Peter Crawshaw IBAMA – Iguacu National Park, Brazil
          Nina Fascione Defenders of Wildlife
          Camilla Fox Project Coyote
          John Hadidian The Humane Society of the United States
          Michael Hutchins American Bird Conservancy
          Rodney Jackson Snow Leopard Conservancy
          Michael Manfredo Colorado State University
          Laurie Marker Cheetah Conservation Fund
          Brian McQuinn United Nations Development Programme
          Oxford University
          Julie Stein Scentmark
          Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network
          Nicole Weaver American University

  11. Joanne Favazza Avatar
    Joanne Favazza

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for saying what needs to be said–now more than ever.

  12. Mark Bailey Avatar

    Nice piece, George. Re-kindles my enthusiasm to try and get something done conservation wise. Thanks.

  13. mikepost Avatar

    While I am in general agreement with George, he seems to ignore the success of the conservation easment programs across the nation that address local concerns and yet still permanently protect land for wildlife habitat. Easements are just one tool out of many but they are perhaps the consumate successful “compromise”.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      “Easements are just one tool out of many but they are perhaps the consummate successful “compromise”


      An interesting read mikepost:


  14. snaildarter Avatar

    This is a great article and it reminds me of a conversation I had with David Bower a few years back.
    He was universally against compromise and scoffed at my claim that what worked in California wouldn’t work in Georgia. Over the years I’ve found that compromise is the only way to make progress and protect past victories. In Georgia we had great successes back in the 1970’s when Jimmy Carter was Governor. We managed to protect 90% of Georgia’s coastline. This included 19 barrier Islands, one of which became a National Seashore, and our salt marshes are by far the most expansive marshes on the eastern Seaboard. We set up wilderness areas in the Okefenokee Swamp and Chattahoochee National Forest. We created the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area near Atlanta, but by 1980 developers, farmers and others had learned how to fight back. Now they completely control the Legislature and we are always on the defense. One of the big problems is conservatives see environmentalist as the enemy and I think the no compromise idea may have led to that schism.

  15. Lyn McCormick Avatar
    Lyn McCormick

    George or Ralph, If you have an opinion on this I would like to hear it. Thanks, LM

    ENDANGERED SPECIES: Obama admin unveils rewrite of key habitat rules (Friday, May 9, 2014)
    Phil Taylor, E&E reporter

    The Obama administration today released two new proposed rules and a new policy designed to clarify how it designates and protects critical habitat for threatened and endangered species, a key bulwark against extinction.

    The proposals mark one of the most significant updates in many years to how the government sets aside and protects critical habitat, and they will be closely watched by wildlife advocates and land users.

    The rules include a more expansive definition for when projects such as mines, roads, pipelines and drilling harm or destroy critical habitat — a chief litmus test for whether projects can be approved.

    The administration is also proposing new policy designed to clarify how agencies decide to exclude certain lands from critical habitat designations. Private lands, particularly those where landowners have agreed to voluntarily protect species, would be given priority for habitat exclusions, according to the proposal.

    A third proposed regulation — which administration officials describe as mostly housekeeping — would clarify the procedures and standards agencies use for designating critical habitat, including defining the scope and purpose of habitat.

    The proposals from the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service are designed to make critical habitat decisions under the Endangered Species Act more efficient and transparent, but they would also factor heavily in determining how lands that aid species’ recovery may be used.

    But experts say it’s too early to predict whether they will result in greater protections for wildlife.

    “Our goal in proposing these revisions is to make the process of designating and consulting on critical habitat more predictable, more efficient, and more easily understood,” said a statement by Gary Frazer, FWS’s assistant director for ecological services. “These common-sense changes, reflecting lessons learned over the years, will improve conservation of species that need help and reduce the potential for conflicts and litigation.”

    The proposals are being closely scrutinized by environmentalists as well as the oil and gas industry, livestock groups, timber companies and homebuilders.

    “This rulemaking is one of the best opportunities in recent years to improve the ESA’s effectiveness,” Ya-Wei Li, director of endangered species conservation at Defenders of Wildlife, said this morning in an email. “The services have historically underused critical habitat when conserving listed species.”

    Brett Hartl of the Center for Biological Diversity said that at first blush, the rules do not appear to go far enough to prevent the “death by a thousand cuts” to habitat that drives species declines.

    The National Association of Home Builders did not reply to an email for comment, and other stakeholders said they would need time to review the proposals.

    Of particular interest to environmentalists is the proposed rule to expand the definition of what constitutes “destruction or adverse modification” of critical habitat. That language is the Endangered Species Act’s only prohibition against habitat loss, which is a leading cause of species decline.

    ESA prohibits federal agencies from approving or funding an activity that destroys or adversely modifies critical habitat, but those terms are inherently ambiguous and susceptible to litigation.

    The Reagan administration in 1986 defined “adverse modification” as “a direct or indirect alteration that appreciably diminishes the value of critical habitat for both the survival and recovery of a listed species.”

    But separate federal appeals courts in 2001 and 2004 found that definition set too high a threshold for triggering adverse modification by shortchanging the need for habitat to support species recovery.

    Environmental groups for years have argued that the definition should be changed to read “survival or recovery,” which would give species recovery independent meaning.

    The agencies appear to have chosen a middle ground. They proposed defining destruction or adverse modification as: “A direct or indirect alteration that appreciably diminishes the conservation value of critical habitat for listed species. Such alterations may include, but are not limited to, effects that preclude or significantly delay the development of the physical or biological features that support the life-history needs of the species for recovery.”

    The new definition would not require approved activities within critical habitat to contribute to recovery, but it would prohibit activities that “significantly delay” the habitat from developing the characteristics necessary to support species recovery.

    Notably, the agencies do not anticipate the new definition will result in any more or fewer findings of “adverse modification” than in recent years. It merely codifies existing internal guidance issued in 2004 by FWS and 2005 by NMFS.

    “The reality is, this definition, in our view, is unlikely to be any more or less protective,” Frazer said in an interview.

    The new definition is expected to provide environmentalists and developers more certainty about how the agencies protect habitat, thus reducing the amount of conflict, Frazer said.

    “This is a complex responsibility Congress gave us,” he said. “We looked at every word and combination of words in the dictionary before coming to this.”

    The new definition is consistent with the intent of Congress and federal courts that critical habitat be established for more than species survival, the agencies said.

    “It is clear that any definition of ‘destruction or adverse modification’ must reflect the purpose for which the critical habitat was designated — the recovery of the species,” the agencies said in a notice to the Federal Register.

    The proposed rule also clarifies that “adverse modification” of habitat is different from a separate mandate in ESA that federal action not “jeopardize the continued existence of threatened and endangered species.” The former refers to the quantity and quality of habitat, while the latter refers to species reproduction, numbers or distribution, according to the proposed rule.

    Li of Defenders of Wildlife said it is important that the rule create “meaningful prohibitions” on harming habitat because it is often much easier to protect lands that host a species than it is to protect individual animals, which are often difficult to find or study.
    New policy for excluding habitat

    The agencies also want to offer greater predictability, transparency and consistency in how they decide which lands to exclude from critical habitat, Frazer said.

    ESA allows the agencies to exclude lands if the benefits of exclusion — either to the economy or to national security, for example — would outweigh the benefits of protecting the lands. But that discretion has proved extremely controversial in the case of species including the northern spotted owl and bull trout in the Pacific Northwest, among others.

    In particular, designating critical habitat on private lands is seen by some as a taking of private property due to fears that it could reduce property values. It means federally permitted or funded actions are subject to time-consuming consultations, and they theoretically can be halted if found to trigger “adverse modification.”

    The agencies’ proposed new policy says the agencies will generally exclude from critical habitat those private lands covered by voluntary conservation plans, including candidate conservation agreements with assurances (CCAAs), safe harbor agreements and habitat conservation plans (HCPs).

    In deciding what lands to exclude, the agencies will explore, among other criteria:

    To what extent designating critical habitat would hamper the successful implementation of the conservation plan.

    The degree to which the public participated in crafting the conservation plan.

    The plan’s demonstrated implementation and success.

    Whether the plan or agreement contains a monitoring program and adaptive management.

    The proposal is aimed at assuring landowners and industry that voluntary conservation commitments will not go unnoticed.

    For example, some parties have committed to implementing habitat conservation plans — which require mitigation for the unintentional “take” of an endangered species — only to later see their lands designated as critical habitat.

    “It was seen as a breach of trust,” Frazer said.

    The new policy would formalize the agency’s current practice of giving private lands with voluntary conservation plans greater weight for exclusions.

    “Our objective here is to provide incentive — or remove any disincentive — to undertake voluntary conservation actions,” he said.

    Such a move would provide a boost to existing conservation plans while encouraging new conservation partnerships with local governments, conservation organizations and private landowners, the agencies said in their Federal Register notice.

    “Together, these entities can implement conservation actions that the services would be unable to accomplish without private landowners,” they said.

    Such was the case with conservation of the lesser prairie chicken, a member of the grouse family that roams tens of millions of acres of mostly private lands in five southern Great Plains states, according to Fish and Wildlife. Voluntary conservation agreements with the oil and gas industry, including CCAAs, have been a cornerstone of the agency’s conservation efforts for the bird, which has been listed as “threatened.”

    The agency has declined to designate critical habitat for the lesser prairie chicken, for now.

    Similar conservation plans are being explored for the greater sage grouse in 11 Western states.

    The new exclusion policy also makes it clear that the agencies will give “great weight” to tribes in designating critical habitat, while also emphasizing that exclusions will be focused on non-federal lands, Frazer said.

    Li, of Defenders, said both FWS and NMFS have historically underused critical habitat as a tool for conserving listed species.

    “The rulemaking should also create a clear role for critical habitat to protect areas that are unoccupied but essential for recovery,” he said. “This is especially important to helping species adapt to climate change. While the proposed rules address both of these issues, we see opportunities to improve the language, including by clarifying certain phrases that could be interpreted in multiple ways.”

    1. Ida Lupines Avatar
      Ida Lupines

      Yes, I’d love to see what people think of this.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner