The Collaboration Trap


Most of environmental/conservation groups in the West are participants in various public land collaboratives. The majority are forest-oriented like the Northwest Forestry Collaborative or the Deschutes Forest Collaborative in Oregon  or the Southwest Crown Collaborative in Montana Though there are others like the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative which focuses primarily on BLM and Forest Service Wilderness Study Areas.

Groups participating in collaboratives include the Western Environmental Law Center (WELC),  Conservation Northwest, Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC), Montana Wilderness Association (MWA), Oregon Wild, Wyoming Outdoor Council, The Lands Council, The Wilderness Society (TWS), the Nature Conservancy (TNC), and sometimes local Sierra Club chapters, among others.

Most participating collaborative members are made up of people who generally believe in exploiting natural landscapes for human benefit. As a generalization, there is overwhelming representation in such collaboratives by people who speak for the resource extraction industry or their sympathizers like rural county commissioners, ORV enthusiasts, and so forth. Those advocating for Nature are seldom present or only weakly represented by the larger environmental groups.

As a generalization, these environmental organizations have been captured or compromised by those whose intent is for greater access to and greater resource exploitation. They participate they argue because without their input the results would be more skewed and biased towards resource extraction.

But in my experience, the best outcome we often see is a bit of tweaking around the edges, not a substantial acknowledgment and acceptance of the value of ecological processes, wildlands, and natural ecosystems.

Nevertheless, participation blurs the lines for the public. When environmental groups participate in these collaborations, they provide “green cover” and legitimize the destruction of natural landscapes, wildlands, and wildlife habitat.

The above list is not exhaustive, and not all these groups, and certainly not all the employees in these groups, are “captured” by their adversaries.

Nevertheless, there is one commonality to all of them. For the most part, they believe spending months and years going to the meeting to change the minds of opponents is a productive and fruitful use of time and money.

I want to acknowledge that many of the people working for conservation groups are doing what they believe will yield the best outcomes.  However, I would suggest they reevaluate their methods and goals.

Though ostensibly all these groups profess to be wildlands advocates–and most are surely to some degree–they have bought into the prevailing myths promoted by the timber industry and forest service that manipulation of our landscape is necessary to “restore” ecological integrity and stability.

Exacerbating the situation is that most of the environmentalists participating in these collaboratives have limited ecological training. With backgrounds as lawyers, journalists, political advisors and so on, they are intelligent, and often well versed in policy, and other areas, but they don’t know the intricacies of ecology, and, the nuances of wildfire/forest ecology, range ecology, and wildlife ecology.

As a result, they are not prepared to go toe to toe with industry and agency specialists if there is any debate about management policy. And due to their limited scientific training, they are more easily beguiled by the “experts” that the agencies and industry use to promote their agenda.

One of the standard assumptions of many of the environmental organizations involved in collaboratives is they can somehow convince the many collaborative participants that protecting wildlands is a good thing.

This is the collaborative trap. You spend your time and money trying to convince people who generally believe natural resources (I dislike that term, but will use for now) are there for human consumption and enjoyment. And that humans have a right, and indeed, even a duty to manage, manipulate, and otherwise exploit the natural world for their direct benefit.

Within this paradigm, the intrinsic value of wildlands has no place.

There are many structural problems with collaboratives that defines the scope of questions, the science that can be reviewed, who gets to play the dominant role in these discussions and by default who has the time and money to attend countless meetings that go for years.

Many people participating in collaboratives have a financial interest in the outcome. If you are a timber company or even a forester with the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management, or a rural county commissioner you see logging as a good economic stimulant or directly affecting your employment. Certainly, without logging, there would be no reason for foresters, timber companies and so forth, so that biases most collaboratives from the start.

It seems unethical to me to allow anyone with a direct financial stake in the outcome to participate.  Yet it is very common for a good proportion of the collaborative membership to consist of timber company owners, mill workers, loggers, ranchers, miners, outfitters, and others who might enjoy a financial windfall from collaborative recommendations.

Second, when environmentalists join collaboratives, it guarantees to sink to the lowest common denominator. As a rule, the other people participating in collaboratives are usually hostile to more wildlands protection, so right up front, one acknowledges that there will be fewer wildlands protected.

Third, the people who work for environmental groups on collaboratives sometimes come to identify more with the other collaborative members than with the wildlands proponents of the region. In other words, collaborative representatives from the conservation movement will tend to be more inclined to accept and internalize the collaborative’s values and “science” that suggests active intervention is the way to “cure” the problem—which of course everyone in the collaborative recognizes is that our forests are “sick” or need “active management” to “save” them.

They suffer from the Stockholm Syndrome where the environmental participants in these collaboratives come to identify more with the alleged aggrievances held by rural communities than identifying with promoting the ecological values of the land and wildlife they presumably represent.

Over and over in news accounts of these collaboratives, the environmental participants tend to emphasize how they are “getting along” with former antagonists. How wonderful it is that they can have a “beer” with a timber worker or a rancher-as if that is the measure of true success, rather than whether we get more wildlands protected.

Fourth, and related to the previous problem, is that many of these groups so identify with the people involved in collaboratives that they avoid any conflicts or even speaking out about environmental damage for fear of jeopardizing the “relationship” with resource exploiters.

So, to my knowledge groups like the Montana Wilderness Association has not filed a single lawsuit to protect roadless lands threatened by logging for decades.  Indeed, it supports logging, even in roadless areas.

The contrast between collaborative members from conservation groups and non-paid wilderness advocates is clearly seen in the discussion over the future of the 230,000 acre Gallatin Range Proposed Wilderness by Bozeman. The grassroots Montanans for a Gallatin Wilderness (all non-paid but passionate wilderness supporters) is lobbying for wilderness protection for the entire roadless area.

By contrast, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, The Wilderness Society and Montana Wilderness Association working as an outgrowth of a collaborative are supporting a 100,000 acre mostly rocks and ice proposal.

Do not misunderstand me. I recognize that one may not get the full acreage of any proposal, but one should start any discussions with the proposal that protects the most land. One has to remember it is not the job of wilderness advocates to compromise their proposal from the on-set. It is the job of Congress to do the compromising. That is what they are paid to do. Wilderness advocates are paid to be advocates for wildlands.

To use another example, currently, domestic sheep grazing in the Gravelly Range of Montana threatens the recovery of wild bighorns as well as expanding grizzly bear populations. But when asked to join a lawsuit to remove the domestic sheep, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition refused.  GYC is participating in a Gravelly Range collaborative that includes many ranchers, so I assume they are unwilling to antagonize the livestock industry, despite the fact, there is well-grounded science showing that domestic sheep can transmit disease to wild bighorn.    (I have written them twice to ask why they aren’t in favor of grizzlies and bighorns over domestic sheep with no response).

The fifth and perhaps most insidious aspect of collaboratives there is always the assertion of “win-win” where “everyone” gets something. But the “everyone” usually does not include the wildlife, forest ecosystems, and wildlands. In the end, the “winners” are the collaborative membership not the public and most importantly the land and its diversity of life.

A new twist in the collaborative effort is the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative that is determining which Wilderness Study Areas in that state will remain roadless and wild and which could be developed.

One must wonder why anyone would believe that participating in a collaborative makes any sense at all. For the most part, collaboratives are composed of people who have a resource extraction bias, and as mentioned previously, often have a direct financial stake in the outcome of decisions. Why would you waste your time trying to convince a logging company to stop logging to save spotted owls or a rancher to close an allotment to protect wolves, bighorn sheep or grizzly bears?

It would be as if Martin Luther King spent his time with the Klu Klux Klan to convince them that segregation was a bad policy. King didn’t waste his time with the Klan, rather he appealed to the rest of the Nation to garner support for equal rights.

This gets to the central part of the problem. All these groups involved in collaboratives are spending huge amounts of staff time and money attending meetings with people who, with few exceptions, have diametrically opposed views on the value wilderness and wildlands. Is this really a productive use of time?

To give one example, the late Tim Lillebo of Oregon Wild spent the greater part of a decade attending collaborative meetings in eastern Oregon. Before collaboratives, Lillebo spent his time (successfully I might add) trying to convince citizens that we needed more wilderness. But once Lillebo became involved in collaboratives, he had no time for any other activities other than attending meetings.

Since his death two years ago, Oregon Wild has continued to participate in these collaboratives. What has been the outcome of all those meetings? Are there any new wilderness proposals on the table? Has Oregon Wild convinced collaborative members that we should protect large portions of Eastern Oregon as designated wilderness? Nope. As far as I  can tell, there is less support for wilderness in the region than ten years ago.  And all the while there has been significant logging-mostly without objection from Oregon Wild.

Now imagine if Oregon Wild had instead of attending collaborative meetings trying to convince people who have a financial interest in more logging, the group had spent the last ten or twelve years promoting wilderness in eastern Oregon as well as in urban centers like Portland. There are many people in these communities who might not have designating new wilderness as their number one priority, but they might still be supportive.

Instead of trying to convince mill workers, miners, ranchers, and timber company owners to support wilderness, would not a better strategy be to convince all the other people across the country from the teachers to post office workers or the clerks at Safeway or whomever that protecting wilderness is a good idea? Instead of attending collaborative meetings,  if Tim Lillebo and his successors gave numerous powerpoint presentations to sympathetic crowds, field trips, written numerous commentaries and letters to the editor promoting wilderness protection in the region. I believe we might have already gotten new wilderness designated, or at the last acceptance of it.

The trap of collaboratives is that it saps organizational time and money. It’s designed to silence oppositional groups and make them spend their limited time in meetings with people who hold diametrically opposed values instead of advancing the wildlands agenda with the public. And because member organizations are trying to “get along” they are frequently unwilling to actively oppose resource exploitation.

As Sierra Club ED David Brower once quipped, “I am not opposed to compromise, but I want to be the last in the room to do so.”

I often regret that Bob Marshall’s admonishment at the founding of the Wilderness Society is not more widely observed in today’s conservation movement. Marshall wrote: “We want no stragglers. For in the past far too much good wilderness has been lost by those whose first instinct is to compromise”.



  1. Clinton Nagel Avatar
    Clinton Nagel

    I think you hit the nail on the head and described the reality quite well.

    I would like to get this idea perpetuated in the environmental community, but I suppose this argument is not new to them.

    1. Nancy Avatar

      Agree Clinton.

      “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter” MLK

  2. Veronica Egan Avatar
    Veronica Egan

    It has been my experience that agency and grazing permittees will finally agree to cha he’s in management after several years of collaboration Then they run to their county commissioners, legislators and even senators, and get the agreement reversed. Very frustrating!?

  3. Maximilian Werner Avatar
    Maximilian Werner

    I agree with everything you say here, George, except the idea that spending time convincing the public of wilderness’s importance may make more sense than meeting with “people who hold diametrically opposed values.” I think we need to both things, and more, if we are going to effect meaningful change. We need to make better arguments, which depends on knowing our audience. Thanks for all you do.

  4. Kathleen Avatar

    From “Wilderness: The Next 50 Years?”

    “There appears to be a disturbing trend in the collaborators representing “conservation” interests negotiating away central tenets of the Wilderness Act in exchange for simply getting an area called “Wilderness” designated. As a result, recent legislation appears to be enshrining the WINO – Wilderness In Name Only.”

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      Yes, they fall prey to social influence and want the other members to think well of them. This kind of influence is emotionally hard to resist. It is better not to have good relations with the other collaborators.

      1. Jeremy B. Avatar
        Jeremy B.

        The influence, of course, goes both ways–so extractive users also ‘want the other members to think well of them’.

        Until we had the tRump administration, progress generally favored more protections and more public lands with each administration.

        Litigation is a fine tool, but people who wield only sticks (and no carrots) soon find themselves short on friends (aka political allies).

        1. louise kane Avatar
          louise kane

          but what are the carrots when the collaborators/friends are working to abrogate wilderness designated areas to INO as Kathleen writes? Do carrots help, when they appear to be taking exactly what they want with little resistance other than litigation? These issues should not have to be litigated, the bullies are winning without additional concessions. I don’t have the answer but is conciliatory process getting anyone anywhere in this insanity?

          1. Jeremy B. Avatar
            Jeremy B.

            I don’t agree with the characterization ‘the bullies are winning without additional concessions’. That’s not happening where I sit. In Ohio we’ve added public lands (in the form of Wildlife Areas), and the Forest Service can’t look crosswise at a tree without getting sued. In fact, over the past half century our % forested has gone up considerably, and now the inability to cut or burn has put early successional dependent species at risk (nearly all of the birds that are declining in our state are dependent upon early successional habitat which is in decline). In our case, a compromise that allowed for some harvest would actually greatly benefit wildlife.

            1. Louise kane Avatar
              Louise kane

              I can’t speak to your regional issues can you say the same on a national level?

              1. Jeremy B. Avatar
                Jeremy B.

                Louise: I suspect that the new administration isn’t interested in collaboration–they’re just going to cram their values down everyone’s throats.

                1. Mat-ters Avatar

                  I suspect your correct JB, the compromise candidates like Jeb Bush and John Kasich didn’t fair to well with the bitter clingers and deplorables. This article is just what the righteous posters here needs to cleanse their soul of doing something stupid like reflecting on their role in Trumps rise. Next time your at the compromise table with shining star compromisers like Johnny Vucetich, Robby Wielgus and Adrian Treves…… tell um I said hi! Keep up the good work in your compromise talk…..


                2. Jeremy B. Avatar
                  Jeremy B.

                  And whom should I say “hi” from?

                3. Mat-ters Avatar

                  Immer seems to know who I am. Ask him. I included a “your” & …. in the post above just to make sure. I prefer to keep my identity private. With a media so biased & balanced on top of the left. It’s for the best.

  5. Barbara Moritsch Avatar
    Barbara Moritsch

    Great piece, thank you. Whenever we compromise over environmental issues, the environment loses. It’s a hard truth because we are taught compromise is a good thing. In this case, though, other species and their habitat, wildlands, clean air and water, dark skies and quiet places, all will decrease and decline. Lines in the sand are required.

    1. Ann Avatar

      Well said, Barbara. And thanks, George, for this excellent piece.

  6. Nancy Ostlie Avatar
    Nancy Ostlie

    My firsthand experience confirms what you report here. It seems that some NGO’s are actually lobbying for the timber and mountain biking interests — can’t these groups hire their own lobbyists?

  7. Grimm Gary Avatar

    Thanks for information that is to often hidden behind the closed doors of “Stakeholder Collaboration” Ralph. It is not by accident that environmental groups are deceived. The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund also weighs in o this issue by highlighting the following: The “Box of Allowable Activism,” the “Black Hole of Doubt” and an “enemy who has outposts in your head.”

    1. Gary Grimm Avatar

      In my comment I should have attributed this to “George” instead of “Ralph” / Sorry!

    2. Michael Avatar

      CELDF has on it’s Board of Advisors 2 notable members. The first is Spencer Beebe who, with a loan from the Ford Foundation, built what may be the first building in the world to have the words “Natural Capital” rendered in bricks and mortar. It’s inPortland and it’s called the ‘Ecotrust – Natural Capital Center’. The founder of Conservation International who spent 14 years with The Nature Conservancy supports collaborations with Earth Economics to do ecosystem services assessments favoring utilities companies in Oregon watersheds. The second member is Leila Connors who could be said to be Leo DiCaprio’s favorite documentarian. DiCaprio’s foundation executive director Justin Winters recently received the ‘INTERPOL Environmental Compliance and Enforcement Committee’ award for it’s work in a joint ceremony held with the World Forum for Natural Capital. The Dicaprio foundation do a lot of work in the area of natural capital and ecosystem services. There is every reason to question the appropriateness of the CELDF advisory board membership. It’s not surprising that CELDF does not publicly confront natural capital and ecosystem services thinking and market development.

  8. Marc Avatar

    Trump got to where he is by mobilizing his supporters, not by seeking compromise. Since Trump and his fellow white supremacists are so fond of Norway, we may as well adapt Norwegian terminology and refer to environmentalists who participate in collaboratives as Quislings.

    1. Jeremy B. Avatar
      Jeremy B.

      So your message is that we should emulate Trump, and call people names? Yeah, that’ll help.

  9. Jeremy B. Avatar
    Jeremy B.

    Look, the question people should be asking here is this: How do you want your government to work in instances where diverse societal values lead people to hold wildly divergent stances on public policy? Should the party in power just ignore those in the minority and ‘shove their values’ down the others’ throats (so the ‘winner take all’ approach)? Then both sides can hire armies of attorneys to battle it out in the courts. Or should we seek a style of governance that attempts to represent diverse values by seeking compromises where and when they can be found?

    I submit that the former is where we’ve been heading, and it will lead to big public policy swings when governmental control flips, lots of lawsuits, and tremendous inefficiency (you can’t plan long-term when the other side doesn’t agree on the plan). Collaborative efforts–imperfect as they are–at least attempt to provide such stability by forcing people to work together toward compromise.

    1. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
      Mareks Vilkins

      it seems you assume that:

      1. every interest group has equally legitimate ‘grievances’ to be addressed

      2. both parties serve different / opposite interest groups when in reality both Reps and Dems serve the same top-dog agenda and the bottom 70% of electorate do not even register on their radar

      1. Jeremy B. Avatar
        Jeremy B.

        (1) In the US, everyone has a right to their opinion–in practice, this means no grievances are “illegitimate”.

        (2) In my experience, there isn’t much collaboration that happens at the national level (though there are a few exceptions); rather, it is typically restricted to local or state issues where corporations aren’t really relevant, at least in policy-setting.

        1. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
          Mareks Vilkins

          ok, let’s look at this fresh example:

          background information: in Sweden there’s ~ 300 000 hunters and on average each hunter gets 50-60 kg moose meat per year. Their grandfathers exterminated wolf population and for generations it was a ‘new normal’ that there are no large predators who mess with Swedish hunter’s sense of entitlement.

          Now there’s about 200 wolves and mainstream hunters go ballistic when on the scene show up some girls who try to protect native large predators. I mean, NOBODY from hunters were appalled by some gorilla’s violence against 17years old girl. Their only concern / worry was whether others who were recording the violence are connected to the internet and all that stuff goes online in live.

          No need to remind anyone that if some black Muslim would perform similar antics there would be completely different story / reaction.

          So much for ‘gender equality’ ‘progressive Swedish males’ ‘honourable mainstream Swedish hunters’ and all that cal.

          Tell me something about ‘compromise’ and ‘quid pro quo’ now.

          1. Jeremy B. Avatar
            Jeremy B.

            Mareks: That’s really awful. I have no idea what it has to do with collaboration…nothing in my estimation. If your implying (like George) that you people should take a ‘hard-line’ and not give in to the other side, all I can say is you’re in ‘good’ company (like the American President).

            1. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
              Mareks Vilkins

              it has to do with my above mentioned point 1 ( assumption that every interest group has equally legitimate ‘grievances’ to be addressed)

              and as I emphasized – those Swedish bullies are NOT some ‘few rotten bad apples’ … they are mainstream guys and in Norway is the same story.

              And in Sweden they get their moose in collective hunts which means that on average every hunter gets equal amount of the kill (50-60 kg). And wolves will not have big impact on that volume of meat.

              My point is that a dominant group is playing with marked cards and to pretend that each and every party has equal footing at decision-making process is preposterous.

              1. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
                Mareks Vilkins

                like the American President

                wait a few years and Trump will be a poster boy for Dems

                George W. Bush’s favorable rating has pulled a complete 180

                Most of Bush’s climb back to popularity came from Democrats and independents. His favorability mark among Democrats has soared from only 11% in February 2009 to a majority 54% now.

                1. Mareks Vilkins Avatar
                  Mareks Vilkins

                  about violence against environmental activists around the globe

                  “Environmental defenders being killed in record numbers globally, new research reveals

                  Activists, wildlife rangers and indigenous leaders are dying violently at the rate of about four a week, with a growing sense around the world that ‘anyone can kill environmental defenders without repercussions’ ”


                2. Mat-ters Avatar

                  We need to honor environmental activists like LaVoy Finicum. True American hero.


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George Wuerthner