The Public Lands Collaboration Process

Why Collaboration Won’t Protect our Public Lands

By Rick Meis, Halfway, OR

Collaboration is a process of playing two sides off against each other in order to create enough guilt in one or all the parties that a compromise is reached. The primary problem is that it is specifically NOT based on science and best available data, thus eliminating the concept of best management practices and the long-term needs of the land to maintain the natural values of the landscape. It becomes about me-now.

Many articles have been written about the concepts and values of collaboration, but the process of collaboration in practice is nothing like the ideal, which some of these writers do attest to. Most of these articles are written by, as ecologist and author George Wuerthner, and philosopher Ned Hettinger call them: anthropocene boosters.

Collaboration is not about right and wrong or about intrinsic values. It certainly is not a process of planning based on science, best available data and best management practices. It is a cop-out on the part of administrators and/or land managers to not have to do the work required of them – generally hard work – in order to achieve good management decisions. Granted, their budgets have been slashed repeatedly making it nearly impossible to do a good job.

Ultimately, collaboration is a process that gives equal say and validity to those whose activities are either illegal, incompatible with the area’s values, or so damaging to public land resources that they have been or are being restricted for that very reason. Within the normal data- and science-driven decision making process of land management agencies – at least the goal thereof – these peoples’ view lack substance and thus are not applied in management. Quite the opposite is true; these peoples’ actions go against the concepts of best management practices and fly in the face of best use of the land resource because of their high impact.

It is irresponsible to think that the resolution of management needs and ultimate fate of our natural heritage, has nothing to do with something far broader than the ‘vocal local’. Agency managers use it as a way to get out of doing the necessary work that is actually required of them through well-established legal and regulatory mandates. So-called public interest groups on all sides use it as a way to raise money and their profile. The politically motivated use it to reach another successful failure in achieving the lowest common denominator.

In the specific issue of the Gallatin Range in Montana, an integral part of the most significant temperate ecosystem on our earth, the most guilty are the environmental groups who have chosen to defy everything they claim to have historically stood for in order to curry political favor, new donations or something equally as shallow.

On the other hand, it is most commonly the high-impact users whose activities, as a user group, have intensified to the point where these uses are no longer compatible with the long-range management goals of land management agencies to meet their obligations of conserving the resource, thus requiring a collaboration process in order to justify, essentially, misuse of the landscape. In other words, the concept of best management practices, using science and best available data, does not allow these high-impact users the unlimited access they desire to meet self-centered, short term recreation desires.

Another significant problem that occurs in collaborative processes is often that the worst ‘offenders’ at the table are represented by professionals. One early collaborative process was classic of this problem with industry lawyers negotiating with non-profit volunteers, which resulted in a nightmare for managers saddled with significant resource-damaging activities that were the outcome (the Kootenai Accords).

I opened this article with the phrase “ playing two sides off against each other,” which is the very phrase Senator Melcher (MT, retired) told me was the goal of politicians in natural resource legislation. Politicians are not that brutally honest today. This is why politicians love the collaborative process. They can embrace the outcome without any flak. At the beginning of one collaboration, Senator Tester, MT, stated that whatever the consensus, he would introduce legislation to codify the outcome.

Collaboration should not and cannot be based on a me-now approach. The only way it can work is if everyone agrees that it is about what is best for the long term values of the landscape, and sticks to that in the process. Granted, that is ambiguous, but there are far too many examples of those entering into collaborative processes for all the wrong reasons, such as the panic of losing something (rightfully or wrongly).

A long-time conservationist wrote that if the future is to be determined by citizen collaborations, then a parallel track to the user-based process should be implemented. It would be based on science and examine biological and geological characteristics of the landscape. This track should consider the long-term future of the land and recommend management actions to protect and maintain the natural values so future generations will experience a natural landscape as we did because of the efforts of those who have gone before.

Wait! Isn’t that what current laws and regulations already require of land managers?

I think it is important that anyone who considers themselves a conservationist and is thinking of joining in a collaborative must read a few articles and editorials by good conservation writers like George Ochenski of Helena, MT, and George Wuerthner of Bend, OR. There are many others who have written excellent pieces on this subject.



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  1. Nancy Ostlie Avatar
    Nancy Ostlie

    The four year Gallatin Community Collaborative failed and dissolved after Wilderness advocates stated that we would vote ‘thumbs down’ on any proposal that reduced recommended Wilderness in roadless areas from the proposed boundary walked and mapped by Montanans for Gallatin Wilderness. Most said the failure was because motorized advocates were not participating. The last straw was when a proposal came from a well-known multimillionaire to cut the Wilderness Study in half with a road that would allow logging, and would allow participants from Big Sky to have lunch in Chico more easily. Fact. There were so many things wrong with the GCC but the fact that science was totally ignored was the biggest. Wilderness advocates sponsored a study on wildlife and climate change in the Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area by Dr. Lance Craighead, but the big conservation groups said it was not relevant!! We still can’t tell if the Forest Service is taking the study into account. It was always about dividing up the ‘pie’ among mountain bikers, motorized users and others. And it still is, based on the paltry amount of Wilderness proposed by the FS. Plan comments are due March 5. Most comments thus far are from private pilots who want airstrips built throughout the Forest! fre

  2. Roger Dobson Avatar

    Great article which points out the Problems of the so called large conservation groups holding their hands out on both sides of the fence for donations. They have taken their focus off of our Wildlife and Public’s Trust Resources to insure those very same resources are available for our children’s children in order to pay huge salaries or gain political favor. When Organizations roll over and call it collaboration our wildlife and environment pay the price!

    1. James Bailey Avatar

      Collaboration can rhyme with capitulation.

      1. James Bailey Avatar

        A lack of science-based management has been mentioned, and that it may lead to a “successful failure” of the politically motivated. Perhaps the most basic, simple, and frequently ignored concept of wildlife ecology concerns limiting factors. Collaborators often ignore it by “finding an issue that we agree on and working on that”. This is akin to having a car with 2 flat tires, and deciding to change whichever of the 4 tires is most easy to reach!

  3. Giovanni Johns Avatar

    Earth, Teach Me

    Earth teach me quiet ~ as the grasses are still with new light.
    Earth teach me suffering ~ as old stones suffer with memory.
    Earth teach me humility ~ as blossoms are humble with beginning.
    Earth teach me caring ~ as mothers nurture their young.
    Earth teach me courage ~ as the tree that stands alone.
    Earth teach me limitation ~ as the ant that crawls on the ground.
    Earth teach me freedom ~ as the eagle that soars in the sky.
    Earth teach me acceptance ~ as the leaves that die each fall.
    Earth teach me renewal ~ as the seed that rises in the spring.
    Earth teach me to forget myself ~ as melted snow forgets its life.
    Earth teach me to remember kindness ~ as dry fields weep with rain.

    – An Ute Prayer

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