Collaborating on the destruction of nature


Collaboration on environmental issues is pushed by big funders and by consulting groups, but so far has borne only bitter fruit for conservationists. Favored by shrewd industrial interests who recognize collaboration as a means to greenwash environmentally harmful activities, this practice undermines the enforcement of environmental laws and regulations. Commercial interests often engage in collaborative processes as a method to perpetuate their own profit-driven agenda with the land management agencies, regardless of how environmentally destructive the result.

That’s why it was especially disappointing to hear collaboration come up during last week’s House Committee on Natural Resources hearing on public lands extremism as the only suggested solution to deal with the ranchers and malcontents who take up arms against and threaten federal employees. On the witness panel, collaboration was endorsed by a rancher, an Oregon social scientist, and a representative of the conservative Heritage Foundation, and it was unfortunately hailed by congressional representatives of both parties. Sure, it makes everyone feel good, but is it good for the planet?

One of the primary definitions of ‘collaboration’ according to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary is, “To cooperate with or willingly assist an enemy of one’s country and especially an occupying force.” The original collaborators were the Vichy French government during World War II. In exchange for a short-lived authority over an unoccupied zone in southern France, the Vichy government clamped down on freedoms and acceded to a heavy-handed German military occupation of most of their nation.

Britain chose a different path. After Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy failed, allowing the Nazi takeover of Austria and Czechoslovakia, and then the fall of France and the Low Countries, a new Prime Minister emerged. Winston Churchill’s approach to Nazi aggression can be summed up in the following speech: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.”

Today, few historians would argue that Vichy collaboration was the winning strategy, while Resistance fighters are recognized as the true French patriots.

Federal agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service determine the fate of public lands and imperiled wildlife habitat, but are far too often are captive to the very industries they are supposed to regulate. The public process of decision-making is often commandeered by the political appointees at the top of the agencies who have the final say in what choices get made. It can feel like the notice-and-comment decision-making is just a pro forma exercise.

Collaboration is thus held out as an opportunity to have a “seat at the table” before those decisions get made, and influence federal decision-making. But the other seats at the table are usually filled with a majority of industry representatives and their allies, so conservationists are badly outnumbered to start with. All an industry representative has to do is threaten to block a vote, and other members of a collaboration face a choice: Cave to the demands, or resign oneself to the failure to render any decision, after countless hours of effort and substantial expenditure of funding? What would an environmental group tell its members at that point? That time and treasure were squandered, and nothing was achieved? Instead, they claim victory for the watered-down protections they’ve compromised for.

That’s exactly what happened in the Wyoming sage grouse collaborative. The National Audubon Society settled for 5% surface disturbance instead of the science-based standard of 3% disturbance in sage-grouse habitat, and buffers around the leks where grouse gather to dance and mate each spring were only 0.6 miles instead of the 5 miles needed to protect nesting habitat because British Petroleum had threatened the group with no deal at all unless the oil industry’s demands were met. Is this success?

And those weren’t the only concessions: The oil industry got the collaboration to change science-based boundaries for Core Areas – the lands accorded the highest protection level – to exclude pristine habitats with some of the highest densities of sage grouse because those were the areas where future drilling was planned. In the end, conservationists “won” protections only for lands that industry had no intention to industrialize anyway.

As director of Wyoming-based Biodiversity Conservation Alliance, I once participated in the collaborative Platte Valley Mule Deer Initiative, convened to address dwindling mule deer populations. I and my staff members logged countless hours around the table, advancing ideas to restore deer populations, and building relationships with other stakeholders. In the end, the only outcome was taxpayer-funded water developments for local ranchers. The mule deer got nothing.

Currently, Washington state’s collaborative Wolf Advisory Group presides over the business-as-usual killing of wolves for livestock depredations, even though wolves are supposed to be protected under the state’s Endangered Species Act. By agreeing which wolves to kill and when, are conservationists really advancing wolf recovery? Having a seat at the table means having blood on your hands.

Under the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative, county-based collaboratives recommended stripping strong Wilderness Study Area (WSA) protections from 176,906 acres of public land, in exchange for recommending only 16,692 acres for wilderness designation. There was no consensus in seven of the eight counties that participated, but that didn’t stop them from asking Congress to eliminate WSAs anyway, in most cases. Only Carbon County reached a legitimate consensus, and it alone produced an environmentally acceptable compromise.

It is time for conservation groups to take stock of the historical record, and recognize that only way significant conservation progress has ever been achieved is by building popular support in the court of public opinion, winning legislative victories with good ideas and solid science, and holding agencies accountable through the courts after having fully and fairly played along with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). The backroom deal-making of collaboration deprives the public of the transparency NEPA’s authors intended.

And finally, federal law enforcement should deal with domestic terrorism and “public lands extremists” by enforcing the nation’s laws against the perpetrators, rather than legitimizing their actions with appeasement and a “seat at the table.” We all have seats under NEPA – not just conservation professionals but every member of the public – and conservationists would be wise to stop giving that away.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and Executive Director with Western Watersheds Project, an environmental conservation nonprofit working to protect and restore watersheds and wildlife throughout the American West. Visit us online at







  1. idaursine Avatar

    Thanks for this post. Do the collaborators realize that no amount of compromise will ever be enough? It’s shocking that those who would even think of giving those who would use arson and armed takeovers of wildlife refuges a ‘seat at any table!

    Their interests are already overrepresented, and history has shown that any attempt at understanding or compromise is never reciprocated. It’s just a continual chipping away, until there will be nothing left.

    There comes a time when it dangerously contributes to the demise and decline of our public lands and wildlife, and the programs put in place to protect them.

    1. idaursine Avatar

      Sorry, a correction – the only table they should have a seat at is in prison.

  2. Bruce Bowen Avatar
    Bruce Bowen

    The term “Stakeholder” is a corporate word by definition which bloomed in the late 60’s as part of corporate business models. During the Reagan/Watt era, the executive branch forced its bureaus to take on a corporate model. BLM employees for example were supposed to appear and talk more corporate and play the corporate game to appease oil companies etc. and facilitate moving resource extraction permits through the bureaucracy. The use of the term ‘Stakeholder’ became common but implied that only certain groups were qualified to be stakeholders. Thus, there were only so many chairs around the meeting table.

    Little by little I watched as various green groups fell off the straight and narrow and took up a corporate persona. They became the monsters that they were previously fighting. As the Greeks used to say “you cannot walk with lame men and not develop a limp”. Thus, the corporate model is killing the planet and the conservation movement.

    J. J. Audubon would role over in his grave and vomit.

  3. Paul griffin Avatar
    Paul griffin

    Another WWII reference to collaboration is the fall of Norway. A collaborator, Vikdun Quisling worked with the
    Nazis to rule Norway. After the war he was tried and executed by the Norwegians and his name, quisling, is a noun meaning traitor.
    The book “Getting To Yes” by Roger Fisher and William Ury is the bible for principled negotiation for issues from treaties to simple economic negotiations. Knowing
    when to walk away from the table is an important concept
    in the book especially if win-win is concealing the facts/issues. This book has never been read by our conservation issues collaborators

  4. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    While I agree, I hate it when the righteous call the kettle black.

    Here’s Molvar responding to WWP’s collaboration with Ruby LNG that ties their hands TO THIS DAY in the steppe through compromised settlement:

    “And, although the settlement was struck five years prior to my arrival as executive director of WWP, I fully endorse WWP’s strategic decision to settle at the time — and create a fund that buys out and closes down grazing leases on public land — and I would hope in the same circumstances that I would have had the wisdom to settle too, and to fight and die on a different hill instead.”

    Note their only ‘buy outs’ were associated with WWP’s owned Vya & Greenfire TNC-like ranches. And, they still graze a fed permit at Vya.

    Repent, then lambast collaboration, WWP.

    1. Marc Bedner Avatar

      Chris, that was my reaction as well. I’m glad to see Molvar, on behalf of Western Watersheds, renounce collaboration in the abstract, but this needs to be put into practice.
      A good place to start would be to join with Predator Defense and resign from the collaborationist Pacific Wolf Coalition.

      1. idaursine Avatar

        Wow. What a great letter, and quote at the end. Thank you.

      2. idaursine Avatar

        Profound, really.

        Thanks again for posting! 🙂

    2. Erik Molvar Avatar
      Erik Molvar

      Settlements are not collaboration.


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