Slowly, unevenly, the members of the group introduce themselves. Some are aggressive, some calm, some red-faced with anxiety. When they're finished, a woman stands up and reminds everyone to keep their eyes on their common vision and not let themselves get tripped up in the details. She steps up to a huge white pad of paper on an easel, uncaps a marking pen the size of a handgun, and the meeting begins.
Alcoholics Anonymous or a church support group. It's a collection
of people, often neighbors, concerned about the state of the West.
Coalitions of environmentalists, ranchers, county commissioners,
government officials, loggers, skiers and jeepers are popping up as
often as wood ticks across the Western landscape. Under such labels
as collaborative efforts and consensus groups, they are bringing
together the people who use the rivers and public lands of the West
to try to make decisions among themselves.
Nobody is keeping an accurate count of this upswell. West-wide,
there are about 70 coalitions organized around watersheds. Five
Western universities teach natural-resource conflict resolution,
and a periodical devoted to collaboration will begin publication in
Montana this summer. Resolving conflict is a growth
Why is this happening? Some say it's a
process of maturation. The West, which has long been closely tied
to the federal government through its huge tracts of public land,
has historically been governed through special-interest jockeying
in Washington, D.C. That machine started to overheat as the West's
populace became larger, more diverse and more demanding. The
alienation intensified in the last few years, when the region was
hit from both sides - voters elected the most anti-environmental
Congress in history, and unprecedented numbers of quality-of-lifers
moved to the West.
The West is now a grouchy
place, a place where nobody gets what they want. Budget cuts have
stripped federal land managers of funding, leaving them largely
unable to do their jobs on the ground. Environmentalists feel
persecuted by politicans who seem intent on dismantling every
environmental law on the books. And forestry is at an impasse, with
loggers feeling hamstrung by environmental appeals and
environmentalists feeling crippled by the notorious salvage
Some of the region's best brains have
long agitated for the West to grow up and start governing itself.
Daniel Kemmis, the mayor of Missoula, Mont., told an audience in
Utah this spring, "I do not believe the federal government has the
capacity to manage the West. I do not believe, either, that any
solution coming from one end of the political spectrum or the other
is going to have the capacity to do what this landscape requires.
The danger is that one ideology or another will win a temporary
victory because we did not work hard enough to find our common
"The bottom line
would be to say that we want and we need control over our own land.
We do not expect to be given that control until we get our own act
These efforts at collaboration haven't
exactly transformed the Western landscape. They're slow, tedious,
fragile processes that seem to fail at least as often as they
succeed. And the status quo is still strongly in evidence: Senators
still get called into action to knock down obstacles to natural
resource development; environmental lawsuits get filed in droves;
Subarus cluster around one small-town cafe while Ford trucks pull
up outside the diner.
But one place that's
acutely aware of the shaky efforts at neighborliness in the West is
"A new dogma is emerging as a
challenge to us," wrote Sierra Club Chairman Mike McCloskey last
November in a memo to the club's board of directors. "It embodies
the proposition that the best way for the public to determine how
to manage its interest in the environment is through collaboration
among stakeholders, not through normal governmental processes ...
such processes tend to de-legitimate conflict as a way of dealing
with issues and of mobilizing support ... Too much time spent in
stakeholder processes may produce the result of demobilizing and
disarming our side."
He was particularly
dubious about consensus: "Only lowest common denominator ideas
survive the process."
McCloskey isn't alone in
his fear of an epidemic of hand-holding breaking out all over the
West. Former Sierra Club staffer Darryl Young, who has watched
coalition attempts backfire, says environmentalists are often
outgunned - in numbers of people and in skills - by the user groups
at the table.
hammered," he says. "Or they get hornswoggled. Or they get the
Stockholm Syndrome (in which captives start to sympathize with
their captors). They go in expecting the other negotiators to be
bad, horrible people, and they turn out to be nice - 'Hey, come
over for a barbecue," and they get soft."
Indeed, industry that depends on public lands is cottoning to
collaboration: "It's the difference between survival and demise,"
says Reeves Brown of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association. A figure
as unfamiliar to environmental circles as Idaho Rep. Mike Crapo, R,
has sung the praises of the Henry's Fork Watershed Coalition (see
story page 9). Crapo received a rating of zero from the League of
thinks its odds are better in these forums," writes McCloskey. "It
is ready to train its experts in mastering this process. It
believes it can dominate them over time and relieve itself of the
burden of tough national rules."
"You can be friendly to these people, but they're not your friends.
Hello! They are not your friends. It doesn't mean you can't respect
them. It's just that they're not your friends."
The politics of compromise
Are the environmental faithful being appropriately wary, or are
they just trying to save their own
"The Sierra Club is
threatened by local people working out their differences," says
Seth Diamond, wildlife program manager of the Intermountain Forest
Industry Association, based in Missoula. "Their organization
generates resources by fostering and operating in a climate of
hostility and polarization. So when people closer to the resources
and the issues work out their differences, it becomes difficult to
raise funds - and the kind of anger they use to generate those
Diamond has been working with National
Wildlife Federation and Defenders of Wildlife, and regional timber
and recreation groups to find a way to reintroduce grizzlies to
Idaho's Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness. The reintroduction would be
managed by a citizens' committee. "The key issue with grizzly bear
recovery is creating an environment where people aren't hostile,"
says Diamond. "Our plan will minimize that, because the people
closest to the problem have the best chance of creating creative,
flexible solutions to the situation ... These bears will become the
But the plan, which would
permit the grizzlies to be shot if they cause any problem to local
residents, is enormously controversial among environmentalists.
"It's the biggest sham that's
ever been promoted in the northern Rockies," says Montana activist
Steve Kelly. "These (coalition) groups are awash with this happy
talk about what we're going to do along with the timber industry.
Well, the timber industry only wants to do what they've always
wanted to do, which is cut down trees."
the environmentalists involved in the grizzly plan, "When you crawl
into bed with the enemy, you become the enemy," according to Kelly,
who directs both the Friends of the Wild Swan and the Montana
Ecosystems Defense Council. "What really hurts is that, before, we
could always identify who the enemy was. This is all happening in
the face of a real disaster that's occurring in terms of the "94
Congress... When you disguise the wolf in sheep's clothing it's
very difficult to generate opposition. We used to fight the Forest
Service; now we fight Defenders and the National Wildlife
To fight back, Kelly is doing what
he's done for 20 years - suing. "I'm filing more lawsuits than ever
before," he says. "The foundations (who fund many of the
environmental groups involved in collaborative efforts) are saying,
"We don't fund lawsuits, we fund foot-rubbing sessions with the
timber industry; we're gonna have seances with miners." And I'm
saying, "Take your money back East; this crap doesn't work here."
can we file?"
But some environmentalists argue that the legal and legislative
solutions that carried the cause for 30 years are proving too
fragile in today's surreal political climate. They say the only way
to make change stick is to include local communities in the
much greater gain doing this than as a bunch of road warriors who
flash into the legislature and put laws onto agencies who have the
power of the lion in The Wizard of Oz," says Don Snow, executive
director of the Montana-based Northern Lights Institute, which has
been involved in mediation for more than a decade. "There's no way
they can carry out their mandate. I mean, how many lawsuits can we
file? If you want to save the environment, roll up your sleeves and
get working with people who care about that land as much as you do,
but who may have different values than you do."
Rural environmentalists see rural communities as the springboard
for change. Steve Hinchman, director of the grassroots Western
Slope Environmental Resource Council in Colorado, has been a member
of a collaborative advisory group for a grazing allotment that
overlaps with the West Elk Wilderness. The group has achieved
improvements in elk habitat, cattle forage and riparian health over
the last two years. And neighboring ranchers now want to use the
same process on their allotments.
"Regardless of what's
happening in Washington, D.C., positive changes are happening
here," says Hinchman. "We resolve conflicts with our neighbors ...
The Gunnison sage grouse that lives nearby is going to become an
endangered species, and now we have the relationships in place to
deal with it without it becoming a war zone. My overall goal in
this process is not to advance the agenda of the environmental
movement. My overall goal is to improve the environmental
conditions in the lower Gunnison Basin."
about the importance of rural communities to environmental
protection, McCloskey says the Sierra Club doesn't have a policy.
"I don't have experience in rural towns," he says. Much of the
West's backcountry is more familiar to people visiting from San
Francisco and Seattle, he adds, than it is to local
What McCloskey and many other urban
environmentalists do want to talk about is the right of urbanites
to have a say about what happens on public
of power is designed to disempower our constituency, which is
heavily urban," he wrote. "Few of the proposals for stakeholder
collaboration provide any way for distant stakeholders to be
effectively represented. It is curious that these ideas would have
the effect of transferring influence to the very communities where
we are least organized and potent."
acknowledges that a mechanic in Delaware owns the public lands as
much as anyone else. "But for the person in Delaware to actually
sit at the table, they have to convince the people at the table
that they're serious, that they know the ground, and that they're
going to contribute to the process and not just be a spoiler."
There is plenty of middle ground on this point.
McCloskey says that on issues of local concern, locals should by
all means be involved. "The more local the issues are in nature,
the more comfortable I am in them dominating the process," he says.
"But to the extent that it concerns a larger audience, a large
audience should be involved." Collaboration-seeking
environmentalists, meanwhile, aren't claiming that the age of
environmental litigation has come to an end. "I don't think we're
ever going to put lawyers out of work," says Montana-based mediator
Collaboration or capitulation?
What is being
argued long and loud, however, is what the upsurge in collaboration
is all about. Many environmentalists are quick to point out that
rural people have long influenced local land management decisions
through advisory boards governed by federal agencies; it's rural
environmentalists who are the new players. For example, the
Coordinated Resource Management Program groups, pushed by the BLM
to manage grazing allotments in the 1980s, were based on consensus,
but environmentalists who sat on the grazing boards often felt
pressured and outnumbered. They evolved into Resource Advisory
Councils, which are structured to provide a more level playing
"It's precisely because
of the gains in environmentalism, like the Wilderness Act of 1964,
that we're able to have this discussion in the first place," says
Snow. "The policy world that the environmentalists helped build
gives us the background against which to build consensus. I say to
environmentalists, this isn't to be feared; this is your
accomplishment of the last 30 years. It's actually a very logical
outgrowth. We've done a lot on paper. Now it's time to get it on
Darryl Young, the former Sierra
Club staffer who now works for the California State Senate's
Natural Resources Committee, warns that environmentalists shouldn't
underestimate their power.
"These consensus groups are
fear-based," he says. "We ought not be operating in fear. I think
that's what we've been doing for the last two years: "'We might
lose it all, so let's give away half of it." "
But many Westerners, like the ones profiled in this issue, see
collaboration as an effective, lasting and civilized way to solve
problems. Whether they're concerned citizens, county commissioners,
ranchers, loggers, federal officials or environmental lawyers, they
are all trying to do things a new way. In Idaho, an advisory group
has eased tensions among users of two of the state's most prized
rivers. The same spirit of cooperation infused the dialogue among
the 1,000 participants in the American Forest Congress. In
southwestern Colorado's Montezuma County, county officials broke
down barriers between themselves and the Forest Service to form a
new kind of counties' movement. A case in California's High Sierra
shows the perils of what happens when the Forest Service isn't
responsive to local concerns, and a collaborative effort to
reintroduce grizzly bears to an Idaho wilderness area shows how
environmentalists who collaborate can come under fire from their
Bruce Farling, executive director
of Montana Trout Unlimited, offers what could be seen as the middle
view on the middle road: "It's another tool," he says. "It works in
some places and doesn't work in others. I've had mixed results with
some (collaborative efforts), but I'm more hopeful than I was five
years ago. They're not alliances; they're dialogues. And I have
seen some beneficial stuff. Not monumental, but I'll say the tenor
is a hell of a lot better than it was five years ago."
Lisa Jones is a project
writer for High Country News.