Editor's Note: Michael McCloskey, chairman of the Sierra Club, distributed this memo to the club's board of directors last November. McCloskey wrote it to spur discussion; it does not represent an official position of the Sierra Club. It is reprinted here with his permission.
A new dogma
is emerging as a challenge to us. 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.
it proposes to do this at the community level through a consensus
process. Advocates of this notion believe collaboration must be
place-based, preferably at the scale of natural units such as
watersheds. This idea is being applied both to managing natural
resources (national forests) and in determining allowable levels of
pollution from industrial plants.
This idea is
strongly advanced in a report of the Western regional team of the
natural resources task force of the President's Council on
Sustainable Development (PCSD). It is reflected in the final report
of the PCSD in only slightly modified form. The Clinton
administration endorses the idea, too. It sees this idea as an
extension of its programs for reinventing government, for
decentralization, and place-based management. Its Project XL (for
"excellence" and "leadership'), now being developed by the EPA,
allows companies or communities in a pilot project to set aside EPA
rules if their alternative is cheaper and cleaner; companies will
be required to gain strong community support through collaboration
with local stakeholders.
These ideas are not
merely hypothetical; real world exercises are under way.
Bioregional Councils have been set up in Northern California,
partly in response to California Resource Secretary Doug Wheeler's
proposals for partnerships in managing ecosystems across mixed
ownerships. Representatives of the timber industry are spending
lots of time with local environmentalists.
Quincy Library Group is often cited as the one with the most
comprehensive agenda: re-doing the plan for managing an entire
national forest. Others include the Applegate Partnership in
southern Oregon, the Henry's Fork Watershed Council in Idaho, and
scores of watershed councils in Washington state. Firms such as 3M
and Intel will soon be setting up their stakeholder collaboratives
under Project XL in the Los Angeles, Portland and Chicago
Many community activists like these
proposals; they see them as empowering. Many academics praise them,
too. And industry likes them. They prefer dealing with community
representatives to having to duel with EPA experts at the national
level, or with representatives of national environmental groups.
One company spokesman recently told an audience: "I don't want
bureaucrats telling me how to run my business; I would far prefer
to take my chances with people from the community."
At a recent conference I attended on this
subject, I heard community activists from Oregon's Rogue River
Valley complain bitterly that the national environmental groups
were cold-shouldering this process and missing a great opportunity.
Apparently we stayed out of the Applegate Partnership because of
concerns over the implications of adaptive management proposals for
the national forest there. But of six case studies examined, the
Sierra Club was not formally involved in any, nor were most other
national environmental groups.
There are reasons
for this. Industry thinks its odds are better in these forums. 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. It has ways to generate pressures
in communities where it is strong, which it doesn't have at the
Some academics see the situation
differently. They draw a contrast between what they call
"solution-oriented" community groups that welcome this trend, and
the national-level environmental groups that they call
"concern-oriented" groups, which they see as disagreeing and
holding back. Obviously they imply that we resist solutions and
only want to perpetuate conflicts.
make the case for reliance on stakeholder collaboration in these
terms: Community-based stakeholder collaboration, they claim, will
produce more creative and acceptable solutions. Participants will
have a superior understanding of local site conditions and will
bargain with each other to produce "win/win" solutions. Thus, they
will overcome problems with government by remote control, "one-size
fits all" prescriptions, and unimaginative bureaucratic responses.
By actively participating in finding solutions, buy-in by the
community will be obtained; the ideas they forge will have
political momentum. This, they assert, adds up to empowerment of
communities that were formerly kept in a submissive position by
By moving beyond "failed
adversarial approaches," they argue, polarization and stress in
communities will be reduced and working relationships improved.
Trust among sectors of the community will be increased. Agencies
will act more as facilitators and come to be trusted more, too.
Community environmental activists also believe that the solutions
will be better and more sustainable.
many in our ranks have a different take on the impact of moving too
far in this direction. They want to know whether these
collaborators are acting in an advisory role with respect to public
resources or whether they are being given power. The literature is
obscure on this key point. The situation may be quite different
where we are talking more about private land (which timber
companies don't want to talk about).
fundamental problem also lies in the disparate geographical
distribution of constituencies. This re-distribution of power is
designed to disempower our constituency, which is heavily urban.
Few urbanites are recognized as stakeholders in communities
surrounding national forests. Few of the proposals for stakeholder
collaboration provide any way for distant stakeholders to be
While we may have
activists in some nearby communities, we don't have them in all of
the small towns involved. It is curious that these ideas would have
the effect of transferring influence to the very communities where
we are least organized and potent. They would maximize the
influence of those who are least attracted to the environmental
cause and most alienated from it.
Even in places
where local environmentalists exist, they are not always equipped
to play competitively with industry professionals. There may be no
parity in experience, training, skills or financial resources;
parity is important both during negotiations and in follow-on
phases focusing on watchdogging agreements. And we should all be
mindful of the fact that these processes are very time-intensive;
they consume huge amounts of time, wear people down, and leave
little for regular environmental activism.
troubling that such processes tend to de-legitimate conflict as a
way of dealing with issues and of mobilizing support. It is
psychologically difficult to simultaneously negotiate and publicly
attack bad proposals from the other side. This tends to be seen as
acting in bad faith. Too much time spent in stakeholder processes
may result in demobilizing and disarming our
And, instead of hammering out national
rules to reflect majority rule in the nation, transferring power to
a local venue implies decision-making by a very different majority
- in a much smaller population. But it gets worse. By then adopting
a consensus rule for that decision-making, small local minorities
are given an effective veto over positive action. Thus, the process
has the effect of disempowering both national as well as local
majorities. Those not represented by any organized interest in a
community may be totally disempowered, and if the status quo is
environmentally unacceptable, this process gives small minorities a
death grip over reform. Any recalcitrant stakeholder can paralyze
the process and defy the popular will. Only lowest common
denominator ideas survive the process.
concerns are pertinent can be seen in the agendas industry brings
to collaborations. In Northern California, they all too often
reflect the timber industry's calculated hysteria over forest
health as a wedge for rationalizing salvage logging. In Project XL,
the agenda is to relax demanding technology-based standards to
reduce pollution. While in some places strong environmental members
have succeeded in reducing the impacts of logging, they are having
to advance their agendas under adverse
So far the Forest Service has
generally been slow to respond to these stakeholder efforts. It is
waiting to get direction and see whether this is what the public
wants. EPA has embraced the idea with more enthusiasm, but only on
a pilot basis to test the theory. Other safeguards are also
provided in their case, and EPA retains control. We should worry
about agencies abdicating responsibility for the overall interests
of the public. Local interests do not necessarily constitute the
In the Sierra Club, we need to
sort our way through this subject, recognizing both pluses and
minuses of the idea. We should collect news about local experiences
of club activists and develop overall guidance. And we should do
this soon. The train is on the tracks and moving.