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Know the West

How a foe saved the Quincy Library Group's bacon


WASHINGTON, D.C. - Politics has always made strange bedfellows, but this one was stranger than most.

One day last July, George Miller took Don Young into one of those rooms near the House Chamber and did him a favor.

Well, OK, it was only sort of a favor. But Miller is a liberal California Democrat, Young is a very conservative Alaska Republican, and the two men are about as far apart as two congressmen can be on resource and environmental issues. Tete-a-tetes between them do not happen every Monday and Thursday.

Add to the mix that Miller's "favor" saved a piece of legislation that he really doesn't like, and in the process protected Republicans from making the kind of mistake he loves them to make, and you see that the situation has gone beyond mere strange bedfellowdom.

But there's more. By making his deal with Young, Miller saved the reputation and continued effectiveness of an organization known as the Quincy Library Group. That makes him, objectively speaking, the Group's best friend, even though he'd just as soon the Quincy Library Group didn't exist.

And its leaders don't much like him, either.

But this is the kind of thing one has to expect when it comes to QLG, which has effectively taken over management of the Plumas and Lassen national forests. Its leaders call themselves environmentalists, but they reserve their harshest criticism for "environmentalists."

QLG was created to replace contention with civility, but it has aroused bitter passions in its northeastern California home and in northwest Washington, D.C. It purports to promote rational discourse, but discourse about it often sinks to the level of "so's yer old man."

Yet it may be the wave of the future. All over the country, especially in the West, these semi-official, grassroots "collaborative" organizations have sprung up to try to do what conventional politics, federal agencies and interest-group squabbling have so often failed to do - resolve resource and environmental disputes quickly and civilly.

This is not an unreasonable impulse. Especially because people in rural towns are stuck with one another. They run into each other at the post office, the drug store, the saloon. After so many years of politicians and lobbyists yelling at each other without coming to a conclusion, it was inevitable that the locals would get together.

It was not inevitable that the QLG would emerge as the most famous of these groupings. But the Quincyites are the most aggressive, or perhaps just the pushiest. "There is a confrontational attitude," said one local observer who basically supports the QLG. "There is a lot of posturing."

QLG leader Michael Jackson, the environmental lawyer often identified as the head posturer, pleads guilty. "If we had somebody doing my role who had better character and better manners, we'd be a lot better off," he said.

But with their bill about to become law, aren't they as well off as they could possibly be?

Yes and no. The very fact that the QLG had to come to Congress to ratify its plan was a sign of failure. Ideally, these collaborative groups get everyone together, come up with a proposal, and submit it to the federal agencies, who take this local sentiment into account, along with federal law and the national interest. QLG came to Congress out of frustration precisely because it could not get everyone together.

But by far the biggest factor qualifying QLG's success relates to its uneasy relationship with the national environmental groups, most of which oppose the bill. Jonathan Kusel of Community Forest Research in Plumas County said that dispute is ultimately "a power issue, a question of who is in control." Is it the big organizations which are more comfortable dealing on the national scene, or the locals?

Most environmentalists deny this. They say they're all for the collaborative process. Louis Blumberg of The Wilderness Society's San Francisco office has been to four QLG meetings. But these denials, no doubt sincere, should be taken with a pinch of salt. In fact, as Michael McCloskey of the Sierra Club has acknowledged, the major national organizations do have more clout in Washington, in the courts, and with the federal agencies. It would be unnatural for them to embrace a power shift to local ad hoc groups.

In short, they are the elite, the local organizations are the down-to-earth grass roots, and we all know who wins that political battle.

But elites are both inevitable and, when they do their job right, beneficial, a truth given conclusive proof by what happened to the QLG bill.

As Miller said, "It got hijacked by the timber industry." The plan the library group presented to Congress considered watershed restoration as important as logging. The bill that came out of Young's House Resources Committee ignored watershed restoration except in the context of logging.

"As reported out of committee, the bill would have exempted logging in these 2.5 million acres from federal environmental law," Miller said, "including the Forest Management Practice Act and the Endangered Species Act. They even repeated the language of the Salvage Logging Law."

It was when he was alerted to this skullduggery by his staff and by lobbyists for the national environmental groups that Miller approached Young. "I told him this bill could pass the House but get no further, and that he would end up with nothing but another bad vote on the environment for his troops," Miller said.

Young, who is not as bullheaded as he often appears, saw the logic here, and the bill was amended. As rewritten, it requires logging in the QLG area to conform with all the laws, including forest management plans and public notification and comment. Now it is likely to become law.

And what did the QLG leaders think of this effort to pervert their plan?

Nothing. They didn't know it had happened.

"We just started with a Republican bill because the Republicans control Congress," Jackson said. "Then we supported every environmental change."

Assuming sincerity, this betrays extraordinary naiveté. Miller, who has been around Capitol Hill for a while, said there was nothing improvised about the way the bill went through committee. "It was a very carefully drafted piece of legislation," he said. According to Miller, the folks who put it together didn't intend for it to be amended on the floor. They intended to pass it as it came out of committee.

So Michael Jackson and his allies are the collaborationists who had to go to Congress because they could not collaborate, who when they got to the big city were almost snookered out of their BVDs by the sharpies, who finally got their behind saved by the folks who annoy them most, and who haven't yet figured that out.

In politics, as in other pursuits, knowing precisely who else is getting into bed with you is generally advisable.

Jon Margolis regularly covers the capitol for High Country News.