Why one advocacy group steers clear of consensus efforts


The Southern Utah Wilderness Association often receives invitations from government entities or other groups to participate on various types of advisory committees. It is usually our policy to decline these offers. The rationale behind this policy goes like this:

1. Advisory committees include interests which benefit from the status quo, and therefore have little or no desire to change. Their inclination is to stall any change by talking or studying the issue to death.

2. Frankly, our participation is sought mostly to co-opt us into a process where it is assumed we would lay down our legal and other weapons to talk "in good faith." The talks would then proceed while the other side, in the bureaucracy or private sector, continues its environmentally destructive, and sometimes illegal, activities.

3. Advisory committees come out of a controversy sparked by a government agency either failing to or attempting to carry out its statutory or regulatory mandate. An agency loves nothing more than to shirk its duty by shifting responsibility to affected parties, rather than risk perturbing any of those parties by doing its job. SUWA will not participate just to tell an agency to do what is legally required. We will tell the agency, then sue if no compliance follows.

4. Advisory committees allow elected and appointed officials to duck responsibility, thus avoiding any tough decisions "while the deliberations proceed" or "until the committee comes to a consensus." In most cases, the groups are biased toward exploitation, while their mandate or mission is for conservation, and their findings often provide excuses for officials to do far less than what is needed.

5. Advisory committees are often run by consensus. Consensus works only when there is some basis of agreement to begin with; it does not work if participants are coming from diametrically opposing viewpoints. A consensus can be reached, for instance, if participants agree a road should be built, but need to decide the best route. A consensus cannot be reached when some participants want to clearcut, and others want to protect, a tract of forest.

6. SUWA believes strongly in American democracy. The framers of the constitution established three branches of government for there to be appropriate checks and balances. We will use all three branches in order to successfully achieve environmental protection. Our opponents despise us for using all three branches because it is easy for them to grease one branch but not all three. Advisory committees are usually a forum in which to browbeat agencies, taking away another of our three avenues for recourse.

7. SUWA is a law and order organization. Lawsuits either compel or allow bureaucrats to do the right thing. Lawsuits are better cover for good bureaucrats and a better motivator of bad bureaucrats than an advisory committee. SUWA will not negotiate with lawbreakers. The law usually requires a minimum standard of environmental protection. When the law is followed, we're willing to talk about other issues.

If this policy allows our critics to label us as extremists, then we are extremists. And we are the first to admit there are exceptions to the rule. On occasion SUWA has and will enter into negotiations when a favorable outcome appears possible.

SUWA's position is borrowed from a policy adopted by the Oregon Natural Resources Council. There's no use inventing the wheel twice, the group says. SUWA can be reached at 436 Alameda Ave., Salt Lake City, UT 84111; ONRC is at 522 Southwest Fifth Ave., Portland, OR 97204.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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