The progress of freewheeling consensus jeopardized as feds pull back

  • Applegate watershed

    Diane Sylvain
  • Partners C. Bratt, J. Shipley, S. Moffett, J.D. Rogers and T. Lavagnino

    Bob Ellis

Early in 1993, some Oregon folks who shared little but a fierce love for their valley met to talk things over on Jack Shipley's deck high above the Applegate River.

Dwain Cross, owner of an Ashland logging company, wondered if there was a way the federal government could resume selling timber despite court injunctions blocking logging of habitat for the northern spotted owl.

Chris Bratt, a member of the environmental group Headwaters, was hoping to protect the fragmented old-growth forests and roadless areas in the watershed.

Brett KenCairn, a community organizer, saw the Applegate's potential as a model for sustainable forestry - a place where both forests and family-wage jobs could be sustained.

Their host that day was Shipley, an independent oil and gas producer and free-lance humanitarian who zips around the West in his Cessna. Shipley wanted to talk about how to control the forest fires that raged through the rugged mountains periodically, threatening both critters and rural homes.

The Applegate watershed, a 30-mile-long valley of green meadows, fire-scarred forested slopes and snow-capped peaks, covers 496,500 acres of southwest Oregon extending into northern California. It is home to about 12,000 people - an eclectic mix of wealthy movie stars, back-to-the-landers, farmers and loggers, survivalists and small-scale entrepreneurs. If harmony can grow any place, it ought to in the Applegate region.

After a tentative start, the group met weekly. It grew to include farmers and other interested citizens. It gave itself a name - the Applegate Partnership - and invited officials from the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to attend its meetings. It even had a button designed with the group's logo: the word THEM with a slash through it.

The Partnership kept its fragile experiment in consensus-building a secret at first. Then, in the spring of 1993, the Clinton administration discovered and touted it as a model for resolving natural resource conflicts throughout the West.

Just before the administration's Northwest Forest Conference, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt visited the lovely green valley to hear a presentation on the Partnership's philosophy. He proclaimed it the wave of the future.

"I may be witness today to a very important beginning," he said at a news conference near the bank of the river. "It's important to know there are a few places on this battlefield where people have put down their weapons and started talking to each other."

Applegate Partnership members were besieged with requests to speak, conduct tours and give interviews. The watershed became a focus for researchers coming in to study the forests and streams. Four months later, Clinton's Northwest Forest Plan was unveiled, proposing similar partnerships across the Northwest to help guide experimental forest practices in 10 "adaptive management areas' covering 1.1 million acres of federal land.

Last spring the Applegate Partnership and Rogue River National Forest officials endorsed their first joint forest project. "Partnership I" calls for obliterating roads and setting controlled fires in areas with a lot of dead wood. Most logging will target younger trees, damaged trees and large dead snags. Timber will be removed by helicopter, and most of the commercially valuable old ponderosa pines will be left standing, while old-growth madrone - a hardwood once regarded as an expendable trash tree - will be retained to promote biological diversity.

The Partnership has also come together around other projects. It endorsed setting aside part of the Rogue River National Forest for traditional Native American forest management techniques, including burning the forest to improve forage for deer and gathering traditional plants and foods.

The Partnership also helped valley farmers secure a grant to build a new headgate for an irrigation ditch. The old gate was killing fish, but farmers couldn't afford to replace it.

But in June, the federal government suddenly pulled its employees out of the Partnership - and pulled the rug out from under the experiment.

The reason: a timber industry lawsuit that successfully challenged President Clinton's Northwest Forest Plan on the basis that it was illegally developed by scientists behind closed doors. U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson in Washington, D.C., found that the government had indeed violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act by allowing scientists who were not federal employees to participate in the closed process.

The act, passed by Congress to curtail behind-the-scenes deals between special-interest groups and federal agencies, requires any officially sanctioned group that includes federal employees to act like the government. Such groups must hold open meetings and follow formal rules about membership and record-keeping.

Although Jackson found that the government broke the law, he declined to overturn the forest plan, which was not yet final. Still, attorneys in the Clinton administration were so skittish that they wrote a memo to Forest Service and BLM officials warning that further violations of the anti-secrecy act could imperil the entire Clinton effort.

Ironically, the timber industry dropped a second secrecy lawsuit against the forest plan in early July after Jackson transferred the case to U.S. District Judge William Dwyer's court in Seattle. Dwyer has consistently ruled against the government and the timber industry in the northern spotted owl lawsuits.

The government's decision to withdraw from the Applegate Partnership left the members confused and frustrated. Their meetings had always been open. They had kept minutes. And their close working relationship with the Forest Service and BLM was the key to their success.

"It's been very difficult not having the representatives who manage 70 percent of our watershed at the table," said Shipley. "It leaves a huge gap."

The government's new caution regarding citizen involvement in federal decision-making carries implications far beyond the Applegate Valley.

To the Clinton administration, the idea of bringing adversaries together has had great appeal. "Multiple resource advisory groups' of ranchers, environmentalists and local residents are the keystone of Babbitt's rangeland reform proposal. The administration hopes similar groups will help resolve natural resource conflicts across the nation. The fate of these experiments is now clouded.

What's clear is that the freewheeling days of community consensus-building around logging, grazing and watershed restoration - at least with the government at the table - are over.

In early July, high-level administration officials met with representatives of several consensus groups in Redding, Calif., to discuss bureaucratic options: The consensus groups could be chartered as formal advisory groups or they could be declared subgroups of 12 new administration "province teams," created to implement Clinton's Northwest Forest Plan across Washington, Oregon and California. Either way, they'll be a part of government, not outside it.

"There's definitely been a lot of frustration within these consensus groups' about the new policy, acknowledges Lauri Hennessey, spokeswoman for President Clinton's forest policy office in Portland. "However, we have had this shot fired across our bow."

Government lawyers aren't the only ones wary of consensus groups. Finding common ground among warring camps in the rural Northwest is a perilous task. Suspicion is ingrained. Producing tangible results can take years.

Consensus-building is easier when everyone agrees on a common public goal, such as developing a new trail, restoring a stream or reducing the risk of catastrophic forest fires.

But when financial interests are at stake, whether those be timber contracts or grazing allotments, things get more complicated. Some environmentalists say timber and ranching groups will rush to and stay at the table, but citizen activists may not be able to make the same time commitment.

As a matter of policy, the Oregon Natural Resources Council does not participate in consensus groups. Executive Director Andy Kerr believes such groups are designed to co-opt environmentalists. In most cases, he says, it's environmentalist victories that forced the other side to the table in the first place.

Bonnie Phillips-Howard of Washington's Pilchuck Audubon Society said most environmental groups in Washington state don't plan to be involved in the consensus process set up by the Clinton forest plan. She says environmentalists had their fill of "talk-and-log" during protracted debate over Washington's Timber, Fish and Wildlife program, which yielded few positive results.

Nadine Bailey, a logger's wife from Hayfork, Calif., wonders if the government is truly prepared to share power.

Bailey, president of California Women in Timber, helped start a consensus group soon after Clinton's Forest Conference. The Hayfork group proposed a five-year plan that would put jobless loggers back to work restoring streams and cutting firebreaks on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. But for a year, it went nowhere.

Bailey says she invested a lot of political capital persuading skeptical loggers and millworkers to get involved and felt betrayed by the administration's slow response.

"I did everything my president asked of me," she said. "I sat down with my local environmental community. We spent two months hammering each other."

Coalitions are fragile, she says. "You can keep them together only so long. When the criticism comes that you haven't produced anything, instead of saying the government screwed up, the coalitions fall apart and then you fall back into old patterns of blame."

Tom Tuchmann, who heads Clinton's Office of Forestry and Economic Development in Portland, said the Hayfork group got ahead of the funding curve. After Bailey took her complaints to Washington, D.C., Tuchmann found $100,000 to help implement the Hayfork plan.

Despite the skeptics, the Applegate Partnership and other attempts at consensus have moved ahead.

Connie Young, a third-generation farmer with a deep distrust of environmentalists, first attended the Applegate meetings to keep an eye on them. She soon became a believer.

The Partnership's tangible achievements are almost secondary, she says. She remembers the long years when the timber wars festered across the valley and log-truck drivers packed guns.

Now, she says, there is peace - and a growing trust.

"I was very suspicious," she recalled. "I said, "They're probably going to take over our property and water rights' ... They have changed my mind on a few things, like conserving water and being more frugal."

"If you lock the door and keep the local people inside long enough, they will come out with an answer," says Bill Coates, a Plumas County, Calif., supervisor who helped start a successful consensus in the Northern Sierras known as the Quincy Library Group.

Michael Jackson, an environmental lawyer in Quincy, defends the consensus forged there, which centered on a five-year plan to reduce the fuel load in Sierra forests, stay out of roadless areas and protect a wide buffer along the Feather River. He says the Quincy Group has educated citizens about enlightened forest management and created unity around a single vision, and may yet keep 400,000 acres of national forest in the Northern Sierras roadless forever.

With strong support from the California delegation and Forest Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas, the Quincy Group's proposal made headway in Congress this year - funding for fuels/fire-danger programs was increased, for instance - but backers say implementation will be a slow, incremental process.

Jackson has taken heat from the environmental movement for his leadership of the Quincy Group but resists any implication that he has sold out.

"The environmental movement is so young it underestimates its own influence," Jackson says. "Environmentalists are afraid they'll be overwhelmed by the superior money and influence of the extractive industries." Instead, he said, environmentalists need to learn how to win - and then reach out to a large constituency and move forward.

Linda Blum, an environmentalist, and Rose Comstock, a Women in Timber activist, came to the table in Quincy from opposite sides of the issue. They learned they shared a concern about the threat of catastrophic wildfire in the nearby Plumas National Forest. Sitting at the same table, and surviving the winter of 1993, when the heaviest snowstorm in recent memory brought the people of isolated Quincy out to shovel each other's snow and deliver each other's food, brought them closer.

Women like Comstock "used to be my enemy," Blum said. "Now they are just my opponents."

Government agencies also are forced into a new role when they relinquish some control to citizens. It happened in the Applegate Partnership. "I can't go back to thinking that because I'm the ranger, I'm in charge," says Su Rolle, former Applegate district ranger, who's now a liaison between the BLM and the Forest Service.

What will become of experiments like the Partnership? No one knows. No matter how much the Clinton administration likes the idea, consensus can't be mass-produced or mandated by government in top-down fashion. The impetus has to come from people in each community who are willing to take a risk.

"It's an idea that was spread around the map without too much thought," said Richard Hart of Headwaters. "The Partnership has a personality that comes from its members. Everyone has an agenda, but partnerships have to have an identity where those agendas can meld."

Meetings of the Applegate Partnership used to be tense. Now they're congenial. People on opposite sides laugh and kid each other, and since the government pulled out, says Shipley, there is a real esprit de corps.

"What it did," Shipley says of the government's pull-out, "was piss off the members of the Partnership so they came back with even stronger resolve."

When disagreements among members "get too nitty-gritty, people all back up a little," said board member Chris Bratt. "We stay away from issues like putting roads in roadless areas. We're here to talk about a future condition of the forest that is ecologically sound. Hopefully the streams will come back for the fish, and hopefully we'll still have one of the most beautiful forests in the world."

Kathie Durbin covers environmental issues from Portland, Oregon. A version of this story was published in The Oregonian.

This story was paid for by the Beldon Fund and Larar Foundation.

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