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for people who care about the West

The skeptic: Collaboration has its limits


Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories, Howdy, neighbor!, about collaboration efforts in the West.

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.

Further, 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.

The 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 areas.

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 national level.

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.

Enthusiasts 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 agency bureaucracies.

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.

However, 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).

A 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 effectively represented.

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.

It is 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 side.

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.

That these 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 conditions.

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 national interest.

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.

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].