Last week, the website Counterpunch posted an article by long-time forest activist Michael Donnelly that takes on one of the hottest issues in the environmental arena these days. Titled "The Wages of Compromise: When Environmentalists Collaborate," it examines the result of such collaborations and reveals the history behind the strategy: where it came from and who it benefits.
On the occasion of the 30th Annual Public Interest Environmental Law Conference at the University of Oregon's Eugene campus last week, Donnelly writes that the buzz this year was about environmentalists collaborating with government agencies and industries that are in the business of cutting trees for profit under the rubric of forest health. The strategy originated when Bill Clinton was president, he contends, and now has become the preferred model for environmentalists and other nonprofits and foundations that fund them, even as it decimates forests and harms the planet.
While Donnelly is correct about the national origins of the kind of collaboration that is now embraced by federal and state agencies, resource extraction industries, foundations and the groups that take their funds, Montana's own sources of "collaboration" are worth exploring.
While Clinton was president, Montana had a Republican governor, Marc Racicot, and Republicans had huge majorities in both the state House and Senate. Extractive industries had a field day, receiving virtually anything they wanted from the governor and legislature and capping it all with a massive downgrade of Montana's water quality laws, which were once considered some of the finest in the nation.
But of course, Montanans have a very long history of what actually happens when resource extraction industries run wild. We're home to the biggest Superfund site in the nation, which stretches from Butte to Missoula. Flying over our cut-over forest lands is really the only way to perceive the massive devastation already visited upon the state. We're struggling to recover species such as the bull trout from the brink of extinction, thanks to habitat loss due to sedimentation from thousands of miles of logging roads.
Trying to appear to serve the public's interest while absolutely serving the interests of the extractive industries, Montana Republicans came up with a novel idea. It was called the Consensus Council and, in theory, was instituted to provide a new way of dealing with thorny natural-resource issues.
The idea was as simple as it was insidious. The Governor appointed some representatives of various "stakeholders" to the Consensus Council, where they were supposed to come to agreement with land management agencies and extractive industries on how to move forward while supposedly balancing extractive environmental impacts with economic growth.
But here's the rub. The agency personnel, such as the directors of various state agencies, were appointed by the governor to carry out his agenda, which was anything but environmentally conscious. Even the quickest review of Racicot's agency directors will show that he appointed former extractive industry lobbyists to oversee the very agencies that were supposed to be regulating those industries. Add the representatives from the extractive interests themselves and the fix was in. There was no way the votes for "consensus" could ever wind up on the side of greater environmental protection.
It would be nice to be able to put the blame squarely on Racicot's shoulders, but in fact, the roots of collaboration in Montana came from a document titled "En Libra" that was published by the industry-funded Western Governors' Association. "En Libra" set out, as its founding principle, "collaboration, not polarization," that would "result in improved and expedited environmental decision-making and implementation."
It's worth noting that nowhere in the document does it actually describe enhanced environmental protection as a goal or outcome, just "expedited environmental decision-making and implementation." What that means in plain language, and in the manner that collaboration now works, is that extractive industries get quicker access to more resources with less hassle from environmentalists because the "consensus" of the "collaborators" is given credence via the blessing of the government.
There was, however, a secondary strategy, widely-known as "divide and conquer." The faux credibility of consensus did a great job of marginalizing those who were not appointed to the collaboration groups and who believed that the laws of the land, not a phony agreement from a stacked deck, should be followed when it came to resource-extraction impacts. These outcasts, also known as environmental heroes to many, were dubbed "extreme environmentalists" and beset with slings and arrows from government agencies, the collaborators, the media and the corporate extractive industries with whom they did not seek "consensus."
Donnelly quotes David Brower, the first director of the Sierra Club, who said, "Compromise is often necessary, but it ought not to originate with environmental leaders. Our role is to hold fast to what we believe is right, to fight for it, to find allies and to adduce all possible arguments for our cause. If we cannot find enough vigor in us or our friends to win, then let someone else propose the compromise, which we must then work hard to coax our way. We thus become a nucleus around which activists can build and function."
Collaboration is an industry-initiated, industry-funded and industry-friendly strategy to neuter the environmental movement. Divide-and-conquer is working as planned. Yet there are those who know we cannot continually cut the environmental pie in half to benefit extractive industries, especially when the pieces have become too small to split.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at email@example.com.